HUNTINGTON - The 36th annual ChiliFest, the West Virginia State Chili Championship, brought the heat to downtown Huntington on Saturday with plenty of capsaicin, heartburn medication and temperatures reaching 90 degrees.
Thousands of people braved the heat at Pullman Square to try some of the best and hottest chili in the state, with names like "5 Alarm Chili" and "Apocalypse Chili."
The big winner was Bob Hall, of Taylorville, Illinois, who won the first-place trophy for best chili with his own unnamed recipe. Hall, a former International Chili Society champion, now qualifies for next year's International Chili Society's annual World Chili Championship.
Hall said the secret to his success was having been a chili cook-off judge before, including in Huntington.
"The No. 1 thing to help a chili cook is to judge chili," Hall said.
"That will tell him what the judges around the country are looking for, judging other people's and not just theirs."
Second place for best chili went to David Violette and third place went to Don Van Lehn, who each received a chili-shaped trophy made by Blenko Glass in Milton.
ChiliFest organizer Ron Smith said Saturday's event raised more than $66,000 for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Tri-State, which gives families a free place to stay while their children are in the hospital.
Smith said temperatures and a host of competing events over the weekend didn't stop people from making the day a success.
"We have a children's hospital here in Huntington now, and we can't have a children's hospital without a strong Ronald McDonald House, and that's been one of our goals to help them," Smith said.
"It's their biggest fundraiser of the year and it's a one-day event, which is kind of nice."
The festival featured 36 solo chili cooks and about 12 community groups, many of whom donated their winnings to the Ronald McDonald House.
Winner for best chili among the community groups went to the Huntington Professional Firefighters Union, who have participated in the event for at least eight years. They sold more than $5,800 in chili cups during Saturday's event.
There isn't really a secret to making their fan-favorite chili except just making what people like, said Fire Capt. Aaron Williams.
"We generally have eight to nine distinctively different chilies, and we pretty much do the same each year unless people just don't like it," Williams said. "If people like it, we just keep making it."
Saturday's event featured a performance by Big Planet, which had many people dancing in Pullman Square.
Among them was Vickie Armendariz, of Hinton, West Virginia, and her 3-year-old nephew, Monte Woodson.
"My sister used to live here and we came for a baby shower, so we are making the most of our visit," Armendariz said. "So far I'm pretty pleased."
The event also featured a raffle for a chance to win a new Toyota Rav4 from Advantage Toyota in Barboursville. The winner was Lisa Lucas, of Huntington, who had already left the festival before her winning raffle ticket was drawn at random. Event organizers will contact Lucas to hand over the keys to her new SUV.
Since beginning 36 years ago, ChiliFest has raised more than $550,000 for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Tri-State, as well as raising money for WSAZ Children's Charities.
Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.