Willow Stronger – A Wildfire, the Teams of Dogs and the Sacrifices and Kindness of Neighbors

Sockeye
A sunny summer Sunday found Iditarod rookie Mary Helwig reading a book on her lawn near Willow when a neighbor’s text interrupted: A fast-moving forest fire was headed toward her kennel at Mile 72.5 of Parks Highway.

Helwig packed food for her five dogs, some expensive sled-dog harnesses, her good parka, a few furs, a small suitcase of clothes and a few other random things—such as her bluebird-of-happiness figurine. Later, she’d kick herself for not grabbing more—especially her dog sled.

Willow is best known as the home of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race restart, and nearly as many sled dogs as people—about 2,000—live in this unincorporated community, which dots the Parks Highway between Mile 60 and Mile 80.

The wildfire started about 1:15 p.m., June 14, 2015, off Sockeye Avenue near Mile 77.5 of the Parks Highway. A few hours later, flames had spread south five miles and began burning the Serendipity Heights neighborhood, where it savaged the homes of mushers Bob Chulpach and Jan Steves, Peter and Joyce Duncan, Sue Firmin, Jaimee and Justin High, Mike and Dee Dee Jonrowe, Scott Smith, Dave and TC Wait, and Helwig.

Thankfully, and with the help of neighbors, they all managed to save their sled dogs. Still, these families lost their homes and thousands of dollars worth of mushing gear. For the High family, who are Helwig’s next-door neighbors, the fire marked the second time in six months they had lost a house to flames.

crew

Ashes fell on Helwig’s dog truck as she left her house with five of her sled dogs. Fortunately, her other 21 dogs were working summer jobs—some pulling in Skagway with Ryan Redington and the rest with Matt Failor in Juneau.

In the Mat-Su Borough where Helwig lives, obtaining or renewing a kennel license requires evacuation plans—a change pushed for by musher Vern Halter during his tenure as borough assemblyman. (He’s since been elected borough mayor.) Helwig’s informal evacuation plan called for relocating herself and her team to a kennel belonging to friend and fellow Iditarod rookie Kristin Bacon about 30 miles south in Big Lake. With her dogs safely settled at Bacon Acre’s Kennel, Helwig received word that three teams already evacuated to the Long Lake area again needed rescue. So Helwig and fellow musher Alan Eischens headed north where they talked their way past a blockade manned by Alaska State Troopers to rescue 80 stranded dogs and three mushers.

“Helping each other is just what we do,” Eischens said.

Carrie and Todd Smoldons were on their way home from church in Wasilla the afternoon of June 14 when a neighbor called to ask if they knew about Tam Boeve’s request for volunteers to help evacuate musher Leo Lashock’s sled dogs from the path of a fast-moving wildfire. The fire was about two acres large around 1:30 p.m. when the Smoldens changed clothes, hooked up their dog box and headed north on the Parks Highway toward Lashock’s kennel about five miles away. And the requests for help just kept coming.

Carrie, Todd and neighbor Chuck Cubbison worked for hours evacuating Lashock’s sled dogs and others belonging to Jenny Evans, Peter Duncan and Joar Leifseth Ulsom. By 7 p.m., the Smoldons had to evacuate their own. Carrie made it home in time to load her dogs and grab a few things before fire overtook her neighborhood.

That evening the fire had grown to an estimated 6,500 acres and had destroyed at least 20 homes. With sunrise came the news that the Sockeye Fire had become the nation’s No. 1 wildfire priority.

Studying the map of the fire perimeter, Carrie’s heart sank. She thought for sure her home was gone but got permission to enter the evacuation area to retrieve what she could of the cash,

medications, photo albums and mushing gear left behind. The smoke was thick along the Parks Highway as Carrie followed the pilot car. Turning into her driveway, she was shocked to see a man standing in the road, ringed by flames.

“It was a firefighter,” Carrie said, her voice full of emotion. “There was a truck and hoses and firefighters sleeping on my lawn.”

Fire crews had saved her home. They told her they fought the fire from her home because it had such good defensible space. They even saved her chickens by setting a sprinkler on top of her coup, she said. She couldn’t sleep that night thinking of the dedicated firefighters, law enforcement officers and neighbors who came together to help in the midst of the devastation.

Driving away from a property off Sockeye Avenue, Anchorage residents Greg Imig, 59, and Amy Dewitt, 42, called 911 around 1:15 p.m., June 14 to report a fire spreading to the forest. By the time firefighters arrived, the blaze had grown to two acres.

Investigators determined the Sockeye Fire started from an illegal burn pile lit by Imig and Dewitt. The two could be held responsible for the $8 million cost of fighting the fire and each faces eight criminal counts in connection with the 7,200-acre fire that destroyed 55 homes and 44 other structures in Willow.

Although fewer than a dozen of the homes lost to the fire belonged to mushers, sled-dog teams and mushers garnered the lion’s share of media coverage and donations in the aftermath.

Musher Elliot Anderson was commercial fishing with Mike Jonrowe and had everything he owned stored in a vehicle parked at Mike and Dee Dee’s kennel. During the evacuation effort, Anderson’s keys could not be located and his car burned.

The fire also damaged kennels operated by Jenny Evans and Nic Petit, Mille Porsild, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Lashock. In his role with the Willow Fire Department, Capt. Leo

Lashock was among the first to arrive on-scene at the Sockeye Fire. According to Jamie West, secretary for the Willow Dog Mushers Association (WDMA), a non-profit organization with 60 members, Lashock didn’t go home to save personal items. Instead, he called his neighbors, the Boeves, and asked them to evacuate his dogs.

The Sockeye Fire is the second wildfire to impact the Mat-Su Borough in Southcentral Alaska in the past 20 years.

Many in the Mat-Su recall a similar warm day in June 1996, when winds and low humidity coaxed the Miller’s Reach Fire into a raging inferno that consumed more than 37,000 acres and 344 structures.

The Miller’s Reach Fire forced four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr. and many other mushers to evacuate their kennels. Back then, Buser loaded his dogs in a skiff and paddled them to an island in the middle of a lake.

For the Sockeye Fire, Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel, which is about 20 miles south of Willow, was an evacuation site for several hundred dogs from at least four other kennels.

Fire burned along both sides of the Parks Highway as two generations of the Norris family followed an Alaska State Trooper into the Serendipity Heights neighborhood to help evacuate kennels.

Third-generation musher and Iditarod veteran Lisbet Skogen Norris says the community’s emergency planning and the legion of good neighbors contributed to the safe evacuation of more than 1,000 sled dogs.

High fire danger that summer had prompted West to invite Darla Erskine, an animal-shelter officer for the borough, to speak to the WDMA about the new kennel-license requirements initiated by Halter. The requirements were so new, she said, that none of the mushers at the meeting that night had filed evacuation plans with the borough.

“But, I’m sure they left with that in the back of their minds,” West said.

Big Lake Sockeye fire fundraiser

At the same meeting JP Norris, Lisbet’s father, also offered the family’s feed-and-mushing-supply store, Underdog Feeds in Meadow Lakes, as an emergency-evacuation location. So when the Sockeye Fire took off, the Norris family pitched in. After six hours of waiting to get through the roadblock on the Parks Highway, they reached the Serendipity Heights neighborhood around 7 p.m., but no teams remained to evacuate. Lisbet’s parents headed back to their store.

Several teams were already taking shelter at the shop when they arrived. Before the ordeal ended, about 500 sled dogs had been evacuated to the store’s four-acre, fenced lot. JP Norris and his wife, Kari Skogen, are on the board of WDMA nd part of its emergency preparation committee. Offering the store as an evacuation site just made sense, she said.

“These are customers and friends of ours,” Skogen said. “The mushing community is very small. We all know everybody.”

In the spirit of neighbor helping neighbor, some people rushed home to find that friends and neighbors had already moved their dogs to safety, which left time to grab their mushing gear and other items, Lisbet said.

In addition to the nearly 1,500 sled dogs, more than 40 horses, numerous alpacas, goats, sheep, other livestock and various household pets—including at least one parrot—were safely evacuated to Underdog and Happy Trails Kennel. West said she and her husband, their 26 dogs, two horses and one cat were part of the menagerie at Underdog.

“We camped and sweated and worried over each other for three days,” she said. “Then, some of us got to return to our homes. Some returned to ashes.”

The fire affected the whole community in one way or another, Lisbet said. She credits emergency crews, and the community’s focus on preparedness, good communication and teamwork for safely evacuating the thousands of people and animals in the path of the fire.

“I am so proud to be a member of this community. And I am proud to be a member of the mushing community,” Lisbet wrote on her blog.

Krista and James Fee learned firsthand about the holes in Alaska’s safety net when a house fire destroyed their home in October 2014. “There was nothing there for us,” she said.

After living in a camper parked in a family member’s driveway for six months, the couple moved into a small house. They plan to clean up their old place, build a small cabin and sell it—someday.

That plan is on hold for now, along with Krista’s university coursework and their business, Sahara Storm Productions, which teaches circus, aerial and pole fitness classes.

At first, during the Sockeye Fire, she was couriering food and water to firefighters and cleaning up after sled dogs at Buser’s kennel.

There, a chance encounter with Justin High set her on a new path.

Faced with rebuilding from a fire for a second time in six months, Justin told Krista he felt like he’d failed his family.

“No, you didn’t, and we can fix this,” she said. “So what will it take to fix this?”

Although the Red Cross and Salvation Army helped with immediate disaster response, no group in Willow was organized to lead a months-long recovery effort. Residents saw the void and started Willow Recovery Team, which is an interagency coalition of non-profit and state agencies chaired by Dan Wilcox that disperses donations to the community. It works closely with the Willow Community Rebuild project— the all-volunteer effort Krista started to rebuild homes for the seven families that were uninsured or underinsured and left homeless by the fire.

Krista started the rebuild group with her mother-in-law, well-known Alaska author and longtime friend to the mushing community, Helen Hegener. Thus far, volunteers have logged more than 6,000 hours, and cash and in-kind donations have totaled $500,000.

“This is an amazing community,” Krista said. “I had no idea how far it was going to go.”

The first house was framed and the project was already running out of money when a well-timed donation from the WDMA restored momentum.

Willow Community Rebuild’s goal is for all seven families to be able to move into their new homes this winter while volunteers continue working on the interiors.

“Everywhere I go, people are hugging me,” Krista said. “We’re family now.”

It will take four or five years to repair all of the damage in Willow caused by the fire. But house fires and other emergencies happen all the time, she said. That’s why Krista plans to make the Willow Community Rebuild project permanent.

Disasters from forest fires to flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are all reasons Krista encourages families to pack and maintain a “go bag” filled with necessities and to create emergency-evacuation plans. She said people should also know what their fire insurance requires in terms of documentation for loss claims.

She suggested people make an inventory of what they own and store it with other important paperwork and valuables in a safe-deposit box.

“Insurance companies don’t tell you up front you’ll need that list—and photo documentation—to collect on your policy after a fire,” Krista said.

In Cle Elum, Washington, musher Connie Starr saw news of the Sockeye Fire on Facebook and approached other members of Northwest Sled Dog Association about organizing a fundraiser to help. Their effort donated $30,000 to the recovery.

Across the pond, musher and Arctic researcher Rob Cooke started the Facebook group Willow Fire Support Group UK. Its online auction raised another $65,000.

Starr said the fundraiser was personal to her. She’s worked as a handler for Jan Steves during the Iditarod the past few years and plans to use her airline miles to return to Alaska to work this year’s race, too.

“When you live in the woods, fire is a real danger that never leaves your mind,” Starr said. “It taught a lot of us a sobering lesson—it doesn’t take much.”

The Red Cross, Salvation Army and United Way also set up donation accounts, as did the WDMA. While the Salvation Army and Red Cross are set up for disaster response, the mushers’ association is not.

Jamie West said the Willow mushers began meeting in 2005 and later formed the 501(c)7 non-profit, to advocate for the mushing way of life. WDMA’s first big project was documenting the trails in the area and working with the borough to see that those trails are preserved.

Two members of the association’s board lost their homes in the fire, and a third was out of state for most of the summer. So West took on the job of tracking fire donations as they were received. She said funds donated for specific mushers were accounted for separately from money donated to benefit the whole community.

“To have donor intent followed was a biggie,” she said.

Without the financial support Willow mushers received, it would have taken years to afford to replace the gear they lost, and get back on the trail, West said.

The first funds were dispersed to mushers directly affected by the fire to provide for the immediate need of housing and dog care.

“You just can’t move to a motel or friend’s house with 40 or so dogs,” West said.

Thus far, the Willow Dog Mushers Association has distributed about $160,000 in donations, most of that directly to the Willow Recovery Team and the Willow Community Rebuild project.

Although news coverage and fundraising efforts during the fire and recovery processes focused primarily on mushers and their teams, the Sockeye Fire touched the whole community, Lisbet said.

Many community members who helped evacuate kennels prioritized the safety of sled dogs over saving their own valuables, she said.

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race CEO Stan Hooley said seeing the support lavished on Willow from mushers and racing fans worldwide was an affirmation of the special bond fans and mushers share. By necessity, things work a bit differently in the world of competitive sled-dog racing, he said. In a sport where Mother Nature is the fiercest adversary, mushers help each other, whether during a training run or a race.

“People can be so competitive, but when something like this happens it’s ‘What do you need?'” he said.

In early November, Iditarod race director and marshal Mark Nordman checked up on the Willow mushers who were most heavily impacted by the fire. Although the rebuilding effort has slowed training efforts for some mushers, no teams were forced to drop out of the 2016 Iditarod because of the fire.

Although mushers did manage to save their teams, many lost some of their expensive mushing gear such as parkas, sleds and gang lines, Nordman said. Some mushers also lost mementos such as the Iditarod finisher’s buckle, which racers receive at the culmination of their rookie races.

Iditarod staff worked with the Nome Kennel Club to replace the finishers’ buckles Chlupach and Jonrowe lost in the fire. The Nome club also helped musher Steve Watkins replace his finisher’s buckle after it was swept away in an avalanche on Mount Everest in April 2015.

All in all, Nordman and Hooley say adversity is an inextricable part of mushing.

“It’s amazing how resilient they are,” Nordman said. “This is what they do.”

“It’s a tough situation, but they came out of it stronger,” Hooley said.

fireweed