GVF&R’s 60th Anniversary
Part 2 – Retired Alaska State Trooper Mike Opalka
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
This article is the second of a five-part series featuring interviews about Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue during different parts of its 60-year history.
For about 18 years, retired Alaska State Trooper (AST) Mike Opalka often worked side by side with Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue responding to accidents or other emergencies. He started with AST in 1980 and had a 23-year career. In 1982, Opalka was assigned to Girdwood and the wider region around it. In 2000, a transfer placed him in a special unit for his last year and a half before retirement.
Describing the region he was responsible for providing AST service, Opalka said, “I had Anchorage all the way down to the Hope Cutoff and sometimes Hope. I had the western part of Prince William Sound, the western park of Cook Inlet in Tyonek.”
He said interactions with GVF&R were good, and he got along well with previous chiefs. He noted it is always tough for department to keep personnel, but they manage the challenge.
“I always had a good working rapport with the members and the chief,” Opalka said. “They have a lot of professionalism.”
Opalka watched GVF&R grow physically with more equipment over the years from a variety of donations of money and equipment, including help from now deceased U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.
“We got the big rescue truck from Ted Stevens who supported us completely. I could always remember that because I had a cell phone in the patrol car and was down by Portage. Ted Stevens is on this call saying, ‘We’re going to buy Girdwood Fire Department a new rescue truck.’”
For Opalka, accidents stand out with his interactions with GVF&R, and he found the department to be supportive of his efforts. He was often first on a scene to give responders accurate, first-hand information of what took place and what was needed. He provided traffic control during a response and blocked the road when needed.
“Usually I was the first one on scene because I didn’t have as much equipment,” Opalka said. “I’d jump in my patrol car and go, and I’d get down there and try to call in an assessment to advise them to what the situation was so they would know what to respond with.”
Opalka credits Chief Michelle Weston and former Chief Bill Chadwick for using innovative equipment and techniques and says they always had an open mind to acquire equipment that was beneficial for members and recipients of fire or EMS services. In the past few months, GVF&R has been using ebikes to respond to calls more quickly on trails. In past years, GVF&R members helped develop and refine tools to help rescue people trapped on the Turnagain Arm mudflats.
In 1988, Adeana Dickison and her husband were on a 4-wheeler on the mudflats, pulling gold-dredging equipment, when Dickison became stuck in the mud. Despite attempts to save her, Dickison drowned.
“Before the mud flat incident in 1988,” Opalka said, “they had a concept of what to do down there, but as a result of all the publicity that incident got, other systems were developed and fine-tuned to where they are much more reliable now.”
A water piercing nozzle was invented in Girdwood after a 1998 incident. Turnagain Arm silt locks like cement, making extrication very difficult. The department looked for ways to be more prepared for an incident that typically happens multiple times a year, which led to the creation of the specialized water nozzle. Today, responders use air and water nozzles to extricate people stuck in the mudflats, and responders practice mud rescue training every year.
Opalka is happy to see GVF&R as a resource for all people in the community, a place to ask questions, a place to go in the event of an emergency, an organization to call during hardships while providing reliable service in the community and on the highway.
“Chief Weston has gone out of her way to integrate the fire department more within the community and provide what a department should be,” Opalka said. “I’m very pleased with them. I’m glad to see the direction they’re going. I’m completely supportive of Chief Weston and her direction. She brings stability to the department and provides the leadership that is necessary.”