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Fire destroys car dealership near Wasilla

MEADOW LAKES -- A barrage of firefighters knocked down a fast-moving blaze at the Motor Rage of Alaska car dealership near Wasilla Friday afternoon, but not before it destroyed the business and displaced a tenant sleeping inside who escaped unharmed.

The fire, first reported in the green two-story metal building around 2:45 p.m., sent thick black smoke billowing into the air near Mile 50 of the Parks Highway once it got going.

About 40 to 50 firefighters responded, tackling the flames erupting from the second floor with two aerial ladder trucks that sprayed water down onto the roof.

Three people were inside when the fire started: salesman and manager Antares Vien, a young employee and 35-year-old Jeff Griffin, produce manager at the Three Bears on Knik-Goose Bay Road, who lived in an upstairs rental for the last four years.

Griffin woke up inside his room to a "weird chemical taste" in his mouth, he said outside the building Friday afternoon. There was no visible smoke inside but Griffin could see smoke coming from the roof. He could hear the other two shouting for him to leave.

"I can still taste it now," he said, looking stunned. "I got out with my pajama pants and my hoodie."

The business has insurance, Viens said. He managed to get out a Polaris racing snowmachine that belongs to the son of the building owner and some four-wheelers -- he said good Samaritans helped move vehicles -- but there was a lot he couldn't get out in time, including a late 1950s Jeep Commander.

"And we had just gotten it running again," Viens lamented.

The fire appeared to have started inside the walls and raced up to the roof, he said. A Facebook post on the business's page said it looked like the fire started at the electrical box.

The heat seared off the building's bright green paint, revealing silvery metal beneath. Sections of the back of the building caved in.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough EMS fire deputy director Ken Barkley said the aerial trucks were key to getting the fire out fairly quickly. Crews remained on the scene for hours after.

"We're gonna be here for a while," Barkley said. The plan was to pull the building apart with an excavator and put out any lingering flames once it was deemed safe to enter.

The response was an "all-call," Barkley said, meaning an emergency page was sent to all emergency departments in the borough. That's because the call involved a large commercial building.

"We know at that time it's going to take a lot of manpower and equipment," he said. The prospect of fire spreading to about 30 cars sitting next to the building in a fenced lot added urgency to the response.

Fire departments from Houston, West Lakes and Central Mat-Su all responded, along with the Division of Forestry and Willow emergency services.

One lane of the Parks Highway was briefly closed and traffic was periodically stopped through the afternoon to allow access to tankers refilling with water at Big Lake.