20 years later, Big Lake and Houston remember devastating Miller’s Reach Fire
Like most events of its kind, the block party in Big Lake Saturday afternoon had a celebratory feel. But people were also there to remember one of the most difficult times in their lives.
20 years ago this week, the Miller’s Reach Fire burned roughly 37,000 acres in Big Lake and Houston. In 11 days, it destroyed more than 350 structures, making it one of the most devastating wildfires in Alaska’s history.
“We wanted to commemorate and recognize how the community of Big Lake has recovered since that fire and all the growth and changes that have taken place since,” said Cathi Kramer, who lost her home on Horseshoe Lake and helped organize the block party.
She said her family was just four days away from moving into the new house.
“The fire started on Sunday and on Wednesday, we lost our home,” Kramer said.
When the family finally arrived at their property after the fire, the home had burned to its foundation. One of the few surviving objects was a tire swing hung between two birch trees.
“At that point we said, ‘OK, we will rebuild.’ And the process began. We moved in a year later,” said Kramer.
In its early stages, the fire was nearly contained by firefighters. But the weather changed, and with strong winds, it quickly spread out of control. Norm McDonald, a fire management officer for the Division of Forestry, was a firefighter for the agency in 1996. He was one of the first people on the scene of Miller’s Reach and said by the time he started his second shift he was expecting to hear news of fatalities.
“When I heard that there was none, that was just a huge relief,” McDonald said. “I think we all thought there was going to be people that were not accounted for.”
During the fire, many people — including those who chose to remain at their homes instead of evacuating — communicated through radio stations like KMBQ in Palmer. Chas St. George, who worked at that radio station at the time, said it was a “rudimentary” form of social media.
“People were reporting the news. They were telling us what they saw. We, of course, let the rest of the public know,” said St. George. “That began this synergy that lasted throughout the entire fire.”
During the months following the fire, the affected communities began to heal. Kramer said many people chose to rebuild. In fact, Big Lake didn’t shrink in size following the fire; it grew.
“To me, that says something about how we have come back from the fire — that this is a place people want to come,” said Kramer.
Saturday afternoon, a monument was unveiled in Big Lake to commemorate the fire. While the cause was never officially determined, it may have been caused by fireworks, according to a report from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
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