The multigenerational legions of the Chilmark fire department community sprawled behind the town community center Wednesday for the volunteer firefighter association’s annual Backyard Bash.

The Backyard Bash is a multi-generational event that began in 1955. — Ray Ewing

The old-school community party first began in 1955 and has pushed on as an August mainstay in Chilmark ever since. This year the evening was celebrated with poignancy as retiring fire chief David Norton took the stage to formally pass the torch to Jeremy Bradshaw.

Mr. Norton has been a member of the fire department for 50 years and served as fire chief for 20 years. The department in Chilmark was established in 1932 and has only been led by two other chiefs prior to Mr. Norton.

Following a warm commencement ceremony, in which Chilmark selectmen Warren Doty presented Mr. Norton with a certificate of appreciation from the town, Mr. Norton had a moment to step back and reflect on his time with the fire department.

“It was right after I got my driver’s license that I first joined the service,” he told the Gazette. “I was only 16 years old.”

He was initially compelled toward service by a desire, as he explained it, “just to help out.” But the eclectic characters, rushes of adrenaline and sense of community, he said, are what compelled him to stay on board for half a century.

During his tenure, he has spent time at each rung of the traditional fire department ladder, climbing from lieutenant to captain to assistant fire chief and eventually reaching chief.

Chilmark selectman Warren Doty gave Mr. Norton a formal plaque of appreciation. — Ray Ewing

“It’s not like the old days, where we used to just eat smoke,” he said. “As the service progressed we found better ways to improve safety for others and ourselves.”

According to assistant fire chief Tim Carroll, Mr. Norton led the charge to increase safety training for the department through establishing a program called Firefighter One. The training includes ladder drills, pump evolutions, tanker shuttles and fire behavior.

“It covers all the basics you need going into a fire from start to finish,” Mr. Norton said. “We used to train maybe once a month. Now training goes on daily.”

Many of the younger volunteer firefighters had words of appreciation for Mr. Norton. One was Chris Smith, who has been with the department for 15 years.

“He’s the reason I joined the department,” the firefighter said. “It’s definitely the end of an era and it’s going to be hard to replace him.”

Looking forward, Mr. Norton said he has high hopes for the future under the leadership of Jeremy Bradshaw.

“Hopefully he can continue pushing the department in a good direction,” Mr. Norton said. “We need to encourage young people to stay here and make it affordable for them to settle down, find better and more water sources. And it’s paramount we build the new station.”

Incoming Chief Bradshaw said he has similar plans for the department, adding that he also hopes to maintain the quality of collaboration among the Island’s many emergency services.

What the bash is all about. — Ray Ewing

“It’s going to be challenging, but exciting,” Mr. Bradshaw said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

The new chief has been with the Chilmark fire department for 23 years, the majority of which he served as a lieutenant. He became assistant chief eight months ago under the direction of Mr. Norton.

And while he is retiring as chief, Mr. Norton plans to remain on the service as a part-time volunteer to aid in the transition. Amid an air of appreciation and the crackle of burgers cooking on a grill, he was asked about his retirement plans.

He pointed down at his grandson Liam, who was dragging him toward the Chilmark Breaker 131 fire truck.

“This,” he said. “I feel as though a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Good weight, but weight.”