June 14 massive flames tore through the forest here—burning up our neighborhood.
Today, twelve days later, a budding fireweed is making its way through the ashes. The plant standing tall, barely the height of a thumb, stretches its green and red leaves towards the sky… such beauty and awe-inspiring resilience! That’s Beringian nature for you. Nature in all her glory: Life goes on!
“Home base” for the Racing Beringia programming is located in the small community of Willow, Alaska. We recently watched a TV program on the National Geographic Channel describing Willow as “so remote there is not even a street light.” But located about 90-minutes by car from Anchrorage – the biggest city of Alaska – we really do not consider Willow all that remote… and it is certainly home to many: people and sled dogs.
In many ways this is the mecca of Beringia’s grand sled dog race: the Iditarod. The start of the race is on a lake a few miles from where we are located, and some 10 – 12 Iditarod mushers live within 2-3 miles radius of us. When the flames came here, thousands of sled dogs were evacuated from Willow.
At least twenty-six families in Willow lost their homes and everything they own to this fire. Ten of those were sled dog kennels. One of them was here on the property we call home. Joyce and Peter Duncan own the property that we are based out of. Their beautiful home, the main building on the property, tragically burned to the ground. Along with it, the flames took the yurt Cole and Timofei call home here; the storage building full of our sleds and other equipment; as well as our snow machine and many doghouses. Incredibly, the shop building with the apartment that has been the heart of our operation survived—along with a large wooden barn, the dog fencing and many more doghouses.
The sad remnants of what was Joyce & Peter’s gorgeous Alaskan home.
It all started on a peaceful Sunday with blue sunny skies.
Mille was “home alone.” Timofei is back in Chukotka until sometime this Fall. Cole and Miriam are off on their summer duties. Joar was back in Norway for a few weeks. In his house, Peter was “home alone,” as well. It was some 26-27 ˚C / 80’s ˚F outside. A baking hot day in Alaska, about one o’clock in the afternoon, Mille went outside to check the dogs all had plenty water. First noticing some faint brown smoke in the distant sky and then hearing sirens in the distance, she decided to run to Peter’s door to ask him to look online for any news of fire!? Indeed there was a fire: about 4 miles north, on the other side of Willow Creek. It was still pretty far away, very small, and on the other side of water… but it was also a very windy day, and the second day of extreme heat for this area after an extremely dry winter and spring. So, Peter and Mille quickly decided to just go ahead and start getting ready to move out with the 106 dogs on the property. If nothing else, it would be a good fire drill…
“It was incredibly lucky we started that early,” says Mille. “We never stopped again until we actually drove out with the trucks and trailers down the driveway. Some incredible people – the Stits Family, Carrie Smoldon and a man named Chuck who I do not believe I have ever met before – pulled up to help us. Yet, by the time we were told you MUST evacuate NOW: I still had 12 more dogs that needed to be fetched and loaded…that’s how close it was…but we did all make it safely out of there. I am so very, very grateful for that.”
It was six days before we were allowed to return. In those days the dogs were staked out in the parking lot of a local sled dog business, Underdog of Wasilla owned by Kari Skogan and JP Norris, and we stayed with them in our dog trucks. The first couple of days were completely frantic with scorching record-setting temperatures soaring above 35 ˚C (some +95 ˚F) bringing on serious threat of heat exhaustion for the dogs. Amazing support poured in from the community to help us. People brought tarps, coolers of ice, water, frozen meat and fish, even kids-pools to help keep the dogs safe. Cole drove up from southern Alaska to come to help, and Joar who was in Norway hurried back to Alaska as fast as he could, to arrive on Wednesday with a car camper and cooler temperatures. Thank goodness.
Our evacuation set-up with a 106 dogs at Underdog Feeds in Wasilla, Alaska.
Now, the fire is 90-some percent contained and we are back at the property.
What was a rich northern boreal forest – the landscape covered in a thick maze of green spruce trees and soft mossy ground typical for this region of Beringia – is dust, ash and black sticks. Fire fighters still patrol keeping close watch on the towers of smoke, “hotspots,” that constantly pop up to immediately react when there is flame.
Walking down the trail from our kennel the senses are easily overwhelmed… The over-powering smell of ash in your nostrils; your skin feeling the intense heat radiating from still smoldering tree roots; the odd sound of crusty burned moss and dirt under your feet; the sight of a half-burned moose calf carcass: its mouth open, teeth bared, in your head you imagine its crying out for help.
About 7200 acres of land burned. That is something like 7000 football fields!
By now fires are actually raging across all of Alaska: through forests and across tundra. Last week, there were some fifty wild fires reported in Alaska. Yesterday it was more than 200. Yes, really, two hundred wild fires across Alaska. This is unusual. Although forest fires are normal.
Forest fires are really a very important part of the cycle of life across Beringia, throughout times. Today there is not much forest in western Beringia, in Chukotka—but boreal forest do cover much of eastern Beringia, in central and southern Alaska and the Yukon. The old forest of a boreal forest, which is mostly black spruce, burn naturally every 50 to 200 years releasing nutrients into the soil and creating open spaces for new growth. Pine and willow can only grow in full sun, so they are the first to colonize freshly burned areas. Black spruce trees can grow up through a shaded forest, so they then grow to become the dominant tree in an “old forest.”
We know that trees grew here in Beringia long ago during the warming spells in interglacial times, and that there have always been forest fires, because burnt spruce and birch stumps approximately 125,000 years old have been found just north of us here in Alaska!
Now, at that time the forest fires were for sure not caused by fire works set by humans… as was the very sad case of this fire that started twelve days ago…
This OT Gausdal sled made it with Joar down the insane 2014 Iditarod trail, but the fire eliminated it entirely.
We will not look to dwell any further on that, we will instead look to the fireweed for inspiration – being the pioneer plant that it is, already quickly getting established to grow tall to become beautiful purple flowers that will lift the spirit.
Fireweed is almost always the first plants to grow after a boreal forest fire. This plant has an incredibly high seed production – some 80,000 seed per year; but more importantly it grows a crazy spreading root system. This is of unbelievable value to the ground here, because it helps stabilize the fragile soil cover and reduce erosion while the burn area regenerates. As pollination and honey plant, fireweed also plays a very important part in providing large amount of nectar for bees in our short Beringian summer. Fireweed can actually even be a great meal for us people since it is edible at all stages of growth from when it first sprouts to flowering maturity. In Chukotka, fermented and dried fireweed leaves are brewed for kapporie. “Kapor tea” which is high in vitamin C and A is used to relieve stomach aches. We might brew us a cup of that… or make us some fireweed jelly to use with Joar’s famous pancakes for breakfast this winter, before heading out on the trail training the dogs.
Yes, winter and the season ahead is next on our minds already. We are excited for tomorrow: June 27, the first day of sign-up for the 2016 Iditarod is happening at the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla — and we will be there!