Central peninsula rallies in wake of fire

As the Card Street fire threatens more structures with each acre it expands, the Kenai Peninsula community has begun to rally around its own.

Estimated as of Tuesday night to be 2,000 acres, the fire has caused evacuations to be ordered for areas from Card Street to the Kenai National Wildife Refuge at Mile 76 and south of the Sterling Highway. This area includes Lepus Avenue, Arlene Avenue, Zenith Street, Caffyn Avenue, and Anetta Street.

Evacuations also are in effect for Sterling subdivisions off Feuding Lane to Sterling Highway, and from Kenai Keys to the Kenai River as well as Funny River subdivisions off of Salmon Run Drive to the end of Fisherman’s Road and Dow Island.

The evacuations are recommended, not mandatory.

People who follow the recommendation might be leaving their homes and belongings behind, but they are being met with an outpouring of community support and kindness.

The Sterling Community Center has been designated as a shelter area for those being evacuated. Melissa Daugherty, vice president of the Sterling Community Center Board, has been coordinating the center’s efforts and services since Monday.

“Last night we had 10 people sleeping here, and then for breakfast we had about 60 people,” she said. “I think the community has really stepped up. Last night we didn’t have pillows here, but we have people bringing in pillows and better blankets for tonight.”

Division of Forestry Public Information Officer Terry Anderson visited the center Tuesday afternoon to provide fire updates and answer questions from the residents and volunteers. He spoke frankly, saying these are some of the worst fire conditions he has seen in more than 30 years of service.

Anderson estimated that firefighters will have their work cut out for them for at least 10 more days. This news only makes the Sterling Community Center and other community volunteers that much more vital to displaced residents.

Volunteers from the Birch Ridge Community Church were present at the center to provide both breakfast and dinner on Tuesday. Lunch was provided by Sushi Express. Daugherty said food for Wednesday, clothing, kennels for animals and other items have been donated by businesses and local volunteers.

“The list goes on and on,” she said.

Daugherty said the shelter is accepting donations like towels, dishware, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other household items for people who have been evacuated or have lost their homes entirely.

Residents don’t have to be in charge of a shelter to make a difference for someone else while the Card Street fire rages on.

Cecil Peck, of Kenai, took the day off work to spend his time at the shelter after donating clothing and snacks with his wife and daughter.

“We know some people out here,” Peck said. “The people we know are fine, their house is fine, but they were telling us about how many people were evacuated and how many people lost their homes.”

Reports Tuesday indicated that 10 structures had been lost in the fire.

Tricey Katzenberger, who lives between Sterling and Soldotna, is using her own donation program to help local displaced families. Bear Hugs, which she started about two years ago with her husband, focuses on collecting stuffed animals and other comfort and hygiene items for children.

“My husband and I have six children between us,” Katzenberger said. “This is a way that we can help children in need.”

Katzenberger stuffs backpacks with the donations and presents them to children in need. She and her husband dropped five or six stuffed backpacks off at the Sterling Community Center on Tuesday. 

She said she has 25 packed and ready to distribute.

Katzenberger and her family were already busy delivering backpacks to those affected by the Sockeye Fire, but she said they returned when they heard of tragedy so near their home. 

She planned to go to Anchorage Wednesday to pick up more donations.

“The entire peninsula came together,” Katzenberger said. “It means a lot to me to see the excitement in a child. It brings happiness to your heart and it brings tears to your eyes.”

Katzenberger is accepting donations for Bear Hugs, including children’s blankets, clothing, coloring books, toothpaste and toothbrushes. They can be dropped off with one of her two friends. Tabatha Olson, of Kenai, can be reached at 907-395-7921, and Kristy Phillips, of Soldotna, can be reached at 907-252-6039.

Support for evacuated residents has come forth from a myriad of other community locations as well. The Kenai Home Depot donated a pallet of water bottles to the Sterling Community Center on Tuesday.

Melissa Rhodes, human resource manager for the store, said the donation is routine during emergencies and that Home Depot will continue its support as needed.

“Any time there’s a disaster in communities, (we) reach out to donate,” she said.

While the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex could be opened as an additional shelter for evacuated residents, Anderson told volunteers that the Sterling Community Center would be the primary shelter for this fire.

“We’ll never ask people to leave who need to be here,” Daugherty said. “We will be open as long as the community needs us.”