The Two Rivers Lodge east of Fairbanks burned in the early morning hours of Monday, amid a string of still-unsolved arsons in the Two Rivers-Pleasant Valley area this summer.
So far, public safety officials have not said arson caused the fire at the lodge, seen completely engulfed in flames a little after midnight in videos on social media. But fire marshals are investigating nine other structures that have burned in the area that they say were intentionally set.
KUAC’s Dan Bross joined Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove to talk about the latest fire and the continuing arson investigation.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Casey Grove: The Two Rivers Lodge is an iconic part of the area. What do we know about the fire there very early Monday morning?
Dan Bross: Well, not much so far. I mean most of the information has come from social media posts about a pretty serious fire going on at the lodge. It is a log structure, so I did see subsequent posts about the logs being wetted down, in other words, that the fire I guess had calmed enough that people went out there and tried to salvage whatever might be salvageable. But I really don’t have any specifics on that. I have not been able to reach anyone from the lodge.
Casey Grove: Okay. So how did we get here? I mean, this summer it seems like has been full of fire for the people out there on Chena Hot Springs Road.
Dan Bross: I mean this is just not an unusual summer in terms of wildfire. There are always wildfires and, you know, there’s a lot of wild country that surrounds Chena Hot Springs Road. And this summer, there was a big fire out toward the end of the road, near the hot springs itself. And that went on for most of the summer. The fire was started by lightning back in June and had a serious response.
But these arson attacks are really unprecedented. I mean, to have this many intentionally set fires, and them ranging from public to commercial to residential fires, some of which occurred when the residents were in their homes. It’s just a really scary situation. It made everybody look over their shoulder, and they continue to do that. So it’s just psychologically really devastating, over months now.
Casey Grove: So you’ve been talking with residents in the area, what is it like for them to just keep having structures burning and no arrests made at this point?
Dan Bross: They’re frustrated. But I think there’s also consensus that troopers and the FBI have made a real presence out there. But it’s a spread out rural area. And there’s just been no real break. However, at a recent public meeting, one of the speakers with the community association out at Pleasant Valley said that the FBI had told him that they have a lot of pieces of this puzzle, and it was just a matter of spending time and trying to put them together. It wasn’t a dead end — that they were going somewhere with it. But it’s not soon enough for people who have been afraid to leave their homes, you know, afraid to go to sleep at night, watching out for each other and at the same time being suspect of one another.
Casey Grove: As far as what progress the investigators have made, have they said what that is or given any indication of how close they might be to catching the person?
Dan Bross: No, they’re just not sharing any details or any specifics. I even asked about some video surveillance camera hard drives recovered from the community association building that partially burned earlier this summer. And those were sent to a national crime lab to try to recover some footage from them. They were heat damaged. And I’ve been told that they’re working on them, but that you won’t hear anything about any evidence until it is used in court.
Casey Grove: What are the residents doing in response to the fires themselves, like when they pop up?
Dan Bross: So most of the area does not have fire service, except when you get closer to town. Two of the fires that occurred in the last week — the two earlier ones — were within a fire service area and fire departments came but it was really too late for them to do much. Both of those structures were complete losses. And part of that has to do with the fact that these are arsons and there were accelerants used and the fires progressed really rapidly.
But out in the Two Rivers-Pleasant Valley community initially, you know, residents took it upon themselves to prepare to fight the fires. A lot of people have water tanks for hauling drinking water, but they set up their trucks with pumps and with the idea being that they could deploy to fires on their own and help put them out and there’s been some use of those but it’s really just not the kind of capacity and not the kind of response time you need to really make a difference in a rapidly progressing fire.
So on the other front, there’s an effort to form a volunteer fire department in Two Rivers-Pleasant Valley, and they’ve actually made some pretty good success with that. The City of Nenana is donating firetruck and an ambulance and I believe one other response vehicle. So it’s kind of moving along relatively rapidly. But there’s steps there that need to happen before they actually have that fire department ready to respond, but they’re working on it.
Casey Grove: That’s interesting. You mentioned there’s been a lot of chatter on social media, what are the investigators, the troopers or anybody saying about that? And is it does it seem to be helping or hurting?
Dan Bross: Well, there was a meeting earlier this summer in July where a state trooper captain addressed a large group at a church in Pleasant Valley. And he really discouraged sharing information on social media because it’s just sent out there and everyone can read it, including the arsonist or arsonists. So he really encouraged people to form a community watch group and have an email list. And that’s happened. And he also, most importantly, encouraged residents to talk directly with state troopers when they have any information or suspect something. So that it’s not just out there on social media. But that hasn’t stopped social media. As you know, it’s the most powerful tool we have in terms of communication at our disposal, and daily there are all kinds of posts related to these fires. There’s a lot of rabbit holes and, as a reporter, it’s super challenging to interpret that and follow up on things and try to find out what might be true.