CASWELL — The Sheep Creek Lodge narrowly escaped the flames of the McKinley Fire. However, mother-daughter owners Jessi Zimmerly and Molly Crawford are no strangers to fire danger in Caswell, nor are they strangers to helping out their community.
On Saturday, the Sheep Creek Lodge hosted it’s reopening with music from Marc Brown and the Blues Crew to host a celebration for the community of Caswell.
“People were at their homes protecting it 24/7, completely focused on their own little world and they needed to get out of that and they needed to come be with like minded people, exchange stories and we wanted them to hopefully feel like their struggle was a little bit less and maybe laugh for once in however many days,” said Zimmerly. “They play awesome music and it was high energy and it was our locals, it was our regulars, it was our people. It really was just like a Saturday night, just the gratitude was turned up to 10.”
The music and dancing at the Sheep Creek Lodge comes just weeks after Zimmerly and her mother thought that they had lost not just the lodge which they’ve run for the last five years, but their family of employees and community members. The original Sheep Creek Lodge burned down in 1986, and the new lodge was built in 1989. The first winter Zimmerly and her mother Crawford took over the lodge in 2014, there was a record lack of snowfall. Zimmerly said that she and her mother had to white knuckle it until spring, when the Sockeye Fire hit, affecting not just their neighbors to the south, but employees of the lodge who lost their homes.
“That was our first taste of relief efforts for our community and so this felt a lot like that but we weren’t ground zero almost for Sockeye, so this one felt a lot more personal but it felt familiar because we’d been through it with Willow in the sockeye fire,” said Zimmerly.
Zimmerly said that she, her mother and a few employees were some of the first to evacuate. They felt helpless in a Wasilla hotel room as internet rumors began to swirl that the Sheep Creek Lodge had burned down.
“We had spent almost four hours while we were in Wasilla on Sunday where we had been convinced that the lodge had burned down just due to all those, just the Facebook rumors were insane,” said Zimmerly. “We had spent so long thinking that it had burned down we had already called our family to let them know and then I got a call from forestry asking if it was still okay to rent our cabins and it just felt like such and odd question.”
Shocked as they were unaware the lodge was still standing, they returned home. While they knew the area was unsafe, Zimmerly and her mother had been told by the Department of Forestry that if the fire got close enough to the lodge, they would have time to evacuate. One of the first things they did when returning to the lodge was to make a sign out of a tarp and duct tape that read, “Thank you fire crew! Caswell strong.”
Zimmerly said that they felt both sides of the experience of many of their Caswell neighbors, fearing the worst while miles away from their home and seeing the flames from their own home.
“The winds were coming right at us and I mean it was crazy, you could see the smoke billowing directly over the lodge,” said Zimmerly.
In the days between returning to the lodge and reopening on Friday night, Zimmerly and the Sheep Creek Lodge crew hosted family barbecues to feed members of the community. The ever present danger of defensible space that had been on their minds is now more prevalent than ever.
“We have 26 acres and there is a lot that is dead spruce. We have some good defensible space around the lodge but there’s a lot more of improvements,” said Zimmerly “Anybody who’s been in Alaska long enough knows that these circumstances are irregular and so something drastic is kind of bound to happen but it was very fast. It’s one of those things that goes crickets to mayhem.”
The Sheep Creek Lodge is no stranger to wildfire, nor dealing with less than optimal circumstances. Zimmerly recalls the time the power went out because a plane had collided with power lines, but the band plugged in to a generator and continued the party anyway. Zimmerly said that even though they are well connected in the community, the McKinley fire alerted them as to just how many neighbors they don’t know. The disaster that occurred has strengthened the community to be more prepared in the future. On the front fireplace of the Sheep Creek Lodge is a list of resources for those affected and a donation pot for survivors. As Zimmerly sat in the dining room on Sunday, a neighbor from Trapper Creek let her know that he had brought hundreds of pounds of vegetables to donate. Zimmerly hopes to use the Sheep Creek Lodge as the hub of the Caswell community to distribute appropriate resources to those who need the help, and expects to roll up her sleeves to begin helping her neighbors rebuild.
“I feel like the hard work is just about to start,” said Zimmerly.