Mike Dingman: Everyday heroes step up in fight against fire

Mike Dingman

The atmosphere for Memorial Day was highlighted by the blood red sun looming ominously in the sky amid a mixture of smoke and clouds.

As of Tuesday morning, the Funny River Fire has consumed more than 243 square miles, with more than 650 firefighters working to end it. So far it is 30 percent contained. The size of the fire is larger than the entire city of Seattle. While there have been no injuries or structural damage reported yet, however, evacuations have now been ordered and many Alaskans are awaiting word on when they can return home.

Unseasonably warm temperatures and a lack of rain created ideal conditions for this type of fire to start and to spread quickly. Normally this time of year, we would still be drying out from a long breakup season but this year we seemed to skip spring and jump straight into a very hot and dry summer in early May.

Rain has been in the forecast a few times this month; however, it seems to have passed us by every time and we keep waking up to sunny mornings.

While that may make for some lovely picnics, days at the park and hiking opportunities, it's bad news for those who dedicating their days to fighting and preventing wildfires.

This week many in Anchorage have woken up to ash on our vehicles -- a strong reminder of what our neighbors to the south are experiencing.

On Monday evening I drove out to Earthquake Park to go for a walk down the Coastal Trail. As I was driving west, I saw what would have been one of the most beautiful sunsets imaginable, except for one thing -- it was two hours before sunset and the blazing sun sat high in a pink and orange sky.

The smoke and the clouds made it look as if rain was on the way, and we woke to the needed rain on Tuesday. That and Monday evening's cold bite in the wind on the Coastal Trail were slap-in-the-face reminders that we ware subservient to Mother Nature's whim.

The fire has dominated the news cycle and the lives of Alaskans. Social media has been consumed with discussions of the smoke in the air, the colorful tint in the sky and updates on the fire from multiple sources.

In the heart of a very divisive and active political season, Alaskans have taken a break from the rhetoric in order to come together against a common foe.

Small-town Alaska has come to life. Restaurants are offering free meals to refugees and to firefighters. Donations of water, food and other essentials are pouring into makeshift shelters and people are snapping into action to help their neighbors.

For many, this fire has brought back memories of the Miller's Reach Fire, which consumed 37,000 acres and more than 450 structures in 1996. The fire started just north of Big Lake and kept moving south, keeping many Anchorage residents constantly looking north and west.

The Miller's Reach fire was caused by human carelessness, and early indications are that this fire was started in a similarly careless fashion.

On a weekend focused on heroes who have passed through this world and into the next, circumstance has shifted our focus to heroes among the living and coming to help Alaskans.

We have also seen our local heroes shine, running head on into danger's path and working hard to ensure the safety of their neighbors and their property.

Thankfully, structures and lives have been spared so far in this fight, and the rain has helped, but we still quite a ways from declaring victory against this fire.

Men and women will continue to work, Alaskans will continue to watch and we will all continue to send our thoughts and prayers to all who are affected.

To all of the heroes who are helping to end this catastrophe with the minimal amount of damage -- thank you.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.

Mike Dingman