The fire started Sunday afternoon. It was a hot, clear & windy. It is rarely windy in Willow. Sirens screamed by the house all afternoon, so I knew something was up. I went to my parent's house, intending to take advantage of the sunny weather to hike out to a lake behind the ridge they live on & go paddle boarding. From the top of the ridge, a smoke plume was visible to the north. Mom & Dad were buzzing around loading up the dog truck with water and dishes -- a call had gone out around the neighborhood that help was needed to evacuate dogs up at Mile 77 down Sockeye Road. "I'll come, too" I said. "Let me go put some pants on." I was dressed for paddleboarding.
I ran home, pulled on some Carhartts, grabbed some snacks and water, and returned to jump in the dog truck as it headed north. Our homestead is at mile 66, about 11 miles from Sockeye Rd, both by road and as the crow flies. The plume grew larger as we got closer. It looked ominous. At Kashwitna Lake, just after Mile 75, we were horrified to look out the windows and see the far side of the lake on fire - spruce trees flaring up and throwing flames and black smoke high. It was hot, dry and the wind was blowing hard.
We arrived at mile 75 to mild chaos. Local firetrucks were staged at the subdivision entrance. Troopers and State Park Rangers were on the road. Families & individuals that had evacuated from the Sockeye Subdivision were gathered in worried clusters. Andrea Hambach ran up to the truck, wondering if we had already been down to see if the Korpi's dogs had made it out - the Korpi's live down Sockeye & she knew that they were not at home. After learning from the State Park Rangers that they were not allowing anyone down Sockeye & they were considering shutting the highway down, Andrea ran to her truck and raced down the highway. She needed to get back to her own property. As did we. We were right behind Andrea but in the arbitrary manner particular to state and federal workers, we were not allowed through. Most likely it was for the best. Shortly thereafter, we were informed the fire had jumped the highway at mile 75 and the Parks was closed for the foreseeable future. What a terrible, hopeless feeling; to be on the wrong side of an uncontained raging wildfire, separated from our own dogs. But there was nothing we could do but wait. We hoped Andrea had made it through, and when she did not come back, it seemed as though she had.
We waited for six hours. The Parks Highway became backed up for miles. We watched a helicopter carrying Hotshots land next to the dog truck. That the professionals were being called in, and that the front line happened to be right next to us, made me uncomfortable. We watched helicopters with buckets and tankers with bellies of water fly around and around. The water slings on the helicopters seemed so puny in relation to the tremendous smoke plume. I hung around the State Park truck and listened to the radio. It made me feel better to know what was going on, or know at least as much as the "authorities" did. I texted with a former wildland firefighter friend who reassured me that the fire was currently too far away from our dog lot to worry. Hearing from someone who was an expert in fire matters reassured me, but being trapped on the wrong side of the fire was still extremely stressful.
Finally, we received word from friends that the troopers were allowing people into the Dell M subdivision to help evacuate dogs. We had an empty dog truck sitting just a few miles north. I got ahold of Andy Anderson, who was heading up the evacuation effort, and he talked the troopers into giving us an escort through the hot spot by the road to go help.
Driving south, we were shocked by the devastation we saw. The entire perimeter of Kashwitna Lake had burned and the fire was still smoldering and flaring up as we drove through. At mile 75, where the fire had jumped the highway, the smoke was thick and we could see fire ahead, spruce trees flaring up by the highway. We pulled into the Dell M subdivision and checked in with the evacuation crew. They had the last of the dogs loaded up and the truck was not needed. We could see the smoke plumes coming closer and decided we needed to get out of the subdivision, now. As we pulled out of Dell M onto the Parks, we were shocked to see the forest across the road from us on fire. The fire had moved fast (we heard later that it had roared through the Dell M subdivision at 30 miles per hour). We pulled onto the highway and got the hell out of there, worried for the homes and properties of our friends along the highway. It didn't look good.
We went home & started preparing for evacuation. I couldn't stop thinking about the Big Lake fire 20 years ago. I was just a kid then, but I vividly remember the anxiety and fear of the adults around me. Most vivid is how I had to wear the same sweatpants for a week. Truly traumatic :P Joke. But after seeing how fast the fire had moved, I could not be comfortable until I got my dogs well away from it. I started loading up the dog truck with everything we would need to go camp out. I loaded everything I would need to continue training in the event we lost everything. I packed an evacuation bag for Grandma, and finally, loaded up 24 dogs in the trailer, 6 in kennels in the back of the truck, and Seb, Mygga and the cat in the cab. After waiting for Grandma to get picked up by my cousin, who was taking her to Palmer, I evacuated the property and headed to Underdog Feeds, my parent's feed store in Wasilla. It was 1 a.m., Monday morning.
The store had turned into an evacuation camp. Several mushers were already there, stringing up drop chains and situating dogs. It was a long, grim night. The fire kept burning. It was confirmed it had jumped Willow Creek. Early reports led us to assume everything alongside the highway from mile 75 to 71 had burned up. Morning came, and reports began to trickle in from people who had made it up the highway and into some of the neighborhoods. Hope flared when we heard that some houses had not burnt. Lev was helping me drop dogs when he received word that his house and barn had not burnt down. Amazing, considering late evacuees had reported seeing his house surrounded in flames. To see the look on someone's face when they receive word of a miracle... priceless.
Unfortunately, reports also confirmed some people's houses had indeed burnt. The indiscriminate nature of the fire was baffling. Some homes burnt to nothing, some homes lost nothing but a carrot garden. But after we assumed everything was lost, it was wonderful to hear of the homes that had made it - cheery moments during a dark time.
Mushers continued to trickle in the following day as the fire grew and the evacuation area for Willow was expanded. By Monday afternoon, we had about five hundred dogs at the store, in addition to two horses, some goats, chickens, at least five cats, and a parrot.
I was kept very very busy that week. The first few days the dogs needed to be monitored constently. They did not understand that we had not set off to go on a fun training run & were subsequently wild & excited. Having the dogs on drop chains required constant supervision and it took a lot of time to care for them. It was incredible hot. Incredible. 90 F. The dogs were hot. I watered them a couple times a day, rotating pans and carrying water buckets. Tarps were donated by private donors, the Mapes family, and Alaska Dog and Puppy Rescue (thank you!) and I was able to string up a network of tarps for the dogs to provide them some shade. I answered the phone, coordinated random things, and networked. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and generosity from around the world directed towards the affected mushers. Thank you to all who called the feed store to donate money for the mushers who lost their homes. Your kindness is so very much appreciated (The Willow Dog Mushers Association is now beginning the process of sorting out the funds to those in need).
By Wednesday, the firefighters began to gain some control of the fire. The mushers who had been camped at Underdog had begun to disperse - either back home or to friend's houses. A few, including myself, remained. My parents took their three litters of puppies and half their lot back to their house in Willow, but remained ready to load up the dogs and go if needed. The fire was technically still uncontained and had the potential to flare up out of control again under the right conditions. While i cared for my lot and the rest of theirs, I anticipated taking my own dogs home. There was no question the best place for the dogs would be at home: sitting on their houses, jumping around in the 100+ square foot space their chains give them, lounging in the shade, and drinking the water available to them all day, not handed out by the scoop in evacuee camp.
Thursday, I unloaded my truck of evacuated goods, sleds and equipment, and drove the dogs home into a sunset slightly colored by wildfire smoke. (I actually took two trips, it was still so hot I did not want to double them in their boxes). I did not realize the stress of living at the store until I was home again. It felt like pure luxury, especially knowing some of my friends and neighbors were not so lucky, and would not have the same pleasure of coming home to a familiar green space. Not now, not for a long time.
Many homes in Willow were saved solely due to the efforts of firefighters on the ground. THANK YOU. Thank you for risking your lives to save our homes & properties. You are appreciated.
Thank you to the many people who came by the store and donated goods, food, and most importantly, their time.
And thank you to my parents for providing a safe haven for area dog mushers. Evacuating is one thing, having a place to go with your kennel is another. The store is located on four fenced-in acres. Just a week prior, my dad had offered up the store as a possible evacuation location during a disaster preparedness discussion at a Willow Dog Mushers Association meeting. The horror that was the Big Lake Miller Reach Fire has never left the minds of folks who lived in the Valley in 1996, and since Willow Creek flooded a couple years ago, displacing many, the Willow Dog Mushers has had a Disaster Preparedness Committee. These experiences combined have resulted in area mushers placing extra emphasis on the importance of having their kennels ready in case of emergency. Vern Halter, area musher and borough rep, ensured that having a kennel evacuation plan on file with the borough be a mandatory part of obtaining a dog mushing kennel license. This attitude, along with good communication and teamwork, is what I believe contributed to not a single dog burning up in the Sockeye Fire.
One thing I would like to point out. Fifty-five homes in Willow burned to the ground. Only nine of those homes belonged to mushers, but it has been the mushers who have received the overwhelming majority of attention and financial support in the wake of the fire. For that reason, the Willow Dog Mushers Association has decided to contribute $10,000 to the Willow Community Rebuild Project, headed by Krista Fee, the daughter-in-law of long-time mushing supporter Helen Hegner. Krista is directing a crew of licensed contractors and volunteers who are all working hard to build homes before winter arrives for the uninsured who lost their homes in the fire.
There are those who have criticized this decision, arguing that funds were given with the intent that they all go straight to mushers. To those people I ask, what is wrong with you? How can we turn our backs on our neighbors now? Willow Dog Mushers Association is a community minded club. It was formed to provide a platform for mushers to engage with others in the Willow community. Funneling some funds to provide homes for non-mushers (although actually, it is two mushers who are at the top of the building list) is a small way to give back to the community that has served as a stronghold for mushing in the state, whose trails provide us the means to pursue our sport, and whose people, mushers or not, cheer & encourage us in our attempts to preserve and protect mushing as sport and heritage. Be assured, money is going where it needs to go.
Now, our community is in the process of regrouping and rebuilding. We have "de-evacuated" and are moving forward with our lives and our plans. Personally, I am feeling grateful the fire never came too close to our property. I am thankful for the firefighters and for those who are still working hard to help the victims of the fire rebuild. For those still wishing to help, please direct either money, materials, or manpower to the Willow Community Rebuild Project - Krista Fee. If you would like to support a particular musher who lost their home in the fire, mail them a check. While donations of furniture, dog food, clothes, etc. are appreciated in nature, money with which they can choose to do with what they will, is really the best way to help right now. Thank you.