State rests its case in Sockeye Fire trial

 Stefan Hinman / Mat-Su Borough photo.
Stefan Hinman / Mat-Su Borough photo. (KTUU)
Published: May. 3, 2017 at 2:16 PM AKDT
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The Sockeye Wildfire trial continued Wednesday afternoon with the defense calling on two fire experts to testify.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Philip Shanahan said there are a number of issues with the Division of Forestry’s investigation, including a lack of documentation and evidence in determining the cause of the fire.

“The explanation you’ve been hearing thus far is incorrect,” Shanahan told the jury. “It’s inconsistent with the evidence, it’s inconsistent with the witness statements, it’s inconsistent with fire science and it’s inconsistent with common sense.”

Former Anchorage fire investigator Brian Balega was the first of two experts to take the stand Wednesday. For just over an hour, Balega outlined the findings of his own investigation of the Imig property.

Balega is scheduled to take the stand again on Thursday.


It was the Sockeye Fire victims’ day in court, as several Willow residents, some who lost everything, relived the day their lives were changed forever.

On Wednesday, several mushers including DeeDee Jonrowe, Justin High, Jaimee High and Scott Smith testified in court. Each witness told their story and shared pictures of what was lost, and what was left of their homes in the aftermath of the Sockeye Fire.

“It was demolished,” said Smith. “My whole property was demolished.”

Iditarod musher Scott Smith was the first victim to testify Wednesday. He said he was in Fairbanks on the weekend of June 14, 2015. Smith says he learned about the fire from his neighbors, who were able to rescue his 32 sled dogs from his property before the fire consumed it.

“My house was reduced to three inches of ash in an eight foot hole,” said Jonrowe.

Jonrowe was the final witness called by the state before resting its case. On June 14, 2015, Jonrowe says she was running dog tours at Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennels when she heard news of the fire. Jonrowe immediately returned to her property, running through a roadblock with her minivan in an effort to get home and save her dogs.

“The sky was really yellow orange,” Jonrowe said. “As I got my last dog loaded, there was ash falling out of the sky.”

At the time of the fire, a frantic Jonrowe said she only had enough time to grab guns, cash and a few passports before loading up her dogs. All but one dog was found and evacuated. Given the heat, Jonrowe said her focus was on getting air flowing through her dog truck so the animals inside didn’t overheat.

“The pain of burning,” said Jonrowe. “Perhaps I could have grabbed something else. It’s hot, by then it was really hot. Dogs can’t be, they’ll overheat, they can’t be doubled up. I had to get them moving. I had to get air moving and that was the biggest thing.”

Jonrowe says the fire destroyed everything on her property. It also claimed the life of one of her retired sled dogs, an 11-year-old male named Python. His charred remains were found a few weeks later after Jonrowe returned to her property.

Following the testimony of DeeDee Jonrowe, the state rested its case. The defense will now begin to call its own witnesses, including Brian Balega, a former investigator with the Anchorage Fire Department.