Woman loses house in fire

Neighbors rally to help out; Homer boat destroyed in harbor fire Monday morning

  • Daniel Bunker took these photos while flying over a house fire on Deep Creek.

Ninilchik neighbors have rallied to help a friend recover from a house fire on Saturday afternoon that completely destroyed the log home of Helena Toretta-Imlah. Toretta-Imlah, 69, escaped barefoot with her dog, Ola, and was able to save her car and purse. She singed her hair and eyebrows, but was otherwise uninjured in the fire.

“It’s unbelievable to lose her home,” said Nadine Russo, organizer of a Go Fund Me online fundraiser for Toretta-Imlah. “A lot of people have stepped up for her.”

The Ninilchik fire was one of two big fires on the lower Kenai Peninsula since Friday. On Monday morning, a fire at the Homer Boat Harbor severely damaged the KingPin, a 43-foot fiberglass sport fishing charter boat.

Ninilchik Emergency Services Chief Dave Bear said firefighters responded quickly to the fire once Toretta-Imlah called it in about 3:30 p.m. Dec. 17. She discovered the fire when she smelled smoke and opened the back door to flames.

“I grabbed the keys, my purse, ran downstairs and got in the car,” Toretta-Imlah said.

In her hurry to escape the fire, Toretta-Imlah left her cell phone in the pocket of her parka inside and wasn’t able to find a phone to call 911 for at least 10 minutes. Bear said a pilot in a plane passing overhead also saw the fire and called it in. By the time firefighters got to the house on Antares Circle off Deep Creek Farm Road at about 3:45 p.m., they found the house fully engulfed in flames.

“I was fairly shocked at how involved it was,” Bear said. “We had a fairly quick response.”

Six firefighters from Ninilchik responded with a fire engine, a tanker pumper, an ambulance and a utility truck. Anchor Point Emergency Services provided mutual aid with two firefighters and an engine. It took about 30,000 gallons of water shuttled from the Ninilchik Fire Station and the Ninilchik General Store to put out the fire, Bear said. Crews worked the scene until about 8 p.m. Bear said the fire appeared to have started outside. Toretta-Imlah said she had a brand-new heat lamp outside on the porch to keep her roosters warm. The roosters survived the fire.

Toretta-Imlah said she’s now trying to pull her life together. Neighbors have rallied to help her.

“After it happened, I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” she said. “The community, the outpouring ­— this is where I belong.”

Russo and her sister, Jessi, have been coordinating help for Toretta-Imlah at their store, the Ninilchik Peddler.

“We had a ton of people come out and offer places to stay, food and all that stuff,” Bear said of the community response. “There was a constant stream of concern and neighbors who wanted to help.”

Toretta-Imlah is a retired Wien Airlines flight attendant and an accomplished quilter. She said she has an old Singer sewing machine at the Ninilchik Senior Center. Quilting friends are rallying to get her back at her hobby and are gathering donations of fabric and other supplies.

Toretta-Imlah turns 70 on Christmas Day, she said. She’s staying with a friend in Ninilchik and will be able to housesit through the spring.

Toretta-Imlah’s home had been insured, she said, but insurance was recently cancelled because of a technicality. Toretta-Imlan’s mother also died recently, and Toretta-Imlah lost china and other family possessions. Her cat remains missing and it’s not known if it survived the fire.

Bear said the house was valued at about $350,000.The GoFund Me fundraiser seeks to raise $100,000. To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/help-helena-recover-from-the-fire. Checks also can be mailed to Helena Toretta-Imlah care of the Ninilchik Peddler, P.O. Box 39226, Ninilchik AK, 99639, or dropped off at the Buzz Café in Ninilchik.

In the KingPin boat fire, harbor officers responded to the call about 9:30 a.m. Dec. 19 and knocked the fire down by about 9:45 a.m., but were unable to keep the fire from torching much of the cabin. No one was on board the boat and no one was injured in the fire. It’s the second boat fire at the Homer Harbor within two months, and the second fire on D Float.

“It was a good response,” said Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins. “It’s a damn shame. The KingPin is a total loss.”

A vessel sharing a stall with the KingPin, the C Raine, “got smoked up,” Hawkins said, and might have had damage to her rigging. Before harbor officers and firefighters put out the fire, a northeast wind blew thick black smoke across the Homer Spit and into Kachemak Bay. Hawkins said deputy harbormaster Matt Clarke and harbor officer Mark Whaley crawled under the smoke to the C Raine to untie the commercial fishing boat. Another boat, the F/V Silver Beach, pulled the C Raine out of the stall and to safety. Hawkins said by the time harbor officers got to the scene, the fire had burned the stern line of the KingPin.

“She was starting to slide. Had the next line burnt, it would have likely gone over and laid against her (the C Raine) and we would have had a multi-boat fire by then,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins responded to the fire in the harbor tug and pumped water from upwind of the fire while harbor officers went to the fire with a fire cart, a self-propelled portable fire pump. By the time Homer Volunteer Fire Department firefighters arrived at about 9:40 a.m., much of the fire had been knocked down. Firefighters pressurized and pumped water through a dry-line fireline system. Kachemak Emergency Services also responded. Firefighters in full gear with air packs pushed through the noxious black smoke from burning fiberglass and fully extinguished the fire on the KingPin.

The KingPin is one of two boats operated by Alaska Ocean Pros, a sport fishing charter operation. Owner Gabe Linegar said a Casino catamaran boat will keep his business going until spring when he can replace the KingPin with another boat, probably another catamaran. Linegar said he will keep serving clients. Alaska Ocean Pros has been doing some winter king charters. The KingPin was a vintage 1976 Delta boat that Linegar and Ivan Martushev rebuilt this year. The fire gutted the cabin and aft deck.

“We both put a lot of our time and heart into that thing to make it back to its original condition,” Linegar said.

Another boat fire on Nov. 3 at D Float destroyed the 32-foot F/V Linda Kay, a commercial fishing boat.

“That’s about enough of that nonsense,” Hawkins said of the two fires on the same float.

A fisherman at the scene on Monday morning told a Homer Police officer that the D Harbor electrical system had been redone and the city should look into it. Hawkins said that wasn’t true and that the D Float system has not recently been rewired. The cause of the Lady Kay fire was either an electric heater or a multi-plug outlet the heater had been plugged into, Hawkins said. The cause of the KingPin fire remains under investigation.

Hawkins said that in the event of any electrical surge in the D Float or other electrical systems, circuit breakers would trip either at the main vault on land or at power posts on the floats.

By 12:30 p.m. the KingPin had been towed out of the harbor and taken to a dryland boatyard.

“We’re sorry this happened, and we’re just thankful nobody was hurt and no other vessels were damaged,” Hawkins said of the KingPin fire. “It was a great response from everybody.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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