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Story Last modified at 11:08 p.m. on Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Chugiak has new fire chief
Bartley retires; Reinbolt rises to command

Alaska Star


Tom Reinbolt (left) is taking the helm as Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department chief after Bruce Bartley (right) announced his retirement last week. The two have worked together for the past 18 years.
Star photo by Melissa DeVaughn

Newly retired Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bruce Bartley says he's looking forward to riding stupid for a while.

In other words, Bartley said, he's ready for a bit less pressure.

"Riding stupid" is firefighter slang for the two backwards-facing seats in a fire engine where line firefighters ride to a fire and then get instructions when they arrive.

It's the occupants of the front seats – the driver and an officer – who make the decisions.

Now Bartley is happy to let new chief Tom Reinbolt take that seat.

Bartley, 61, last week retired as chief, a post he held for the last six years. He served as assistant chief for 14 years before that. He started with the department in 1983.

Bartley in August also retired from his high-pressure job as a public information officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"Between almost 20 years in the news business, that was a pretty stressful environment, 20 years at Fish and Game in a stressful position backed up with 20 years of responsibility with being chief or assistant chief, you know I'm not going to miss that," he said this week. "It's going to be kinda nice to take a break."

Reinbolt, 48, took over command at a meeting on Feb. 2.

He now oversees some 80 volunteer responders, about half that number a core group who turn out on a regular basis – a "substantially sized department given the fact we are all volunteer," as Reinbolt puts it.

The new chief served as Bartley's assistant chief. All told, Reinbolt has spent 18 years in the fire department. Firefighting is also his day job: He works for the Elmendorf Fire Department as a captain on one of the department's engines.

Reinbolt is married and has two grown children.

Neither man wanted to go into much detail as to the goals for the department.

Bartley said that was no longer his place.

Reinbolt said it was too soon to discuss his priorities as chief "because I haven't sat down with our executive board." He said he hopes to maintain the improvements in service under Bartley's leadership and will develop a two- and five-year plan.

He does plan, however, to lobby for a new water tender to replace an aging one, a purchase expected to cost about $400,000.

Bartley, like Reinbolt, served as assistant chief before rising to the department's top position. He said he figured the transition would be fairly painless. He was wrong.

"He's got a big task in front of him," Bartley said of Reinbolt. "I thought that when I became chief, I had been assistant chief for 14 years, I can handle this. I tell you, the first six months I didn't know what was up. Things are flying at you so fast."

Bartley said he decided to retire rather than become an absentee chief. Like chiefs before him, he'll continue to serve the department as senior captain.

But he's got a bucket list he hopes to get to, starting maybe with a shark fishing trip in Prince William Sound this summer.

Bartley started his career as a journalist, working at newspapers in Montana, Wyoming and Utah before taking a job at the Associated Press in Portland, Ore. He started with Fish and Game in 1990.

He has a wife, Terry, and a daughter, Melissa.

Bartley said he watched "enormous" changes take place in firefighting over his 28 years with the service. Paradoxically, there's a great emphasis on safety with training and equipment even as firefighters contend with more dangerous fires.

Homes in Chugiak used to be home-built or built fairly quickly, or made from wood and wood products.

"So fires, while they could certainly be severe, they tended not to burn as quickly or hot," he said. "Now with light-weight construction techniques and improved insulation and plastics used in furnishings, fires burn hotter and faster than they did 28 years ago."

His last fire as incident commander? The department responded to a barn ablaze up Eklutna Lake Road a few weeks ago. Responders saved five piglets.

But the most memorable fires, Bartley said, tend to be fatal fires. He took a minute to count those in his memory and came up with six.

"Unfortunately the ones that are the most memorable are the ones that people died in," he said. "There's a lot of other fires I've been to I can remember bits and pieces of. Those fires, I can remember almost everything about them."

Zaz Hollander can be reached at

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 9, 2011.