Alaska wildfire evacuees begin to learn fate of their homes

The North Fork Fire, burning approximately six miles northwest of Homer, Alaska, U.S., is seen in this aerial photo taken August 19, 2019. Several wildfires are burning in southcentral Alaska, destroying structures and forcing evacuations. (Alaska Divison of Forestry/Handout via Reuters)
When residents fled the worsening McKinley fire in southcentral Alaska on Saturday and Sunday, many left their homes not knowing if they would ever see them again. Ned Sparks, who lives off Mile 91 of the Parks Highway, banged on neighbors’ doors until State Troopers told him to evacuate.

“I came out of there with the jacket I’m wearing,” Sparks said Tuesday. “Two t-shirts, and a pair of Crocs. And I don’t think I have anything else.”

On Tuesday afternoon, state fire managers announced that it will be another four to six days at the earliest before residents who evacuated from the McKinley fire can return to their properties. But some displaced residents are learning about whether their homes survived from neighbors, local responders, and social media. Now, begins an inventory of what is lost and coming to terms with the long process of recovery.

Since the weekend, Sparks and his wife Erica have have stayed at the Upper Susitna Community and Senior Center, set up as an evacuation shelter for people who live on the north side of the blaze.

For five years the Sparks have been renovating a home on Yancy Drive. Sparks had cleared a wide defensible perimeter around the house, and on Sunday he was hoping that would protect it. But the wind-driven blaze was too intense.

Randall “Ned” Sparks at the Upper Susitna Community and Senior Center. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

“One of the neighbors called me and said ‘It’s gotten bad. It’s real bad,’” he said.

The neighbor described flames licking his vehicle’s bumper and hearing propane tanks explode as balls of fire broke over the tops of trees, engulfing everything.

“In a matter of 15 minutes almost everything on Yancy and Wild Bill Way went up in smoke.”

Including Sparks’ house. He says he didn’t have homeowners insurance owing to complications from how the former shell of a building was financed and renovated.

“No one would write us a policy,” Sparks said, blaming cumbersome regulations and unhelpful insurance companies.

The couple lost tools, building materials, snowblowers, a side-by-side, clothing, all their cold-weather gear. Plus the years of work rehabbing what was supposed to be their retirement home.

Rebuild and recover

But Sparks has no plans to leave. In fact, the support of the community and selflessness of volunteers over the last few days has galvanized his resolve to rebuild and recover.

“The generosity of people has been magnanimous,” Sparks said. “You would not believe the outpouring of…not sympathy, but of compassion.”

State fire managers estimate at least 80 structures have been destroyed by the McKinley fire. But until they can comprehensively assess the extent of the damage, families like the Sparks are in a kind of limbo, waiting to learn what’s been burned and what might have survived.

Not far from the Sparks’s home is the property Tracy Stroop lived on for four years, which had finally started to feel like a proper home.

“I miss my house. I loved my cabin. I had four out-buildings,” Stroop said Tuesday. “Nothing survived. It’s just ash.”

Burned trees after the McKinley Fire burned through the area near Willow, Alaska, on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019. (Maureen Clark/Alaska Division of Forestry via AP)

Stroop learned about the destruction from the Talkeetna fire chief, who showed her a video on his phone of the burned areas. Somehow, despite the broad swathe of ruin, her vehicle was spared.

“I have a white truck with a kayak on the back of it, and it’s perfect. It’s sitting there like it was just pulled in and parked,” Stroop said. “That’s what’s crazy. And he even said that: ‘sometimes you don’t know why certain things survive.”

Fleeing in a hurry

Dave Straub lives in a subdivision off milepost 90.5. He, too, fled in a hurry to escape a wall of flames rushing toward his house over the weekend.

“We were lucky to get out with our lives,” he said over the phone Tuesday. The former competitive musher was able to get all of his sled-dogs to safety, as well.

Despite being in the epicenter of the blaze, Straub’s home is still standing. He believes that’s because firefighters from the Chugiak Volunteer Fire department rushed in, aided by overhead helicopter water dumps. He’s grateful, given that so much else around him is destroyed.

“The other side of the subdivision is completely gone,” Straub said of a development on the east side of the Parks Highway. “There’s very few structures left over there.”

A nearby RV park burned. So did many of the buildings around Camp Caswell. Only now, Straub says, as people start taking stock and receiving information is the extent of the fire damage becoming clear.

“The first couple days our minds were going 40 different directions. But right about now everything’s finally sinking in,” he said.

“I was lucky. But there are people that lost everything. I’m sick about it,” Straub said.

The State’s Division of Forestry says it will take days to complete its assessment of what the McKinley fire burned, and what it didn’t.

Reporting for this story was contributed by Casey Grove and Phillip Manning in Talkeetna, and Abbey Collins in Anchorage.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Large wildfires in Yukon, northwestern Canada threaten highway, CBC News

Iceland: Better wildfire & agriculture management among recommendations from Arctic Council black carbon expert group, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Arctic summer 2019: record heat, dramatic ice loss and raging wildfires, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: 2019 Arctic wildfire season ‘unprecedented’ say experts, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Study on Swedish wildfires shows how to make forests rise from the ashes, Radio Sweden

United States: Extreme weather fuelling wildfires in southcentral AlaskaAlaska Public Media

Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media

Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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