Trial opens for couple accused of starting ’15 Willow wildfire

The Sockeye Fire which devastated Willow in 2015 (Photo courtesy of the Mat-Su Borough)

Did an Anchorage couple start the 2015 wildfire that devastated a big swath of Willow?

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That’s the question for a Palmer jury, which heard opening statements Thursday as the trial over what became known as the Sockeye Fire began.

Prosecutors and state fire investigators say Greg Imig and Amy DeWitt are to blame. But defense attorneys for the husband and wife told jurors that their own experts can prove otherwise.

Imig and DeWitt face charges of reckless endangerment, criminally negligent burning and burning without a permit.

The fire started June 14, 2015, and in the matter of a few days had charred thousands of acres and dozens of homes in Willow, home to many of Alaska’s dog mushers. The fire forced mandatory evacuations and killed pets and sled dogs as it exploded through the area during those dry, windy days.

Investigators say they tracked the massive blaze back to smoldering embers from an illegal brush fire that Imig and DeWitt set in an earthen pit after clearing land on their Willow property.

Standing outside the courtroom just before the trial started, musher DeeDee Jonrowe, a veteran of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, fought back tears and said it had been a long two-year wait to see Imig and DeWitt in court.

“I’m anxious to just look ‘em in the eye and see how they feel about destroying so many people’s lives,” Jonrowe said. “We lost everything we’ve ever owned in the last, all of our lives. We lost our house, our two-story house, was turned into 3 inches of ash and an 8-foot hole in the ground.”

Inside the courtroom, several other victims sat in the front row with Jonrowe as the trial began.

Prosecutor Eric Senta described to the jury how evidence and testimony will show the fire crept away from the illegal burn pit through what are called microfuels, tiny, dry, dead leaves and sticks on the ground.

“Slowly at first, but getting stronger and stronger as it spread further into the dense forest,” Senta said. “After several feet of traveling the small dead leaves and twigs, the fire grew hot enough to catch the branches of one of those bone dry white spruce trees, and that tree went up like last year’s dead Christmas tree.”

Senta said that is when — after calling 911 — the couple and their son fled in an RV and drove home to Anchorage. All the while, Senta said, firefighters and good Samaritans rushed to evacuate people in the growing fire’s path, including some who had to run for their lives.

When it was the defense’s turn to lay out their case, attorney Kevin Fitzgerald told the jury that the prosecutor’s theory defied common sense.

Fitzgerald said the husband and wife admit they did not have a burn permit that day — permits had in fact been suspended — but they saw the fire well after it had started coming toward them from someone else’s land. And the family claimed they fled because 911 dispatchers told them to evacuate.

The defense’s expert witness will show the fire investigators’ work should have been deemed inconclusive and that they were wrong about the pit, Fitzgerald said.

“He will tell you affirmatively that this pit was not the cause of the Sockeye Fire,” Fitzgerald said.