By Jenny Neyman
This might just be the first Memorial Day weekend on record where residents of the central Kenai Peninsula universally crossed their fingers for rain. Anything to help stop the growing, glowing beast of a wildfire that has devoured over 189,000 acres since starting May 19 just south of Mile 7 Funny River Road, threatening homes in areas of Kasilof, Funny River, Tustumena Lake and the Kenai Keys subdivision along the Kenai River in Sterling.
The kickoff of summer is for fires, sure — of the grilling variety. The long weekend is perfect for puttering with home and yardwork, not working frantically to thin trees, install soaker hoses and pack up everything of irreplaceable value. It’s for going camping, inevitably enduring increased traffic to get there, but in the pursuit of recreation, not evacuation and public safety. It’s for a little excitement, but not the kind felt by residents worrying whether their homes would be consumed.
“There’s a pretty oppressive knot,” said Marc Berezin, who spent the weekend under an evacuation notice as the western front of the Funny River Horse Trail Fire crept steadily closer to his home off Johns Road near Kasilof. “I have never been so interested in the weather, I will tell you that.”
Weather conditions have governed the blaze, with a long, sunny, dry stretch this spring creating tinderbox forest conditions, and winds gusting daily to 25 mph or more pushing the blaze first south to Tustumena Lake, then west toward Kasilof, then north to Funny River and northeast toward Skilak Lake by way of the Kenai Keys area, and keeping fire personnel — 670 as of Tuesday — and residents on their toes.
“This is a wind-driven fire, plus you have kind of squirrelly winds coming off Skilak that makes it more complicated. … But we don’t control that, so what we do is deal with it, and they’re ready and they’re putting everything on this (northern) end,” said Kris Eriksen, public information officer with the Division of Forestry, in a meeting Monday to update displaced Funny River residents after an evacuation notice was given Sunday for Mile 7 to the end of Funny River Road. That was on the heels of a brief evacuation of an area of Kasilof residences Friday night, a weekend-long evacuation for a wider swath of the Kasilof area, and another alert issued Sunday for the Kenai Keys area.
Everywhere along the fire’s active and erratic front, it seems, people have been stuck on repeat of the Clash song, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” It’s alternately exhausting and adrenaline inducing — what to take, when to go, where to go and what to do in the meantime?
“It seems so otherworldly, or an out-of-body experience, you know? Like, ‘Is this really happening?’ And my mood’s been real up and down. I get real emotional when I think about all the work we put into building,” said Jeanne Duhan, another resident of the Johns Road area.
She and her husband, Mike, built their log cabin and Jeanne’s log music studio themselves, working every summer for eight years to construct the cabins and improve the property.
“I just love it. The whole idea of it burning down just tears me up. It’s such a lovely little place. We did everything ourselves. I’m going to be really sad if all this burns,” she said. “And from nothing of your doing. We have no part in why this is happening. I mean, we have fake candles, that’s how cautious we are. I love candles but my husband’s like, ‘We live in a log home.’ He’s Mr. Safety — we have a fire extinguisher by the door, we have fake candles. He always does the right thing, then to have this happen, it’s such a drag.”
They and their neighbors along the Kasilof front of the fire got ready to leave Friday when the area was put under an evacuation alert. Though the packing process was quick, it wasn’t without its challenges.
“I mean, what do you take?” Duhan said.
There are recommended items like photos and other irreplaceable memorabilia, important documents — be they stored in a computer drive or file folders — pets and associated food and gear, clothes, prescription medication, personal items and the like. Anything left behind should be documented and photographed for insurance purposes. It’s been an exercise in determining priorities.
For Duhan, a musician and music teacher, that immediately meant her instruments, loading those into a truck right next to the couple’s Bobcat tractor, and it didn’t even occur to her to take the expensive equipment at first.
“My violin’s worth $1,500, which is like chump change compared to the Bobcat. But the violin was my great-great grandfather’s and the Bobcat is a tool. Then the reality started to sink in that we might really lose this place. Then we thought, ‘Well, we might have to build another one.’ So then we starting thinking about tools,” she said. “The rest of it, what do you really need? It’s all replaceable.”
Next door at Marc and Libby Berezin’s, all the irrefutably important life stuff from 32 years of living, raising their kids and working in their home (Libby’s a potter, while Marc runs a computer business from home after retiring from teaching) was gathered first — documents, photos, computers and associated storage drives. After that, stress started amplifying personality dynamics amid the packing process.
“One of us is a lot more nonchalant about what we should pack than the other. And it ain’t me,” Marc Berezin said. “We just bought this wonderful set of knives, and I want to take the knives. She said, ‘Knives? Why are you taking the stupid knives? I know where they have more!’ But I love those knives. I’m taking the damn knives.
“And we each packed a suitcase full of our favorite clothing — not necessarily a cross-section of what we need. I packed sweaters. It’s like three-quarters full of my sweaters, because I have some wonderful, nice sweaters that I love and they’re not replaceable. Fortunately, the fire caught us at one of our rare moments when the laundry was almost all folded and put away. That doesn’t happen very often. It was an amazingly fortuitous coincidence,” he said.