About the Swanson River Fire of 1969

  • By Ann Berg
  • Tuesday, August 14, 2018 11:43pm
  • LifeFood

About garage sales, wonderful people and glitches:

Over this last weekend, Susan Jordan had a great big, giant garage sale in her greenhouse with 11 families participating. It was a grand success and we thank Susan for her coordination and hard work! I met old friends, made new friends and had a great time visiting with my neighbors and relatives.

One of the most asked questions to me was — where was your Grannie Annie article in last weeks Clarion? (It was a glitch, a mishap, a mis-co-bobble on both ends.) But what warms my heart the most, is the phone calls, the texts messages and the in-person questions to me, wondering if I was going to stop writing, (NOPE) and if I was moving (NOPE) and if I was feeling OK (YUP) and that they missed my article and hoped it would be back in the paper next week. Thank you, everyone — you are special and much appreciated. And you make me smile!

My three kids and I had been in Alaska two years, arriving in July 1967. In those two years I had remarried and acquired 14 fishing sites at the left of Arness Dock in Nikishka Bay. This northern Colorado gal, never ever seeing a body of water bigger then an irrigation lake, was now in wonderment of the beautiful body of water on the eastern shore of Cook Inlet.

Have you ever been in a forest fire? There are many in Alaska this time of year, mostly starting in May. They are terrifying and not easy to deal with. The Swanson River fire was started by a careless camper.

I had acquired three more kids through my marriage, so there were six cute kids in my care. We were back on the homestead of Betty and Gene Coulter’s, painting an old wooden dory white. We were gearing up for the first season for my family to go setnet fishing (fishing by net from the beach.) Betty and Gene were our teachers. Betty was my teacher this day as Gene was with my husband getting supplies to start our fishing career. The only communication — no phone service in those days — was a CB which was turned on all the time. You more or less monitored the calls, listening to everyone’s conversation, sort of like a radio newspaper.

We had the dory almost painted, after chinking the cracks with long ropes of sticky oakum. Betty looked at me and bent down to look at the wet white paint on the boat. “What the heck is that? Look, little black bugs everywhere in our new paint!” She went to wipe them off and the bugs turned into little black streaks. “That’s ashes!” she shouted.

Just then, the CB squawked the life with Gene’s voice. “Get the kids (there were eight kids with Betty’s two), get them in the cars, get what you think is valuable, get my guns and load the cars. There is a forest fire coming your way — head for the beach!” Then he clicked off the air.

Sheer panic set in for both of us. Betty and I looked at each other wondering if we had just heard “FOREST FIRE!”

Betty, never being too calm in a crisis, heard Gene’s words: “What is valuable” and ran into the house, grabbed a big roll of toilet paper, came back out of the house with a mile a toilet paper trailing behind her. She opened the rear door of my big old Plymouth station wagon, threw the toilet paper roll in and turned around and ran back in the house to retrieve more valuable items!

The toilet paper zinged off every corner of the car, coming unwound, then came to rest on the front drivers seat. Out comes Betty again with the big blue roaster pan that she had in the oven full of moose roast, carrots and potatoes. She was more careful placing that in the car. She turned around and shouted at me “What else?”

I shouted back at her “Do you have any money, old coins, silverware….?” She didn’t let me finish my sentence. She ran back in the house, me, right behind her and grabbed the silverware drawer, ran back out to the car and flung the whole drawer full of silverware into the back of the car. Clattering and clanging around, the silverware was now scattered all over the car.

“And he said guns,” I said, finishing my sentence.

We went running back into the house, Betty acting like the house was already on fire, handed me some guns from the corner of the bedroom. I grabbed some towels and handed some to her, saying as we are running out the door, wrap the guns in towels.

“Okay, okay,” she said, wrapping them gently, while I personally placed the guns in the car. I did not know if they were loaded and I do not did not want her to be flinging guns into the car on top of the silverware and the toilet paper, causing the guns to accidentally fire a bullet into the car and all the kids waiting around watching two crazy ladies shouting and screaming at each other!

“Get in the car!” I shouted at all eight kids. I helped load Betty’s son Paul into the Jeep. Paul was a sweetie with a big smile from ear to ear but handicapped and a ride in the Jeep was the best treat. Betty and I ran back inside and grabbed coats and more food but by this time the smoke was were swirling around thick and we could hear bulldozers.

I jumped in the Jeep parked in front of my car with my buddy Paul. Betty jumped in my big old Plymouth station wagon with seven kids and valuables-no seat belts in those days. She roared into gear and almost hit me before I could get the Jeep’s started and out of her way. The only way out of the fire was to head to the beach. The trail out of the homestead was deep and narrow with ruts.

I could see in the rear view mirror Betty trying to keep up with me, fishtailing and bouncing from side to side down the long narrow trail in my big blue and black four-door, oversized Plymouth station wagon. I bet the other seven kids were bouncing all over the car also!

I was so excited myself that when I saw some rabbits, spruce hens, foxes and coyotes running down the same trail in front of me, I started to scream, “Run, bunnies, run!” over and over again. I opened up the canvas door of the Jeep at one time, while still in motion, to see if I was going to run over a bunny in the trail. I scared Paul so badly — he thought I was jumping out of the Jeep! He started crying, clapping his hands and saying “Run, bunnies, run!” over and over. I was very busy keeping the Jeep on the trail and looking in the mirror to see if Betty was in the right tracks and not hung up in some treetop and me, all the time, trying to calm Paul.

We made it to the edge of the beach, bounced off the shelf that the tide had made and onto the sandy beach, turning, churning and spinning, throwing rocks and sand everywhere. We finally got to this small fishing shack that had been on the beach for years. We herded the kids out of the car, into the shack with Betty jabbering at whoever, “We gotta feed the kids, we gotta feed the kids.” She kept saying repeating over and over! “No, we don’t!” I shouted back, “It’s not supper time yet!”

Just then a big thick cloud of smoke rolled over the top of the bluff and onto the beach, choking us. Betty and I unwrapped the guns, (every gun was loaded!) and led the kids to the edge of the water of Cook Inlet, soaked the towels in the murky water, placed them over the heads of our kids and over our heads. We sat by the water’s edge with moose, bears, coyotes and a couple of wolves that hung back watching us with their beady, bright eyes, rabbits, and yes, small bunnies, a lone fox, a bunch of spruce hens and various birds. We sat at the edge of the water for a long time before the smoke cleared.

We ate later but I don’t remember much about that — my stomach was tied in knots. Then we heard a pickup coming down the beach. It was my husband and Gene looking for us to see if we were all safe.

They had been caught in the middle of the fire and had to push burning trees and brush out of the way to get to the homestead just in time to be bombed by the pink fire retardant that had been released from the airplanes above. It saved the Betty and Gene’s house, but our nice new blue Ford pickup was bright pink. The guys were black with soot. They told us exactly what we had worried so much about, setting on the beach under the wet towels: was the homestead safe? Yes, they said, but the house is bright pink and the potato field was plowed up to make a firebreak. All Betty and I could do was cry.

Just as fast as the fire roared through it was gone. The Army and National Guard stayed in tents set up along the trail into the homestead, to take care of any hot spots. They were gone in a couple of days but the scars from the fire lasted for years and years, all because someone camping on Swanson River did not put out a little campfire.

We had wonderful neighbors, Danny Johnson and Claude Gabbett, that had big D-8 cats that worked wonders and kept everyone’s home from burning, by pushing away trees from the houses and making firebreaks. If it had not been for them and the CB there would have been a lot of personal loss.

Our six kids and Betty’s daughter Diane, through the years, told us that they did not know there was a fire until Betty and I started running in and out of the house, shouting at each other. They thought we had lost our mind or that we were very mad at each other.

I still see all the kids watching from behind trees wondering what those crazy ladies were doing running back and forth from the house with streaming toilet paper, clanking silverware and then coming back out of the house with guns! It’s a very funny picture now and one that we still talk about.

This story was suggested by Susan Jordan, one of my daughters that witnessed the fire and the “two crazy ladies.”

The Pioneer Potluck series is written by 50-year resident of Alaska Ann Berg of Nikiski. Ann shares her collections of recipes from family and friends. She has gathered recipes for more that 50 years. Some are her own creation. Her love of recipes and food came from her mother, a selftaught wonderful cook. She hopes you enjoy the recipes and that the stories will bring a smile to your day. Grannie Annie can be reached at anninalaska@gmail.com.

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