Family seeks help after blaze

As flames danced along the top edges of the walls of Chris Miller's trailer, his first thought was of his recently deceased mother. He grabbed her ashes, neglecting all other personal belongings and fled.

The trailer he lived in with his wife Amber was a total loss. Little was salvaged from the modest Nikiski home and since the Feb. 20 blaze, both have bounced around, seeking shelter from the cold nights.

"We slept in a truck one night, which was freezing and uncomfortable," Amber said.

The couple has struggled to regain stability. They sought help from local organizations, as well as concocted their own means for gaining assistance, but they continue to fall short. 

Trent Burnett, Nikiski assistant fire chief, said he arrived on scene five minutes after receiving the emergency call at 3 p.m. Flames were visible bellowing from the eaves and front door.

Sliding snow and ice entered the home's chimney, which broke apart between the roof and interior ceiling. Heat and sparks from a stove fire ignited in the attic, Burnett said.

A burning tile fell from the ceiling and ignited a nearby window curtain. Chris tried to use pots of water to stop the flame -- their fire extinguisher didn't work.

Amber grabbed her cell phone, ran outside to call 911 and noticed the entire roof was engulfed in flames, she said. Later, Amber had an asthma attack and was transported to Central Peninsula Hospital.

"I was going to grab the house phone, but I couldn't find it," she said. "I'm thankful I grabbed my cell now. It's my lifeline. I would've been lost without it."

The small trailer's remains are scattered throughout its exposed interior. The refrigerator is tinted black from smoke, the microwave sits contorted on the kitchen counter and a new leather couch is reduced to an unrecognizable heap in the living room.

Burnett estimates the property loss, excluding personal belongings, at $30,000.

The property was not insured. Chris' mother also did not have life insurance, and the couple recently finished paying off the expenses of her death. The mortgage on the trailer is not fully paid. Amber said they would like to keep the property -- it's home.

Amber has applied for many jobs since the fire. Chris cannot work, as he suffers from pancreatic cancer. He is willing to work, but his gear, like boots and work pants, was lost in the fire.

The couple is staying at an Uncle's lodge, but it's booked for use in the coming months.

An undamaged barn and camper occupy the property. If the couple gathered funds to weatherize the camper it could house them, at least until next winter.

The American Red Cross paid for three nights at a hotel. Trustworthy Hardware in Soldotna donated more than $100 worth of equipment so the Millers could begin to clean their destroyed home. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe also has given emergency assistance, but despite all the help, the couple is struggling to stay afloat.

Amber placed donation jars at local businesses, such as Pizza Hut, King's Treasures Christian Bookstore in Kenai, Blockbusters in Soldotna and Froso's restaurant. She plans to place more.

"We really need as much help as we can get," Amber said. "Anything from building materials to winter clothing."

It is common practice for the fire departments to contact Red Cross following a fire that displaces a person or family. The nonprofit provides temporary shelter, as well as long-term assistance. But for people like the Millers more than temporary housing is needed.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough's Office of Emergency Management offers tools online for fire preparation. Links to checklists and fact sheets to varying agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Red Cross and the National Fire Protection Agency are accessible on the KPB's website.

Individuals in need also can contact local churches for help. The Christian organization Love, INC. of the Kenai Peninsula has provided assistance to the Peninsula's needy since 1987.

Amber said she has struggled to receive assistance from Love, INC. Churches donate money to the organization to help people in need, either suffering from the loss of their home in a fire or basic necessities such as meals.

Amber has called the organization twice and was told to receive clothes from Bishop's Attic in Soldotna and food from the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. She has done both and further requested Love, INC. contact a few churches and ask to hold a fundraiser.

"I was told 'A lot of other people need help too,'" she said. "We're really struggling."

Marti Slater, Love, INC. coordinator, reiterated her statement, lamenting that she wished the organization had "a pot of cash" and a larger staff. She said she has helped families in similar situations in the past. However, the process takes time.

"Very rarely can we get stuff overnight," she said. "We want to help her, and we'll do the best we can. She's high on our priority list."

Slater added that many of the churches working with Love, INC. are small and lack staff.

The "big three" offering help on the Peninsula are Red Cross, Love, INC. and churches, said Brad Nelson, Central Emergency Services responder.

"With Red Cross it's no fuss; we usually get people in to a hotel the same night," he said. "And the churches usually step up a lot."

As of Wednesday evening, a resident donated a $25 gift card to Amber via Love, INC.

A $500 a month mortgage keeps the Millers from holding onto the property. She said she believes any extra aid will help them do so. People can donate money to the Millers through Alaska USA savings account 1156526.  

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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