A neighborhood in Kenai was evacuated after a fire and explosions caused by a natural gas leak following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that hit Southcentral Alaska at 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Four homes were destroyed in the fire.
For most Kenai Peninsula residents jolted awake early Sunday morning, the initial shock of fear from the earthquake faded into a daylong buzz of excitement.
But for some Kenai residents, the day only got worse. A section of town on the north end of Kenai was evacuated at 3 a.m. after a natural gas leak caused an explosion in a home at 1213 Lilac Lane and a fire that spread to three neighboring houses. Lilac parallels the Kenai Spur Highway on the bluff side, across the highway from Wildwood Correctional Facility.
An emergency shelter was set up at the Kenai National Guard Armory. Sgt. 1st Class Albert Burns got the phone call from the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management.
“They called me at 3 o’clock this morning and said, ‘We have people displaced.’ And I go, ‘OK, I’ll be there in 15 minutes,'” Burns said. “I’d already been awake because of the earthquake and as soon as I got the call and Dan said his name, it was like, ‘OK,’ I knew what was going on. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to do this.”
By midmorning, about 45 evacuees had been through the shelter, from Lilac Lane, Cook Inlet View Drive and Wells Way, with that number growing to 60 by the end of the day.
Kenai Police officers came by regularly to give updates. By 10:30 a.m., Lt. David Ross reported that the fires were under control.
“There’s still a problem with the natural gas there, Enstar’s got lots of equipment there, lots of people there,” Ross said. “The gas is bubbling out of the ground in some places so it’s still not a safe place to return to. The gas is shut off to the neighborhood, so that should dissipate and the fires are just about out. That’s the good news part of it.”
All residents of the four burned homes got out safely, with only one person sustaining mild burns. Pets were not so lucky, as there hadn’t been time to do anything but grab family members and run.
Janice Gottschalk lives with her fiancée, brother and three kids, ages 9 to 12, at 1211 Lilac.
“About 1:30 a.m. the earthquake hit, and probably about 1:40, 1:45 a.m. I heard my neighbor’s house blow up; the gas blew off the roof,” Gottschalk said. “They thankfully made it out. And then we were all told probably about five minutes later to evacuate our house, as well.”
They went to a friend’s apartment across the street and waited with a dozen people while fire crews attempted to contain the fire. A little before 3 a.m. fire personnel smelled gas leaking at the east end of the street and evacuated more of the neighborhood. Another explosion damaged a second home, and the flames spread. Homes across the street sustained some percussion damage.
“We made it out with everything on our backs; our house is a complete and total loss,” Gottschalk said. “But I’m thanking God that we made it out, thanks to the fire department and the police department.”
Gottschalk said her kids were shaken but doing OK. Ten-year-old Sara alternated between reading a book and roaming the Armory, still in her pajamas.
“Usually I just lie down,” she said. “That’s all I basically do, lie down and wander.”
The American Red Cross took over operation of the shelter by Sunday afternoon and would help find temporary housing for the families that couldn’t return home.
Lilac Lane offers mostly lower-cost housing for people with limited means. Gottschalk doesn’t know what her family will do in the immediate future, but has already been amazed at the support from business and individuals in the community.
“I’m from Anchorage and I’m not used to this,” Gottschalk said. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world. And down here it’s so close knit and I’m just really overwhelmed and shocked right now.”
Renee Duncan, of Soldotna, heard about the evacuations early Sunday morning and began calling businesses to secure donations. Walmart, where Gottschalk works, had started bringing donations of food, blankets, a TV, DVD player and other items within an hour of the shelter opening. McDonald’s, Safeway, Fred Meyer, Kaladi Brothers and Home Depot also helped out.
“Went and gathered up a bunch of different stuff from them and brought it over,” Duncan said. “So I’m just going to spend time today and see if I can help out with anything.”
Around 2 p.m. Kenai police opened Cook Inlet View Drive and Wells Way to residents, but closed the streets again around 3 p.m. due to elevated gas levels. Enstar was on scene all day Sunday working to contain the leaks.
By 10 p.m. Sunday, Enstar reported that it had completed repairs and was testing the system. Natural gas service was restored to residents around Lilac by 11 p.m. Homer Electric Association restored power to most of the 44 meters in the area last night, as well. Fifteen meters were left without power at the request of fire officials due to hazardous conditions.