Chester Gap squad looks to the future

Mike Williams, above left, Brandon Phillips and Clinton Wines, right, scoop out seeds and stir a batch of apple butter at the Chester Gap station house earlier this month. Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel.

This is the second in a continuing series profiling Rappahannock County’s volunteer fire departments and rescue squads.

From where it sits in the village of Chester Gap on the side of the mountain, the Chester Gap Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department (VFRD) is healing rifts and building bridges, connecting to communities down below, and serving across county lines.

“We have a first-due in three counties,” said department vice president Mike Wolniewicz, meaning that the department is the first emergency unit called. The coverage area ranges from Wakefield in Rappahannock County to Harmony Hollow in Warren County. Plus, it can respond more rapidly to parts of Fauquier County than the Orlean VFRD so it’s called there, too. Accordingly, each of its vehicles must carry three communication systems.

But the department’s ongoing effort of communicating — in a wider sense — falls on the shoulders of Chief Clinton Wines.

“God bless him because I wouldn’t want it [position of chief],” said William Christopher Ubben, the department’s president. “That man goes to so many meetings, so many functions, so many gatherings . . . let alone comes here [the station] and does so much.”

Chester Gap’s members draw equally from Rappahannock and Warren counties, and live mostly in the Chester Gap, Lake Front Royal and Point of Woods subdivisions. Most of the firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) live on the mountain, according to Tabetha Swain, captain of the EMTs.

Wines calls it “a tight-knit group, to say the least. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows everybody’s business.” For the most part, he said, only residents have a reason to go to Chester Gap.

“We are a dead-end community. You have to enter Chester Gap Road on purpose,” said Wolniewicz, who joined the department four years ago after moving to Chester Gap from New York, and serves as vice-president. “Nobody accidentally turns onto Chester Gap Road. No one goes, ‘Hey, I think this will take us to Whereverville!’ ” The Chester Gap VFRD is secluded, too.

“Sometimes you can feel forgotten, especially on this end of the county,” Ubben said.

Chester Gap has a lot of relatively new residents, Ubben says. He thinks the village is the most densely populated area per square mile in Rappahannock County. It is almost completely residential, with few employment opportunities. One road leads down the mountain to the outside world. Many residents, including newer ones, don’t drive by the fire station.

“We have a real community awareness issue,” Wolniewicz said.

A sign sits outside the fire station. Ubben says the department wants to install another one at the bottom of the mountain, where many more people could see its announcements. He wants to increase the number of notices and articles that he writes for the Rappahannock News to increase public awareness.

About 15 years ago, the Chester Gap VFRD stopped organizing a major community outreach effort, an annual carnival. The carnival came to consume a lot of labor for little return. There was also a contract dispute with a ride-provider. It was difficult to get rides of any size, volunteers to help, and bands to play at a price the department could afford.

“It was a big thing up here,” Wines said. The community was disappointed with the loss of the carnival, he thinks.

“A lot of people have fond memories of it, and still talk about it,” said Ubben.

A team peeled apples for 30 hours to get them ready for the pot. Selling apple butter is an annual fundraising tradition for the fire and rescue department. Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel.

Making and selling apple butter is an annual fundraiser that involves the community. Every night for a week they peel apples. Ubben describes how Russell “Leo” Williams, a life member of the department, comes to help peel.

“He’ll tell you how it was when he did it 40 years ago,” Ubben said. “It’s nice. It gives people who don’t know a sense of what they belong to — it has a history. It’s not just some building.”

The apples are cooked outside the station, and Ubben says that residents stop by all day to take a turn at stirring the pot.
The relationship goes both ways.

“I want the community to know that we’re there for them,” Wines said. “When the sirens go off, and we go down the road, I want people to know, ‘Hey, you know what? I can depend on the Fire Department.’ ”

And, Ubben added, the public can count on the Chester Gap VFRD in other ways.

“We’re doing a much better job of spending the tax money we’re entrusted with than we ever have before,” Ubben said. For more years than he can remember, he has managed fundraising and building maintenance, and allocated money for equipment.

“If we buy it, we make sure beforehand how we’re going to pay for it,” said Ubben. The department looks for the best deals and financing terms.

The Chester Gap group located a used fire truck engine in Maryland that had been driven 38,000 miles and bought it for $90,000. A comparable new truck would have set them back about $475,000. Another truck was purchased from a fire department in Culpeper for a sum Ubben views as “basically nothing — twenty, thirty grand.” And, they obtained a grant that covered 80 percent of the cost of an ambulance.

Wines and Ubben credit the department’s treasurer, Maybelle Gilkey, for helping them develop what Ubben describes as the most solid financial base they’ve ever enjoyed.

“I like the fact that she plays ‘devil’s advocate,’ ” Ubben said. Gilkey challenges purchase proposals by asking, ‘Do we need it?’, ‘What’s the purpose of it?’ and ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ He values her meticulous tracking of income and expenditures.

“You’ve got to run the department as a business,” Wines said. “Live like you don’t have anything. If you make $70,000, live like you make $50,000.”

Ubben is pleased by the department’s shift from being reactive to proactive in financial undertakings. It has created a five-year plan for building, equipment acquisition and financing needs. He attributes the change to new leadership.

“Overall, it’s just pride,” said Ubben.

In past years, the department has had quite a bit of turnover in leadership, and Wines thinks that the group’s cohesiveness suffered as a result. In particular, there was a problem of what Wines described it as “the individuality of some members.” Some parted ways from the department.

“We went through a period where we had very low numbers,” Ubben said. Members moved away, started businesses, or disagreed with actions in the group.

“There’s people here who think we ought to go in this direction or in that direction,” said Ubben.

However, some members changed their perspectives, said Wines. He views the conflict as part of adjusting to new leadership.
He took over in September 2009 from his dad. It was not an easy road for the 28-year-old career firefighter at first. Looking back, Wines thinks his attitude may have been off-putting.

“Some people took me the wrong way sometimes,” said Wines. Hindsight being as clear as it is, he wishes he had handled certain situations differently. He also faults himself as being less than the role model he would like to have been to his colleagues.

The friction appears to be in the department’s past. “Everybody’s really starting to come together as a group,” Wines said.

Ubben is excited that several teenagers have joined the group. Growing their commitment offers the Chester Gap VFRD a passport to the future. On the whole, he observes that the group has become more goal-driven, structured and service-oriented. Nineteen years of working alongside his fellow firefighters and EMTs have formed another impression.

“If I was in a burning building, I don’t have any problem thinking one of these people would come get me,” said Ubben. “There’s a lot of heart, I guess. They care.”

About Alisa Booze Troetschel 30 Articles
By some folks' standards, Alisa Booze Troetschel is a newcomer. She moved to northwest Virginia two years ago after completing graduate studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has photographed, written and edited for local, regional and national magazines and newspapers, while delighting in the beauty surrounding her new home.