PINELLAS PARK – As a child growing up in Pinellas Park, Firefighter/EMT Chris Huffman remembers the first Chili Blaze he attended. It also happened to be the first one ever organized by the Pinellas Park Fire Department
“I remember going around and eating all the chili,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
A lot has changed since then, he added, and for the better. That first Chili Blaze was 18 years ago, in 2000. The event was much smaller than it is today, with only about a dozen teams competing in the contest. This year, the event will draw around 50 teams, said Huffman, who joined the Fire Explorers Post 945 as a teenager, volunteering at subsequent Chili Blazes, and eventually became a firefighter who also assisted with the event. He took over as chair of the event during this past year. And while he recalls that first event attracting several thousand attendees, these days the Chili Blaze draws between 30,000 and 40,000 people.
The goal of the Chili Blaze, founded by then-deputy chief Ray Hansen and firefighter Nick DelGrosso, who served as chair of the department’s fundraising endeavors for the Muscular Dystrophy Association until last year, has always been to raise money for the MDA.
Across the country, fire departments in every state have committed themselves to supporting the MDA – the International Association of Fire Fighters is the largest national sponsor of the organization – and Pinellas Park is no different. The PPFD collects money through its Fill the Boot campaign each September, and also participates in the MDA Muscle Walk of Tampa Bay each year.
But the PPFD “wanted to do a little bit something more,” Huffman said. Thus, the Chili Blaze was born.
“It’s great entertainment. It gets family and friends out. And it raises money for a good cause,” he said.
This year’s event is set for Friday, March 17, 6 to 11 p.m., at England Brothers Park, 5010 81st Ave. N.
Attendees can purchase all-you-can-eat-chili armbands for $10. All proceeds go to the MDA. The money will be used locally, Huffman stressed, to help pay for area children with muscular dystrophy attend summer camp in Brandon.
Anyone is welcome to join the contest for free, Huffman said. Participants are just required to bring 5 gallons of their chili to serve to the public.
First, second and third place awards will be given out in two categories – Pro Class and Open Class. There will also be a People’s Choice Award, based on the amount of tips each booth earns, and a Best Booth Award.
The Big Brother Band will once again provide entertainment for the evening.