‘Half-melted boots and buckets’: Juneau campers fight wildfire until help arrives

Updated post, 9:30 p.m. Saturday.:

A wildfire started near Eagle Beach on Saturday, May 9, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Christy Ciambor)

Firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service have largely contained a wildfire near Eagle Beach in Juneau, though they’ll be out to check on it again on Sunday.

Witnesses say they saw the fire on Saturday morning. Several groups were camping on the point at Boy Scout Beach.

“We just noticed some smoke and it was kind of high up in the grass,” said Blaine Scharen. He was camping with his wife and some extended family.

Scharen said it was pretty clear that the fire had gotten out of control. He and his brother-in-law threw on their boots and ran over to the next campsite to see what was going on.

“And at that point there was a ring of fire maybe 30 feet across. And so we ran back (to their campsite) and told all the kids to stay away,” he said. “And then my wife joined in also, and we got all the totes and buckets we had and started trying to contain it from going down to where we were.”

Calls about a brush fire on the beach started rolling in to Capital City Fire/Rescue around 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

That’s about the time Juneau’s Police Department and Capital City Fire/Rescue and Juneau-area residents started posting on social media as well.

Those were passed along to the Forest Service which handles all of the wildland firefighting in the area.

Rob Berney, a Juneau-area fire supervisor for the Forest Service, said firefighters headed out with a helicopter and later in a boat to get to the remote beach.

But, it took about an hour and half to get there. And, in the meantime, Scharen says more than a dozen people jumped in to try and contain the flames.

“We started digging with our hands and trying to dig a line across to keep it from spreading,” he said. “Then it started to get a bit bigger. And then some of the trees, the spruce trees started lighting up. So we’re smacking spruce trees, using the buckets to try and pat stuff out. Everybody’s feet and boots were half-melted and buckets and tubs were all melted.”

Pictures from the air show a long, black smoldering strip running along the beach. Berney said it burned more than 15 acres.

“When you consider an acre being a football field, that’s quite a bit of ground,” he said.

And, it burned for a while. As the sun set Saturday, it continued to smolder. Berney said part of the problem is that they had to ground the helicopter for some time because someone was flying a drone around while Forest Service firefighters were trying to work.

Someone ran up and down the beach, asking groups of people if they knew where it was coming from. Berney said he’s not sure they ever found out who was piloting the drone.

But, he said, it’s dangerous for helicopters to operate near them.

“It doesn’t take much to bring a helicopter down out of the sky,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving parts on those things and if a drone or anything comes in contact with the rotors … it’s a bad, bad thing.”

And it’s scary for pilots.

“He’s already, you know, distracted with, you know, 300 gallons of water and a long line hanging underneath him,” he said. “Just, that’s the last thing a pilot needs when he’s up there trying to do the job — worrying about a drone and where that’s at.”

Berney said this type of fire is not uncommon.

“This time of year before all of the grass gets green again, you got a huge component of dead dry grass that makes up places like those tidal flats or along the beaches or road sides or you know, meadows or whatever. It’s mainly just dead dry grass at this point,” he said.

The National Weather Service office in Juneau issued a notice on Friday of increased fire danger for Southeast Alaska.

That’s because of the warm, windy weather forecasted to last through the next few days. The agency warned that wildfire fuels, like grasses, will be impacted the most and urged people to take extra caution with open fires.

Both Berney and Scharen said they weren’t positive exactly how the fire started, though Berney said it was definitely caused by people.

Scharen said he’d heard that a child may have inadvertently started it. There are similar rumors on social media.

Image from Saturday from Capital City Fire Rescue Facebook page.

“What I heard was, they asked him to go get the lighter out of the tent so they could make a campfire. And on his walk back he lit a piece of grass on fire or something and then it just got out of control quick,” he said. “Totally an accident, it’s something, something I could have very easily done when I was a kid. You don’t realize how quickly it gets out of hand.”

Scharen said after the firefighters showed up, he and his family were able to back up and watch them work. They watched the helicopter bucket dip into the channel, lift up high into the air and then pour over the fire. And they were able to use it as a teachable moment for the kids.

But, he also said it was a lesson for them too.

“We talked about it after the fire got out,” he said. “You know we had a fire last night and wood pops and embers fly up and it just … it could have very easily been us or anybody having a fire. We didn’t think about it at the time but then afterward we were like, ‘holy cow.’”

No one was injured. Though Scharen said the hairs all singed off of his legs and he’s got a sunburn.

But, he said, it felt good to be part of a community effort to fix something that had gone so horribly wrong.

“It was pretty nice to see. I wish I would have gotten a couple of their names,” he said. “Everybody just kind of sprung into action. People covered in black soot and, you know, stuff’s getting ruined, totes and buckets getting ruined. Everybody kind of rallied together, definitely kept it from being a lot worse than it would have been if nobody was out there.”