By Melinda Munson

Susie and Jeff Anderson were on vacation in California when their house caught fire. A chimney blaze started in their cozy blue Skagway cottage on Aug. 15 at 11:14 p.m., while house sitters tended the property. 

No one was injured as two firefighters, three fire department volunteers, the police department and various community members raced to help.

“They poured water on it for seven hours,” said Susie.

The Andersons waited six days before they could travel home to see the damage. It didn’t make sense to spend money to return early, to possibly get caught in Juneau in bad weather. Instead, the Andersons went to Disneyland, as originally planned.

When they arrived in Skagway, their almost five-year-old-son, Lewie, checked the important things first.

“Don’t worry, guys, the playhouse is good,” he said.

The Andersons’ home was uninhabitable. While it had not been badly burned, the smoke and water damage was extreme. They are currently residing in a family rental.

Furniture, bedding and mattresses were destroyed. Their clothes, however, were salvaged. Susie said a team of neighbors, friends and family members immediately started washing clothing, which saved their textiles from the smoke. 

Many of their keepsakes were also saved. Community members emptied the house and scattered the Anderson’s belongings in garages and storage areas to dry.

Susie said that “all of the most important things got done within 24 hours,” such as ripping out carpets. Local contractors were almost immediately on scene, volunteering their time to stem the worst of the damage.  

Susie said she sends a “profuse thank you” to the community. “It’s a little overwhelming to feel that much support.”

For Lewie, what at first seemed like a new adventure, is starting to wear off. His mom said he can at times be a little whiny and has a million questions.

It’s difficult for the adults, as well. Susie said the most heartbreaking aspect is “not knowing when we’ll have a home again.”

“Definitive answers are nice,” she said.

For all the help the Andersons received, the fire department is short-staffed. Former Fire Chief Joe Rau recently resigned and the municipality is currently in the process of hiring a replacement. The department, which usually has three full-time firefighters, is functioning with just two, and seven volunteers.

Within 72 hours of the Aug. 15 fire, the fire department was handling another emergency, an electrical fire that started on Aug. 18 at 1:52 a.m. Luckily, this fire was put out in less than an hour, according to Rick Ackerman, Fire Inspector/Training Coordinator.

Assemblymember Sam Bass, Chair of the Public Safety Committee, is helping to recruit volunteer firefighters. 

“Serving your community as a volunteer firefighter makes a real impact on your fellow citizen’s safety and security … Skagway needs you,” Bass said.

Chimney fires are not uncommon in Skagway. Ackerman recommends cleaning chimneys twice a year. While there is no professional chimney cleaning company in town, the fire department loans out brushes and rods free of charge.

Ackerman described the process of cleaning a chimney as climbing on the roof, taking off the chimney cap, attaching the brush to the rod, and proceeding to brush out the chimney, which will require either six or eight- inch equipment.

The Andersons are adjusting to their new normal: the death of a beloved family pet before their trip, forays into their damaged home and conversations with the insurance company — all while dealing with a pandemic. But Susie said she’s grateful for the silver linings.

“The fire department was able to give us water damage instead of fire damage,” she said.