Anyone in the Sterling area during the last two weeks would have been able to see smoke from the Card Street fire rising into the sky.
At the same time, something less visible, but no less present, has been wafting through the air: love.
As the Card Street fire burned through more than 8,000 acres of land since it began June 15, it unfortunately took several structures down in its wake. One of those buildings was the home of Bob and Hope Hensler, who, after a 14-year engagement, were married at the Sterling Community Center on Sunday afternoon.
The couple lost everything in the fire that destroyed their home, including Hope’s wedding dress. Melissa Daugherty, vice president of the community center’s board, said the couple was there receiving counseling from an American Red Cross representative when the wedding plans fell into place.
“(The representative) came and whispered in my ear that Hope lost her wedding dress in the fire and we need to find her a dress,” Daugherty said. “And I said, ‘We need to do more than the dress, let’s give her a wedding.’”
From that moment on, Daugherty assumed the additional role of wedding planner, and donations in support of the couple began pouring in. Everything from the dress and wedding cake to the guest book and ring bearer pillow were donated by local businesses and members of the community. The couple’s honeymoon is being donated by Land’s End Resort in Homer.
For Daugherty, it was heartening to see the surge of support for Bob and Hope, a completely separate phenomenon from the continuous stream of support for those affected by the fire thus far.
“I remember my wedding — you know, how special it was — and to give that to (Hope) after losing everything, I don’t know how to put it into words,” Daughtery said. “I’m so proud to be part of this community.”
Gary Hale is a retired fire marshal from Soldotna with 40 years of experience, including 28 years with Central Emergency Services. When he got a call last Monday and was asked to walk a stranger down the aisle, it took him only a day to decide to say yes.
“It was an unusual request, but I got to thinking about it. What an honor,” Hale said. “I met them for the first time just before the march.”
Daugherty and other volunteers transformed the community center into a quaint, fairytale-esque ceremony space, complete with twinkle lights, hard hats, boots and cupcakes decorated to look like flames. Signs and banners reading “From Ashes to Hope,” were scattered throughout the building, embodying the resilient spirit of the happy couple.
Firefighters were there in more than spirit — several members of the Washington Incident Management Team 3 were in attendance.
Max Konkright, public information officer for the team, said never in his career has he known of, let alone been invited to, a wedding held in the wake of a fire.
“To me that was mind blowing,” Konkright said. “Here we are doing what we consider doing our job, and then they invite us to their wedding and give us the front row for their ceremony.”
Konkright said the couple’s gesture is a reflection of the community as a whole, which has responded by supporting each other and the firefighters with water, baked goods and other forms of support. He said that while he has interacted with several welcoming communities through the course of his job, this one will be hard to beat.
“I don’t remember the last time I’ve had a community this supportive on a fire,” Konkright said. “This community went above and beyond. There’s no firefighter that’s going hungry on this fire, I guarantee it.”
Daugherty said inviting and honoring the firefighters with her wedding is just part of Hope’s giving character. That character was reflected in the number of people more than willing to help make the wedding a reality. Hope’s dress will even be auctioned off at the community center on August 15, and the money raised will be donated back to the center.
“There wasn’t one time where I asked someone to help out that there was a ‘no.’ That’s amazing,” Daugherty said. “And even more than just not a no, it was ‘yes, and what else can I do?’”