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Willow mushers lose home they built to fire; residents and dogs OK

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 19, 2014

WASILLA -- A fire in a Willow sled dog mushing neighborhood Friday destroyed the home of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finisher Jaimee High and her husband, Justin.

The good news: The young couple wasn't hurt and their 24 dogs survived, as did three of their six chickens, Justin High said Friday afternoon.

The bad: The snug 300-square-foot cabin he built the past few years out of pocket wasn't insured, High said. And they lost everything inside -- wedding photos, tools, and Iditarod memorabilia ranging from bib and finisher's belt buckle to trinkets from Nome.

"Everything that we've put into this place in the last two years since we bought the property, built the house by hand," he said.

Injured husky saved

The fire on Serenity Drive was reported just after 11:30 a.m. and generated an "all call" for any available responders, according to Willow and Caswell Fire Chief Mahlon Greene. A "shed-slash-chicken coop" and the house were both ablaze when Greene arrived, he said. Everything burned to the ground.

Jaimee High, 32, was running an errand and 31-year-old Justin High was at work when the fire started, he said. His wife came home to see the shop engulfed in flames and ran into the house next door to save the couple's retired sled dog and an injured husky recuperating inside.

"She got in just in time to open up the door to let the two dogs that were in the house out," he said. "She could see the fire in the ceiling already."

The couple runs a kennel and sewing business called The High's Adventure Kennel. Jaimee High ran the Iditarod as a rookie in 2012 and finished in 46th place. She is signed up for the 2015 race.

Before they bought their property, the Highs lived with Iditarod veteran DeeDee Jonrowe. Justin High worked as her handler.

"The two of them are like kids to us because they lived with us for four years," an emotional Jonrowe said Friday afternoon. "They don't have anything but the clothes on their backs."

By the time the fire department arrived, Jonrowe said, the fire had spread and firefighters could do nothing.

Greene said there was no immediate indication of what caused the fire. Justin High wondered if it was a chimney fire that started in the shop, which had a barrel stove. The shop and cabin were about five yards apart. The shop was plumbed, with water and a bathroom. The house was dry.

Fund set up to help

There was one bright spot Friday. The Highs thought they'd lost all but one of their chickens. Then they found two more, alive, in a dog food storage shed.

Their 24 dogs -- a roughly 16-dog team, several pups, three Siberian huskies, a couple retired huskies and their pet bulldog -- are at Jonrowe's, High said.

Friends and neighbors are rallying around the couple. High said they're getting offers of free places to stay. Jonrowe said a gofundme page has been set up to help.

What's next?

"Good question," High said, laughing a little. "We'll rebuild. We'll build it again. I don't know her plans for Iditarod yet. We're still taking this all in and figuring it out from here."

Contact Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com.

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