SITKA, ALASKA Watch slideshow.
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Elfin Cove is about 70 miles west of Juneau, on the northern end of Chichagof Island. It is home to as few as a dozen residents in winter, but that swells to two-hundred or so in summer, when the town’s sport lodges fill up, and commercial trollers come in to sell fish and re-supply at the general store.
The call Mary Jo Lord-Wild got early Saturday morning was the kind of call no one in remote Alaska likes to get.
“2:07 AM my phone rings. I’m not thinking clearly. All I can hear is Shirley’s voice saying ‘Gordy’s place is on fire.’ She says it a couple of times. I say ‘We’re on our way.”
A friend of Lord-Wild’s for thirty years, “Shirley” is Shirley Perkins, the owner of the Coho Bar & Grill. “Gordy” is Gordy Wrobel, next door in the Cove Lodge, which by now is engulfed in flames.
There are no roads in Elfin Cove, no vehicles of any kind, and no fire trucks. The town’s nine-member fire department has sea-water pumps mounted on hand carts.
By the time Lord-Wild and her husband arrived downtown, the firefighters were fully engaged in what might have become an epic disaster for the community.
“They were trying to keep water on Shirley’s. At some point the fuel tank from the Cove Lodge, either the piping burned out or it fell over, and it started spilling diesel on it. And right around then the Gustavus and Pelican fire departments arrived and they brought more pumps and more hoses and were able to start beating it back. There was a point there before that happened where it was possible that the whole town could go.”
“There was flames well over 200 feet in the air…”
Mike Nelson is the Elfin Cove fire chief.
“I grew up in Juneau, I’ve seen a few fires. I’ve never been a fireman there, but I’ve seen them. This one rivaled anything I’ve come across just about.”
Nelson says his all-volunteer department often practices with the pumps and hoses but has very little in the way of professional training. The Cove Lodge had four guests at the time of the fire, and six staff members.
He says common sense saved lives and prevented serious injury:
“We do have enough knowledge just from listening to people that first is: people out. We had that under control. There were very few injuries. One person fell and hurt his back trying to help. Another had a cut on his hand. We had some smoke inhalation.”
The one-hundred gallons of diesel from the Cove Lodge’s fuel tank accelerated the fire, and it spread to both the lodge’s bunkhouse and to the neighboring Coho Bar & Grill. Shirley Perkins, her daughter Mercedes, and her daughter’s finance all made it out safely, along with the guests in their bed & breakfast.
But unlike the Cove Lodge, the restaurant did not burn to the ground. While the structure will likely be declared a total loss, deputy state fire marshal Robert Plumb attributes the partial salvage of the Coho to sheer determination:
“The community got a bucket brigade going with 75-100 residents and visitors – the visitors being there for guided fishing charters – and fishermen. Everyone came out of the woodwork. The chief thought they were moving more water than a three-inch pump.”
Plumb says the bucket brigade helped prevent the fire from moving through the Coho and, possibly, into the rest of the town.
Plumb estimates the loss of the Cove Lodge at roughly $900,000; the loss of the Coho Bar & Grill at $500,000. He says his office will file an official report on the fire, and work with the insurance adjustors and investigators that are expected to be on scene shortly. Plumb has not done a full analysis of the event, but suspects that the fire started in the furnace room of the Cove Lodge, possibly in electrical wiring between two walls.
Gordy Wrobel , co-owner of the Cove Lodge, was in a meeting with other charter operators when reached for this story. He says he trying to find a way to just get through the rest of this season, and it’s “way too early” to make a decision about rebuilding with his partner, Charlie Fannin.
Mary Jo Lord-Wild says her long-time friend Shirley Perkins is moving ahead with plans to rebuild the Coho. Lord-Wild says Elfin Cove would not be the same without either.
“This is huge. It’s a loss not only to the families involved, their businesses and their homes, but to the community also. Everybody’s an integral part you know, and this takes out some big pieces.”
The Red Cross in Juneau has already responded with emergency supplies for those who lost their homes and belongings. A relief effort is also being organized by Shirley Perkins’ family in Sitka.
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