It's strange how devastating the domino effect can be sometimes, how an action as seemingly harmless as a late-night cigarette break on the balcony can snowball into 18 people losing their homes.
On the evening of March 9, a woman living on the second story of a Kenai's Bay Arms apartment building went out to her porch for a smoke and started that chain reaction. She finished her cigarette, extinguished the smoldering remains in a flowerpot, and went back inside.
And as Wednesday's night crept toward Thursday's morning, something ignited. Flames took hold in the container and licked the balcony before slithering to the wall and climbing upward to the attic.
Kenai and Nikiski firefighters arrived just after midnight as the residents of the 10 evacuated units huddled in the heated laundry room across the street and looked on. No one was hurt. But unit eight - the woman's unit - and its neighbor were completely destroyed, and the rest of the building was deemed unlivable due to extensive smoke and water damage.
Craig Fanning from the Salvation Army arrived with a van, piled in those who elected not to drive themselves, and shuttled them to the Alaska King's Inn where rooms provided by the Red Cross awaited them.
"'There's a room for everybody over there for the night,'" Joseph Skowyra remembered Fanning telling him. "'We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow.'"
Altogether, 18 people were displaced in this town where the Red Cross packed up and left four years ago due to budget cuts. The Salvation Army, the five active Red Cross volunteers still on the Peninsula, and other random organizations can only offer so much, and the different financial and social circumstances surrounding these individuals affect the avenues they are able to pursue.
"I've called the Eagles and the Elks trying to get them emergency funding and grants," said Claudia Lemme, a caregiver for one of the ousted residents, of the efforts she has made to secure resources ranging from money to laundry detergent.
"There's just nothing in this town for them."
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Mike Delk, Julie Roche, and Roche's boyfriend are sharing a single room at Kenai's Merit Inn. The three had not even lived in their Bay Arms apartment for a week when the fire happened.
The morning after the blaze, Phyllis Hagen, the Red Cross' manager for the Southcentral region, and Brittany Davis, a disaster specialist volunteer, flew down from Anchorage to start the mountains of paperwork and interviews to begin files on people like Delk and Roche.
The Red Cross is an immediate response organization, and it provides victims with three necessities following a disaster: food, shelter, and clothing. There is a standardized list for how much these things cost and how much money they can provide people with so they can replace the things they have lost.
Delk, Roche and Roche's boyfriend received $455 between the three of them. They were able to recover many of their possessions after the blaze, and since they had just moved in, they had not yet completely furnished the apartment.
"I hadn't even moved in my things from my storage unit," Roche said, pointing out the positive side of the situation. "But now I'm homeless."
The Red Cross is also paying for Delk's medications -- he has Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome in his neck, and fractured cup in left hip -- and is putting the three up at the Merit Inn for several more weeks or until a unit in a different Bay Arms building opens up.
Jeanette Staudenmaier, who had lived in the complex for three years, is still at the King's Inn. She is physically disabled and her care coordinator, Lemme, has been trying to get the word out to the community that these people need help.
"What we need help with is moving into new apartments," Lemme said. "Laundry, laundry soap; everything has to be washed. We need help packing, and throwing away the ruined stuff."
All of the cloth furniture -- couches, recliners, mattresses -- needs to be disposed of, and the surviving belongings need to be removed and scrubbed down before they can be placed anywhere else.
When that "anywhere else" becomes available, though, is a question that still hangs heavy in the air.
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Skowyra is one of the lucky ones, although he refuses to attribute his good fortune to something as nebulous and unreliable as luck.
The Navy veteran and 22-year-old son Corey left the King's Inn the morning after the fire and headed to the American Legion for coffee. They sipped their drinks and chatted with other members, and when Skowyra mentioned the fire and that their apartment had been condemned, the Ladies Auxiliary chimed in to lend a helping hand.
"All of a sudden the Lady's Auxiliary just stepped up and said, 'Well, we'll cover you for a few days over at the Aspen,'" he said. "No luck about it. It's people helping people."
A couple of days later, Skowyra got more good news: he and his son would be able to move into another unit in a different Bay Arms building.
So far, the complex's owners Brad and Pete Cherier and manager Pam Reimer have been able to re-house the inhabitants from four of the 10 damaged units. They have also refunded the rent for all of the days these people are out of a place to live.
Shane Scott, the maintenance manager for the Bay Arms, worked tirelessly all last weekend with Reimer and the Cheriers to get any and all vacant units ready for occupation. They painted, remodeled, and installed new plumbing and electrical wiring as fast as they could so at least some of the fire victims would have a place to go.
"We have done lots of work," said Scott. "The management, owners, and I have been working our butts off to make what we can happen."
All of the Bay Arms structures are full now, so people not as lucky as Skowyra, such as Delk and Roche, will either have to wait for something to open up or find another place to live.
Skowyra still has to replace most of his furniture and trash a considerable amount of his belongings, but he is taking the situation all in stride:
"You gotta put it in perspective," he said. "I don't get myself stressed out about these things. Your car breaks down, you get it fixed. Getting all stressed over it isn't going to get it fixed. It takes somebody to get in there turning wrenches to get it fixed.
"We're turning wrenches right now, that's all."
Karen Garcia can be reached at email@example.com.
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