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Mat-Su

Mobile home fire in the Butte claims five lives — all children

BUTTE — Five children died Thursday morning in a mobile home fire in the Butte community near Palmer.

The fire also left two adults homeless.

Alaska State Troopers said the remains of the children — all girls, between the ages of 3 and 12 — were recovered by 10:30 a.m. The state fire marshal's office is investigating the cause of the fire while the state medical examiner is conducting autopsies on the victims.

Alaska State Troopers and the state fire marshal’s office investigate a mobile home fire in the Butte that claimed the lives of five girls ages 3 to 12 on Thursday morning. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

The fire was called in just before 7 a.m. but the home was engulfed in flames when the first of dozens of part-time responders from Butte Fire Department and Palmer Fire and Rescue arrived, according to Butte Fire Chief Eric Van Dusen. The flames burned through one side of the trailer home entirely, leaving a gutted, charred opening.

In the hours just after the fire, numerous people drove up to the scene and emerged from cars, some crying. Most talked with fire officials or troopers, then left the area in tears. None wanted to talk to a reporter.

The property where the home was located is a small mobile home park on South Wickham Circle just off the Old Glenn Highway in the Butte, an unincorporated area near Palmer.

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said she couldn't provide more information about the events surrounding the fire on Thursday. Police have not named the adults living in the trailer or who owned the property.

But friends, a cousin and court documents identified the adults as Jimmy Flores and Janelle Quackenbush.

Quackenbush is a hairstylist at Great Clips in Wasilla.

"She's definitely a part of our work family," salon manager Amanda Judkins said.

The shop on Thursday was trying to set up a bank account for donations and figuring out how else to help the couple.

"They lost everything," Judkins said. She said people can drop off donations at the salon, located along the Parks Highway across from Fred Meyer.

Richard Lopez of San Bernardino, California, said he is the cousin of the girls' father and confirmed the adults are Jimmy Flores and Janelle Quackenbush.

Lopez said in a telephone interview that Flores grew up in San Bernardino, and that their extended family is struggling to come to grips with devastating news from a place so far away.

"It crushes all of us. We're all hurt," Lopez said. "We don't know what happened. We don't know what is going on."

He said the whole Flores-Quackenbush family visited relatives in Southern California a year ago and had dinner at his house. Flores was crazy about the girls, Lopez said.

Firefighters from Butte Fire Department and Palmer Fire and Rescue responded to a fatal fire in the Butte on Thursday morning. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

The adult cousins were close as children, Lopez said, and served together in the California Conservation Corps, a group that works on backcountry projects and fights wildfires. He was surprised when Flores announced he and Janelle were moving to Alaska. But Flores loved it up here.

Red Cross of Alaska said it was helping two adults whom it didn't identify. The help included "immediate needs" and "spiritual care and mental health services," spokeswoman Lisa Miller said. Others who would like to be connected with Red Cross can call the Mat-Su office at 907-357-6060 or the Anchorage disaster line at 907-230-4472.

At Butte Elementary School, additional counselors joined the staff Thursday, Principal Dan Kitchin said. There had been no official word whether the children in the fire attended the school, Kitchin said. But the school wanted to make sure students who heard about the fire, and that children were involved, had someone to talk to, he said.

Mat-Su school officials declined to say which schools the children attended, but said they were "focusing their resources" at Butte Elementary and Palmer Junior Middle schools.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough property records indicate there are seven or eight trailer homes on the property, all built between 1970 and 1980. The property owner is listed as TGI Funding Co. LLC but the company's owner, Chris Elder, said he's only owned the mobile home for about a week, which is supported by state records.

Five children died Thursday morning when a home in the Butte caught fire. (Zaz Hollander / Alaska Dispatch News)

The previous owner, the Jackie Hughes Revocable Trust, had tried to evict Flores and Quackenbush earlier this year for failure to pay rent, but they complained in response that the owner failed to fix a back door that froze open in December and wasn't looked at until mid-February, according to court documents filed in Palmer. The door was next to one of the girls' rooms.

The couple tried chipping away at the ice holding the door in place and put a dresser in front of it, Quackenbush told the judge, according to the transcript of the April eviction hearing. She was a student and Flores had lost his job, she said.

Flores said it "hadn't been the best year" for the family, according to the transcript. They were working with a third-party and Salvation Army on rent and utility payments.

The trust sought to evict them for $875 in unpaid rent in April and up to $5,000 in utility costs and damages, according to the document.

Palmer District Court Judge John Wolfe denied the eviction judgment that the trust sought. The case remains open.

Some firefighters were still at the mobile home park Thursday afternoon, including Van Dusen.

About 20 firefighters from Butte, a number of borough medics, and about 10 Palmer firefighters responded Thursday morning, officials said. There will be a critical incident stress debriefing for responders.

Some of the firefighters knew the family involved, Van Dusen said. The fire burned too hot to allow them to go inside when the first crews arrived.

"It was fully involved when we got there," he said.

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