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Mom, son narrowly escape devastating Nikiski house fire

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2006

From the way her three Labrador retrievers were acting, Gail Bacarella said she should have known something was wrong.

“They were doing that thing, you know, where they put their head on your lap, and the one was nudging his nose up against me,” she said.

“It wasn’t that they needed to go out, they weren’t bringing their ball or toy wanting to play and it wasn’t time to eat.”

The unusual behavior went on for nearly an hour March 25, and the customarily calm, easy-going Bacarella was beginning to become annoyed.

“I was cooking brunch, and my 11-year-old said, ‘Mom, the windows are making a weird noise,’” she said.

She went to the window of her Nikiski home and heard a whistling sound as if the wind were blowing through, but when she looked outside, “not a single thing was blowing,” she said.

Bacarella went toward the back half of the modular home and as she opened the door separating front from back, a 20-foot long tongue of fire raced across the ceiling, singeing her hair and slightly burning her face.

She instinctively went to brush the flame from her face and in so doing, knocked off her glasses.

“I told my 11-year-old to find the phone and call 911,” she said.

The back of the home was on fire, flames already having burned through the roof.

Bacarella and her son, Grey, headed for the front door with the three dogs at close quarters.

All made it out safely.

“There was so much going on in just three minutes,” she said.

Because Bacarella has been experiencing debilitating foot problems since last summer, her truck was parked right at the front door of the burning home.

“I had no keys,” she said.

They were on the kitchen table, right inside a slightly open window.

Bacarella climbed on top of a chest freezer kept outside the window and began reaching in when she saw Grey go toward the door, apparently on his way back into the home.

“I tackled him off the porch and told him he must listen to me and not try to go back into the house,” she said.

She put Grey and the dogs into a small sedan parked in the driveway.

“In that split second, I lost the chance to get the truck keys,” she said.

Bacarella then sent Grey to some rental cabins her former husband, Gary Bacarella, owned about 100 yards away, to get him and her 20-year-old son, Arleigh, who had been there doing chores.

Gary Bacarella came with a 3/4-ton pickup and somehow managed to tow the heavier 1-ton away from the building and out of the way of arriving fire trucks, even though her larger truck was still in park.

The Nikiski Fire Department, which got the first call at 10:53 a.m., responded with seven vehicles, according to Chief Fred Swen, including one pumper, two tankers and an ambulance.

“The fire was already venting when the first truck arrived,” said Swen, meaning flames were coming through the roof.

Firefighters managed to knock down the flames within 20 minutes, but the fire continued flaring up from hidden spots between the ceiling and roof of the 30 by 70-foot modular house.

Bacarella said she feels fortunate the fire did not start during the night.

“The way my curtains were blowing in (when she first went to the window), I know it was burning a long time, sucking oxygen.

“Had it been at night, we wouldn’t have known it,” she said.

As it was, the home was destroyed, yet firemen were able to save some possessions.

“Gary Hyatt couldn’t have acted in a more professional, compassionate manner,” Bacarella said of one of the responding Nikiski firemen who saved several items from the home as safety concerns would allow.

“They saved my file books, a fair amount of important papers and my lapidary stones,” she said, of business records, birth certificates and some jewelry-making gear brought out of the burning home.

After many years of hunting, packing and outfitting, carrying heavy loads of gear, Bacarella was diagnosed with multiple bone fractures in her feet last Christmas and was just getting a jewelry design business off the ground.

At 48, the former guide and Fireweed Herb Garden greenhouse manager is not ready for retirement yet.

“I’m way too capable to be retired,” she said. “I’m very capable of making living.”

Now, though, all her equipment, a radial saw-like cutter and six-inch wheel diamond grit grinder are gone, burned up in the fire.

She also lost a jeweler’s torch — a specialty tool with tiny tips — that she just bought.

“It wasn’t even out of the package,” she said Friday.

As far as food and clothing, Bacarella said she and her two boys are doing very well.

“The community has been so good. People brought me a bar of soap and a robe that evening. That is just so thoughtful,” she said. “We live in the best place.”

Because she did not have homeowner’s insurance, and Medicaid will not pay for a visit to a podiatry specialist, Bacarella said she is in need of help replacing the lapidary equipment, “and whatever building supplies people might have laying around.”

For right now, she and her sons are living in one of the rental cabins, and she hopes to rebuild on the property in the Peninsula Park Estates subdivision.

Nikiski is home to Bacarella, who grew up on Daniels Lake and attended Nikiski Elementary School. She also attended Kenai High School for a time, before her geologist father was transferred and she eventually graduated from high school in Eagle River.

On Friday, her former husband was at the home helping move the few salvageable items and replacing the melted cord on the freezer she had tried climbing onto.

A friend was in the yard working to get a car running so she could run her errands more comfortably than in the big truck.

Other neighbors called on the phone to see if she was all right. Where the community could not help, the American Red Cross did.

“The Red Cross fit in a slot that the others just couldn’t at the time,” she said.

“Annette’s been so cool,” Bacarella said of Annette Hakkinen, director of the Kenai Peninsula District of American Red Cross of Alaska.

“Her knowledge of where to go to find stuff ... she got (replacement) glasses for me and Arleigh,” she said.

Besides the glasses, the Red Cross provided food and clothing for the family as well as bedding and linens, Hakkinen said.

Of the fire, Bacarella said, “It’s like part of the boat ride. It’s a problem, but you don’t leave the boat.”



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