A family of six narrowly escaped a house fire with their lives Sunday evening, but things could have been a lot worse if Anchorage's Daren Beals hadn't decided to take the scenic route.
Beals, 50, was driving from Eagle River to Chugiak with his girlfriend Irene Bush, and two other family members when he decided — on a whim, he said Monday — to take the quieter Old Glenn instead of the quicker Glenn Highway.
As they drove past the home the Sparks family has lived in for more than 30 years, Beals said he noticed something odd.
"I was like, 'There's some weird smoke coming from next to the road,'" Beals recalled.
A trained volunteer firefighter and EMS captain who works as a health and safety adviser for ConocoPhillips on the North Slope, Beals is no stranger to life-threatening situations. In 2016, he and two other employees working at the remote Alpine oil field helped a 9-week-old baby from the village of Nuiqsut reach critical medical care. For their efforts, the trio — Beals, Dave Decker and Rose Frisby — were honored by the Red Cross at its annual Real Heroes Breakfast in April of 2017.
So Beals knew better than to drive by the smoky scene without investigating. Upon closer inspection, he saw flames.
"We stopped at the end of the driveway and … the garage was on fire," he said.
Beals ran to the front door and started banging, but couldn't get an answer. So he pounded harder as the flames grew — but still couldn't raise anyone.
So he went inside.
"I didn't hesitate, since I knew I needed to check the house," he said.
The door was unlocked. When Beals got inside, he ran into a very agitated homeowner in Edward Sparks, who was inside with his wife and their four kids.
"He's like, 'Who the (heck) is in my house?'" Beals said. "I'm like, 'Get the (heck) out, your house is on fire!"
As Beals helped get the family out, his girlfriend called 911.
"Thank God they had their address at the end of the driveway," he said.
According to Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department assistant chief Clifton Dalton, the fire was reported at 5:47 p.m. and firefighters arrived from the nearby CVFRD Station 35 on the Old Glenn Highway two minutes later. When crews arrived, Dalton said the home was about 50 percent engulfed in flames.
"It took us about 45 minutes to get it under control," he said.
A total of 20 units from CVFRD, Anchroage Fire Department and the Central Mat-Su Fire Department responded to the fire, which caused the Old Glenn to be shut down for more than two hours.
Once firefighters arrived, Beals said there wasn't much left to do.
"They had it all under control," he said. Their good deed done, Beals and his passengers got in their car and drove away.
Beals's co-worker, Willie Hatch, said he wasn't surprised to hear of Beals' latest act of heroism.
"He is addicted to medicine and helping people," Hatch wrote in an email. "It's his vice: He gets a rush from it."
An East High graduate and lifelong Anchorage resident, Beals said he's worked on the North Slope since around 2000. He said he simply likes to help people, and he and Bush were more than happy to help a fellow Alaskan in need when they were called upon.
"We felt pretty good," he said.
The Sparks family has set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for expenses associated with the fire.
"The damage is extreme and is going to take a lot of reconstruction," reads the post by Sparks' daughter, Juanita Kakiva. "… This fire not only displaced him, but his wife and four boys. They've been left with very little."
Beals said he's just thankful he decided to take the scenic route on his Sunday drive.
"It's just one of those divine things that happen where you're in the right place at the right time."