Out of the ashes

After losing their home and everything in it, Bob Hensler and Helen Hunt-Hensler said being able to laugh about it is sometimes the best medicine.

The Card Street wildfire that devoured more than 8,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula in 2015 took the Sterling couple’s home down in its wake. They lost everything, save for two dogs. Among the things that burned was Hunt-Hensler’s wedding dress, bought for the ceremony they had been planning.

The two have known each other since they were in high school together on the peninsula. It wasn’t until after a 14-year engagement and the Card Street fire that they were finally wed in the Sterling Community Center in a ceremony put on by local residents and friends.

Now, the couple is looking forward to rebuilding their life; they plan to erect another house in the same spot where their first one was destroyed.

 

When the Card Street fire first ignited in a wooded area near Feuding Lane in Sterling, its rapid spread outpaced the emergency response. Over the following days, it grew to thousands of acres despite the efforts of firefighters from all over the country.

When it came to the house on Feuding Lane, Hensler said he was lucky to have made it out alive at all. Hensler was alone at home while his wife was at work. He said he heard a helicopter circling and knew something wasn’t right because they normally fly straight over.

“So I went out and looked and I saw a small column of smoke that looked like it was a couple miles away, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll throw my shoes on and go see if they need any help with something,’” Hensler said. “And, you know, I thought maybe it was a house on fire.”

Hensler said he went back inside and took a few minutes to use the bathroom and put his shoes on. When he emerged, smoke was pouring into the house through windows he’d left open to let in fresh air.

“When I came out it was coming through the living room window and going out the kitchen (window) in a solid square column of smoke,” Hensler said. “And when I walked into it, it just went everywhere. That’s when I could see the flames were already coming through the windows.”

Hensler had time to grab the couple’s two dogs before he had to get out of the house. They also had a cat, which was never found.

Meanwhile, Hunt-Hensler was keeping up with the situation as best she could while at work. When she called the house and got no answer, her boss told her to get home. The answering machine had still been working when she called at 2:55 p.m., she said.

“I got there at 3:30 p.m. and he and the dogs were out at the end of the road with everybody else watching everything burn,” Hunt-Hensler said.

The house was a complete loss. The couple is staying on a family member’s property in Sterling, and had plans to rebuild by using funds from insurance reimbursements that became available when Gov. Bill Walker declared a state of emergency for Alaska’s multiple summer wildfires. However, the money has been slow to come through, putting a damper on their construction plans.

The reimbursements came in two payments; the couple used the first one to pay off the destroyed house and the land it sat on, leaving the second for rebuilding. The funds will not cover what it would cost to build a three-story house similar to what they lived in before, but they said it is worth it to own the land.

 

Already delayed, the plans to rebuild during the rest of this summer and fall were brought to a screeching halt when Hensler experienced a serious medical problem in early October. Hensler went to the local hospital when he noticed some bleeding, and ended up in Anchorage for emergency surgery for internal bleeding in his esophagus and stomach.

“I went to the hospital here and they put a scope down me and looked, and instantly put me on a chopper to Anchorage,” Hensler said.

Hunt-Hensler had to take care of things at home before joining her husband in Anchorage, and described saying goodbye to him at the hospital before she left.

“I said, ‘You will not make me a widow,’” she said. “Not after just three months.”

Hensler is doing better, but the recovery process has been long and difficult and he is still not back to “100 percent,” he said. What’s more, the time he spent in the hospital took away what was left of their building season, he said.

Another frustrating aspect of the experience is that getting financial aid for Hensler’s medical scare has been difficult, since the couple said they are technically not eligible before they spend the rest of their reimbursement, even though it’s earmarked for the new house.

 

Hunt-Hensler said she and her husband have had enormous support from friends, family and the larger Sterling community. People have donated so much clothing to the couple, they can’t wear them all. Hunt-Hensler said she is looking to donate some of the clothes back to someone else who needs them more.

The current plan for their new house is to build it slightly off to the side of where the old one rested, using a section of the basement to store the utilities, Hensler said. It will most likely take all their remaining funds to complete, and Hensler said he predicts it will be unfurnished for a while after completion.

“We have enough to get a house out of it,” he said.

Hunt-Hensler said they plan to throw a barbecue block party for their friends and neighbors once the house is finished. She also plans to auction off the wedding dress that was donated to her at the Sterling Community Center in February. The funds will go back to the center.

 

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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