With temperatures sweltering in the 80s earlier this June, most Alaskans and our visitors were taking advantage by getting out and enjoying the great outdoors. All that would change in the matter of an instant, as the Sockeye Fire consumed acreage and the fears of local residents at an alarming rate.
With one route – the Parks Highway – leading north, the tourism industry braced for logistical challenges while the firefighters summonsed more personnel to help save not only properties, but lives. In a time of organized chaos, however, resolve was born – and while the devastation of losing more than 7,000 acres and 55 homes was severe, no lives were lost, thanks to the amazing actions of emergency responders.
The fire began on June 15, near Little Willow Creek. Extreme conditions – dry, hot temperatures and gusting winds – spread it quickly throughout the Willow area, leading to evacuations and tremendous response from firefighters from not only the Mat-Su area, but also the Lower 48. Just like residents who had to be evacuated, visitors also were left stranded, creating challenges in the blink of an eye.
“That first Sunday night, we were up until the early morning hours, monitoring the fire and communicating to our members what resources were available to them, where to find alternative lodging for their guests, and how we can assist them,” said Bonnie Quill, executive director of the Mat-Su CVB. “It was a very fluid situation, and for several days, we wanted our members to know the latest information and how they can work with their visitors.
“The response from the tourism industry was amazing. While we were communicating with tour operators helping them with their logistics, local operators were working furiously behind the scenes to make sure not only our visitors were safe, but also our local residents,” Quill said.
Willow dog musher Vern Halter helped with the evacuation efforts, assisting mushers in moving their kennels to Big Lake musher Martin Buser’s house. He was a calming force for his neighbors, and through his role as a Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman representing the area, he provided continual updates for concerned residents. Road blocks were established near his home, and motorists were left stranded along the Parks. And not just locals, but motorcoaches carrying hundreds of visitors.
Two of those motorcoaches belonged to TRIPS. Christoph Voelkel is the director of operations, and he had close to 100 seniors stuck in the road blocks, while headed from Seward to Talkeetna following a cruise. They waited for three hours before they turned around and headed south, where they stopped at Evangelo’s for dinner. “I was very skeptical anyone outside of Anchorage within one hour could accommodate 100 people for dinner. Diana (Lambernakis, wife of owner Evangelo Lambernakis) said she could do it and we arrived 40 minutes later. I was pleasantly surprised and Diana welcomed me with a smile. We had all of our passengers coming into the restaurant and everything was ready. All of our passengers were very happy!” Voelkel wrote in an e-mail to the Mat-Su CVB.
The group had to overnight at a Red Cross shelter established at Houston Middle School, but the generosity from the tourism industry didn’t end with dinner.
“Diana knew about it and offered me help. The next morning I contacted her from the shelter at 6:30 a.m. I asked her if she could help get food supplies for me for the bus in case we got stuck again. She left right away and bought all the items I asked her for, and brought items in her car over to the middle school prior to our departure. She arrived with a big smile on her face and the first thing she asked was if there was anything else she could do. Even though people had bad experiences and were stuck for hours on the bus and had to overnight in a middle school shelter, the friendliness and willingness to help from the locals and the Red Cross in Houston was an extraordinary experience,” he wrote.
Voelkel’s story is similar to that of Premier Alaska Tours’ experience. One of the largest tour operators in Alaska, Premier was faced with a similar situation in that their motorcoaches couldn’t get through the established road blocks. Faced with logistical challenges, Premier improvised, electing to fly more than 100 guests from the Wasilla airport to Talkeetna to continue their vacation. They shuttled luggage north on the Alaska Railroad as well.
“It shows the quality of our industry that people went so far above and beyond what is expected, during a time when the biggest concern was life and property,” Quill said. “Foremost, our thoughts and prayers were, and continue to be, with the local residents, but we also had a job to do, and I think the entire industry rose to the occasion.”
The Mat-Su CVB worked with the state of Alaska tourism office on a familiarization trip that took place during the fire as well. With constant communication with the state office, the fam trip for five operators from Mexico went off without a hitch.
“It involved a lot of talking back and forth, and ultimately they had to fly from Anchorage to Talkeetna, but we managed to showcase the Mat-Su Valley despite some pretty trying conditions,” Quill said.
The rebuilding process has already begun, and fireweed is already starting to bloom in the area ravaged by flames just months ago. The rising blooms are a sign that the area will recover quickly, much like the initial response to the disaster.