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Fire destroys general store in Arctic village of Kivalina

A fire destroyed the only store in the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina on Friday morning.

Alaska State Troopers said in a dispatch they received reports at 2 a.m. Friday that the volunteer fire department was responding to a fire in the Kivalina Native Store.

According to troopers, by the time the crew arrived, the building was engulfed in flames. Firefighters focused their efforts on keeping the fire from spreading to other buildings.

The building is a total loss, according to troopers. Troopers from the Kotzebue post and a Northwest Arctic Borough village public safety officer began their investigation into the cause of the fire Friday.

McQueen School principal Zoe Theoharis said no nearby buildings appeared to have been damaged, including teacher housing, which is 50 feet across the street from the store.

One volunteer firefighter was medevacked from the scene after he inhaled flame retardant. Colleen Swan, who works with the volunteer fire department, said it was a precautionary measure and that the firefighter will be returning to the village soon.

Swan also said that by the time volunteers arrived at the fire, the store could not be saved and the crew worked to save nearby buildings.

"We're fortunate there wasn't any wind," Swan said, noting that the village is on a low-lying barrier island in the Chukchi Sea.

Swan said the store is the only source of general merchandise in Kivalina. While some residents sell small convenience-store goods out of their homes, the store stocked most essentials, selling everything from food to furniture.

While many Kivalina residents live off of subsistence foods, the store was the only place to purchase things like diapers, formula and milk. Longtime resident Tom Hanifan said he could hear pops as the fire burned, a sign that ammunition might have been exploding.

"It's a major loss," Swan said.

Millie Hawley, president of the Kivalina IRA Council, which owns the store, said it was in the final stages of an extensive remodel and addition that would have lengthened the building by 12 feet. Hawley estimated that the cost to replace the building could be between $1 million and $2 million. He said the store was insured.

Hanifan said the fire was still smoldering Friday afternoon and a firefighting crew from the Red Dog Mine was on the scene putting out hot spots. Swan said the blaze tested the local volunteer fire department, which had to drill a hole in a nearby frozen lagoon to get enough water to contain the blaze.

Regional leadership from the Northwest Arctic Borough, the borough school district, NANA Regional Corp. and the Maniilaq Association met Friday afternoon to coordinate how they would help in the response.

Wendie Schaeffer, borough director of public services, said initial charter flights went out from Kotzebue on Friday carrying essentials like diapers and baby formula and there were plans for more to be delivered Saturday.

The community plans to open a temporary store for winter, though the location was still to be determined. Schaeffer said the community plans to rebuild the store once the sea is ice-free and building materials can be barged in.

The village of about 400 in Northwest Alaska has struggled to deal with climate change in recent years.