A trial to determine whether or not an Anchorage couple started the destructive 2015 Sockeye Fire began in Palmer on Thursday.
Attorneys gave opening statements in the trial of Amy DeWitt, 43, and Greg Imig, 61. The two are each charged with a dozen counts related to the wildfire, including second-degree negligent burning, failure to obtain a burn permit, burning without clearing the area, allowing the wildfire to spread and leaving the fire unattended.
The couple sat with their attorneys in court Thursday, when witness testimony began. About 20 people filled the Palmer courtroom, many of whom had lost property in the area.
For many of the victims, it was their first time seeing the couple, who had mostly called in to previous court hearings.
The state outlined its case for the jury Thursday, arguing that the couple acted recklessly by starting several burn piles on their Willow property and leaving the scene of the fire without assisting.
The fire burned over 7,000 acres and destroyed over 100 structures, including 55 homes. Located in a neighborhood where numerous mushers live, the fire killed pets, including sled dogs, and cost over $8 million to fight.
Assistant district attorney Eric Senta, the prosecutor in the case, told the jury that DeWitt and Imig had three burn piles on their property the weekend the fire started on June 15, 2015.
Senta told jurors that the couple built debris piles in bad locations, didn't have enough water to douse the fire and did nothing to contain the fire pits — there weren't rock rings or deep pits. All they did to snuff out the fire pit that investigators contend started the fire was to cover it with plyboard.
"(They) just sort of shoved a large pile of sticks and leaves against the white spruce forest and lit it on fire," Senta said.
Senta told jurors that even though the fire appeared to be out to the couple, it was smoldering underneath, slowly creeping out along the forest floor before igniting that Sunday afternoon.
Defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald disagreed, telling jurors the state's theory is inconsistent with the evidence, with the science of how wildfires start and with what he called "common sense."
Fitzgerald is not disputing that the Sockeye Fire caused widespread damage and destruction. However, he argued, DeWitt and Imig's fire pit wasn't the source of the blaze.
Fitzgerald told jurors that the couple — who had decided to spend a weekend cleaning up their property off Ringler Circle just north of Willow — had been monitoring their fire pits the night before and that there were no signs it would spread.
He said DeWitt, who was watering lilacs on the couple's property that Sunday, spotted a fire approaching their property from the northwest and about a "football field" away.
The fire moved fast, Fitzgerald told jurors, and the couple, realizing they had neither the water nor tools to fight it, left their property and called 911 numerous times.
He told jurors that a 911 operator told DeWitt to "just try to get everyone out of the area," and that the couple heeded that advice and fled back to Anchorage.
Leo Lashock, one of the first firefighters on scene, was the first to testify Thursday. Lashock, a Willow fire captain, also lost his home in the fire.
Lashock testified Thursday about arriving on scene and the chaotic measures taken to evacuate people from the area as the fire quickly spread. He said firefighters struggled against the speed of the fire as it moved through the thick spruce forest on a warm and windy summer day.
"As we pulled into driveways, the fire was just pulling into each area we were in," he said.
Lashock said he lost everything in the fire, from winter clothing and dog mushing supplies to guns and irreplaceable mementos.
"You could shovel the house into buckets, except for roofing," he said of what he found at the site of his home.
Iditarod musher DeeDee Jonrowe sat in the courtroom Thursday watching the proceedings. She wept as Lashock recounted first getting to the fire.
She said later that the trauma of the day still lingered after almost two years. Like Lashock, her entire home burned to the ground. While she was able to evacuate most of her sled dogs, one dog, Python, died in the fire.
Jonrowe, like others affected by the fire, expressed frustration that DeWitt and Imig have been absent for much of the courtroom proceedings and rebuilding efforts in the area over the years.
"I just see no emotion from them," Jonrowe said. "They've never even said they're sorry. Now I know why, because they don't think they did it."
The trial continues Friday.