first_imgA block party in Big Lake on Saturday drew happy crowds, but there was an underlying somber theme to the event. The day was dedicated to those firefighters, and community residents, who faced  the “Big One”.. the Miller’s Reach blaze of twenty years ago.Download AudioA bronze plaque set into a boulder in front of the West Lakes fire house in Big Lake recognizes the firefighters and community residents who helped fight the Miller’s Reach fire twenty years ago. (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)Kids, dogs and adults roamed amid the balloons munching free hot dogs in a typical small town festival setting. Blustery winds and overcast skies did little to dampen their enthusiasm as they admired the fleet of shiny red or yellow fire trucks lined up in front of the West Lakes fire station in Big Lake. Music filtered through the air, as red, white and blue bunting fluttered in the breeze. But the theme of the event: wildfire safety, could not have been more serious — commemoration of the firefighters who corralled the Miller’s Reach fire and brought it to a halt.Mark Bertels was the initial incident commander on Miller’s Reach twenty years ago.“It spread three miles in the first twenty minutes.” Bertels said. “Flame heights were over 200 feet, with random secondary combustion of fire generated gases above the moving fire, pushed by 50 mph winds creating dozens of spot fires ahead its path. Hot embers were carried all the way across Cook Inlet landing at the Anchorage port. They had to close the docks down.”Bertels was among a number of speakers who were on-scene in June of 1996, when the inferno gave many Big Lake residents only moments to evacuate.Zach Katzenberger, second from left, a fireman with the West Lakes fire department, exhibits a correct burn barrel setup to onlookers at Big Lake’s fire safety event on Saturday. (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)Bill Gamble, now Matanuska Susitna Borough emergency services director, was on the fire line in June of 1996, too.“I remember standing on Beaver Lake road the first night, and watching a 200 foot wall of flame cross the road and almost take out a couple of fire trucks and ten firefighters,” Gamble said. “That was probably the most harrowing moment for me during the whole Miller’s Reach event. I thought for a moment my crew was going to perish on Beaver Lake Road.”Old time firemen told stories of that day, when the fire raced from near Houston, through parts of Big Lake to threaten Knik Goose Bay road near Wasilla.But a lot has changed in two decades, and the devastating fire taught fire managers a lot. Norm McDonald, who helped fight the fire and is now a state fire manager, says Miller’s Reach was unprecedented, and underscored the weaknesses in fire fighting capability at the time.“And probably more importantly, we work with the Borough very closely So we have a very strong team,” McDonald said. “The teamwork we have with these guys is a lot further ahead that it was in ’96, and every year it gets stronger. We had the Sockeye fire last year, and we lost a lot of homes, it was devastating for a lot of people, but I look at our response, and the way we responded to that as a team, compared to ’96 when we had to figure out how to work together, is night and day.”Kathy Kraemer lost her home to the Miller’s Reach fire, and now works to educate people about defensible space through the Firewise program. Kraemer organized Saturday’s event, and unveiled a new plaque in front of the West Lakes fire station.“This is a dedication to the entire community of Big Lake, for being resilient and coming back strong,” Kraemer said. “So this is for Big Lake. And the statement we came up with, is, ‘Most of all, we saw the best of people.”Dedicating the plaque was the centerpiece of Saturday’s event. The Miller’s Reach fire was the first major urban interface wildfire fought in Alaska. It laid waste to 37,000 acres and destroyed 454 structures, most of them homes. It was thought to have been caused by fireworks.last_img

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