Dozens of bears, eagles and gnomes perished in a December fire deep in the woods of Whidbey Island.
It was a devastating loss for chainsaw artist Steve Backus, who carved the creatures that burned.
The fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. Dec. 2 in a wood stove chimney in his 20-by-120 foot studio in a former sawmill on Glendale Road.
“It destroyed at least 80 percent of my working abilities,” said Backus, 63, owner of Big Shot Woodcarving. “The inventory, the saws, the electrical tools.”
His home on the 4-acre property wasn’t damaged.
“Five minutes later it would have been a different story,” he said.
South Whidbey Fire/EMS Deputy Chief Terry Ney said it was a “tough fire to fight” that took five hours of “mopping it up to get it out.”
Backus credits the crew of 13 firefighters and community support with his rebound. New gnomes and bears now stand in the soot of their predecessors.
As the bumper sticker on his truck says: “Carve or Starve!”
“People have been very generous. I had saws coming in a UPS truck and people dropping them by,” Backus said. “I’ve got more saws than before it started.”
Multiple saws are needed to turn logs into art.
“It’s like being in the kitchen with your butcher block full of knives. You’ve got your big knives, your little knives,” he said.
An online fundraiser brought in over $30,000 to help rebuild the infrastructure.
Helen Price Johnson, a longtime islander, called Backus a “true Whidbey treasure.”
“He’s a visionary of how chainsaw art has expanded and is so encouraging of others,” she said.
The fire also burned about 40 feet of the 300-foot privacy fence, a motley gallery of carved faces, figures and signs that suddenly appears in the forest, about 4 miles from the Clinton ferry terminal.
The roadside attraction, at least for those who find it, was featured in a 2015 “What’s Up With That” column.
“It’s like this hillbilly hideout and I look like a friggin’ Sasquatch,” Backus said in that story. “There’s been more than one time I walked out the gate when someone’s looking at the fence and they take off. If the gate is open, only the very brave enter.”
He’s joking, of course. Backus knows how to wow an audience, even without a chainsaw in his hand.
Chainsaw artist Jason Murieen said Backus is “undoubtedly one of the original godfathers of the sport of competitive chainsaw carving.”
Backus calls the shows “the engine that has driven the artform.”
His role: “I’m an elder statesman. I get asked for advice and I’m full of it. Advice.”
He oversaw two chainsaw festivals this month, in Arlington and Ocean City, with plans for a dozen more carving shows this year, including one in Germany.
Backus downplays his skill.
“I have the distinct world record for having been beaten in the most chainsaw carving competitions ever because I was young when I started showing up,” he said. “I won a couple here and there.”
Backus has wielded a chainsaw since he was a kid, along with his sister Lynn and brother Boaz. The three will be carving together at a Spokane show in March.
Their mom Judy McVay is a retired carver. His uncle Pat McVay is known for numerous carvings around the island and beyond.
“Being in a carver family it’s more like indentured servitude, especially if you’re a big kid and can lift stuff,” Backus said. “You’re not used from the neck up.”
His first paid job for using his woodworking talent was at age 16.
“I made a headboard and a footboard for 40 bucks and a .22 rifle,” he said. “I became a carver because it seemed normal.”
His wife Nanette does paint and finish work. Their grown children, Cory, Chelsey and Boone, are also proficient with saws.
With their help, he is rebuilding inventory.
“I got the attention deficit thing going on,” Backus said. “I twirl around and I whittle on this and I whittle on that. I try to keep things cycling through that are fun and weird but don’t necessarily sell. Got to get the bears done, because that’s what pays the bills.”
He takes bears with him wherever he goes.
“I was going through airline security one time and I had a bunch of little bears in my sack because you don’t travel without your American Express card, and the lady looking at the X-ray machine goes, ‘Awwww,’” he said.
Bears make good trading barter.
“Everything. Motels, food, trucks, cars, clothing. It’s like, what haven’t I traded a bear for?” he said. “My big boom truck, I traded an eagle for that.”
Backus was featured in the 2017 short film “Last Refuge of the Troublemaker.” It was among the streaming entertainment on Alaska Airlines a few years ago. I watched it on a flight. You can see it on Vimeo.
He also was on a 2008 Pemco Insurance TV commercial campaign, “We’re a lot like you, a little different.” It showed him carving a little bear that was a toilet-paper holder.
When Backus is not holding a saw, he’s holding a book.
“I’ll read a book then carve the character out of my head,” he said.
Several hundred books burned in the fire.
“I’m a real reader … from Dr. Seuss to Stephen King,” Backus said. “I have fun on Facebook. There are a lot of mean people on Facebook who are kind of angry. Instead of having an opinion, I’ll recommend a book. Dude, read a book. I’m doing this with a 10th grade education. It isn’t that hard.”
Since the fire, people leave books by the mailbox and door.
“It’s like Christmas,” he said.