WILLOW -- Carrie Smoldon and scores of other people living in the patchwork of black sticks that is the Sockeye Fire zone got unwelcome news in the mail this month.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough property assessments, the government-calculated evaluations that form a basis for property taxes and sometimes home sale prices, came out Feb. 22.
The value of the 20 acres Smoldon owns with her husband, Todd, went up. The assessment on their wood-sided ranch home rose by $7,500 to about $238,000.
Meanwhile, the land the home sits on -- some 16 acres of once-green trees now scorched in some places and spiked with spruce like surreal black bottle cleaners in others -- is worth just under $70,000. Exactly the same as the assessment from last year -- before the fire.
"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" said Smoldon, a recreational dog musher and teacher. "The structure, I'll give them … home values change, that can happen. But 16 of my 20 acres burned. Charred, rubble, OK? I paid $68,500 for that property five years ago. I wouldn't take $30,000 for it now."
One more thing
When the Sockeye Fire raged across more than 7,000 acres in mid-June, the Smoldons got off easier than some.
Fifty-five people lost their homes in the fire that sprang up from unattended brush piles near Mile 77 of the Parks Highway. An Anchorage couple faces criminal charges for their role in the fire. Their next court hearing is scheduled for late March.
Dozens of people lost sheds and other outbuildings. More than 100 properties sustained some kind of destruction from flames that burned so hot they practically cremated homes in places, turned wood to ash topped with curling steel roofing, and skipped over swaths of ground in other areas, leaving behind green lawns.
Now those fire-scarred residents are looking at property assessments that show their land value unchanged, and their structure values largely the same or higher. That will likely make for higher property taxes, especially since the local fire-service area rates were increased last year.
One property where the fire burned particularly hot is now marked by a neat, blue two-story house in a 39-acre sea of blackened trees. The land assessment remained unchanged. The home assessment rose by about $12,000.
Local mushing celebrities who lost and rebuilt homes in a similar black-stick sea weren't immune: DeeDee Jonrowe's property assessment rose, as did that of Iditarod veterans Bob Chlupach and Jan Steves.
The new assessments don't seem to make a lot of sense, said Dan Wilcox, pastor at Willow United Methodist Church and leader of a local post-fire recovery coalition.
"Much of Willow is already an economically fragile area to begin with," said Wilcox, who operates a food bank out of his church. "The fire certainly brought some of that out for some people. This is just one more thing."
Arriving at the numbers
Municipal assessors in Mat-Su and the Kenai area say they base their calculations on the local real-estate market.
An appeal period for Mat-Su assessments runs through March 22.
Mat-Su assessor Brad Pickett encouraged anyone with questions about their property assessment to call 907-861-8642.
Assessment officials held a meeting about the Sockeye situation on Thursday. As of Friday, the Willow-area appraiser had heard from a half-dozen people with concerns. Others also contacted borough officials, including Randall Kowalke, the borough Assembly member who represents the area, and Wilcox.
No official appeals had been filed as of Friday.
The property assessment issue in Willow first surfaced last fall, as fire-dazed residents cleaned up. Many wondered why their property values would stay the same, given the extent of the damage. The borough offered tax relief due to the fire in response.
Assessment officials applied a flat, 20 percent tax relief due to fire to all land that sustained damage. Additional reductions were applied to people with fire-scarred or destroyed homes and buildings.
The borough assessor said he arrived at that 20 percent reduction by researching values in the wake of the destructive 1996 Millers Reach Fire in Big Lake and Houston. Pickett said no records still existed, but he heard the borough applied a one-year, 10 percent assessment decrement.
He calculated 20 percent for the Sockeye properties, prorated from the day the fire started, June 15, to Dec. 31.
The lowered assessment reflected the immediate post-fire "eyesore" effect as property owners started cleaning up scorched debris, Pickett said. But despite residents' questions now -- why did they get a break last year that isn't reflected this year? -- the borough doesn't plan to apply that reduction again.
"We erred on the side of caution and went to 20 percent," he said. "We don't have any concrete evidence that says 20 percent is the exact number."
Back to market values
Enough time has started passing to go back to the assessor's normal practice: calculating assessments by looking at what the real-estate market is doing, Pickett said.
It's not doing much.
The assessor said he was able to find sale information on just two properties that sold after the fire: a 70-acre property that sold for $74,000, twice its assessed value; and a nearly 9-acre parcel that sold below assessed value, though the appraiser for the area later realized he'd failed to factor in some unbuildable parts of the property so the assessed value should have been lower. Alaska doesn't require property owners to report sale prices, so it can be tricky for assessors to get market information easily, though "it would be very helpful," Pickett said.
The borough assessments also reflect the asking price for 15 property listings in the fire zone. Assessments on those properties are at 61 percent of what they're listed for, Pickett said.
"Between those sales and those listings, we didn't have any indicators at all that we were too high," he said of the fire zone assessments released in February.
The assessor's office didn't change land value in the fire zone for this year's valuation because trees don't have market value, Pickett said. He reached out to the Fairbanks North Star and Kenai Peninsula boroughs, both areas that experience more wildland fire than Mat-Su.
That's the same policy used by the Kenai Peninsula Borough on acreage burned in the Card Street Fire that sprang up the day after Sockeye, according to assessor Tom Anderson.
"Our standard is market value. Period," Anderson said. "I can understand that intuitively that sounds like a good argument, if suddenly all of your forest gets burned up that has a negative impact on your value. They might be right. But the question is: how do you quantify it?"
Local real-estate agents say properties in Willow's fire zone are moving, but slowly and below asking price.
Bob McCain, a broker with Trapline Realty, said he's sold just two fire-zone properties since Sockeye, both to the same person. The parcels, near the Alaska Railroad tracks east of Kashwitna Lake, burned in the fire. They lack road access.
The buyer got them for $5,000 each, McCain said. They were originally priced "significantly" higher and assessed by the borough at $17,000, he said.
"The buyer was going to go beat on the borough to get the assessments lowered," he said.
Meanwhile, the borough's assessments could inadvertently keep the market slow by causing residents to think their homes are worth more than they are and overvalue them for sale, said Joseph Perrozzi, an agent with Herrington and Company LLC.
"Values in Willow were fairly depressed before the fire so they certainly aren't going to get any better," said Perrozzi, who is representing properties in Willow but not the fire zone. "If they're trying to say that a burned-out piece of property is worth the same, they're wrong. There's just no other way to look at it."