With her clothes dirty and soot on her face from another long day on the fire line, Erin Kimsey, a member of the Wolf Creek Hotshots from Glide, Oregon felt like a celebrity as she signed autographs for young admirers and took pictures with grateful families.
Funny River Horse Trail and Tyonek firefighters from all over Alaska, Canada and the western United States were the honored guests at an appreciation barbeque at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex Sunday. As each fire crew walked into the arena they were given a standing ovation from more than 1,000 thankful central Kenai Peninsula residents for saving their homes from the largest active wildfire in the nation.
The barbecue ran from 6-8 p.m. A crew shift change occurred during the two-hour feast so the majority of the more than 700 firefighters assigned to the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire could attend and have dinner and mingle with the community. Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, along with the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce organized the dinner. Micciche said he received $7,000 in donations from local companies for the event and had more than 50 volunteers and enough food to feed 1,500 people.
Micciche said he probably talked to more than 250 firefighters individually and none of them have ever had a community thank them in such a way. With nearly 200,000 acres burned and not a single loss of a primary home and not one serious injury, he said the suppression efforts could not have gone any better.
Residents brought in desserts like a cake with red flames that said, “Thanks Firefighters” and green tree sugar cookies placed in a cake to resemble the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He said he is always amazed by the generosity from others.
“It goes to show the kind of place we live in,” Micciche said. “We watched how people came together in a stressful time. Tonight the entire community came out and recognized the firefighters. It was amazingly successful and an emotional event that meant a lot to both sides.”
Kimsey said she has never seen a community rally around firefighters in such a way. She said several girls approached her and asked her questions about her job and told her they wanted to be fire fighters too.
“It is super cool to be seen as a role model,” she said. “I really appreciate everything you guys have done. You guys have been so nice. The support has been unbelievable.”
Terri Kunz, who lives on Funny River Road, wore a self-designed T-shirt with red spray painted flames that read, “Mile 9 Thanks You!” Her two nieces and two grandchildren also wore the shirts and had the backs signed by firefighters and first responders.
Kuntz, who evacuated to the rodeo grounds three days before the order because she has so many animals, said she felt safe for the first time Saturday even with the strong winds because firefighters had completed the northern fire lines.
“(The firefighters) lived at the end of my driveway for more than a week,” she said. “Even with all the wind, they went to check and could not find any hotspots. That is when I felt safe.”
Lois Brassfield, also a Funny River Road resident, said it feels great to be back home. Brassfield and her three daughters Kaitlyn, Mika and Cierra spent one night at the rodeo grounds before taking shelter at Redoubt Elementary School on May 26.
“Thank you doesn’t seem to be enough,” she said. “I’m happy to be back home with all our animals. It was amazing with how many people (first responders, red cross, neighbors) were able to do so much for everyone. I can’t thank them enough.”
Don Duncan, who lives in the Kalifornsky area, said he wanted to come and let everyone know how much he appreciated the firefighter’s efforts. He brought his service dog Dolly, a Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix with a U.S. flag taped to her vest. Firefighters petted and held Dolly, who wagged her fluffy tail and took pictures with them.
“I don’t think these firefighters get enough credit given the fact we had one of the largest fires in Alaska state history and thanks to these guys not one house, not one live was lost,” Duncan said. “It is borderline miraculous.”
Rudy Cervantes, crew boss for Snake River Valley firefighters from Eastern Oregon, said his team has been on scene for 11 days to check for hot spots on the fire lines and continue mop up work. In his 38 years of firefighting, he has never seen a community put together such an event to show their thanks.
“It makes us feel at home,” he said. “People in the community have treated us as equals. We are glad to come help.”
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell canceled another event to attend the barbecue and thanked the firefighters for how they came through and protected the Soldotna and Kasilof communities.
Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team Commander Rob Allen said his team couldn’t have been successful without the support from Central Emergency Services, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Kenai Fire Department and Troopers who assisted in the evacuation.
“Now for the question you all want to know, is the fire out? … Mostly,” Allen said. “We have been waiting for good wetting rain and (Sunday) folks in the spike camp north of the Kenai River got hard rain for a long time.”
With the fire now about 60 percent contained and fire lines on the western and northern areas secure, Allen said crews would start to downsize this week and eventually sometime next week the Interagency Incident Management Team will transition the fire back to the Division of Forestry, which will keep a close eye on the fire the rest of the summer.
“We do appreciate all the support and the chance to be able to mingle with the community,” he said. “Thank you very much for all your support.”