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Neighbors Wake Woman From Nap As House Burns In Sitka

By | April 23, 2013

Sitka firefighter Parker White was one of 18 firefighters to respond to Saturday’s fire in the 400 block of Hemlock Street. (Photo by Roberta White/Sitka Fire Department)

Sitka firefighter Parker White was one of 18 firefighters to respond to Saturday’s fire in the 400 block of Hemlock Street. (Photo by Roberta White/Sitka Fire Department)

A Sitka woman is feeling lucky today, after escaping a fire at her apartment over the weekend. No one was injured in the blaze, which happened around 10 a.m. Saturday in the 400 block of Hemlock Street.

Elena Gustafson had been housesitting on Friday night, at a home with two small dogs.

“They didn’t like letting me sleep in late, which is fine, they’re great dogs. But I came back to my place to take a nap,” she said. “I was woken up by a pounding on my door, and my neighbors shouting ‘Wake up, your house is on fire!’”

One of the neighbors was returning home and noticed crackling sounds. The other was walking to the mailbox and happened to smell smoke.

“It’s pretty surreal to wake up to the actual sentence, ‘Wake up, your house is on fire,” she said.

Gustafson grabbed a jacket, some shoes, her wallet, and her computer, which happened to be nearby, left the house, and waited for the fire department to show up.

Eighteen firefighters responded and took two-and-a-half hours to put out the flames. Gustafson knew most of them — she’s a volunteer EMT for the fire department.

“I know I might be a little biased because I volunteer for them, but watching them respond to a fire was pretty amazing,” she said. “Terrifying at the same time, because it was my house. I kept bouncing between being completely freaked out and crying hysterically to watching this response in awe, kind of.”

Gustafson joined the fire department in 2012. As an EMT, she’s taken plenty of calls, but never to the scene of a major fire.

“They haven’t had a big one recently,” she said. “At least I gave them some practice, or the house gave them some practice.”

The fire at 410 Hemlock Street was the first time the city’s new ladder truck was used to put out a blaze. Assistant Fire Chief Al Stevens called the fire “stubborn,” and says the cause was “the careless extinguishment of a cigarette” on the back deck of the apartment below Gustafson’s.

After the fire department responded to the actual fire, they turned their attention to Gustafson — one of their own. Firefighters solicited donations and help for her. So did the neighbors.

“I don’t have family here — direct relatives — but this experience has made me realize just what a family-like community Sitka is,” Gustafson said. “I feel so taken care of by so many people. It’s been overwhelming in a lot of ways, just how much support I’ve gotten. It’s been amazing.”

Gustafson lost a lot of her stuff in the fire, and had more damaged. Her passport, for example, has curly pages from hose water, and still reeks of smoke. But she says there’s a silver lining, too: At the time of the fire she’d just signed a lease for a new apartment. She’s scheduled to move in by the end of the month.

The house itself is owned by Bonnie Harris, who is reportedly traveling back to Sitka.

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