Michael Christian lost nearly all of his possessions in a fire that destroyed a home on Sport Lake earlier this month.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Tragedy can take many forms, but few can be as difficult to overcome as losing everything to fire.
Assault victims have the safety, security and comfort of their homes to see refuge in, but house fire victims lose their sanctuary.
Victims of burglary or theft may have to replace a few items, while house fire victims must replace everything.
Even those who have endured losing a loved one may rely on album photos to help them pull through, but house fire victims have no photos to reminisce over.
For fire victims all that remains is the foul smell of smoke emanating from the charred remains of their possessions and the deep feeling of anguish over the loss of literally everything.
Michael Christian, along with several other tenants of a multistory house that overlooked Sport Lake, lost everything but the clothes on his back when fire consumed the building Nov. 14. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
“I was in total shock the first couple of days,” Christian said about a week after the fire.
“People keep telling me the important thing is I’m alive, but living isn’t always enough. With something like this, you lose part of your identity and lose things that you gained happiness through. It’s hard, very hard,” he said.
For those who have never had to cope with this type of tragedy, it may be difficult to fathom all that is lost.
Items that get used daily or that financially would cost a lot to replace may initially jump to mind.
The wide-screen plasma television, computer and other electronic devices all gone. So are the refrigerator, washing machine, dryer and other appliances. All that remains of clothes, from shorts and T-shirts for summer wear to puffy down coats to keep warm in winter, is ash.
Feelings of loss keep coming as items not used daily eventually come to mind, like the expensive power tools in the garage, the yearbooks or other keepsakes from youth tucked away in a box in the basement, and the photo albums with the pictures of graduations, weddings and holidays.
Birth certificates, wedding licenses, passports, Social Security cards, tax returns, deeds and titles all are gone forever. And each are difficult to replace without the others.
This is the loss that Christian now knows.
“I know I lost everything, but every day I come to a greater realization of what I actually lost,” he said.
With each passing day, Christian remembers more things that are gone forever. Many of the possessions he feels the deepest loss over weren’t material items, he said.
Many were sentimental things, such as baby pictures and school crafts created by Christian’s 4-year-old son, Ross.
“There were pictures that he drew that I thought were masterpieces, and now they’re gone. They didn’t cost much, but they meant more to me than most other things,” he said.
Before settling down on the Kenai Peninsula several years ago, Christian was well traveled. He made many good friends along the way that now he fears he may have lost contact with as a result of the fire.
“My address book was burned up and it had the contact information for friends from Europe, the Middle East and other places I’ve lived like Hawaii and Montana.
“There’s no way I can get a lot of those numbers and addresses back. More than half of the people in that book I’ll never hear from or see again now,” he said.
Christian also lived a pragmatic lifestyle and favored getting his food by living off the land, but the fire claimed many of the tools necessary for him to do so.
“Necessities are different for everyone. I do a lot of fishing and hunting instead of going to the grocery store, so to me a rifle and fishing pole are necessities.
“I lost my hunting rifle, the best rifle I ever had in my life,” Christian said.
There’s more to it than just coming up with the $500 to $800 to purchase a new gun. No two rifles are exactly the same, and like many seasoned hunters would attest, he said a proven rifle is even more difficult to replace.
“That’s something you can’t just go out and buy again,” he said.
Christian also lost his fishing tackle to flames. Beyond using it to catch meals, he said these items held sentimental value for him.
“My fishing gear was passed down to me from my grandparents, who I used to fish with on a daily basis growing up. It’s all I had left of them and it’s all gone,” he said.
While not as priceless and irreplaceable as the sentimental possessions lost, some material items will be difficult to substitute.
Christian suffers a vision impairment known as macular degeneration. Equipment to help him see and function on a daily basis was lost in the fire.
“Without my assistive technology I can only see clearly six inches from my face,” he said. Things get progressively blurry the further away they are.
Christian said the technology, including an electronic magnifier, closed-circuit camera and software for his laptop computer with screen reading capabilities, will cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to replace.
But these aren’t items that are carried in Fred Meyer, Radio Shack or other stores that sell electronic equipment.
Many of the items will have to come from specialized institutions, such as the Assistive Technology of Alaska an Anchorage-based organization that connects Alaskans who have disabilities with the tools they need to participate in community life safely and independently.
Christian said he isn’t sure how he will do it, but replacing these items is a priority.
“I use it in everyday life, so I’ve got to try and figure out a solution to get those things again,” he said.
Christian said he also is deeply devoted to his work. He is a Dena’ina language specialist at Kenai Peninsula College and a sound engineer with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.
A large portion of his job entails restoration, editing and digitization of analog audio tapes, many of which feature Native elders speaking and reading elders who have long since died.
“I need the assistive technology for everything, but as it relates to my work, most of what I do is computer-based, so I’m crippled without it,” he said.
While Christian said it will be a long road to recover from his losses, he is at least starting to move in the right direction.
“The first two days were total shock, followed by sadness, followed by deeper sadness. It’s only in the last few days do I feel I’m starting to move forward. I realized I can’t just wallow in sorrow or it won’t get any better,” he said.
Christian knew people in the area who gave him a place to stay until he gets back on his feet. Friends and coworkers chipped in to get him clothes. The Red Cross also lent Christian and the other tenants of the building several forms of aid.
“Red Cross response to disaster, particularly home fires, has risen sharply the last few months,” said Kelly Hurd, director of development and marketing for the Red Cross of Alaska.
On average 3.5 Alaskans each day lose everything they own due to a house fire, Hurd said. This is a typical pattern from October to January, as people begin heating their homes with the onset of cold weather, she said.
“Last month alone, the Red Cross has helped 21 families, 65 people, who have been devastated by a house fire,” she said.
More than $17,000 in direct financial assistance was given to these people. This assistance typically consists of money to pay for new clothing, food, immediate shelter, medication and first month’s rent.
Hurd pointed out that while many mistakingly assume this money comes to the Red Cross through the government, in actuality no money from the government is received.
“One hundred percent of the funds used to provide emergency assistance comes from our generous fellow Alaskans throughout the state,” she said.
An account, called the Christian-Mitchell-Felton Relief Fund, has been set up through the Kenaitze Indian Tribe to assist Christian and his roommates. Donations are welcome. For more information, call 283-3633.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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