CHESTER - The collective effort to extinguish a major fire a year ago at the Chester Playhouse Theatre, along with the community's response and support in relation to the incident, was recognized with a special event in the village.
Representatives from volunteer fire departments, businesses, government and others came together in Lordly Park on June 11 to give thanks with a barbecue, live entertainment, activities for the kids and a series of presentations to public agencies, commercial entities and individuals.
"We needed to say thank you because we didn't do this job alone," said Cody Stevens, chief of Chester's volunteer fire department, the initial responding agency to the 80-year-old Pleasant Street landmark on June 11, 2021. The fire, later classified as accidental in nature, gutted the building.
The blaze broke out at a time when the theatre was on the verge of re-opening after a $1 million renovation. The incident required nearly eight dozen volunteer firefighters from close to 20 departments to snuff out the flames.
Stevens said restaurants provided food or opened their washrooms to firefighters, allowed their outdoor decks to be used for personnel rehabilitation procedures and civilians, in the early stages of the incident, lugged air tanks to the scene from the rehab staging site.
In an interview, the chief said it was one of the bigger blazes in the area in recent memory and the fire department felt it necessary to give back to the community that gave them so much help that day.
Commemorative T-shirts, which Chester Playhouse and fire department officials helped design, were distributed. Most of the apparel (125 shirts) were handed out to partners, including to neighbouring fire services which lent a hand that day in June 2021.
On the front of the red shirt are the Playhouse and Chester fire department identifiers accompanying the image of schooners and an anchor enclosed in small black heart shape On the back is, among other things, the image of an aerial truck, which played a key role in extinguishing the fire, along with the words "From the ashes. We shall rise." Also on the back of the shirt are the names of all the fire departments that were on scene or provided stand-by coverage that day.
Both Stevens and Andrew Chandler, the Playhouse's executive director, said there was a good crowd (up to 300 people at one point) at the event, which also had a good vibe.
Chandler was among speakers who gave thanks. "The playhouse builds community and we believe it serves the community," Chandler said in an interview. "It was really inspiring and wonderful that, in a moment we were in trouble, the community responded and really affirmed folks believe in the work we do and that we help bring the community together."
Chandler said the Playhouse's rebuilding process is ongoing on its Pleasant Street site. It's anticipated the theatre will reopen in summer of 2023.
Since the fire, the Playhouse still hosts live performances, music events and other shows at other venues around the Municipality of Chester as the rebuild continues.
"The Chester fire department put on a lovely, touching event," Chandler added. "We remain so grateful to them and their hard work shows in everything they do."