One of the great appeals of Alaska is the hardiness of its residents. Hikers must stay alert for grizzly bears that prowl on the edges of Anchorage and men and women challenge themselves to sprint up vertical inclines covered with gravel. They even seem to like it.
We had a taste of Alaska grit this past week when a forest fire threatened Janis and Jerome’s homestead.
I saw the smoke rising from the hill behind their house as I drove back from downtown Anchorage. A wildfire that had been simmering for two days was spreading, fed by extremely dry conditions and hundreds of dead spruce trees killed by infestations of aphids and beetles (popular opinion blames climate change)..
By the time I arrived back at their place, everyone was in motion to cut a 40-foot-wide fire line through the woods near their house. Soon, the sound of chainsaws ripped into the quiet day as Jerry, his stepson Josh and Mark began the arduous task of toppling tall spruces an cottonwoods. Janis and I cut down bushes near the house.
Daughter Rachel called her friends who poured in from all over town to offer their help. Friends of Janis and Jerry showed up, too. In no time we had a chain of operation, cutting brush, stacking it and carrying to a large truck to be hauled away. In the woods, the chain saw gang brought down dozens of trees.
All day the fire grew on a steep hillside and ravine inside the Chugach Mountain State Park. Smoke and burning debris virtually closed down the Seward Highway, the only route into the Kenai peninsula. The cars, trucks and recreational vehicles were backed up for miles and made even local traffic difficult.
Just up the hill, hot shot firefighting teams camped out at a local school. Blackhawk helicopters flew multiple missions, filling buckets of water in the ocean then dropping them over the fire. Low-flying aircraft passed repeatedly overhead, spraying fire retardant.
By evening, a fire department official came by to warn residents to be prepared to evacuate, should the call be made. Janis decided to move out the personal items that had the most meaning to the family, along with enough clothing to survive a prolonged absence. Rachel rented a U-Haul van and we began to pack. Our Sprinter van was still parked outside the house but we were ready to leave at a moment’s notice. (A reporter from the Alaska Dispatch News came by the place to report about their plans to evacuate.)
At 10 pm, as we looked forward to getting some rest, the wind shifted and the smoke filled the air. Jerry determined that he would stay up all night to keep an eye on the fire and the property and the rest of us could try to sleep.
The next morning the crew started removing more trees and more brush while the neighbor borrowed an excavator to start pulling stumps and widening access to our houses. Inside, Janis, Rachel and a friend removed art from the walls, packing old photo books full of memories to bring to a safer place.
We kept going into the evening, tired and expectant for rain. When we awoke the next day, the grey clouds promised relief and when it finally rained, firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control..
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.