2012: A year of snow, wind and fire

Wednesday, December 26, 2012 - 19:00
This home on Deer Park Drive in Peters Creek caught fire the morning of Thursday, Jan. 5. Seven people inside the home were able to escape without injury.

From firefighters to Fuji Gifts, 2012 was a busy, blustery year in Chugiak-Eagle River. There were dramatic stories of survival and heartbreaking tales of loss. As always, there was one big Bear Paw, plenty of political plotting and more animal attacks than most people are comfortable or with. And the weather? It was worth talking about. For better or worse, here are the news stories that shaped our lives in Chugiak-Eagle River over the past 12 months:


Firefighters keep busy

— On Jan. 5, seven people inside a Peters Creek home — including a Chugiak Volunteer Firefighter — escaped an early morning blaze without injury. Firefighter Ian Murphy credited smoke detectors for helping save his family from the early-morning blaze. The fire was the first of dozens in the area in 2012, including several that destroyed homes. No human fatalities were reported from any local fires in 2012 — although a blaze in November killed eight dogs and a cat trapped inside an Eagle River condominium.

Two other November fires were being investigated as possible arsons as 2012 came to a close. Both fires occurred early Nov. 27 within an hour of each other. The first took place at a notorious home on North Juanita Loop where the 2010 murder of Charlie Albright took place. The second occurred at a motor home less than a mile away on the other side of the Glenn Highway.

— The Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department was forced to shut its Station 35 — named for Bill Lowe — along the Glenn Highway near Fire Lake after an engineering firm found the building to be in poor condition. Combined with the winter’s heavy snow, the report was enough for the municipality to condemn the station. Most equipment was moved to Latimer Station, 2.5 miles away.

The Alaska Legislature later approved more than $6 million to build a new station.

— A pair of Montana women died Aug. 8 after their canoe capsized near Mile 7.4 of Eagle River Road. Police said Fern Johnson, 60, and Carol Heater, 48, arrived in Alaska the same day they died. Johnson’s husband, Robert, was also in the canoe when it went under a logjam, but he managed to climb onto the pile of logs and survive. A kayaker traveling with the group managed to avoid the hazard and was uninjured.

— On Sept. 9, the Anchorage Fire Department made a dramatic rescue in the river after kayaker Steve Rossberg was pinned beneath a partially-submerged log.

— Police arrested Hans Ihde, 18, of Eagle River for arson after he was allegedly caught in the act of setting fire to the St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Chugiak Aug. 23. Church officials said the church sustained about $60,000 in damage from the fire.

— In October, Mayor Dan Sullivan proposed cutting a ladder truck company from the Anchorage Fire Department’s Station 11 in Eagle River as part of budget-cutting measures. The mayor’s proposal was met with opposition from the community, and in November the Anchorage Assembly passed a budget that included funding for the truck.


Building a community

— In February, a public meeting was held to discuss the possible closure of the Old Glenn Highway’s Eklutna River Bridge. Local residents had begun to complain that the crossing — first built in 1935 — was becoming unsafe for vehicle traffic.

In March, the Alaska Legislature approved $14 million to replace the aging bridge. On May 15, the municipality shut it down to all vehicles. It reopened in June to pedestrians.

The legislature also approved $29.8 million to improve Eagle River Road between Mile 5.3 and 12.6, $6 million to fix the Artillery Road intersection and $3 million to fix drainage issues in the Tablelands subdivision.

— Eklutna, Inc. began clearing property near the corner of the Old Glenn Highway and the Glenn Highway access (across from Fred Meyer) in June. The company plans to use the space for a new headquarters and commercial and office buildings.

The land clearing was one of three big projects in downtown Eagle River. In September, crews tore down the former Holiday station at the corner of the Old Glenn and Business Boulevard to make way for a Walgreens. That same month, a strip mall alongside the Old Glenn that formerly housed Aztec’s was torn down to make way for an AutoZone. As of December, both buildings were under construction.


Police calls

— A pair of Eagle River men were charged with multiple animal cruelty counts after authorities found three dozen dogs and nearly 50 parakeets inside their home on Hanson Drive in mid-January. Daniel Hoffman, 51, and Lester Mendez, 46, were evicted from the home, according to its owner.

— According to an April story in the Star, Anchorage prosecutors dropped charges related to a 2011 confrontation at the Homestead Lounge between police and patrons that ended in the arrest of three Mat-Su men. The three were arrested during a wake for a 23-year-old Eagle River High grad who died in an auto accident the week before. The men were charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, but security footage from the bar appeared to back up their claim troopers said a 26-year-old Wasilla man shot a 25-year-old Colorado woman before turning the gun on himself April 21 in Wasilla. Both the gunman, Tobias Siegel, and the victim, Chelsi Baun (formerly Cox), were 2005 Chugiak High graduates.

— Two 23-year-old Eagle River mothers learned the dangers of leaving 3-year-olds unattended inside vehicles during separate close calls this year. In May, a mother left her car and went inside her home — only to return to find that her 3-year-old had escaped from his car seat, pulled the mother’s gun from her purse, and fired off a round. The child was unharmed in the incident, although the mother was cited for reckless endangerment. In October, an unattended 3-year-old put an SUV into gear and drove into traffic on Business Boulevard. Officers James Conley and Mark Fortunato boxed the SUV in and took the wild child into custody without further incident.

— On June 3, a pilot flying a home-built airplane made an emergency landing on the Old Glenn Highway near the Rural Discount Center. The plane ended up in the ditch and the pilot was uninjured.

— A June 21 standoff in Powder Ridge ended in tragedy when a 39-year-old man was found dead inside his home following a lengthy standoff with Anchorage Police. Police arrived after the man’s wife reported receiving “goodbye” text messages. After failing to contact the man inside, police entered the home by force and found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

— Alaska State Troopers shot and killed a 29-year-old Wasilla man near the Thunderbird Falls exit of the Glenn Highway in an incident in the early morning hours Aug. 3. Police said Justin Abrahamson was shot after he wielded a bat following a police chase that began in Wasilla.

— Perhaps the year’s most chilling news came out in early December, when the FBI announced that Israel Keyes — who was in jail for the February murder of an Anchorage barista — had committed suicide at the Anchorage Jail. In the wake of the announcement, law enforcement officials said they believed Keyes was a serial killer, and that they’d found weapons and body-disposal tools hidden by Keyes in a bucket at the North Fork Eagle River trailhead. They also said he planned to use the trailhead as a possible location for future murders.


Wild winter weather

— Heavy snows began to take their toll in March, when a home in Peters Creek collapsed under the weight of a heavy snow load. According to the CVFD, the unoccupied home was for sale at the time of the collapse. By the end of the month, the Anchorage area had set a new annual record for snowfall — with more than 10 feet falling in the local area. Municipal officials told the Star in April that plowing city streets cost more than $870,000— more than three times the average winter budget.

— A huge windstorm hit the area on Sept. 4, uprooting trees and knocking power out across most of the area. One stretch of Birchwood Loop was hit so hard an entire stand of trees was blown over. The storm caused more than 16,000 Matanuska Electric Association customers to lose power — some for as many as five days.

A second storm Sept. 19-20 knocked out power to more than 1,000 homes and businesses.


Politics unusual as usual

— Mayor Dan Sullivan held onto his seat relatively easily in a controversial April 3 municipal election. Sullivan trounced challenger Paul Honeman, 59-38 percent, but a huge voter turnout caused some polling places to run out of ballots. Later in 2012, the deputy municipal clerk was fired and the clerk resigned due to the ballot snafu. In addition to the mayoral race, voters also voted down a proposition that would have made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Voters also elected three women — Tam Agosti-Gisler, Natasha Von Imhoff and Kathleen Plunkett — to the school board.

— Megan Patrick, a former taxi driver from Anchorage, began her own free — and unlicensed — cab company in Eagle River over the summer. Patrick said she was running her renegade “E-Cab” service to bring attention to the fact that Anchorage cab companies ignored the Chugiak-Eagle River area. Patrick was later cited by the muni for running an unlicensed cab, but her actions helped spur a series of public meetings on the issue that continued through the year without resolution.

— After a contentious primary, Eagle River Republican Lora Reinbold won the District 26 State House primary over rivals Larry Wood and Kim Skipper on Aug. 28. The race to replace the departed Anna Fairclough included allegations of negative campaigning from all three sides.

— In November’s general election, Reinbold won the District 26 House seat to become the only legislative newcomer elected in Chugiak-Eagle River. Reps Bill Stoltze and Dan Saddler easily held their House seats, as did Fred Dyson in the Senate. Fairclough completed her move to the Senate by defeating incumbent Bettye Davis in the newly redrawn East Anchorage/Eagle River district.


When animals attack

— The Alaska Department of Fish and Game held a bear safety seminar on April 15 at the Eagle River Nature Center. A story on the seminar included tips for staying safe in bear country as the hibernating bruins began to wake up.

— On May 12, the first bear attack of the summer took place when a 57-year-old Eagle River Valley man was mauled and hospitalized on his property near a moose kill.

— On May 28, a cow moose attacked a 6-year-old girl who was playing near her home on Sokolof Circle. Three days later, the girl’s mother told the Star her daughter was doing well despite a surgically repaired shoulder.

“It could have been a lot worse,” said Julie Metzger, whose daughter, Chole, was attacked in woods near the family’s backyard.

— On June 10, a 30-year-old Eagle River man hiking near Bird Creek survived an attack by a brown bear sow with a cub. The hiker managed to call 911 from a nearby tree, where he waited until help arrived.

— On June 11, a North Kenai woman suffered minor injuries when she was nipped on the leg by a brown bear near the Eaegle River Campground. Trails at the campground near the river were closed following the attack.

— On July 22, a 50-year-old Eagle River man became the third person to be mauled by a bear in Eagle River this summer when he was hospitalized with serious injuries after a brown bear with cubs mauled him in the Eagle River Valley.

— On Aug. 4, an Anchorage police officer shot and killed a black bear that was trying to enter a home on Birch Hills Drive.


And Finally…

— Fuji Gifts, a local landmark since 1964, closed its doors for good in the spring of 2012. Local women Donna Henegar and Jessica Jansen of Alaska Auction Queens liquidated the longtime curiosities shop, which was formerly owned by Art Wallace, who died in 2010. Wallace’s brothers, Mike and Til, donated proceeds from the sale to local wounded veterans. The liquidation sales drew huge crowds and television coverage to the shop alongside the Old Glenn Highway, which was famous for its eclectic collection of gifts from around the world.

— On May 12, Conor Daugharty walked across the stage at UAA with a business degree with help from a pair of his childhood friends. The 25-year-old was injured in a devastating car accident in 2009 that left him clinging to life. After an arduous recovery, Daugharty completed his degree and planned to continue his recovery — with an eye on eventually attending law school.

— John Hillyer, an Eagle River FedEx pilot did his part for tsunami relief in Japan when he and another pilot flew several items lost in the 2011 disaster — including a soccer ball, volleyball, basketball and buoy — back to their original owners in June. The debris, which had sentimental value to its owners, had washed up on Alaska beaches.

— Eagle River’s Linda Fleury, 52, won $1 million in Las Vegas playing slots June 20. A grant specialist with Southcentral Foundation, Fleury said she wouldn’t quit her job but did plan to take a vacation to New Zealand.

— Chugiak’s Debbe Ebben was named Miss Alaska 2012 when she won the annual pageant June 16 in Anchorage. The victory earned Ebben, 24, a trip to the Miss American pageant in Las Vegas in January.

— Record crowds flocked to the annual Highland Games in Eagle River, where event organizers estimated roughly 8,000 people attended the annual Scottish festival June 30. Combined with the Lion’s Club’s July 3 fireworks and the Chugiak Fourth of July Parade, Chugiak-Eagle River proved it can party with the best in the Alaska summer.

— Bear Paw 2012 drew thousands of people to downtown Eagle River despite drizzly weather — although the rain held off long enough to allow for a dry Grand Parade.

— Eagle River’s favorite television star made a pair of visits to town. In February, Erik Estrada — best known for his role in the TV series CHiPs — visited the Eagle River Elks Lodge to support the charity “Dare to Care.” In July, Estrada returned to town to support the charity when he joined fellow Blue Knights motorcycle riders for a fundraising trip from Girdwood to Chugiak that raised $7,000 for the Chugiak-based charity.

— Eagle River’s lone movie theater closed its doors in September. The owner of Valley River Cinemas said he couldn’t compete with larger theaters in Anchorage and the Mat-Su.

— Citing a lack of donations and competition from other thrift stores, the Eagle River Salvation Army store closed its doors Nov. 21.

— On Nov. 10, UAA freshman Lilian Crayton won the Miss Chugiak-Eagle River Pageant. Regina Lochner, 16, was named Miss Chugiak-Eagle River Outstanding Teen.

— A record number of businesses participated in the 2012 Merry Merchant Munch, an annual event organized by the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber held Nov. 30-Dec. 1. On Nov. 30, Santa Claus visited Eagle River during the town’s annual Winter Wonderland celebration.

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