A wildfire that has blackened 86 square miles on the Kenai Peninsula and destroyed 88 homes and cabins began during work to build a cabin as a wedding present, fire officials and family members said.
Vicki Steik, whose daughter was soon to be married, said she was donating the land where the fire started June 19 and the groom's parents were going to build a cabin. She said sparks ignited dry grass when the groom's parents were grinding a shovel to start groundwork.
The couple working on the land tried to stop the flames with "the shirts off their backs," an investigator said.
"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."
"It's devastating. It's heartbreaking," Steik said. "What a tragic (way) for my daughter to start her married life."
Fire officials said Wednesday the blaze was 61 percent contained. More than 500 firefighters from around the country were battling the blaze.
Steik declined to name the future in-laws of her daughter, Michelle.
The groom's parents tried to in vain to stop the flames, then found themselves cut off from a road and had to be rescued by helicopter, Alaska Division of Forestry wildfire investigator Sharon Roesch said.
"They tried to slap it out with the shovel and the shirts off their backs," Roesch said.
Roesch was still determining whether the incident will warrant charges. If convicted of violating state fire statutes, the offending couple could be made to compensate the state based on their ability to pay, she said.
'A terrible accident'
Rob Coreson lost his uninsured cabin in the fire — an estimated loss of $100,000 — and said his friends with property in the area aren't in a very forgiving mood. Most property in the area was uninsurable because of the area's remoteness.
"I think it's neglect," he said.
Steik said she hopes people will respond rationally. "I just hope people will recognize it was a terrible accident."
The wedding will go on, and soon, she said.
"We're trying not to let it spoil what should be a very, very happy day for us."