By Jenny Neyman
On the bright side, if one can be found in the midst of a wildfire raging near your home, Kurt Strausbaugh figures he lost about 5 pounds, from the stress and exertion of trying to pack up his house as the Card Fire in eastern Sterling approached to about a half mile from his residence Monday night.
“I needed it, anyhow,” he said, ruefully. “It’s so hot loading belongings up, and not eating, scrambling, just grabbing and packing — no organization to it, just loading things up in the vehicles you have at hand.”
Not that evacuation stress is anyone’s idea of a good diet. Nor are billowing plumes of smoke and torches of bright-red flames engulfing the trees beyond your backyard anyone’s idea of enjoying the view from the deck. But that’s what Strausbaugh did Monday night, anxiously waiting to see whether he and his wife, Tammy, should hop in their vehicles and go.
“We have a lovely view when the fire isn’t chasing you down,” he said.
The Strausbaughs live about one-third of a mile down Card Road, which was part of the area evacuated Monday as the fire spread from the north, near Cottonwood Street, to the Southeast, doubling in size from 300 acres to more 600 acres by Monday afternoon, and again to 1,200 acres by Tuesday morning.
But Tuesday afternoon it was estimated at 1,500 acres, though Strausbaugh said Tuesday morning that it appeared to be moving to the southeast, toward the uninhabited Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
“It was a little scary last night but it looks like they might have gotten it under control. We’ve got winds out of the north right now, which is blowing away from my house,” he said.
Though they got the call to evacuate, the Strausbaughs decided to wait it out Monday night to keep an eye on their house.
“I’ve got a good 50-foot buffer around at least most of my home, (but) our home is made of wood and our deck is really kindling dry, just like everything else is right now,” he said. “We just hunkered down. We just felt we’re so close to the highway, if the flames were to come onto our property we already had the vehicles pointed down the street. We would be able to get out.”
They’d both been at work Monday afternoon when the fire was reported around 1:30 p.m., Kurt at Fish and Game and Tammy at the Sterling Post Office.
“(She) heard the emergency vehicles screaming by through Sterling, and somebody relayed a message to my wife at work that there was a fire near where we live. I just raced out here and started packing up,” he said.
It’s the kind of inventory no homeowner wants to have to do — choosing what to take and what to leave to potential destruction.
“It’s a hard decision to make, everything has value in some way, whether sentimental value or financial value. But you can only take so much in a short amount of time, and so we just grabbed what we thought we’d need, and some things we thought we couldn’t live without. We definitely grabbed the mementos first — the photos and stuff that had sentimental value — and it slowly dwindled down. I had an army of friends and family that pulled up here in horse trailers and stuff, so we had plenty of help,” he said.
That’s been another silver lining to the ordeal — seeing the neighborhood and community come together to help.
“There’s been a large support of people in the community, for sure. It was pretty neat to see all the neighbors coming together, no doubt about that. Literally, on Card Street, there were hundreds of vehicles and almost all of them offered to help,” he said.
Once everything was packed up and hauled out, either the Strausbaughs or their neighbors were up all night watching the flames, with nothing to do but wait and hope for the best. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and one he hadn’t experienced before. Though the Funny River Fire jumped across the Kenai River in about the same area last May, it didn’t come closer than two miles to his house. The Card Fire is much closer to homes, and had already claimed six structures Monday. On Tuesday, 10 structures were reported damaged or destroyed, including three homes.
“You’ve got so much blood, sweat and tears in your home and so you don’t want to see your home go, even though it’s replaceable. It’s very sorrowful thinking that you could lose your home. My heart goes out to the folks who did,” Strausbaugh said.
As of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, a shift in the wind began pushing the fire east toward Skilak Lake. The Lower Skilak Campground was being evacuated and the west end of Skilak Lake Loop Road was closed. Though the fire had two air tankers dropping a barrier of fire retardant between the edge of the fire and homes, and two helicopters were working hot spots with water buckets, the fire remained uncontained and uncontrolled Tuesday. The weather forecast offers no relief in the near future, with continued hot, dry conditions through the week, and a possibility of thunderstorms Tuesday night.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management is operating a fire information hotline to keep residents informed, at 714-2495, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough posts fire updates on its Facebook Page.