Fire on the River

Jeff purchased his property on the Susitna in 1987.  It took 3 years to clear the land and then many, many trips hauling materials – sometimes 2 trips in one day – 20 miles each way – by snowmachine, with lumber and supplies on a sled  in the winter and with windows and other lumber and supplies by boat in the summers, to get the materials out to the site so he could begin building the cabin.  The first cabin Jeff built on the Susitna was very big – 20’ wide by 42’ long – and was 2 stories plus a storage under the cabin for snowmachines, 3 wheeler, lawnmower, building materials, and propane tank, where it was all kept dry. Jeff thought he was a genius for building the cabin up so high in order to store under the cabin.   He started building the cabin in 1990.  It took 9 years to complete and in 1999 he finally had a gorgeous cabin with a kitchen, bedroom, living room, utility room, bathroom with a full bath and an 8 foot enclosed porch.  There were 2 bedrooms upstairs. 

It was self sufficient with a woodstove for heat and once water was hauled in it had a gravity fed system where water was fed from a tank  upstairs through pipes that ran into the kitchen sink and shower/bathtub downstairs.  It had no septic but had an outhouse for a toilet.  It was a comfy and warm cabin in the backwoods and a great getaway from the city.  Jeff and his wife and daughter would spend weekends at the cabin gardening and fishing in the summers, picking berries and hunting in the fall and snowmachining winters and Spring.

Unfortunately this cabin did not last long.  One winter night in March 2000 Jeff and his family went to sleep sometime after midnight after watching Saturday Night Live on TV.  His wife had fallen asleep downstairs on the couch and Jeff got his daughter tucked in bed upstairs before he went to sleep in the other bedroom upstairs. About an hour or two later – sometime in the middle of the night – Jeff jumped up out of bed with an intuition that something was wrong.  His glasses were by the bedside and it was dark so he couldn’t see well but he looked out the window and noticed an odd glow outside and was puzzled at what it was because instead of being white like moonlight it was orange which wasn’t right.  He looked up through the window and realized the roof was on fire.  He started screaming to his wife and daughter “Fire, fire, wake up, get out!” There was a fire extinguisher right in front of him in the windowsill and he grabbed it and slid open the window and pushed out the screen and started spraying the fire with the extinguisher.  As soon as he used the extinguisher up for a moment he thought he had it under control when the fire backdrafted in through the window with a vengeance “Whoosh” and in an instant he had to give up and prepare to evacuate.  He grabbed his glasses and clothes and threw them out the window onto the ground two stories below. He was in his long johns and t-shirt.  He went into his daughter’s room and she was still in her bed and he grabbed her, sleeping bag and all, into his arms and headed down the stairs with her.  She was screaming about her Barbie dolls as she had been sleeping with them and as Jeff grabbed her up out of bed they all fell out of the sleeping bag onto the floor as he carried her down the stairs.  He handed his daughter off to his wife and said get out and get over to the old cabin which was a very old 1900’s cabin on the property that had a wood stove and a bed. 

It was a very cold night with lots of snow as it always is in March in Alaska.  Temps were somewhere around 10 to 20 degrees outside. As his wife and daughter got out Jeff began grabbing things and throwing them out of the cabin.  He grabbed ammunition that had just been reloaded and the TV which was brand new and threw them out into the snow.  He grabbed a rug by the door that had winter boots on it and threw it out into the yard as well as the snowsuits hanging by the door.  He went onto the porch and threw off the generator and the grill.  By this time, which had only been minutes since he woke up, the whole cabin was filled with smoke. He went back inside and could hardly see to find his good snowsuit hanging up further in the cabin and his new $100 winter boots.  He was still barefoot.  He threw them outside and then he ran outside and went under the house to try to get his equipment out.  He turned the key on his best snowmachine and it started right up and he drove it out and away from the cabin.  The second snowmachine wouldn’t start and it took a bit to get it started but he finally got it started and drove it out from under the cabin and away from the fire.  The third machine he couldn’t start and it burned up in the fire. 

By this time the whole cabin was in flames and he began to worry about the garage next to the cabin.  Its’ roof was beginning to smoke and he grabbed a shovel and began shoveling snow from the ground onto the roof.  During all this time Jeff’s neighbors and good friends, Becky and Dave, who had a cabin across the river about a half-mile away happened to be at their cabin with their daughter, Jamie.  Jamie had woken up to go to the bathroom outside and noticed the fire across the river from their cabin.  She woke up her parents and told them Jeff’s cabin was burning.  Dave got up and called the state troopers on the satellite phone to tell them about the cabin on fire and then got on his machine right away not fully dressed and bolted across the river on his snowmachine,  not following any trail just blazing a new trail straight across the river to Jeff’s cabin.  As soon as he got there he saw Jeff frantically shoveling snow onto the roof of the garage and Jeff was yelling at him to grab a shovel and help shovel which he did.   They did save the garage from catching fire as the cabin collapsed to the ground right on top of Jeff’s glasses and clothes he had thrown out of the window.  Becky and Jamie had gotten dressed in their gear and snowmachined over to the cabin but before they did Jamie, who had just taken a photography class and had her camera with her, snapped a photo of the burning cabin from their place.

Then once they got to the cabin she snapped a few while the fire burned. 

Jeff and his family went back to town the next day and friends that flew over the cabin said the fire smouldered for 2 days.  The State Troopers never sent anyone to help and never even checked on them.  When you are out in the bush you are on your own.  For those who flew over and worried about them Jeff took a can of spray paint and wrote “We’re okay” on the snow on the river in front of the cabin.  As you can imagine this incident was very traumatizing for Jeff and his wife and daughter but Jeff got right back into rebuilding and although his new cabin wasn’t as big and didn’t take as long to build, it still took a few years before he had a new cabin built.  Since then he has gone on to enjoy many more years out on his property in the wilderness.