A Total Loss, Yet, A Total Miracle

| June 6, 2014 | 1 Comment

by Jenny Chissus, interview with Police Chief Shad Haller and a statement from SVT Fire Chief Rick Harkness
updated at 2:59pm June 6, 2014

photo by Chief Haller

photo by Chief Haller

Early Tuesday morning – estimates are around 2-3:00am a fire broke out at the Johnson home just outside of town, on Jakolof Bay Road.  This large older home was tucked back into the woods, just past the Seldovia Lagoon adjacent to Outside Beach.  The home was completely engulfed in flames and burned unnoticed and unabated until SVT Barabara Heights Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Rick Harkness was on his way into town and noticed the smoke.  Rick immediately went to Chief Shad Haller’s home (as he doesn’t have a cell phone) and told Shad “It’s gone, it’s just totally gone! No need to call 911, there’s nothing left, the house is completely burned to the ground.”

Johnson Home before the fire - KPB Photo from 2009

Johnson Home before the fire – KPB Photo from 2009

Shad and Rick returned to the site by about 8:05am to assess the situation,  and witnessed just a few residual licks of flame – the structure and all of its contents were a total loss, nothing remained, not a thing.  Shad believes that the house was fully engulfed between 3-5:00am, and it looks like the flames reached between 80 and 100 feet high.  Shad explained: “It is by the grace of God that the whole place didn’t go.  As we all know when you throw spruce branches on a fire, it just crackles and instantly ignites.  We were so fortunate!  Had we not gotten the rain last week, I believe we would be looking at a whole different story!”   The Seldovia Volunteer Fire crew was called at 8:39am, and on site by 8:55am.

photo by Jenny Chissus

photo by Jenny Chissus

By the time the Seldovia Fire Department was called, this was not a containment issue but a mop-up situation, so they were able, as a fire crew to use this tragedy as a training opportunity, and a chance to use all the equipment available to both the Seldovia City fire department and the SVT Barabara Heights Volunteer Fire Department. The initial effort was to water down the surrounding area and to soak the trees that were smoking around the site ensuring that there was no chance for the fire to spread underground.

JanelThere were many trees that were standing very close to the structure.  The bark was burned off the trees, trunks were charred and branches were scorched as high as 70-80 feet up!  It is a total miracle that the whole forest didn’t catch fire!   The owners John and Judy Johnson had always protected those trees, as Judy didn’t ever want them removed from surrounding the home, so the family respected her wishes, even after her death.   When you see the photos, though the home was a total loss, you will be astonished at how Seldovia was spared a massive wildfire.  As Chief Haller mentioned, the rain of last week, soaking the entire Kenai Peninsula definitely played a role in saving us from a potentially devastating fire that could have impacted the whole area.

Rick and Radzy by Jenny Chissus

Rick and Radzy by Jenny Chissus

The cause of the fire appears to be a gravity-fed stove that was in the downstairs area.  An investigator came in on Thursday to assess the situation and meet with Rick who had been in the process of moving into the home for the summer.  It is not only a loss for the Johnson family, but Rick had completed the majority of his move to the property, and lost many precious antique items, including old guns, photos, documents, records and most of his personal belongings that he had recently moved into the garage.  Thankfully, Rick has found a new place to live for the summer, and Shad mentioned that he has been well surrounded by friends through this ordeal.  I had a chance to visit briefly with Rick who stated “I am very thankful for the people who approached me to offer help.  I lost a lot, but I am grateful to the people who came forward to offer me whatever I need.”

photo by Chief Haller

photo by Chief Haller

In addition to Rick Harkness, who is the Fire Chief on the SVT Barabara Heights Volunteer Fire Department, and the first one to respond with the SVT Fire Truck, showing up to assist in the clean up and containment efforts were Brian Slover from the SVT Barabara Heights Volunteer Fire Department, Jan Yaeger from EMS, Tyler Tucker and Randy Bond from the City of Seldovia, who brought out the 4,000 gallon water tank, providing the necessary support to suppress the continuing ground level burn.  Shad stated: “I also need to say thank you to Aaron Dillon, a young man who has been volunteering his time all over Seldovia from Dispatch, Fire, Harbor Master and has even spent several days with Doug Pieren.”  Radzy, regularly the fire truck driver came out and worked the fire hoses along side Rick and Aaron, for hours to ensure that the fire was indeed out.

City Manager Tim Dillon and Police Chief Shad Haller, photo by Jenny Chissus

City Manager Tim Dillon and Police Chief Shad Haller, photo by Jenny Chissus

“In addition to fighting this fire, over the last few days, Radzy had to dispatch himself and drive the Ambulance due to lack of available volunteers during a recent EMS call out.”  Shad exclaimed “The superstar of the day has to go to Janel Harris, anyone who wants to make the statement that it’s a mans world, fighting fires, obviously has not met this young firecracker.  She ran dispatch and reported to the scene to run engine 1 as the Chief Engineer.”

Fire Johnson 039

Aaron Dillon – by Chief Haller

Radzy, Rick, Aaron, Randy, Tyler and Janel were out there for more than 4 hours making sure the site was secure and that there was no further fire risk to Seldovia.   Though limited in numbers, Shad was proud of the team, and all the additional support during the episode:  “Thank all of you, for a job well done!!”

Dousing the ground, cooling the debris by Jenny Chissus

Dousing the ground, cooling the debris
by Jenny Chissus

“Thanks also to the individuals who brought food and drinks out to the Crew. Laurel Hilts from SVT, came with a much-needed and majorly appreciated copious amount of coffee, and to Nancy Opheim for the very refreshing fruit juice!!” – Chief Shad Haller

Though the home was a complete loss, Seldovia was spared, and we are thankful to our Fire Crews, both the Seldovia Fire Department and the Barabara Heights Fire Department!  As you can see, we are in desperate need of more volunteers at the Firehall, and would appreciate anyone’s interest in becoming a part of these very important volunteer crews!  During the summer months, there are more people in town, more activity with bonfires and campouts, and we must not only be safe, but available to serve when an emergency occurs.   Please, contact Chief Haller, Bobbi Sweatt, Bryan Barrett from the Seldovia Fire Department, or Chief Harkness or Alex Chartier from SVT’s Barabara Heights Volunteer Fire Department or any of our fire or EMS crew for more information about how you can become a part of these important crews!


Join the Seldovia Fire and EMS Department! We need YOU! photo by Jenny Chissus

This was quite a fortunate break, as this fire broke out when everyone was sleeping!  It is a stark reminder that we must ALL be alert to smoke in the air, strange explosions, etc. and call in any unusual sightings or noises – as an early response to a situation can make a huge difference!    Don’t assume someone else has called it in, or think that it isn’t your problem – let’s all remember that old adage: “Better safe than sorry!”

Also, the property has been staked off until all investigations are through, and it is against the law to cross that line until the investigations are complete, so please stay clear of the area as it is private property.

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Category: Community

Comments (1)

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  1. Alix Chartier says:

    Thank you Jenny for the photos and the interviews. Thanks to all who responded to this fire and reached out. We know Seldovia comes together when it really counts!

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