Lodge owners turn threatened structure into fire refugee center

Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Angel Creek Lodge turned into a refugee camp of people unwilling to idly stand by Saturday while a fire threatened to destroy their cabins near the end of Chena Hot Springs Road.

Lodge owners Steve and Annette Verbanec tried to offer help for the loosely knit group of cabin owners while they, too, were trying to calm their fears as ashy needles and debris started falling in the parking lot midday Saturday.

A few hours later, the phone line to the lodge burned, making it impossible to send reports to Fairbanks, where people were waiting for news about those living or vacationing in a spattering of cabins throughout the wooded area. The Verbanecs were hoping someone would donate a satellite phone to set up communication besides sending messages through people traveling up and down the road.

Pete Buist, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry said 50 residences plus 20 other buildings such as barns, sheds, outhouses and caches, were threatened by the fire, which jumped Chena Hot Springs Road several times between Miles 52 and 55 and jumped the river later in the evening.

Two Pinkerton Security Services guards set up a roadblock trying to keep people from venturing past Mile 50. They turned back many tourists and didn't have many problems, but there were a few who wouldn't stop.

''I said, 'Here's my name, here's my license plate, I'm going through,''' said Todd Mackinaw after he returned from his cabin on the south side of the road.

Mackinaw cleared brush and trees around the cabin, which was one of four that until Saturday hadn't been threatened by the fire. He set up a detailed map and a flag at the end of the drive into the cluster of cabins. He also dug a trench around the cabin.

''It's pitiful,'' he said. ''It's four feet wide. It might stop a cigarette butt.''

When he left the cabin, the fire was 200 to 300 feet away, with firefighters at the scene. Later, he was allowed to go back and check his cabin. When he returned, he said ''it was hot,'' but the fire had burned around his cabin, leaving it untouched.

Fire Safety Officer Matt Cnudde said the scariest part about the fire is the number of houses in the woods, and many of them without a space cleared around them that would enable firefighters to defend them.

Cnudde set up a meeting at Angel Creek Lodge with homeowners Saturday evening to discuss firefighters' efforts and to keep people calm. ''People do funny things when they're nervous,'' he said.



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