Stranded rafter's signal fire burns 1,000 acres

Friends left to seek help; man lit fire after no one showed up for 3-4 days

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003

ANCHORAGE - A rafter stranded on the banks of an eastern Interior river lit a signal fire Tuesday that has grown to more than 1,000 acres.

Ben Schaeffer said he and two friends, all from Fairbanks, were on a 10-day float trip down the East Fork of the Chandalar River from Arctic Village to Venetie when trouble hit.

First, one of their three rafts became disabled. They lashed the other two together but then hit a rock, which deflated a second raft. They decided to leave Schaeffer and several days' worth of food on the river while the other two continued to Venetie, about 160 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

"We just underestimated the river," Schaeffer said Wednesday after being rescued.

After spending "three or four days, I'm not sure," on the river and with only a day's worth of food left, Schaeffer told an investigator with the Alaska Fire Service that he was starting to get nervous, fire service information officer Maggie Rogers said.

"Basically the guy was worried his friends had left him."

When a regularly scheduled Wright Air Service flight passed over Tuesday morning, Schaeffer started a signal fire in heavy black spruce forest. The pilot reported the blaze.

An hour later, the first of three fire service airplanes arrived on the scene. When the incident coordinator saw the blaze had grown too big for the small crew to fight, he told the retardant bomber and smoke jumper crew to turn around and let it burn, according to Rogers.

As he was leaving, the coordinator spotted Schaeffer on the river bank, waving his arms.

"That guy was pretty lucky," Rogers said. "He could've been left out there. They noticed him just as they were leaving."

Two smoke jumpers were dropped to assist Schaeffer. A helicopter later transported him to Venetie, where he was reunited with his party. All three flew back to Fairbanks on Wednesday.

Schaeffer had little to say about the episode, except that he needed to catch up on his sleep. None of the men was injured.

Schaeffer could face civil or criminal charges and fines for starting the fire, now dubbed the Tsooktuihvun Lake Fire, Rogers said. After the investigator's report is finished next week, a federal official will consider whether to press charges, she said.

Venetie officials were not happy about the fire, which occurred on tribal land. Chief Mary Gamboa said she did not know whether the tribe would pursue trespass charges against the rafters.

The fire is in an area where, if the initial attack is unsuccessful, the forest is allowed to burn.

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