Snohomish County Fire District 5 Commissioner Steven Fox said competitors are not allowed to point the fire hoses at each other anymore during the agency's annual water-ball games.

Those were the good old days.

Now the opposing teams just direct the high-pressured spray toward a large neon orange buoy, which is suspended on a thin wire far above Alder Avenue. The streams cross and counteract the other, but it's all the players have to move the buoy over their adversary's goal line.

Dozens of community members packed into Fire Station 51's apparatus bay Thursday night to watch the show.  Deputy fire chief Jim Fulcher said the game has been an annual tradition since 1992, and kicks off the annual Sultan Shindig.

New recruit Rena Echols and her two teammates were up first. Aside from their opposition, they had to battle a bright, setting sun, and the water, which some say already makes it nearly impossible to see the buoy.

The match was the second time Echols had ever picked up a fire hose. She said her nerves were fired up before the bout.

Standing in her 25-pound gear, soaking wet, she smiled and said now she is more excited for her fire training academy to start in a few weeks.

“I wish we could do it again,” she said.

Echols was paired with fellow newcomer, Peter Drott, and seasoned competitor, Steven Tonkin, who was recognized later that evening for his more than a decade of service with the agency. Echols said she plans to make a career as a firefighter. Drott said he was just a local who wanted to serve his community.

Coleen McCollough cheered from a lawn chair, while her husband, Chuck, monitored the hoses, making sure each operated properly and safely.

The couple had competed in years past, and haven't missed an event since 1995. These days they return as volunteers, and to be a part of the audience.

Families, friends and crews sat down for a potluck and barbecue before the games began. Hotdogs, burgers, cold pastas and salads were abundant, and kids lined up for handmade snow cones.

“It's not just about the water ball,” said Fox. “It's about the social gathering as a family.”

More importantly, everyone is invited, Fox said. Firefighters from Fire District 26, which recently merged with what was formerly Index's Fire District 26, are Sultan's main competition, he said.

This year there were three teams formed from Fire District 5 and two from Fire District 26 personnel. The whole point is to make connections, Fulcher said.

That sense of coming together is also why people keep coming back, McCollough said. For the community members retired from service, it's a chance to meet the fresh faces and help out old friends.

“Once you are a member, it's like you are always part of it,” she said.

McCollough recalls she and her husband trying to raise a family in the Sky Valley, while both worked full-time jobs and volunteered with the fire department on the side. There were some days when a call came in at 2 a.m., and they grumbled about getting up. Once they arrived at the scene of an emergency, any misgivings went away, she said.

Being able to help others made the hours and extra work worth it, McCollough said. Chuck McCollough said a simple “thank you” meant the world to him.

Drott said right away he knew Thursday's competition would have a big impact. Laughing, he said it would be a good way to practice drills.

“It is just so awesome that they do this to bring everybody together,” he said.

The 2018 Sultan Shindig continues through Sunday: The carnival rides and street fair open Friday; the parade is held Saturday; and the logging competition begins that afternoon. There is live music scheduled for all three days, and a community church service will be held Sunday.

“If you enjoy small-town charm and world-class fun, then the Sultan Shindig is the festival for you!” according to a Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce news release. “This yearly event celebrates our rich logging history and includes a carnival, food, crafts, and live entertainment as well as a logging contest which includes spar-pole climbing and ax throwing.”

For a complete list of events, visit skyvalleychamber.com.