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No injuries as 'incredibly devastating' fire rages through Bethel school building

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 3, 2015

BETHEL -- A fire raged for hours in Bethel Tuesday, destroying a Yup'ik language immersion school and damaging a boarding school in the same building, with just about every piece of firefighting equipment in the Western Alaska hub city at the scene as crews tried to save parts of the structure and prevent the fire from spreading.

No injuries other than minor bumps and scrapes were reported. Alarms at 3:30 a.m. warned school staff members of smoke in the old red school house.

It opened as Kilbuck School in 1962 and was one of the biggest and most recognizable buildings in Bethel. For years, it was Bethel's only school.

The community came together fast to fight the fire and to help the Lower Kuskokwim School District recover from what it called a "horrible event."

Police said they were told initially that the fire began in the sewer pipes, which were heat-taped to prevent freezing. But with firefighters still working Tuesday afternoon to extinguish hot spots, the investigation into the cause was just beginning.

"We have had an incredibly devastating fire to our community," Fire Chief Bill Howell said Tuesday afternoon, after the fire was under control but not out. "This is a critical infrastructure. This is a school. We are just trying to piece together what happened. We are still actively involved in fighting the fire."

The Kilbuck building in recent years housed two magnet programs. Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, the Yup'ik immersion school, was flattened, and essential systems including boilers, the water plant and a large kitchen, which served all Bethel schools, were destroyed, said Joshua Gill, director of personnel and student services for the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

The extent of damage to the wing with the Kuskokwim Learning Academy boarding program was still uncertain but if it was repairable, the work would take months, he said.

The neighboring former Alaska National Guard Armory, now a school district gym that provides a popular venue for fiddle dances and basketball tournaments, was standing but not unscathed, Howell said. City officials had been especially worried about the armory because it contains asbestos that poses a threat especially to firefighters if released in a fire. That didn't appear to happen, and crews wore protective gear, Howell said.

By 2 p.m., a group representing key community agencies had come together to help the Lower Kuskokwim School District. At a second meeting later in the day, community and school representatives intended to put together a list of what students had lost and needed. An Internet campaign for the students had raised $2,000 in its first six hours and the Bethel City Council Tuesday night agreed to take steps to declare an emergency and seek state disaster assistance over the fire.

The district's No. 1 need: classroom space for Ayaprun, which served about 175 students, and Kuskokwim Learning Academy, serving about 125 students from Bethel, surrounding villages and other parts of Alaska.

About 40 students lived in the learning academy dorms. The alternative high school serves students, including some young adults, who haven't earned a diploma in regular settings.

Fire alarms alerted staff of smoke around 3:30 a.m., the district said.

"The kids were obviously evacuated and placed in a safe environment," Gill said. They spent the night in other district dorms, he said. School social workers are helping the students work through the crisis, and a counselor was working with staff members, he said.

For the short term, the district will house the Kuskokwim Learning Academy students and hold their classes on the campus of a regional training center, Yuut Elitnaurviat. It still is evaluating where to have classes for the elementary students from the immersion school, Superintendent Dan Walker said in a statement Tuesday evening.

The community will help, said Alvin Jimmy Sr., chairman of a regional team that meets in response to Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta emergencies.

The regional resource coordination committee gathered Tuesday afternoon at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. There were troopers and National Guard members, officials with YKHC and the Association of Village Council Presidents, representatives of the Tundra Women's Coalition and the AVCP regional housing authority, city leaders and training school employees. Anyone who could offer space agreed to let the district know.

The schools will keep going in some form, Gill said. The district will keep parents, teachers and school staff informed by email and phone, he said.

Walker thanked the firefighters "for their work and split second decisions that lessened the loss of property."

The fire grew big fast. At one point early Tuesday, firefighters thought they had it under control. Then it erupted inside the school and took off again, Bethel police Sgt. Kadri Limani said.

"We got a call around 3:40 in the morning that the pipes were on fire, the sewer pipes that are outside and underneath the building," Limani said. The sewer pipes were heat-taped to prevent freezing but police don't know what started the fire, he said.

"At some point the fire traveled into the ceiling and the situation became too dangerous for firefighters to continue to fight the fire from the interior," Walker said in his statement.

Flames cut into the early morning dark and ripped through the largely wooden structure, which housed irreplaceable Yup'ik language teaching materials. Classroom books and papers, as well as teacher-bought supplies, were destroyed. But a media center with artifacts was still standing, Gill said.

Police have called on the state to send investigators from the fire marshal's office to help determine the cause.

It's too early to know whether arson is suspected, said police Lt. Joseph Corbett.

"The way a fire investigation usually works is, you put it out, then you dig it up. When they dig it up, they are looking for evidence of accelerants, things like that," Corbett said midday, as the fire still burned. "Right now it's just preservation of life and property."

Around 3 p.m. Tuesday, Howell said the fire was under control and no longer spreading. Ruins were still hot and smoldering, though, and the fire would not be out for "many hours," said Howell, who had been working almost 12 hours at that point.

"There's a lot of combustible materials that are piled in stacks and jumble piles," Howell said. "It's going to be real difficult to get all those deep-seated fires."

During the peak of it Tuesday morning, loud pops jolted bystanders. Flames tore through exterior walls before they crashed. Bethel's one ladder truck was also in use, with a volunteer firefighter high in the air pouring water into the building amid heavy smoke. Even from a distance, the heat could be felt and so could the danger.

Bethel's small fire department, a mix of paid firefighters and volunteers, was stretched thin with such a huge fire, the chief said. He asked Bethel Search and Rescue to provide volunteers to give his crews a break.

Contractors loaned heavy equipment including front end loaders that clawed into the school and helped knock down burning walls. Bethel businesses provided food and drinks for the crews. The state Department of Transportation sent the airport fire truck.

And for hours, Bethel's water trucks ran back and forth to fill a holding tank being used by fire crews. Most of the city doesn't have piped water. The tank went empty a couple of times but only for brief moments. Howell said the water supply generally was very good.

"This is Bethel — we are isolated. There is no one we can call for mutual aid," City Manager Ann Capela said early Tuesday. "We are just trying to contain it." She said she was alerted to the fire by a call from the fire chief at 7:30 a.m.

It's the second devastating fire in Bethel in just more than a year. In October 2014, an alcohol treatment center under construction was destroyed. Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which suspected criminal behavior, offered a $20,000 reward, but with no tips that led to a conviction, the incentive expired Oct. 1.

Bethel Mayor Rick Robb, whose children went to Kilbuck elementary years ago, said the school fire is devastating for the town.

He works as residential services director for Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. He helped YKHC temporarily move out residents from an assisted living center, Bautista House, that is kitty-corner from the burning school.

"I could see the smoke coming down the highway from YK," Robb said. "When I got here the flames were shooting 50 feet high. It looked like it was going to go into the armory. They stopped it here."

In the early morning cold, residents lined the gravel road near Bethel's town center. Some were crying and hugging as they watched their school burn.

Bethel residents now in their 50s and 60s went to high school there.

Sonny Venes, 68, graduated from the old Kilbuck school in 1965.

"There were seven of us. I think there's only two of us left," he said Tuesday morning, watching the fire.

"That's all my classrooms there that are burning," he said.

Earlier, he could see the smoke Tuesday from out his window in City Sub, a neighborhood not far away. His high school graduating class was all boys, and they were close, he said.

"Just thinking about all the fun we had in the hallways," he said. "Lots of good times, studying, good teachers."

Losing Kilbuck school is sad for Bethel, said Venes and others.

It was a landmark, and now much of it is gone.

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