Jackson Meyer surveys his family's cabin in the Caribou Hills on Tuesday night after property owners were allowed into the burned area for a look at their land. A melted roof and a kitchen sink were about the only recognizable items left of the Meyer's cabin.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Blackened pilings guard an overturned propane stove, charred microwave and other mangled appliances scattered in a pool of shattered glass and crumbled dry wall. What used to be the family’s 13-year-old recreational cabin now stands in a sea of scorched grass that turns to ash under foot.
But even as he surveyed the wreckage, Jackson Meyer, axe in hand, was prepared to scout out another spot to rebuild.
“We’ll clear all this out with a bulldozer,” Meyer said, pointing at his cabin, “(and) pick a new spot.”
Cabin owners share stories and worries as they wait Tuesday night for the roadblock to be lifted at the end of the pavement on Oil Well Road in Ninilchik. Forestry officials closed the road last week to aid efforts to fight the Caribou Hills fire. Many did not know for sure what they would find at their cabins and residences.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Jackson and Kandi Meyer bought their Caribou Hills property and built their cabin as newlyweds in 1993. Jackson, who stayed at friends’ cabins as a kid, wanted a place for his children, Kelsey, Trent and Kamry, to sled, snowmachine and spend time with mom and dad.
“(We have) good quality family time,” Jackson said. “You can’t replace that.”
A thick cloud of dust followed a convoy of vehicles up Oil Well Road Tuesday night as residents penetrated the still-smoking Caribou Hills in order to salvage what was left of their cabins. Jennifer Yuhas, a fire information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry, said roughly 92 cars in a 15 minute period passed through the checkpoint where asphalt gives way to gravel. The fire destroyed 88 cabins and residences and 109 outbuildings, she said.
Jamey Guertin and Ryan Owens prepare to head into the burned area to check their property Tuesday night as the Union Hot Shots firefighting squad from La Grande, Ore., marches into their camp after laboring on the fire.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“The crews are looking for hot spots and soaking things that they find within (the) perimeter,” Yuhas said.
With 588 people working the fire, Yuhas said it reached 55,265 acres and is 61 percent contained as of Wednesday afternoon. Public meetings aren’t planned for the near future and Oil Well Road will continue to open for residents unless something changes, Mary Huels, another fire information officer, said.
Diane Bush, Cheryl Conte, Del Sanders, Bob Walker and Pete Granger have spent time at each others’ cabin at least once. Though emotions were high, they stood around cracking jokes about the various nicknames each person uses and reminiscing about a tree decked out in liquor bottles affectionately dubbed the “Tinkle Tree.”
“(We’re) just one big family up there,” Bush said. “Some of us might not be there.”
Though many are planning to rebuild, there has been some question as to whether or not those who lease their property from the state would be able to. Ken Diamond and Jeanette Tuttle have used their cabin for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s since 1980 as a way for their family to get away for vacation. Diamond said he’s already started drawing up plans for a new one, but is unsure if he’ll be able to build it according to his permit.
“Support from politicians would be great,” he said.
Mike Sullivan, Department of Natural Resources manager for the Southcentral region, said the 60 or so residents who have cabins on leased land will have an opportunity to rebuild, but they can’t relocate or enlarge their cabins. DNR will contact people to find out what their situation is.
“We’re hoping to get down there once fire suppression activity has let up a little bit,” Sullivan said. “We do have what we think is a good list of permittees.”
As residents continue to return to their cabins, the Red Cross will be on hand to provide snacks, cleaning kits and water. Amy Danzl, the disaster response specialist for the Ninilchik area, said the Red Cross’s Emergency Response Vehicle was on hand until 2 a.m. Wednesday.
“The majority of what we encountered last night was recreational structures,” she said, adding that they did come across a few primary residences. “It was interesting to see, but we’re glad to be there and to be able to support the residents working on their homes.”
The Red Cross will also be at the Ninilchik Senior Center to assist permanent residents with food, clothing, shelter, counseling services and basic health care needs such as prescriptions and glasses.
“We want to get the word out that we’re here and available,” Danzl said. “So far we haven’t run into too many people.”
As the Meyers stood looking at their cabin and figuring out what to do next, friends and neighbors rode in on four-wheelers. Scott Best and his wife Sheila, who also lost their cabin, shook hands and exchanged hugs with Jackson and Kandi.
“We all come up as a big extended family,” Sheila said.
Her father, Freddie Pollard, built the cabin she and Scott use in 1982, Sheila said. Pollard, who is able to watch his grandchildren play, said his kids were still little when he built the cabin.
“There’s lots of room to play,” Pollard said. “It brings everybody together.”
Pollard said he built his cabin out of plywood and garage-sale material and plans to do so again.
“We’re going to regroup and replan and build it better,” he said. “It’s like a phoenix, it’ll burn and come back better.”
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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