My mom came inside from mowing the lawn at around 1:30 p.m. on Sunday because she thought she smelled smoke. I ignored her remark and continued to watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix because she’s the type of lady who sweats the small stuff. My dad was in Ninilchik enjoying his free time being off from work as he’s an elementary school teacher.
I had just gotten back from hanging with my best friend in Talkeetna. My plans for the day were to completely veg out and binge watch anything and everything.
As my show continued, sounds from dozens of cop cars, fire trucks and medics zipped past our house. Helicopters and airplanes flew above us. The phone began to ring endlessly. I started to realize that this was bigger than mom’s overreaction.
The people who called had a myriad of questions.
“It started up Sockeye, they have it contained, though, right?”
“Some kids were up until 4 am shooting off fireworks, who was it?”
“They started evacuating Sharon Drive, don’t you live close to there?”
“Is the Red Cross at the community center?”
How am I supposed to know these things?
I could start to smell the smoke in the house. Mom and I went outside where you could see the sky colored grey and red. Everything in the yard had a bright orange tint to it.
Well, that’s not good.
We decided to be better safe than sorry and pack up a few memorable belongings. All of the pictures and photo albums were the first to be packed.
“Put everything that you want in a bag and throw it in the car,” my mom said.
It was weird. I walked into my room and stood there for a minute. I looked around to see what I wanted. I wasn’t emotionally attached to anything except the house. Everything in my room was just material items that could be replaced. I grabbed a heap of clothes and some from my hamper. That’s what you wear the most, right?
By this point, the dogs were freaking out. Ever since I saw “Paranormal Activity,” I was convinced that babies and dogs had a sixth sense for bad auras.
After around 30 minutes of packing up valuables and memories, we had both Subaru’s packed with all our stuff.
One mammoth tusk and several mammoth bones (my dad’s babies, don’t ask)
Heaps of clothes
A hard-drive for a 20-year-old computer
Boxes of pictures
A 1950’s Betty Crocker cookbook
One Jack White concert ticket
When the cars were packed up and ready to go, we headed out to Uncle Bruce’s who lives close to Crystal Lake. Driving down our neighborhood, Gratiot, we felt the heat of the fire. We could see the fire and we could hear it crackling and taking down trees as it went. Apparently, it was right across the highway.
The plan was to stay the night at my uncle Bruce’s and after the fire blew over we’d go home.
After letting the dogs run around at Bruce’s for a bit, we decided that we could zip over to the community center and see who all was there. We took one car and left the pups at the house. The community center had billowing, black clouds surrounding the building. It didn’t look good.
We were there for around ten minutes and decided we should head back to Bruce’s.
The police had closed the road.
So we booked it over to Willow Creek Parkway, the other entrance to Bruce’s house, to see if they had barricaded it, which they had.
Apparently, they were evacuating all of the Crystal Lake area because they expected the fire to head that way. Unfortunately, we were one car short which had half of our belongings in it and were short two dogs.
This was chaos.
The entire sky was a dark orange and it was extremely hot. Everyone was driving like maniacs and confused on where they could go. At this time, we were informed that our neighbor Dee Dee Jonrowe’s house had burned to the ground and that our house was gone as well.
We called Bruce who had already packed the dogs and his belongings up and it was decided that all of us would meet at Newman’s Hilltop, the gas station where my mom and I work.
We pulled up in my Subaru where the station was in a manic state. The power had shut off and people were trying to get gas so they could make it into town without breaking down. I began crying. I just wanted to go home and the worst of it was I had no home to go to.
Mom and I were coming up with a game plan to get her car back when I saw a yellow Volkswagen bug pull into the station. My ex-boyfriend of two years drives a yellow beetle and as far as I know, it’s the only one in Willow.
Well, lo and behold, out steps Chet (yes, that’s his real name) who I have not seen in months. We stare at each other for a moment and he hugs me. He asks what we know about the fire.
“My car is down at Bruce’s and they won’t let me in,” my mom said.
All he said was, “Come on, get in.”
My mom looks at me with a “Is this really happening?” face and jumps in the car anyways. I watched them speed away into smoke.
I waited at the station for twenty minutes and they finally got back. I told him thank you and he left. Apparently, he convinced two cops to let him pass through and sped like crazy to get to my mom’s car.
As if this day couldn’t get weirder.
We had the cars, we had the stuff and we had the dogs. Bruce pulled into the station with his truck and little trailer. His plan was to go to Houston and camp there for the night until he could get home. Mom and I were heading to Anchorage to a family friend’s house where we could crash for a few nights.
After getting comfortable for a second time, just this time in Anchorage and not at Bruce’s, we finally passed out at around 2:00 a.m.
“There’s someone at the door,” I awoke to my mom saying at 2:45 a.m.
It was my dad. My dad had drove like crazy to get home. He stopped at Judy’s (the family friend) to check in on us and try to sleep for a few hours. We all dozed in and out of sleep until about 6:00 a.m. when I got a text from my neighbor.
“Your house is ok. Call me.”
We had been mourning the loss of the house all evening. Mom called our neighbor. Many of the houses in the neighborhood burned, but ours didn’t somehow.
My dad talked to one of the firemen that he knew personally and he told us why we lucked out.
In our yard, there is a tree house around 25 feet away from the house. The tree house sits between three trees, one of which is a gigantic spruce. The fire caught onto the spruce and exploded. The firefighters assumed that the house was inevitably doomed. Suddenly, two planes dropped water and fire retardant right onto the tree house and made the fire turn paths.
Talk about a blessing.
So, we had a house. Some of our neighbors had lost their houses and we lost a lot of trees, but we had a house.
My dad decided to head home and see if he could help the house at all. As soon as he got there, a handful of hot spots were noticeable in the yard, which he hosed down. For several hours, he ran around the neighborhood, putting out hot spots and patches of smolder, even extinguishing a sizzling garage.
Mom and I were still in Anchorage. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do, since we had the dogs and they wouldn’t be able to breathe through the smoke we decided to stay put. We waited around all day, constantly checking the news, dispatches and fire reports.
Later that afternoon we caught word that the fire had rolled around Willow, going up near Hatchers Pass and back again. Unfortunately, the fire made its way back to Gratiot, our neighborhood. They had evacuated my dad to Houston because they expected the fire to rip its way through.
All we could do was wait. Again.
And we did.
The worst thing about any situation like this is waiting. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you can do. You can pray and cross your fingers, but you can’t do much more than that for the good of your house.
We kept getting speculation on if our house had survived round two of the fire. Around 10 p.m. on Tuesday night, a neighbor notified us that another neighbor’s house had exploded.
When I got word of this, the tears started up again. The uncertainty of whether your house is still a house and not a heap of ashes is absolutely and utterly miserable.
I was heartbroken. The house that had exploded wasn’t even 50 feet away from my neighbor and one of my oldest childhood friends Brittney’s house. Again, all I could do was to hope and wait on the outcome of our homes.
Mom and I dozed off for a couple hours, hoping to get some much-needed sleep. At around 2:30 a.m., I got a text from Brittney. Her house was gone.
This can’t be real.
I went to the bathroom and washed my face, I sat on side of the bath and cried. There are so many memories in our houses.
When we were 10 or 11, we got hooked on this stupid movie called “Be Kind Rewind,” with Jack Black in it. For some reason, we were obsessed. Basically, Jack Black owns a video store where he accidentally erases all of the movies. Instead of buying new ones, he recreates each one.
That’s what Britt and I did. We made Jurassic Park, James Bond, Harry Potter and plenty of others.
I remembered then that I didn’t grab any home videos. I had left all of those movies we made in my parents’ bedroom on the bottom shelf. If our house was still there, I knew that was the first thing I would grab. I knew Brittney would want to hold onto those memories as much as I did.
Then dad called at around 5:30 a.m. The cops and traffic had finally allowed him to get to our house.
It was, by a second miracle, still standing.
The second round had taken Brittney’s house along with a handful of others. This fire has ripped dozens of homes apart, many of which I know. It is so difficult to sit in Anchorage, not able to do anything. All we can do is keep praying and crossing our fingers.
Mom decided that Grandma Barb was grateful we grabbed her ashes before we left. I couldn’t agree more.