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.
Two doors down, Dan and Stacy Schweigel were in a similar quandary. There were the obvious, immediate priorities of what to remove: people — including their daughter, Kinlee, and Stacy’s parents, Don and JoAn Brooks. Then the animals — their dogs and horses. Then the stuff — documents, clothes, photos and the irreplaceables.
“Stuff the relatives have given you that are no longer around,” Dan said.
Stacy collects chickens and took one from each person who’s ever added to her collection. Dan took a World War II-era gun given to him by his grandfather.
“As far as four-wheelers and things like that, no, we didn’t take them. Just left them here. There’s insurance on them. Those things are replaceable. We took souvenirs from our honeymoon and other things that we may never find again,” Stacy said. “But now that I know what (Dan) didn’t think was important to take, maybe that’s stuff we should get rid of.”
Out in Funny River on Saturday, along Rabbit Run Road, Lisa Renken prepared to evacuate her horses, birds and dogs, and she and her husband packed overnight bags and all their important photos and documents. Then came the personally important stuff.
“He gets irritated with me because I’m trying to train for a marathon. And I’m like, ‘Should I run today? Should I not? Is it too smoky?’ And he says, ‘That’s not even important right now!’ And I’m like, ‘Yes it is!’ And if we have to go, he’s going to scream when he sees my running bag. But I can’t leave without that,” she said.
Once the packing is done — whatever that might mean in each instance — the next challenge is, what to do next? You don’t want to leave without having to, nor create extra traffic on the roads firefighters might need to access, Stacy Schweigel said. But you don’t want to wait until it’s too late, either.
Her older daughter, Tereza Brooks, offered to come help them evacuate Friday afternoon. Stacy said no, they were staying. But by 10 p.m. she called Brooks to come help after all. Even though her area was still just under an evacuation readiness alert, Stacy took her animals, youngest daughter and parents to Brooks’ home in Soldotna, particularly because her dad has respiratory problems. Dan Schweigel stayed behind to watch the wall of flames to the east move closer and closer through the trees down the hill from their property.
“The flames were coming at us. Then it would lay down a little bit. Then the smoke started rolling through the trees and you couldn’t see. And that’s when we decided she should go,” he said Saturday. “That’s what I was worried about last night, because the cloud was coming this way and you know when it’s laid down in those trees you’re not going to be able to see nothing. You’re might not be able to see to get to the road.”
By Saturday morning they were repeating the routine that had developed over the past few days of the fire — taking everything back in the house that they had packed in vehicles the night before.
Then, there’s nothing to do but wait.
“You’re in limbo,” Stacy said. “You can’t go to town and go grocery shopping because you don’t want to leave. You don’t want to be out weed-eating and start another fire,” she said. “I cleaned the house the day before yesterday and the kids are like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I don’t know. It’s nerves, too,” she said.
Duhan, next door, could empathize.
“We did the dishes and thought, ‘This is silly.’ We loaded the dishwasher and ran it and thought, ‘What the hell are we doing? The house might burn down and we’re doing the dishes?’” she said.
Same thing in Funny River. Renken had planned to go to a friend’s wedding in Kenai on Saturday, but didn’t dare leave home in case the evacuation alert turned into an order, which it did Sunday.
“I was like, ‘Well, I can’t go anywhere. I might as well vacuum,’” she said.
Many residents in threatened areas bided their time awaiting either an evacuation or an all clear notice by trying to reduce fire danger around their homes — moving burnables away from structures, cutting down nearby trees and branches hanging over roofs, and setting up sprinklers and hoses and anything else that could dampen the area.
Dan Schweigel plugged his gutters with rags and set up soaker hoses on the roof, so that the excess water would cascade down the house and wet the deck. The Duhans also were putting hoses on their roof, running sprinklers in their yard and filling anything that would hold water.
“We’re trying to keep everything as wet as possible. We don’t know if it will help, but that’s all we can do. We have our canoes filled with water because if we get a little flame we’ll have a bucket of water ready. Who knows what will make a difference?” Jeanne Duhan said.
Jenny Johnson, across the street from the Renkens in Funny River, made the emotionally charged decision to cut trees down around her property. It’s obviously prudent but can feel destructive when one loves their home and property just the way it was.
“I started crying a little bit, because all my trees! Then I went, ‘You bonehead!’ And slapped myself upside the head because they can grow back,” she said.
Eriksen, at the public meeting Monday at the Red Cross shelter set up for evacuees at Redoubt Elementary School in Soldotna, praised such efforts.
“The biggest thing that can be done about a fire (acting erratically) is what you do before we get there. Your house, if you haven’t worked to make it defendable, if you haven’t moved the firewood away from your house, if you haven’t closed up under your deck, if you don’t have needles cleaned out. What you do makes it possible for the firefighters to go defend it. Because they can’t do all that work on every structure. … They don’t have time to go cut trees down on everybody’s property,” she said. “That’s the thing about choosing to live in what we call the WUI, the wildland-urban interface, where those two things come together. It’s difficult to protect homes there. I spend my day job around the nation trying to convince people, ‘You’ve got to do something to prepare if you live in a WUI.’”
Beyond packing and fire defense, all that’s left is waiting.
Saturday, Dan Schweigel had been on his east-facing deck for four days straight, watching the advancing smoke and the planes and helicopters dumping water on the fire. It has been an uncomfortably reminiscent experience, as he and Stacy’s ranch in central Montana, where they lived before moving to Alaska eight years ago, was nearly burned down in a wildfire.
“We watched it just like this. We could see it on the horizon. All of a sudden it comes up over the ridge and the wind had shifted and it’s blowing up in our faces, and that’s when we knew it was headed our way — the way the wind was blowing so hard. And then we couldn’t see. So this is our second go-around on this,” Stacy said.
“The best way I can describe it coming through those trees is it looks like hell is coming. And that’s what I thought of — hell is coming. And you could hear it. I wondered what the sound was, at first I thought it was the highway or something. Like a propane torch or something way off to the distance, that’s what it sounded like,” he said.
The Duhans were making regular trips to what they have designated the “fire-watching stump” in their yard. Friday night was a particularly nerve-wracking view.
“There were these big, billowing clouds. It was like being by an oil field when those flares go off. And you could see this orange through the trees,” Jeanne said.
Next door, the Berezins also had been keeping an eye out, waiting for word.
“The smoke changes the tint of the world. The sun is orange and the sky has got this strange tint to it and everything that it’s shining on is this burnt-umber kind of color. It’s very surreal,” Marc Berezin said.
In Funny River on Saturday, neighbors on Rabbit Run Road met in the street, exchanging information from their observations. Kim Renken had been out to Brown’s Lake on Friday afternoon to watch scooper planes skim the lake to load up more water to take to the fire burning ever closer nearby. They went back later in the day and the area they had been looking at now was burned.
“It was all black and we could see flames on the back side where they were last night. It’s scary,” she said.
Tony Eskelin, from Soldotna, came out Friday to check on his mother, who lives near the Renkens, and his rental home in the area. Saturday morning, he and a friend, David Powell, of Soldotna, went to watch the fire crews expand a firebreak line along Moose Ridge Avenue just south of Brown’s Lake, on the boundary of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. They inadvertently got a little better view of the proceedings than they intended.
“We’d been there for like an hour, no big deal, not even hardly anybody around,” Eskelin said.
Then, the few people and vehicles that were on the road picked up and left, with no one saying a word to them. They lingered to watch the billowing smoke rising from the fire beyond a ridge to the south of the road. Next thing they knew, planes carrying fire retardant were overhead.
“We were just sitting there, harmless, not knowing there was going to be a dump coming in. The planes were circling and then eventually the next one went pretty low, then the next one went a little bit lower. Then the third one dropped it right next to us,” Eskelin said.
Eskelin, Powell, Eskelin’s truck inside (his door was open) and out, and his dog, Holly, in the back, were coated with sticky red fire retardant.
“They did an alarm (from the plane) but we didn’t know the alarm meant, ‘Get the heck out of there,’” Eskelin said.
“We’re like, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘I think it’s a low-altitude warning because he’s getting pretty low,’” Powell said. “No. Turns out it means, ‘Get the heck away.’ But nobody had said a word to us. Afterward a guy came and talked to us — we’re all covered in retardant. He goes, ‘You know, you should really get out of here.’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, we figured that out!’”
After leaving and attempting to wash the sticky-but-nontoxic substance (a mixture of fertilizer, soap and iron oxide for coloring) off themselves, they went back Saturday afternoon to check progress on the firebreak. That visit happened to coincide with the blaze making a rapid, unexpected, wind-driven run straight for the road where a fire crew was preparing to conduct a controlled burn to expand the firebreak. They hustled to help the workers unload their remaining gear before retreating to a safer distance. Minutes later flames hundreds of feet high shot up along the road where they had just been standing.
On one hand, it’s impossible to not be desperate to know what’s going on when a wildlife is blazing ever closer to your home. On the other, the reality can be terrifying to witness.
“It’s horrible. You hear of these things down south or here and there, recreation cabins being threatened. But this is our home. That is just a really frightening thought,” Duhan said. “And then I’ve been so egocentric with thinking of what our own little problems are, and there are so many other people facing this. It’s very scary.”
Local, state and federal officials are coordinating efforts to try and keep people calm, informed, prepared and — most importantly — safe. That’s ultimately the purpose behind the evacuations, Eriksen told the packed library at Redoubt Elementary on Monday.
At that time, the evacuation order for Funny River was still in effect, though it was lifted Tuesday morning. Evacuation isn’t enforceable, Erickson conceded to a questioner, and some residents in the crowd expressed frustration at being told they’d essentially be in the way of firefighting efforts if they had chosen to remain in their homes.
“If the team knows that you’re in there, we now have to assign a whole portion of the operations section just to keep an eye on the people. That’s what we do, because we don’t want anybody killed. So the operations people are having one engine or one person whose job it is to drive around and check on people who are staying inside. And that’s people who can’t be working on the fire. They don’t have time to focus on people, so they want to get people out of the way,” Erickson said.
“They’re going to err on the side of being a little conservative,” she said. “The point here is to, number one, not have anybody get hurt or injured, killed, anything — including firefighters. That’s the number one thing, and they mean it. So if that means keeping you out, unfortunately, an extra day to make sure (the fire is) not going to cross there, then that’s the option they’re probably going to take.”
Residents had plenty of praise for firefighters, public safety officials, the Red Cross, area businesses that were offering free meals and places to stay, and everyone else who was in any way helping support the cause. But there was frustration, too — over the indeterminate length of the evacuation and, particularly, over glitches in the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s rapid-response notification system, whereby residents who register their phone number get a call with important emergency information, such as evacuation warnings.
But some people were getting calls and some weren’t, or were getting one call and not the next, or were getting a call on their cellphone but not their landline, or vice versa.
Scott Walden, director of the borough’s Office of Emergency Management, explained that the system has been overloaded. It started with 800 phone numbers registered, and jumped to 4,000 just a few days after the fire started. And it’s residents from Seward and Homer, too, wanting to be registered, not just those affected by the fire. It’s taken a staff person logging a 12-hour-long shift to organize who should be getting calls and who shouldn’t. And even more staff time if someone calls in to request their number be registered, rather than registering through the borough’s website, as is preferred. Then when calls do go out, the volume has gotten so large that the available circuits drop some of those calls, he explained.
“The circuits are busy. There are some glitches on the vendor end — the contractor we use — and there may be some glitches on our end. We continue to troubleshoot those around the clock. We’ve found that this is not the simplest system to use. It’s a good system and it does provide good service, but I think that the problem we’re running into is circuits are busy,” Walden said.
The issue is being worked on and should be resolved soon, he said. And in any case, emergency respondents don’t rely solely on automated phone calls to alert residents of important information. It’s shared through the media, both traditional (print, radio and TV news) and social (Facebook). And when an evacuation order is given, emergency personnel are dispatched in person.
“We don’t entirely rely on automaton. We rely on people to go out there and knock on each door and verify that you’re either out or you’re staying, who you are, where you are. And then put a tag on your street that we went down that street,” Walden said.
The Duhans and Berezins experienced the rapid-response glitches firsthand Friday, with some getting calls and some not. When they did get a call warning of an evacuation alert from Sterling Highway Miles 103 to 105 — from Cardwell to Heavy Down — they were even more confused because their neighborhood, Johns Road, is at Mile 103. Cardwell is a quarter mile down the highway.
“So does that mean we evacuate or not? It was craziness. It’s your life and your home and there’s all this confusion,” Duhan said.
They also were frustrated with a lack of more-regular fire activity updates, though emergency personnel did start releasing information on a more-regular basis over the weekend.
Frustrations generally cooled with the weather Tuesday, when rain finally began to fall, fire activity settled more than it has since starting, and evacuation orders were lifted. All good news for a community starved for it.
“I can tell you after 30 years of doing this, right now you’re good, you’re OK,” Eriksen said Monday, reporting that there had been no injuries and no structures yet lost to the fire. “You’re not out of danger — we’ve still got to wait and see what the weather does and where this moves. You need to stay alert and keep yourself informed, but this is not the worst fire I’ve been on.”