Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — A steady stream of evacuees headed westward down Chena Hot Springs Road on Sunday — some with two legs, some with four — fleeing an advancing wildfire that threatened hundreds of homes.
Hours after the Fairbanks North Star Borough issued an evacuation notice from 18 Mile to 34 Mile along the road, the traffic began to swell at the Tanana Valley State Fairgrounds, the designated drop-off spot for displaced pets and livestock.
Borough animal control personnel checked in dozens of dogs and cats, housing them in makeshift kennels or stalls while their owners sought shelter elsewhere. Displaced sled dog teams filled a back lot, and horses, goats and even a small flock of turkeys were tucked into various pens. Officials were expecting some cattle to show up later that evening.
Meg Oeckinghaus, who lives near 16.5 Mile with two roommates, had delivered nine dogs and 14 cats to the fairgrounds on Sunday afternoon. One of her roommates was about to begin a cruise in New York. The other, on kidney dialysis, needed to have all her medical equipment squeezed into a Jeep and transported to town, she told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
The process was both hectic and surprisingly routine, Oeckinghaus said. Their home is also located near last month’s now-dormant Kanuti fire, and it’s the third time in recent weeks they’ve moved their pets or belongings.
“It’s been a little frazzling,” Oeckinghaus said with a weak smile. “But we’ve got it pretty well down pat. We’ve had some dry runs.”
It’s the nature of a hot, dry Fairbanks summer ripe with wildfire danger.
Even after 18 years as a Chena Hot Springs Road resident, Charlotte Carpenter said, it’s been a new experience. The threat of wildfires is a common theme for residents in the wooded area, but Carpenter said she’s never evacuated her home before.
Carpenter, whose son and daughter also live in a threatened stretch near Pleasant Valley, arrived at Weller Elementary School on Sunday with two hastily loaded pickups. She said it was heartbreaking to leave her house, not knowing when — or if — she’d be able to see it again.
Carpenter said this fire feels different and more serious. Flames could be seen from parts of Chena Hot Springs Road on Sunday, she said, and the skies were so dark, “you can’t hardly see your hand in front of your face.”
“We’ve gone through fires every summer, but absolutely nothing like this,” she said.
William Montgrain and Susan McMahon, who live at 20 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road, agreed. They dropped their cats off at the emergency shelter on Sunday afternoon, leaving home with their pets and little else.
Soon after stepping outside that morning, McMahon said, she knew the situation was serious.
“I think I could tell by the sky today,” she said. “When I saw it, we started putting things in the car.”
Despite the constant flow of vehicles on Chena Hot Springs Road, there was barely any activity at most of the borough’s designated shelters.
An emergency overnight refuge at Weller Elementary School was mostly unused by early Sunday evening, and a spot for parking vehicles and equipment at West Valley High School was empty.
Fairbanks North Star Borough spokeswoman Sallie Stuvek said the lack of activity at those locations is encouraging. The borough issued an evacuation watch last Tuesday, which probably gave people time to make plans to stay with friends or relatives, Stuvek said.
Various area churches and the University of Alaska Fairbanks were also offering shelter to displaced residents.
“I think the fact that we were able to put out that alert gave residents a chance to prepare,” she said. “That doesn’t always happen.”
Stuvek said it appears most homeowners in the area were heeding the evacuation notice. The ominous black skies above the area and the buzz of firefighting activity have underscored the situation, she said.
“I think people who are out in the middle of it are taking things pretty seriously,” Stuvek said.
The emergency shelter for animals was set up on Wednesday at the Tanana Valley State Fairgrounds. A small number of pets began arriving almost immediately.
Natelege Zaritz, who lives near 21 Mile, visited her 11 cats — six adults and five kittens — at the shelter on Sunday. She dropped the brood off earlier in the week, spurred to action by a vivid dream of a wildfire in her neighborhood.
“It was so intense,” she said. “I woke up with my heart pounding.”
Zaritz and her son were camping out nearby — close enough to be near their pets, but far from their endangered home.
Borough animal control manager Sandy Besser said she hoped the pet-boarding program was helping residents in Zaritz’s position during a tough time.
“I’m hoping it will take a worry off their minds,” she said. “They’ve got other things to worry about.”