SOLDOTNA - The Caribou Hills fire, which has burned 86 square miles on the Kenai Peninsula, began on land being developed for a wedding gift, fire officials said.
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Vicki Steik, whose daughter was soon to be married, donated the land where the fire started June 19 to build a cabin for the couple. She said the groom's parents were grinding a shovel to start groundwork on the cabin when a shower of sparks ignited dry grass.
"It's just so sad," Steik said. "I have a lot of friends whose cabins have been destroyed and I know how much those cabins meant to them. It just breaks my heart."
The fire has so far destroyed 88 homes and cabins and has cost more than $1.8 million to fight.
The fire continues to grow slowly, but fire officials on Wednesday said it was 61 percent contained, up from 43 percent Tuesday.
"It's devastating. It's heartbreaking," Steik said. "What a tragic (way) for my daughter to start her married life."
She declined to name the future in-laws, but a state fire investigator is preparing to release her findings this week.
The groom's parents tried to in vain to stomp out the fire before it descended a hillside and destroyed the first cabin, Alaska Division of Forestry wildfire investigator Sharon Roesch said.
After their efforts failed, they found themselves cut off from the road and had to be evacuated by helicopter, she said.
"It's a sad story, actually," Roesch said. "They were just getting ready to build."
Roesch is still determining whether the incident will warrant charges. If convict of violating state fire statutes, the offending couple could be made to compensate the state based on their ability to pay, she said.
She said she hopes people affected by the fire will show some understanding regardless of whether charges are filed.
The wedding will go on, and soon, Steik said.
"We're trying not to let it spoil what should be a very, very happy day for us."