WILLOW — Dana Hills is planting 150 trees all over her property. After her house burnt down four years ago in the Sockeye Fire, it was rebuilt bigger and better than ever. She’s been planting a myriad of trees and shrubs each year since.
“I have nice neighbors but I don’t necessarily want to see them,” Hills said.
Hills moved to Willow for the same reason a lot of people move to Willow, for the privacy and nature. She wanted a less urban setting, favoring the vast Alaskan wilds with tress spanning over the horizon. She said that she misses the diverse enclosure of trees on her property and the natural fencing that came with their beauty.
“I moved from Anchorage so could have more of that wilderness experience and that’s been taken right now. It’ll come back eventually Maybe not in my lifetime because I’m 65 but, you know for my kids. It’ll come back,” Hills said.
June 14 marks the fourth anniversary of the devastating fire that forced hundreds of Willow residents from their homes. There were no fatal injuries.
“It is amazing that no one got hurt,” Hills said.
The man-made forest fire burned through 7,220 acres, incinerating 55 homes and damaging 44 other structures. Hills lost the whole house to the fire, along with five acres of trees.
“It still comes up in conversations at Fourth of July because people like us thought we would have everything back together the next year. We’re still working on stuff from the fire,” Hills said.
Hills said the new house was built as a family home. She lives with her eldest son, Jeff Fuller, who operates his business out of the house. The original was a lot smaller, about 2,200 square feet. This one is 7,000 square feet.
“Which is bigger than I ever thought I would be in, ever,” Hills said.
Hills planted 450 saplings the first year at her new home. She planted 50 more last year. She’s going for diversity and has a spectrum of trees and shrubs, including apple trees, birch, Siberian larch, as well as white, blue and Sitka spruce varieties.
She recalled a day in the midst of the blaze, when she saw flaming pine cones shooting from spruce trees like “rockets” that extended the fire. She said that the house made it through Sunday but got eventually caught in the fire the next day. She said that when she was gathering the most important items with her youngest son, Scott Hills, she noticed from an approaching wall of fire in the distance.
“I’ve never seen flames that high,” Hills said. “I said, ‘we need to go, now.’”
She’s downing burnt trees with Fuller and cutting them up for their new wood stove. The old one melted in the fire. She was later told her home caught fire from below and reached temperatures around 2,800 to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit. After 20 years of paying fire insurance, the time came when Hills needed to use it.
She brought her three dogs in the RV that fateful Sunday, eating with her sons at Red Robin in Wasilla after church. She said that she was thankful they had the dogs with them and she never leaves them at alone at the house anymore.
She said that dealing with her insurance became difficult and she eventually had to hire an attorney to help her through the process. She said that it took about a year of deliberation before they paid the full amount of $800,000. She said that she had to find replacements for every lost item or average of three similar options.
“I had to list everything in the house down to the iron, ironing board, things like that… We’re still thinking of things. It’s when you need something and you don’t have it, we’re like, ‘oh, that was destroyed in the fire.’” Hills said.
She said there’s 5,400 square feet dedicated to living space, and the rest is garages for Fuller’s business, Clearing the Way Services. She said that the insurance didn’t cover any of his losses so they built with his work in mind. In the end, she said that she’s happy that no one was hurt because “unlike stuff, people can’t be replaced.”
“I feel very blessed,” Hills said.
She said that during the ensuing days of the fire, Fuller signed up with the Alaska Division of Forestry to help transport the hot shot crews that flew up to help local first responders put it out. She said that a lot of people pitched in to help out during the fire and in the subsequent aftermath. She said that most people do their own thing in Willow and there’s a fair share of “grumpy” characters but when the time comes, they show up for each other.
“In an emergency, the community really serves each other. It is definitely small town America. We have a community center. We still have Thanksgiving dinners. We still have a Fourth of the July parade,” Hills said.
Hills moved to Willow in 2001 from Anchorage as a single parent, just out of a divorce.
“I came out here and went to a community event and said, ‘you know, as a single parent this is the community I want to raise my kids in; because, it is a tight-knit community. When push comes to shove you can count on Willow people to help each other,” Hills said.
Two Anchorage residents were charged for starting the fire but were ultimately found not guilty. Hills said it’s still a sore subject in the community. She said that she wished the people responded differently and actually apologized for their actions.
“They still talk about the fire. There’s still some animosity about the people who started it… They were very arrogant,” Hills said.
She said that inspire of residual ire, people in Willow are healing and picking up the pieces left by the disaster.
“People are starting to heal. We’ve just been trying to look at the positive part of it, that no one was hurt. Nobody got killed. We just lost buildings. Those that didn’t have insurance have had a tougher time. The guy behind me did not have insurance so he’s rebuilding his house in stages as he can,” Hills said.
She said that the community came together to make sure all the displaced residents had adequate housing, helping people rebuild on a regular basis.
“They would have like, ‘okay, this weekend we’re going to build a cabin for so and so,” Hills said.
Hills is involved with numerous functions and committees in her community, including the emergency response team and dog park committee. She said their fenced dog park is the only wild life, leash less, dog park in the country. She laughed as she recalled how people make “play dates” for their dogs.
“I love Willow. It’s a great community. It’s probably the best kept secret in Alaska,” Hills said.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org