What goes through a man’s head when he’s told he has twenty minutes to collect his valuables and get out ? What pieces of his life will he choose?
One Willow homeowner says it may be too painful to go home again.
John Basler and family have lived in Willow almost twenty years in a hand built house, ringed by a few outbuildings. Ironically, last Sunday morning, they snapped photos of a new shed completed only the day before, then lingered to take shots of the whole place under a blue, cloudless sky. Not long after, they noted smoke rising northward.
“The wind was blowing South, and the fire was North of us by a couple of miles, and we knew right there that we might be in danger.”
The plumes of smoke got larger….. and closer. Basler set a sprinkler on the roof, as burning gobs of spruce cone began to hit the roof.
“They’re like bombs. They go up (he snaps his fingers ) immediately. They are just fire bombs. And we can hear all these little..something.. hitting all the vehicles, all the outbuildings everything. We can hear it. And you can feel it on your skin.”
Basler’s was grabbing stuff at random, when a Trooper came by to warn of a possible evacuation. Twenty minutes later, the Trooper was back..’ get out NOW,’ he said
“I never realized that something like that.. it’s tremendous.. your thoughts are rampaging. You are more concentrating on getting any animals out, any people out. The rush of that is horrible, it’s horrible. Because your mind is just so scattered, you don’t know what to do. You grab what you can. As quick as you can, and you get out. Finally, when you get out and can’t get back in, you realize you should have grabbed this, I should have grabbed that. I wish I could have grabbed that. ”
He left behind his two Harley-Davidson’s, and a classic ’51 Ford truck ..there was no time to load them, not enough drivers at hand.
The fire, racing a mile a minute, pushed them first to Willow Creek. But a second evacuation from there late Sunday night drove them further South to White’s Crossing where they spent a sleepless night. On Monday, Basler returned to his property.
“The house was still standing. I was able to get into the house, grab my insurance papers, everything that I needed for all my vehicles, the house, everything. So I grabbed all my insurance papers, then a fire truck came along.. the firemen said.. ‘get out, it reflared back up’.”
Before and after photos tell the tale. The house is now ringed by ashes, charred debris and melted pieces of metal. Surprisingly, a green tree and a few bushes are scattered through the black. Remarkably, the greenhouse full of tomato plants stood intact. Basler says he thinks fire retardant saved the house.
Right now he’s staying with relatives in Anchorage. He says he’s waiting to get back into the Willow neighborhood, but only to get a few small items he can salvage. He says he’s done with Alaska, and won’t rebuild
“Because I built my house from the ground up. I don’t want to go back there. There’s a lot of memories that are there.. and they are gone. They’re all gone. Whether the house stands or not, I don’t care. They’re all gone. I have no reason to stay anymore. ”
It’s the years of living there that’s lost, he says.. the moments that make a family. The emotional loss can never be replaced.
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and special little notes in the walls that I wrote for my boys and my mom and dad. And all that stuff, and it’s all gone. Whether the house is there or not. I lost my livelihood out there. Because they kept the house, but all my work tools, everything, all my hand tools, everything that I enjoy doing, was demolished in the fire. I wish they would have just let the house go, too. I really do.”
That Willow neighborhood was our world, he says. But he’ll rebuild elsewhere. Probably Oregon. And he and his wife already have a plan .
“It’s a lot of earache to get on the phone, and talk to your insurance companies and talk to these people and try to figure out what’s going on. It just takes time. I’m finding that it’s hard, and I cry like a little baby over this at times, but, you know what, I’m strong and my wife and I are getting through this. And we are gathering a plan. I have a notebook of all the things that are going to be listed, and everything that I lost in the fire. And we have a plan that is slowly coming together. And that’s all it takes. Keep focused on your plan, and it will happen. ”
Sockeye fire evacuees at the Red Cross Houston shelter are anxious to get back to their property. Red Cross spokeswoman Beth Bennett says some of them may not be prepared for the emotional impact of what they find. The agency is providing grief counseling help at the shelter.