But our return trip, with timing carefully considered so we could get home in time for a decent sleep before my husband headed to work early on Monday, was abruptly thrown into a tailspin. We had driven more than seven hours that day and were entering pretty familiar territory an hour and a half from home when we turned a corner and saw this:
In other states, a driver may take in that unfortunate news, say a prayer, and then turn around and head through some back roads or jump over to another highway as an alternate route. But this is Alaska. We often do not have that option. A small community such as Willow, where the fire is burning, is outside the bigger towns and has one highway running through it. At the milepost we were stopped at, there were absolutely no through roads to take to get to the other side of the wildfire.
8:10 p.m. ~ We pulled off on a side road to get out of the way of traffic and watch the smoke. We found the Alaska Division of Forestry’s Facebook page and were receiving up-to-date info whenever our phones found a bit of reception. We learned that people in the fire zone had been evacuated, and Red Cross emergency shelters had been set up on both the north and south sides of the wildfire. We began contacting friends who had homes or cabins in the area to see if they had been affected.
A homeowner drove his four-wheeler up near us and we talked to him for a while. He was pretty worried and had gotten his guns, boat, and a few other possessions (Alaskans have obvious priorities) ready so he could evacuate if the winds shifted and came his way.
8:43 p.m. ~ We drove twenty miles or so north to the senior center that had been set up as a Red Cross disaster services shelter. This was my first experience (thankfully) checking in at one of these, and I was so thankful for the volunteers who had been trained to spring into action in situations like this one. After using the restroom and filling up our water bottles, we gave the lady our info and she put it in the pile of people to be contacted if the road opened up.
We didn’t need a place to sleep, as we had our tent and sleeping bags in the car, but my husband and I had a hard time deciding our next move. We could wait it out like most people and could end up sitting there for days with no promise of getting through and getting home. We knew there was always the chance the fire would move away from the edges of the highway and we could get through, but that was a huge unknown. Our other alternative would be to camp somewhere and get some sleep, then drive back the way we had just come from, toward Fairbanks, and take “the other way” home. It would mean fifteen or more hours of driving, but we were pretty sure we could get home and only miss one day of work.
9:15 p.m. ~ We headed down the road to a small grocery store to supplement the food we had and get a few jugs of water. The store stayed open past its normal closing time since so many people needed food, water, coolers, ice, and even bedding. The family behind me in line were visitors to Alaska and had already missed their flight home from Anchorage. All four of them were gearing up to sleep in the car if they needed to, since there was nothing else they could do.
9:37 p.m. ~ We filled our cooler with ice and some more food and then got ready to start driving north. While we were still in the parking lot, I almost burst into tears as a lady pulled up next to us with her two cats in the car. I was reminded of how tragic this was for people who lived in the evacuation zone or nearby, who had to choose the most valuable things they owned (often pets and pictures) and leave their house with no knowledge of whether they’d ever return to it still standing. I knew my troubles caused by this fire were small compared to the troubles for the residents of the area.
9:50 p.m. ~ We began driving north to head back to the campground we’d camped at Friday night, and about twenty miles in I pulled the car over and questioned whether we really, truly, certainly should commit to driving FIFTEEN hours around or whether we should take the risk and wait it out in hopes of the highway opening. We debated and finally decided to camp closer to Willow and get up early in the morning to see if they’d opened the road.
In four hours, the fire had almost quadrupled in size and had burned over four thousand acres.
10:30 p.m. ~ We drove back to mile 79, where we’d been stopped the first time, to watch the smoke and maybe get more info. I really wanted to stay and just get our car in the two-mile line that was waiting to be let through. From my childhood in Oregon, I’m no stranger to terrible, huge wildfires, Once I was let through a road that had active burning right next to it, so I knew they could possibly open this highway if the conditions were right. It was a huge gamble, especially since two miles of cars in front of us would go first, and ultimately my husband decided we needed to get some sleep (in our tent and not our car).
The fire had consumed 6,500 acres.
1 a.m. ~ I couldn’t sleep. I had been exhausted in the car, but suddenly my mind wouldn’t shut off.
2 a.m. ~ Still couldn’t sleep.
2:27 a.m. ~ I had been trying to load the Division of Forestry’s Facebook page to see if there were any updates, but my phone had virtually no service. Finally, it connected just enough to update and I saw what had been posted five minutes before—cars were being escorted through in very small numbers! I knew the road could likely be shut down well before it would be our turn, but since neither of us could sleep, I implored that we at least try. We swiftly broke down camp and headed back down the road. As we drove the fifteen miles, being watchful for moose crossing the road, almost all the cars that had been pulled off on the sides of the road were gone. People had gotten word of the opening (I think thanks to Facebook page, which really had the only current news) and were going to take the risk too.
2:45 a.m. ~ We took our place in the back of the line. Knowing where the road had been closed on the north side, we were about two and a quarter miles back. I read they were escorting ten cars through at a time (as well as a few groups on the other side trying to head north, though there would have been far fewer people coming from that direction). My husband calculated and said it could be well over ten hours before our car would even get to the front of the line, and that was if they didn’t close the road again. I looked at our full tank of gas, closed my weary eyes to rest, and prayed. I could do nothing else. My husband couldn’t stand just sitting in the car, so he said he was going to walk to the front and get a better view of what was happening.
3:30 a.m. ~ Two or three groups had come through from the other side, but we had only moved maybe two hundred yards in forty-five minutes. This was not looking promising, but I kept praying for God to make a way through.
4:10 a.m. ~ Still very little progress, and I was getting antsy to have my husband back in the car with me. Suddenly I saw a brand new plume of dark smoke very close to where we were. My heart sank as I thought about new territory catching fire and the likelihood they were going to shut the road again.
4:20 a.m. ~ I called my husband, who had a close view of the action, and he said they had decided to just start letting the whole line through. The cars were too close to the fire, and turning people around would be virtually impossible. He saw how painfully slow the line was moving, though, due to so many parked drivers being asleep and cars going around them or having to honk at them and try to get them moving.
4:45 a.m. ~ It probably took twenty or twenty-five minutes for the forward movement to finally reach my place in line. I still didn’t have my husband in the car, but I eventually saw him walking toward me a little ways up and he jumped in. We were moving!!
4:50 a.m. ~ We entered the fire zone. Police instructed everyone to turn on headlights, and we all put our hazard lights on. The smoke was so thick that I could only really see the flashing lights of the car in front of me. Smoke was pouring from the trees and grass on either side of us, and clumps of flames here and there were visible close-by.
We covered our mouths with our sweatshirts and turned off the air in the car, but the thick smoke still stung my throat and we both were getting headaches. We had miles to go.
Panic was rising in me that the cars in front of us would have to stop and we’d be stuck right in the middle of an active fire zone with no way out. I kept giving that fear to God and stayed focused on driving.
4:57 a.m. More flames and smoke. We could see charred trees all around us, but most of the buildings were set back from the road.
5:03 a.m. ~ We finally reached the other side, where the northbound traffic was being held up and fire-fighting forces had set up a base camp. We felt such relief but also such sadness for this community, especially knowing the fire was still very active and spreading.
5:15 a.m. ~ We made it mostly out of the heavy smoke and were up to speed on the highway. After finding a gas station with a bathroom, we were on our way home. The tiredness was painful, but we kept each other awake and breathed deeply of fresh air.
6:15 a.m. ~ Finally made it home.
This is so, so sad, especially for the people who have lost their homes. Willow is a dog-mushing hub of Alaska, and hundreds of sled dogs had to be evacuated and moved to a few places, including one Iditarod champion’s own kennel that he opened up as a refuge. At least one famous musher has lost her home.
Yesterday, another wildfire started a a few hours south of my home, causing many more people to evacuate to threatening hundreds of homes and buildings. Alaskans are loving these 80+ temperatures, but they are terrible conditions for fighting fires.
I love a good campfire or backyard fire. But negligence can cause unbelievable damage to so many people. I am so sad that at least one and most likely both of these fires could have been prevented, but instead someone's bad choice or lack of attention is causing people to lose everything they own.
To end on a positive note, Alaska is full of tight-knit communities, and seeing how generous people are with complete strangers is heartening. Several places have opened up as refuges for the hundreds of sled dogs and horses that have been displaced. RV parks are offering free spaces for evacuees. Donations are pouring in to the Red Cross and other organizations. People are bringing food and cold water to firefighters. Near the end of this article is a list of organizations accepting monetary or item donations to be delivered to evacuees if anyone is interested in helping.
As tragic as this and all wildfires are, the affected communities will pull through. I'm thankful for the many hardworking firefighters and police officers as well as volunteers and those who are offering all kinds of help for displaced people. I can't wait to see an end to both fires.