Derick Williams was working outside on the property of Cottontree Lane Monday afternoon when he first felt the searing sting of burning pine needles hit his arms.
Within minutes, he had wrangled his two dogs into his truck and was parked on the south side of Alamo Street across Feuding Lane. He immediately called his wife Drucilla Williams.
“I think I just lost my house,” Williams said, staring at the dark plumes of thick smoke billowing above acres of black spruce.
He was still among the lucky ones on Cottontree Lane whose homes were still standing Tuesday evening.
The house Austin Roberts shared with his parents on Cottontree Lane was the first to be consumed — “all gone in under 35 minutes”— followed by four of his neighbors’ homes, he said in an email.
Greg Roberts, Austin’s father, said he was allowed back into the site of his former home shortly after it burned to the ground. Now a resident of Anchorage, the two-story log house was not his primary dwelling, but he said that did not make losing it any easier.
“You kind of go down Alamo, and it turns into Cottontree, and it still looked OK,” Roberts said. “All of a sudden, you start seeing the red retardant all over everything. There was nothing. Everything was burnt to a crisp.”
Roberts said he plans to clean the site up and rebuild, and that the fire put his good fortune into perspective.
“I feel more sad for the people next door, because that was their house and now they have nothing,” he said.
Roberts and Williams are among the hundreds of Sterling residents and animals already affected by the Card Street fire, which isn’t projected to slow down any time soon.
“It doesn’t get any worse than this,” said Division of Forestry Public Information Officer Terry Anderson. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it — we have 10 more days of this.”
Anderson compared the Card Street fire to last year’s Funny River Horse Trail fire, saying there is a major, and dangerous, difference between them. Last year’s fire spread so quickly and eventually went out, he said, because the ground was still frozen during the month of May.
Now, Anderson said because the ground has thawed, there is plenty of dry fuel, all the way down to the mineral soil layer, for the fire to consume. He said there are even sections of the fire which were put out Monday that have begun to burn again, because the fire has found more fuel under the first layer it already consumed.
“That is unusual. It does happen, and we as firefighters call it a re-burn,” Anderson said. “What it means is that, just because you have a black line near your house, it doesn’t mean that the fire won’t come back and burn. We usually consider black lines safe areas.”
Brian Gibson and his wife Dawn Bragg spent Tuesday back inside their Cottontree Lane home keeping an eye on the material surrounding their property that could easily be reignited.
The smoke cleared, but hotspots hugging their property pop up constantly, Gibson said. Their sauna was another structure lost within the first hours of the fire.
The couple has buckets of water at the ready and is prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.
“You have go to be ready to get out of there,” Gibson said.
There are few exit routes from the residential streets nearest the fire. Cottontree Lane, which turns into Alamo Street, empties onto Feuding Lane, which is the only outlet for many residents living along Kenai Keys Road.
Donna and Clyde McLeod live on Humpy Road at the end of Kenai Keys Road in Sterling.
Clyde McLeod said he wasn’t worried during last year’s Funny River Horse Trail Wildfire cutting their escape route. He had a boat in the water which he could have used to get away from the fire had the road been blocked.
This year, however, Clyde McLeod had taken his boat out of the water prior to leaving for their 50th wedding anniversary cruise, which they returned from Monday, and said he and his wife may well have been trapped in the keys had the wind shifted like it did last year.
The couple said they arrived home in time to learn of the fire and the evacuation recommendation in place for the Kenai Keys. The couple said there is no damage to their house or any house on Humpy Road.
Donna McLeod said they stopped to take a few of their things before leaving the home. The couple is staying at their son’s house in Kenai for now. They returned to their house Tuesday morning to take perishable items from the refrigerator and freezer.
“Then the embers started to fall, and it got really smoky,” Donna McLeod said. “And they told us we had to leave again.”
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.