Five people safely escaped a restaurant in Two Rivers early Monday as the building was engulfed in flames, according to Alaska State Troopers and a restaurant employee.
Troopers said the building is considered a total loss, and said they were investigating the fire as an arson Monday afternoon.
Two Rivers is east of Fairbanks, and is home to just over 650 people.
The fire is the third under investigation as an arson within a six-mile stretch of Chena Hot Springs Road in less than a week. It comes as troopers are investigating a string of arsons that have now destroyed as many as 11 buildings in the area since May, officials in the community said.
The community has no fire department.
First responders were called to the Two Rivers Lodge, near Mile 16 of Chena Hot Springs Road, at 12:21 a.m., said Austin McDaniel, spokesman for the troopers. Troopers responded to the fire and a Deputy Fire Marshal also arrived at the scene.
A woman who lived in the upstairs apartment of the building was displaced and all of her belongings were destroyed, according to Two Rivers Lodge employee Christine Guzman.
The lodge is the third community building to burn this year. The Grange Community Center and the Homesteader Building were also destroyed, said Bob Sugden, treasurer of The Pleasant Valley Community Association.
In July, troopers said the FBI and the Alaska State Fire Marshal were also investigating the string of fires. Two homes had been started on fire while people were home, although no one has been injured. Sugden said several families have been displaced.
The community was already on edge before the Two Rivers Lodge burned to the ground Monday, Guzman said, but the latest fire has magnified fears.
“Everyone is frightened,” she said. “Everyone is terrified — nobody can even sleep anymore. It’s just not how it used to ever be — this is the type of place where people just keep their doors unlocked, and everybody is sleeping with their lights on and a gun next to their bed now.”
“We just have so many frightened families and parents who are just dreading waking up and having to get their kids and pets out of the house in a fire,” Guzman said.
When Guzman got a call early Monday that the restaurant was on fire, she said she got into her car immediately to go there. As she drove toward the restaurant, she said she could see smoke filtering through the trees and an orange glow in the sky from several miles away.
“And I just lost it,” she said. “I started crying and I was just praying so bad that they got the renter out upstairs.”
Four employees were in the building when the fire began and Guzman said a woman who rents the upstairs portion of the building was asleep. The employees tried to kick in the door to wake her. All five people made it out of the building as smoke was filling the hallway that led to the door, Guzman said.
Guzman said she watched for nearly four hours as the building burned. The lodge was the only restaurant and bar in town, and Guzman said it was a place where the residents came to socialize and feel at home.
“As we stood there, we just had more community members come out and just hug everybody one by one and, then that person would just stop and we’d all stand there together and stare,” she said. “Nobody could talk — we were just all speechless and in disbelief.”
Last week, an empty commercial building was set on fire near Mile 10 of Chena Hot Springs Road and a vacant home at Mile 11 was also set ablaze. Troopers have said both fires are being investigated as arsons.
The community association has raised about $23,000 as a reward for information about the arsons, Sugden said. The reward fund was raised mainly by residents donating what they could spare online or at the Mt. McKinley Bank, he said.
Two Rivers residents have formed a neighborhood watch group in recent months as a response to the arsons, Sugden said. Several people are working to form a volunteer fire department, he said.
Another of the destroyed buildings, the Homesteader Building, was used as a free thrift store. The Grange Hall Community Center, which burned to the ground in late July, was used for weddings, meetings, celebrations and served as a distribution center for Fairbanks Food Bank donations.
The food donations continued at a picnic pavilion this summer, Sugden said, but he’s worried about how the town will distribute food to those who need it once the weather becomes cold.
In a video posted by the troopers on July 30, Captain Eric Spitzer stood in front of the remains of the Grange Hall Community Center.
“There could be many reasons why the arsonist is attacking the core of this community and these core community members, but none of those reasons are righteous,” Spitzer said in the video.
Troopers have asked anyone with information to call the dispatch center at 907-451-5100, submit a tip online or text the word “AKtip” followed by the message to 847411.