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How The World Wags

  By Dave Kiffer

July 03, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - My wife and I have a running disagreement when it comes to candles. She - of solid New Mexican stock - loves to have burning objects scattered hither and yon around the house. New Mexicans love their candles so much that they even string lighted grocery bags around their property at Christmas time and, no, the bags are not Gore Tex. What do you expect from a place that measures rainfall in millimeters rather than cubic meters?  
jpg Dave Kiffer

I don't have anything against candles per se or other burning flames. Without burning candles or other forms of fire, we would be sitting in dark caves, shivering under smelly animal pelts and chewing on raw meat. It's just that candles involve an open flame. And open flame is such an uncontrollable sort of thing. It tends to ignite nearby flammables and!

Anyone who grew up in Ketchikan prior to the 1970s probably has what I have, a fire phobia. I don't suppose it is full blown pyrophobia, maybe just a little pyro-leeryia.

To be honest, I missed out on the "good old days" in Ketchikan's early history where the wooden docks and close-quartered storefronts seemed to spontaneously combust every couple of weeks allowing for rapid mercantile turnover and increased economic development (at least for the building contractors and insurance agents).

I can't tell you how many times all that wooden construction led to fires that led to "revitalization." in those early days. But even today needed "revitalization" occasionally occurs through friction fires (mortgage rubbing against insurance) so who am I to stand in the way of progress?

I also missed the Bill Mitchell -made combustion - and urban renewal - of the 1950s and very early 1960s. It must have been interesting to live in a time when a real live fire bug crawled the streets of our fair Salmon City. Especially one who dressed in women's clothes, when he wasn't wearing his volunteer fireman turnouts.

But even if I wasn't around for that "herstory," it doesn't mean that my early memories of Ketchikan weren't punctuated by some spectacular fires.

In 1965, when I was six, most of the New England Fish Company on Stedman Street burned up. I remember walking with my Dad on the docks at Thomas Basin and even there the heat was intense enough to remind me of sitting in Gram's living room with the oil stove on too high. Later, we watched the blaze from the hillside above the tunnel. Every so often the wind would shift and you would feel a big wave of heat roll over the harbor. Even now I can still see that bill orange ball of flame on Stedman Street, threatening to ignite the nearby oil tanks and cause a "really big show."

Three summers later, there were two big fires.

First, in early July I remember driving out - with my Dad again, he was a real "sparky" - to the northern city limits and watching the old Smiley Cannery burn down just south of Wolf Point and the old garbage dump. The building was old and falling down, but the real loss was the caretaker - an old family friend - who went back into the building to find his dog and died.

Then Dad and I went downtown later in the month to watch about half of the Ketchikan Cold Storage (next to the tunnel) go up in flames. Fishing companies were always burning in those days. Bad combinations of chemicals, wood and a spark. Or an onerous mortgage.

The next two fires I recall involved eateries. Paul Mattle - a pilot for Ellis Airlines - had a hamburger stand out by the Carlanna Creek bridge. We'd often stop there for burgers to go to take to Ward Lake or Refuge Cove. It went up in a spectacularly black-smoked (grease?) fire.

Later on, a diner/coffee shop near McKay Marine Ways caught fire and covered the entire West End with thick black smoke (definitely grease!) again.

But the next fire left the greatest scar on my young psyche and I have no memory of the actual blae. Across Jefferson Street from our house was a green house owned by a family named Partridge. One morning as I was getting ready to go to school, my Mom asked me if I heard the fire trucks earlier. I said no. About that point I noticed the blackened walls on the neighbor house.

Turned out there had been a chimney fire that had filled the house with smoke. The father had been out of town, but the mother, three children and a young girl staying the night had all died. I didn't know the family all that well, but the idea that you could go to sleep at night and never wake up gave me nightmares for weeks.

It also scared me a bit to realize that despite sirens and flashing lights right outside my bedroom window, I had slept through the whole thing. So had my usually hyper-alert beagle "watchdog."

To compound my concerns, Ketchikan experienced one of its rare "forest fires" around that time. Nearly 100 acres of land burned near Saxman and there was talk of evacuations. I remember the burning embers floating around town. It was something I hadn't seen since they stopped burning garbage in Marine View and the Tongass Towers incinerators.

It's hard to hold the twin concepts of Ketchikan and forest fire in your head at the same time. Anything as wet as the trees around here should never burn. But when you go two or three weeks without rain in the summer all those needles on the forest floor get pretty dry and you can have flare ups. The dead white snags in Ward Cove on the hillside predate the pulp mill. They were caused by a large forest fire in the 1940s. Just something else to worry about.

The last big fire that I remember from my youth was the burning of the old Main School building. The building had been vacant for two years while locals argued about the best way to deal with it. As usual when time passes like that fate - or perhaps some homeless squatters or kids - intervenes and the building burned down to be replaced by a parking lot.

I remember the fire because I spotted it from the window of an Alaska Airlines jet coming in for a landing at the Gravina airport. We were making one of those long low landings up the channel, where first you see Mountain Point, then Saxman, then Pennock, the Coast Guard base.etc etc etc.

As we flew by Downtown, I noticed smoke coming out of the school building. My mind must have still been in vacation mode because my first thought was "gee, they must be burning some trash or something." It was only when we got off the plane, heard the sirens on the Ketchikan side of the channel and smelled the smoke, did I realize it was a little bigger than that.

Naturally, we hightailed it Downtown to watch the proceedings. The fire burned long into the night and the concrete frame of the building was still "glowing" the next morning. Downtown smelled like smoke for a week and it wasn't just the beehive burner at the Spruce Mill.

So, the smell of smoke doesn't exactly summon up a pleasant campfire nostalgia for me, but that's just how it goes. My wife is getting ready to take a bath, so that means I will be on candle observation and suppression duty forthwith.

I just hope the fire extinguisher has a full-charge.



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By June Allen


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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