Rural Alaska

Fire in Emmonak destroys 5 buildings; damage estimated at $3 million

A weekend fire in Emmonak destroyed at least five commercial buildings in the Western Alaska village and caused an estimated $3 million in damage.

Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said in an email that the fire, which tore through a series of structures operated by Kwik'Pak Fisheries and Yukon Marine Manufacturing, was still smoldering Monday morning, nearly 48 hours after it was first reported. She said the state fire marshal's office had been alerted to the blaze, but its investigators weren't yet responding to the village.

"The building(s) contained known contaminants," Peters wrote. "If our deputy fire marshals did respond they would not be able to do a thorough scene investigation due to the Haz-Mat issue. A trooper has already documented what can be documented."

Troopers said in a Sunday dispatch that the blaze was first reported at about 1:30 p.m. Saturday, at a Kwik'Pak Fisheries facility. Responding troopers and the local village public safety officer in Emmonak -- a Yukon River community of about 830 people -- began coordinating firefighting and evacuation efforts, after arriving to discover "smoke coming from the windows of a large warehouse."

The fire quickly spread to two other Kwik'Pak buildings, then to two buildings belonging to boat-builder Yukon Marine Manufacturing. Attempts to slow or stop the fire were hindered by "failed and inoperable" firefighting equipment, troopers said. Troopers said no injuries had been reported from the fire, and foul play was not immediately suspected.

Trooper William Connors, one of about half a dozen initial responders to the fire, said by phone Sunday that it appeared to have started in the office area of an older building at Kwik'Pak, which was once used as an egg house.

"None of the buildings had any fire suppression equipment installed in them," Connors said. "The winds were technically in our favor, they were blowing to the south -- they gave us a chance to put out the fire, but it didn't work."

Connors said antiquated fire gear in the village was a major factor in that failure.

"We gave up after a certain point because all of the equipment was just busted and ineffective," Connors said. "None of the equipment was maintained in this village, so we did not have any operational water pumps -- the pump that was on the fire truck in the village was also busted, so when we did get water in the truck and deployed the hose, it was like using a garden hose on the fire."

Responders also didn't have any ice augers to penetrate river ice and draw water from the Yukon, Connors said. The fire crossed into more buildings from east to west.

"Three buildings of Kwik'Pak Fisheries just ignited, one after the other -- the sleeping quarters, the women's house," Connors said. "Once those three buildings were burning, it kept moving; that's where it got hold of the Yukon Marine Manufacturing building."

Both the main Yukon Marine Manufacturing building -- a new facility raised to replace one lost in a fire during the winter of 2010 to 2011 -- and the company's adjacent office building were lost in the blaze.

"Once that caught fire, it was pretty much horrible," Connors said.

No new firefighting efforts were being made Sunday, Connors said, due to the equipment issues and toxic smoke from the destroyed buildings. Authorities hoped to let Kwik'Pak officials into the area to sift through the wreckage once the fire burned itself out.

Connors said that Kwik'Pak and Yukon Marine Manufacturing employed only a few winter caretakers, but both firms added seasonal staff in the summer. While Yukon typically hired several additional welders to help work on boats, Kwik'Pak's staff ballooned to at least 2,000 people in the summer months.

"They're the main business in this region," Connors said. "They provide all the employment and livelihood."