McKinley fire evacuees share the trauma of leaving their homes

WILLOW, Alaska (KTUU) - Tara Bouranel had little time to collect her belongings before evacuating her home on Hidden Hills Road outside of Willow, where the McKinley fire has been raging since Saturday.

Evacuees walk in to the Willow Community Center's Red Cross Disaster Relief Shelter on Sunday, August 18. (KTUU)

"People were screaming in the streets,” Bouranel said, “everybody was saying ‘Get out! Get out!’"

Bouranel looked up to see the source of concern for herself.

“My heart stopped,” she said. "You could see the flames. It was red, black, white -- it was scary."

Robert Spence lives on the same road as Bouranel, in a small cabin with his cat. He says it’s a simple life, but it’s all he has – and he doesn’t know what he would do if he lost it.

"I was going to get water on the highway and I started going down Hidden Hills Road and saw the smoke,” Spence said. “I knew something was definitely wrong."

Spence and Bouranel were two of 30 evacuees occupying a shelter at the Willow Community Center, supported by Red Cross Disaster Relief. They provide three meals a day, snacks, toiletries, a clean shower – all efforts to help the traumatized evacuees feel more comfortable.

"It's a blessing, an absolute blessing,” Spence said, ‘because I have nowhere else to go. I don’t know what I'd do. There's a lot of people that depend on these services, and it's a godsend."

Bruce Whelan, a lifelong Alaskan, has been volunteering for Red Cross since Hurrican Katrina in 2005. He says even though he’s retired, he feels more alive when he’s helping others than he ever did as a working man.

"We're glad to help out. That's our big deal," Whelan said. "This is a terrible experience for them. They've had to leave their homes behind in a very big hurry, and sometimes they can't grab very much. So, we just try to take care of all their basic needs that we can, and keep them happy until they can go back home."

It may be a while until people like Spence and Bouranel can return home. Just before 7 p.m. Sunday, The McKinley Fire jumped from the east side to the west side of the Parks Highway, expanding evacuation notices to mileposts 79 to 99 of the Parks Highway.

All residents in that area have been advised to leave their homes immediately. The southern relief shelter for evacuees has been relocated from the Willow Community Center to the Menard Sports Complex at 1001 S. Clapp St. in Wasilla.

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