Whiskey Gulch landmark burns

A fire Saturday evening that involved five Kenai Peninsula fire departments completely destroyed a landmark building at Whiskey Gulch. Firefighters could not save a five-story log home built by Robin and Margareta Lipinski and recently sold at an auction. Unoccupied at the time, no one was injured in the fire or in the response.

“It was a towering inferno,” said Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Services acting chief Kayt Andrews.

Anchor Point Fire and EMS got the page about 8 p.m. after a person driving by noticed flames. Anchor Point made the initial attack on the structure near Mile 153 Sterling Highway. Andrews said when firefighters arrived within 15 minutes, fire had completely engulfed the main house, an 11,000-square-foot building. 

The fire became so big that Anchor Point called in help from other departments. Kachemak Emergency Services, Homer Volunteer Fire Department, Ninilchik Fire and EMS and Central Emergency Services, Soldotna, all sent equipment and firefighters and emergency medical technicians to the fire. With the nearest water an 8-mile trip to the Anchor Point Fire Station, assisting departments spent much of the effort hauling water in tankers.

“That was probably our biggest challenge and why we called in our resources,” Andrews said.

Kachemak Emergency Services Fire Chief Bob Cicciarella said KES sent 25 firefighters and EMTs, a fire engine, two tankers, an ambulance and other vehicles. KES also sent a tanker-pumper from the McNeil Canyon Fire Station to the Diamond Ridge Fire Station to cover the west side of the KES area so the area had coverage in case of another fire call.

“It was pretty amazing for sure,” Cicciarella said. “When I was responding I could see the glow in the sky after turning around the hill coming to Diamond Ridge.”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. An outdoor wood stove in a shed was near the main building, but Andrews didn’t know if that was the origin. The fire is thought to have started in the basement or main floor of the five-story building, Andrews said. 

Firefighters worked the fire until about 2:20 a.m. Sunday, Andrews said. While the main building was a total loss, firefighters saved two other cabins on the property. A fourth cabin was severely damaged. One cabin saved had a generator and a bank of batteries to hold power from wind turbines and solar panels.

Built to be independent of the energy grid, the complex featured three 50-foot tall, 6-kilowatt wind turbines. Lipinski named them Thor, Thunder and Titan. Andrews said one turbine might have had heat damage, but she thinks they survived the fire.

The wind turbines were not connected to the Homer Electric Association power grid, said HEA spokesperson Joe Gallagher. One cabin on the property is connected to the HEA grid. Wind energy systems connected to the HEA grid under its net metering system — where power is sold back to HEA — have to meet certain engineering standards, such as shutting down in high winds and having a circuit breaker at the panel where the turbine is fed from. Wiring also has to meet National Electric Code standards.

Thor, Thunder and Titan also started a fire in the generator shed when the turbine blades kept spinning and started to overload the batteries, Andrews said. Brakes on the turbines hadn’t been set, Andrews said.

“It ended up generating its own fire inside due to the energy not having a place to go,” she said. “That’s what we believe happened.”

A caretaker came by and put the brakes on and firefighters got the batteries disconnected. Firefighters saved the generator shed. One firefighter knew about the property and its renewable energy system.

“This was an interesting first for us as far as dealing with the alternative energy sources,” Andrews said. “We were able to be pretty aggressive about it.”

Andrews said she had heard later that some people passing by had seen smoke but didn’t call it in. She urged people to report suspicious fires.

“This is a really good example of people calling fires in as soon as they suspect anything,” she said. “Had it been called in sooner, we might have had a different outcome.”

According to Kenai Peninsula Borough online tax records, Shayne and Nikki Barringer now own the land and buildings. The assessed value of improvements is $741,600. Andrews did not know if the building was insured. A phone message was left with the Barringers, but they did not reply by press time.

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