Rural Alaska

Fire demolishes new $12.7 million treatment center in Bethel

A major fire in Bethel on Monday night grew so big it was seen from just about every part of town and demolished a sorely needed alcohol treatment center still under construction.

"All of Bethel was orange," said Dan Winkelman, the chief executive of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.

No one was hurt, authorities said.

Bethel's acting fire chief, Bill Howell, said Tuesday afternoon that the cause and point of origin aren't yet known. Two deputy fire marshals flew in from Anchorage on Tuesday to help the Western Alaska hub community investigate.

Investigators will evaluate whether it was caused intentionally or was the result of negligence, an accident or something else, said state Fire Marshal Kelly Nicolello.

"We go in there wide open and it could be either/or," he said.

Jeff Morton, a deputy fire marshal, arrived on scene midafternoon Tuesday. Investigators were waiting on equipment to begin their work, he said. A burnt-out building on piles presents safety challenges for investigators, and they will move cautiously.


YKHC was in the second year of a three-year project for a new $12.7 million, 16-bed treatment center. It was intended to replace an old, smaller facility behind the Bethel Fire Department. The new site is on Calista Drive behind the post office and near fuel tanks and the warehouse storing all of the corporation's medical supplies.

"It's truly down to ashes and dust," Donna Bach, spokeswoman for the health corporation that serves the vast Western Alaska region, said early Wednesday. "It's devastating."

On Tuesday, the place built to heal the destruction of alcohol was a blackened hulk, a tangle of metal. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is one of the poorest parts of the state and has among the highest rates of problems resulting from alcohol abuse.

Firefighters arrived just before 8:20 p.m. to find the building already swallowed in flames, Howell said. It took 14 firefighters, a blend of paid crew members and volunteers, more than nine hours to fully extinguish the fire, he said. Even then they left a portable water tank in case of flare-ups.

In most of Bethel, tanker trucks bring water to homes and businesses; there are few hydrants. Eight Bethel water trucks hauled water through the night, dumping it in portable tanks that fire engines drew from to blast on the fire. Crews used tens of thousands of gallons, Howell said. They also wet down the neighboring warehouse to keep it from burning.

YKHC's supplies for the regional hospital and clinics are stored in the warehouse, which includes a sterile supply room and administrative supplies, said Winkelman, YKHC's chief.

"Mountains of steam were coming off the building at that point," Winkelman said. Had the winds been howling out of the north as usual, he said, "I'm almost certain we would have lost the warehouse too."

Crews mainly fought the fire from a distance because it was so big, Howell said. They saved heavy construction equipment and shipping containers too.

The hospital chief was alerted to the fire soon after it started.

"I ran out of my house with my family. We jumped in the truck," Winkelman said. He could see the fire from the house even though he lives miles away, in Kasayulie subdivision past the airport. He stayed at the fire with his children and wife until about 11 p.m.

Kusko Cab driver Safet Miftari said he could see the fire from near the Alaska Commercial Co. store in Bethel's town center.

Tom Oosterman, who works for the city as a port attendant, was guarding the fire scene Tuesday. He saw flames from his home near the port.

"You could see the red glow from just about any part of town," Oosterman said.

The new center was funded by $12.7 million in state grants and is insured during construction, according to YKHC.

"That's about the only good thing that came out of this," Winkelman said. "No one got hurt and it's insured."

Design work started in July 2013, and the support piles were installed in May. The roof was completed about a week ago. The structure was substantially enclosed with a precut plywood-and-foam material, Nicolello said. The building was designed to be extremely energy efficient, Bach said.

It had nearly 16,000 square feet of space and was intended to provide room for outpatient treatment as well as residential care, according to YKHC.


Winkelman said he was told the fire appears to have started on the post office side, closest to the road.

The old center, the Phillips Ayagnirvik Treatment Center, was too small, had waiting lists and not designed to be coed. Ayagnirvik is Yup'ik for "a place for new beginnings."

Construction crews had quit for the day at 6 p.m. Monday. No welding or other "hot work" was being done, Winkelman said. YKHC has roving security officers for its Bethel campus who also check other sites including the new center. But there wasn't full-time security on site, he said.

Now 15 construction workers are out of work, according to YKHC.

The new center was supposed to be completed in January 2016.

Investigators ask anyone with information to contact Alaska State Troopers in Bethel, 907-543-2294.

YKHC is talking with the state and its insurers about what to do next, including whether it can rebuild at the same site.

"We have serious concerns about the foundation just because of the intensity of the heat," Winkelman said. The foundation area may have to be refrozen, he said.

But, he said, "we will rebuild it."

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.