By Jenny Neyman
Having eight people under one roof makes life hectic for Maria Pedro and her family. When their roof caught fire Oct. 29, life became even more chaotic.
Now the extended, yet close-knit, Nikiski family is even more extended, as they’re staying with friends here and there in the area until they can make their home livable again.
“That’s the hardest thing, we’re all spread out and missing each other,” Pedro said.
Pedro and various combinations of her family have lived in their home on Bell Avenue off Island Lake Road in Nikiski for nearly 15 years. Longer than that, if you count the time Pedro lived there before spending six years doing missionary work in Central America.
Before the fire, Pedro’s son, Gabriel Cazares, who attends high school in Kenai, and grandson, Eddy Gomez, who goes to school at Nikiski Middle-High School, lived in the triple-wide mobile home with Pedro. Also in the home were Pedro’s daughter, Olivia Hart, her husband and their three kids. Another of Pedro’s 12 children, daughter Veronica Cazares, just recently moved into her own apartment.
Now they’re all over the place, after learning the hard way that there’s no such thing as emergency housing on the central peninsula. They haven’t been able to find rental space that’s affordable and doesn’t require a six-month or longer lease.
The Harts are staying with friends off Gaswell Road, Gabriel Cazares is staying with a friend from school, and Pedro and Gomez are rotating between friends’ homes.
“We don’t want to be a burden to anybody,” Pedro said.
Meanwhile, life marches on, refusing to give the family a reprieve from daily disasters just because they’ve had a major one. The window in Hart’s husband’s car recently shattered, to the tune of $300. And life with kids is always interesting, including a bout of nightmares and a son who recently developed a case of hives.
“There’s always something with kids, a Cheerio up their nose or in their ear you have to deal with,” Hart said.
Pedro’s income decreased since she took some time off work at the Nikiski Senior Center after the fire, and her son recently turned 18, so she no longer gets child support payments for him. As for the birthday, the family couldn’t even think of a place to celebrate. They finally settled on dinner at Pizza Hut a week after his birthday, since at least that was big enough to hold everybody.
The family takes it all, including the fire, in stride.
“We’re used to a lot of stuff happening. We get over it pretty quick,” Hart said. “We always have food and clothing, so we don’t worry.”
On the afternoon of Oct. 29, heat from the home’s wood stove sparked a fire in ceiling insulation that was too close to the chimney. Hart and her three kids, ages 6, 2 and 9 months, were at home at the time.
“We were just hanging out and just smelled smoke. I thought it was the fireplace,” Hart said. “My son was outside. He came in and said smoke was coming out of the house. I said, ‘Smoke is always coming out of the house,’ but I went out to look and, sure enough, it was coming out of the roof.”
She put her kids in the car while the Nikiski Fire Department was on the way. Pedro was visiting family in Oregon at the time. Hart sent her mom a text message to let her know about the fire.
“She texted me. It said, ‘Please pray, the house may be on fire,’” Pedro said.
At first the message didn’t sink in. Pedro’s daughter in Oregon thought it was a joke, and family members in Nikiski didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation. One texted back, “Ha, ha,” while another said something along the lines of, “Way to go. What did you do?”
“They thought I was kidding. We joke around a lot, but not about something like that,” Hart said.
Even more unbelievable was the house catching on fire a second time, the morning after the first blaze. This time a short in electrical wiring was the culprit. Firefighters put the second fire out, as well, but not without smoke, soot and water damage to the home’s interior.
Still in Oregon, it took Pedro awhile for the impact of the news to catch up with her.
“I knew it happened, but it really didn’t hit me,” Pedro said.
She was in Wal-Mart, looking for a shoe-bottom scraper Hart had wanted to get for the house.
“Then I stopped and thought, ‘Why am I looking for this?’ I’m in Wal-Mart in Oregon with all these things you can’t get around here and I couldn’t buy anything because I didn’t have a house to put it in. I started crying in the middle of Wal-Mart. It was weird,” she said.
Pedro looked through the house when she got back to town. The fire damaged much of the ceiling and roof, the fire department had to knock a hole in a wall, and other walls were damaged from smoke and water. Everything in the house is covered in soot, ceiling insulation and/or water, Pedro said. Power and heat have been shut off, so pipes may have frozen and could burst. Since the house consists of three trailers with a shared roof and a wood stove, along with a gas heater, it wasn’t insured.
Still, Pedro isn’t focusing on any of those things.
“I’m not like that. I just count on God and look at the good side, not the bad side,” she said. “And the good side is everything is fixable and nobody got hurt.”
The fire department estimated the house is salvageable, and the flames were mostly confined to the ceiling so the family’s possessions weren’t burned.
Even so, it’s going to take an estimated $10,000 and a whole lot of work to make the home livable again. Friends, the community and the board of directors for the nondenominational ministry organization Pedro founded 10 years ago, En La Gloria Ministries, have offered to help.
The Red Cross helped the family with food money and gave them vouchers they can spend on clothes, furniture or housewares at The Salvation Army. Friends have offered donations, as well, but Pedro and her family haven’t had a chance to sort through the mess to see what’s salvageable and what’s not.
“A lot a lot of people at first said, ‘Let me know if you need anything,’ but we don’t know what we need yet,” Hart said.
Housing is the main priority. The family would like to live together again while they work on the house.
Friends and the En La Gloria ministry board have offered to volunteer labor for the repairs, and a church group from Oregon may come up to help this summer. But they’ll need building materials, and that takes money. There’s an account set up at Wells Fargo Bank if anyone wants to contribute to purchasing building supplies. The Pedro family fire repair fund account number is 7319380957.
Beyond that, support has already come in a form that’s immensely comforting to Pedro, as a missionary to Central America, Alaska villages and Spanish-speaking churches in the Lower 48.
“I think we’re going to be OK because we have a lot of people praying for us and with us,” she said. “It could have been a lot worse.”