By Joseph Robertia
It’s hard enough for people to prepare to evacuate their homes when a wildfire approaches, as has been the case for residents of Kasilof, Funny River and the Kenai Keys area along the Kenai River as the Funny River Fire has torched over 176,000 acres since starting near Mile 6 of Funny River Road on May 19.
It’s even harder when it’s not just things and able-bodied people to worry about, but helpless animals to corral, as is the case for livestock farmers or mushers with dozens of sled dogs in their care.
“Living just south of Johnson Lake in a heavily wooded area, we are trying to stay prepared during this fire. We have 13 sled dogs who live on a fenced 2 acres and are used to running free all day within the enclosure,” said Jill Garnet who, along with her partner, Sean Rice, saw the risk of fire overtaking their kennel after the blaze made a seven-mile run in two hours last week, reaching the shore of nearby Tustumena Lake.
“On Tuesday we spent 10 hours packing up our most vital gear, most of it related to running dogs — carts, sleds and whatnot. We packed up 10 days of dog food, water jugs and our doggie first-aid bag into our dog truck. We packed up some clothes and guns. Important documents like Social Security cards, birth certificates and vehicles titles made the list. We threw in a camp stove and a filled propane tank, too,” she said.
Garnet’s dogs are used to being transported, for training and racing, in a large, multicubbied box attached to the bed of her truck, so moving the dogs shouldn’t be a problem if the time comes.
“Our dog truck, which is big enough to transport our entire team, is now parked facing out, just outside our fence gate attached to our trailer, which is packed up,” she said.
The difficulty isn’t the moving, it’s the act of gathering up her dogs for the move — since all of the dogs are rescues with various social issues. Her dogs are kept with a free run in their enclosures, rather than tethered on chains as is the practice of many mushers. There also is the dilemma of where to take them and how to maintain them once evacuated.
“We aren’t trying to be reactionary or panic, but just smart. Evacuating 13 dogs isn’t something you are going to do just because. Our team is used to a free-run lifestyle, so taking them out of here and staking them on chains would prove extremely stressful for us and them,” she said.
“We have had many offers over these four days for places to go, but none are fenced. I looked into renting construction fencing, 6-by-12 panels out of Anchorage, but they are all rented out in this high season. So we are keeping our eyes open for fenced areas owned by people who may allow us to park inside temporarily as we camp out with the dogs,” she said.
Living out of the dog truck is an option, but comes with increased difficulties, since the dogs need to come out at regular intervals to relive themselves and to get some exercise and fresh air.
“Living out of our dog truck will be hard because you have to get the dogs out to stretch every few hours. If we wind up in this scenario, I fear I will lose my job and my home because I couldn’t possibly show up for 12.5-hour shifts leaving dogs cooped up in 2-by-2 boxes. I will do whatever it takes, though. My dogs come first and I am counting on God to provide, no matter what,” she said.
Garnet and Rice also have taken precautions to save their cabin, they hope, should they have to abandon it.
“On Tuesday (May 20), we also bought soaker garden hoses, and after we finished packing we strung them up on the shingled roof. We know there is only so much we can do to save our cabin, and if the fire reaches the property it will likely go up. But on the chance it only gets close enough to throw embers our way, a wet roof will be helpful,” she said.
Like everyone being menaced by the blaze, Garnet said that it would be a long way back should her property and possessions go up in smoke.
“If we lose the cabin and or our fencing at home in the fire, it will devastate us. It is not easy to get insurance when you have sled dogs. In our case we had found a company to give us fire insurance even with the dogs, but due to a safety hazard in the construction of our cabin we were denied coverage. It took us two years and $20,000 to build our enclosure for the dogs. That fence would be the most difficult thing to lose,” she said.
Livestock owners in areas threatened by the fire are facing similar problems.
“We’re about 2 to 2.5 miles away from the perimeter, so it’s pretty stressful,” said Holly Abel. She and her husband, with two kids ages 2 and 4, maintain a farm off of Tustumena Lake Road in Kasilof.
“We have a pregnant cow that is due on the 28th. We have five adult goats — two of which are pregnant and due any day — and five baby goats. We also have 14 turkeys, 22 chickens, 15 chicks, two dogs and a cat,” she said.
This is a lot to consider when planning an evacuation, she said, since they all take different types of food, and some of the larger animals can hurt or kill smaller ones if transported together.
“We have a relative who brought over a horse trailer that we’ve been loading with feed and seed, and putting in kennels so the small animals don’t get trampled. We have a couple days worth of food packed in there, but there’s only so much room for feed and animals, so we’ll have to get more if we are evacuated,” she said.
Abel said that they have a relative in the Ninilchik area who has a fenced-in, 3-acre area where some of the larger animals could go, and they are working, along with relatives from the Abel Family Farm, to come up with ideas for makeshift pens for the others, such as fencing in around a large trampoline to make a temporary chicken coop.
Holly’s sister Chevelle Abel, of Abel Family Farm, has an equally large assortment of animals — 116 in all — to worry about, including cows, goats, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, guinea fowl and dogs. Many of the hoofed animals are pregnant, and some of the fowl are in incubators hatching.
“We went ahead and evacuated all of the animals to Ninilchik except two dogs and 15 chicks that will go in the last car. The fire seems to be 1 1/2 miles away, maybe two. Last night we slept in a barn and kept watch. We have a cow and a goat in different stages of labor and another goat due any time,” she said.
When the wind picked up Saturday and there was a rapid advancement of the fire toward their area, Chevelle’s family made the call to move the rest of the animals, because she didn’t want to leave in the middle of the night or get stuck in a line of traffic moving out. She, her daughter, uncle and a longtime friend took care of the animals, while other family members pursued other evacuation and fire-preparation tasks.
“I feel good about how fire wise our place is now. It’s been a ton of work, though, and I have not slept much. Four hours a night is good,” she said.
Chevelle delivered a pair of goats later that day to the Ninilchik location, while Holly said that she was trying to hold off moving her expectant livestock.
“We’re trying to be prepared, but don’t want to evacuate until we have to because it would be so stressful to the pregnant animals. This situation is less than ideal, but especially with animals in labor,” she said. “Hopefully the firebreak will hold, and if it doesn’t we’ll roll with the punches.”
All the while, Holly said that she and her family members would be doing their best to prepare their property.
“We’ll keep working on the firebreak around the house, removing fuel sources and watering everything we can,” she said.
Abel, along with fellow residents of fire-threatened areas, with animals or without, will also be watching the latest bulletins on the fire’s development, hoping for a quick containment and the safety of everyone involved, particularly the firefighters on the front lines.
“We’re very grateful for their efforts,” she said.