‘Noah’s Ark’ At Evacuation Site for Willow Mushers Fleeing Sockeye Fire

Lisbet Norris with four puppies, part of the hundred dogs her family evacuated from their Willow kennel. In total, around 400 sled dogs were brought to the lot at Underdog Feeds in Wasilla. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
Lisbet Norris with four puppies, part of the hundred dogs her family evacuated from their Willow kennel. In total, around 400 sled dogs were brought to the lot at Underdog Feeds in Wasilla. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

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As the Sockeye Fire continues to burn near Willow, officials are waiting to accurately assess the toll on life and property. Hundreds of animals were evacuated to safe zones across the valley. The coordinated response was part of an emergency management plan that ultimately averted a massive loss of life.

“We can sit in the cab if you don’t mind getting your town-clothes covered in dog hair,” offered veteran Iditarod musher Lisbet Norris on Monday night. Standing in dust-covered sandals with a beer in her hand, Norris had just finished a hasty dinner, and was finally getting a chance to breath after a day-and-a-half of scrambling out of the fire’s path. She evacuated her kennel Sunday afternoon.

“In the event that we lost everything, I wanted to make sure that I would be able to continue to train the dogs,” Norris said, “so I loaded up my sleds and my harnesses and my gear.”

Members of Willow’s tight-knit mushing community mobilized fast, and got hundreds of animals to safety at different sites, includuing the fenced-in lot behind Underdog Feeds in Wasilla, which Norris’s family runs. It fit within an emergency plan hatched just weeks earlier.

“Actually, it was in our last Willow Dog Musher’s meeting,” explained Jamie West, the group’s secretary. Members expected that the low snow levels this year would lead to a terrible fire season. “And it was pretty right on.”

West sat on a cot inside a tent, flanked by two tractor trailers shading a string of dogs, along with several other animals hitched wherever there was space. Her husband hauled blue jugs of water from a spigot in the feed store to keep the animals cool, as temperatures hovered in the 80s.

The couple evacuated a large herd from their home by mile post 65, including baby goats, chickens, two horses, and 15 sled dogs from another family. “It’s like Noah’s Ark,” West said.

The Borough requires kennels to have an emergency plan in place. But mushers camped out in trucks and under tarps donated by Home Depot said it was phone calls and Facebooking with neighbors that sprang everyone into action as the blaze erupted Sunday.

“I got home from work and my dog yard was completely packed up in other people’s dog trucks that had gone there to help,” said Jenny Evans, sitting in the cab of her truck, where she was spending the night, just a few feet from her team.

A coordinated emergency plan reassessed just week ago by the Willow Mushers Association helped evacuate hundreds of sled dogs to safety during the rapid spread of the Sockeye fire. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
A coordinated emergency plan reassessed just week ago by the Willow Mushers Association helped evacuate hundreds of sled dogs to safety during the rapid spread of the Sockeye fire. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

Though there have been scattered reports of pets dying in the blaze, the Borough’s Animal Care Manager, Carol Vardeman, said Tuesday the Mat-Su shelter had not seen any injured or loose animal in the days since the fire intensified.

Property damage is harder to pin down. By Monday morning, many in the Underdog lot believed their homes were lost, only to hear afterwards that the fire had spared their property. A disaster declaration by FEMA cites 25 homes burned. The figure helps free up resources to fight the fire, but getting hard numbers will not be possible until locals on the ground can survey which houses and outbuildings have been destroyed.

“While the fire is still raging it’s very difficult to get any type of accurate damage assessment,” said Jeremy Zidek with the state’s Division of Emergency Management. “So the numbers we have now are preliminary.”

With a sleeping-mat rolled out next to her truck, and across from about 30 Siberian Huskies clipped to a fence, Lisbet Norris was mostly concerned with getting her team fed. In the yard they are safe, and comfy enough to suffice.

For Norris, the hardest part is behind her: making the difficult decisions about what else she’d be able to carry out from her family’s compound.

“I went inside and asked Grandma what she would like us to take,” Norris said, “What do you salvage from 94 years of life?”

In this case it was a 60-pound tote filled with precious books, some photos, and a single trophy commemorating her grandmother’s prize-winning dog Bonzo.

“Just nice to hold onto,” Norris said, staring into the enormous metallic bowl.

Norris isn’t sure when she’ll get to go home, but for now she has most of what she needs.

The Willow Dog Musher’s Association is managing cash and credit donations sent to Underdog Feeds to offer assistance to mushers and home-owners affected by the Sockeye fire.