DESTROYED—Noxious smoke still rises from smoldering debris four days after a fire destroyed 10 school buildings and damaged seven others.ONTAINING THE FLAMES— Tapraq Rock equipment was used to create firebreaks around the perimeter.

Stebbins works to recover after devastating fire

A fire that started Wednesday night, June 26 around 6 p.m. has consumed the Stebbins school, some teacher housing units and other school-related structures, burning the entire complex to the ground.
No injuries or deaths have been reported.
According to a statement from Bering Strait School District Tammy Dodd the school was destroyed “along with approximately half of the teacher housing and some outlier buildings like the shop and portables.”
She said that BSSD is committed to rebuilding the school, which according to school principal Robert Cooper has 245 K-12 students, but it will look different, she wrote. “Temporary classrooms and online learning options are a few of the possibilities being discussed,” the statement says. “The leadership team will work on a detailed plan for reconstruction of the school.”
Dodd called for donations of clothing, food and other essentials.
As of Tuesday, smoldering debris was still monitored as the response to the fire shifted from extinguishing the flames to forging a path forward for the community that had experienced several disasters in the last two years.
Two deputy fire marshals arrived in Stebbins on Thursday determine the origin and cause of the fire. “Deputy Fire Marshals from the Alaska Department of Public Safety worked throughout the day to conduct an origin and cause investigation,” said AST spokesperson Austin McDaniel on Friday. “A preliminary investigation has determined that the fire originated from an outbuilding near the school, and the cause is still under investigation.”
On Wednesday night, Tukurngailnguq School Principal Robert Cooper confirmed that the fire began in a toolshed that housed a boiler next to the school.
Alaska State Troopers in a dispatch said that despite efforts from the community to slow the spread of the fire, it jumped to other buildings, including the school.

Fighting the flames
Alaska State Trooper Brian Wassmann happened to be in Stebbins when the fire broke out. He told The Nome Nugget in a phone interview that he was inside the school when the fire started and received a phone call from the city administrator, who told him that there was a fire outside. “I went running out […] and there was a detached tool shed building that was on the west side of the school and already flames were shooting out above the roof line, and the side of that building was completely engulfed in flames,” Wassmann reported.
He said that about 16 young men from the community formed a bucket brigade line filling buckets with water from the school. “I joined that bucket brigade line, and we were trying to dump water on the on the structure to put the fire out. But the fire had already started spreading in that building and was burning too hot to effectively fight the fire,” Wassmann said.
Fanned by strong winds, the fire spread from the toolshed/boiler room building to another building on the side of the school – a brand-new built school shop. “Those two structures combined were burning so hot that the heat from the fire was getting onto the west side of the school, and it caught the eaves of the roof line of the west side of the school on fire, and then it just spread from there,” he said.
“There was still water available from the school, but the fire was getting so hot that you couldn’t stand close enough to it to get the water on, and we couldn’t get enough water on the structure fast enough to put it out, and we’re doing the best we can,” Wassmann said.
 Local contractor Tapraq Rock, a locally-owned and operated general contractor based in Stebbins, was the first responder to the fire, joined by city employees, Tapraq Project Superintendent Dylan Saunders said in an email to the Nugget. They assisted to bring city owned pumps and equipment online, fixed things on the spot and added their own pumps and hoses.
“Our mechanics under the direction of Bruce Pete worked to replumb hoses to match other hoses and pumps. Simultaneously a bucket brigade was formed from every available water source. Tapraq flaggers provided crowd control. Bernard Pete, our operator foreman, ran to the power plant and shut off power as the fire began to threaten the electrical infrastructure,” said Saunders.
Before the school caught on fire, workers and community members entered the school and removed records and historical artifacts and photos.
About an hour and a half after the start of the fire, Nome Fire Department personnel arrived and began to assist. As initial efforts to contain the fire failed once water sources ran out, Tapraq heavy equipment was used to collapse and move burning buildings and to form a firebreak to save nearby buildings, preventing a spread of the fire through town.
 At that point all efforts were concentrated on containment of the fire, reported Saunders. A Tapraq loader was damaged, but no injuries occurred. “The effort was truly a community effort, especially since Tapraq personnel are also members of the community,” he said.

Finding help
While the community rallied to try to dump water on the inferno, Wassmann reported the fire to the authorities and tried to get assets to respond from state forestry, BLM and the Nome Volunteer Fire Department. He said he was working with the fire dispatch center in Galena trying to get air support, either a helicopter with a bucket and fire suppression capabilities, but they declined because the fire was not a threat to wildlands. “They said they were not going to respond,” Wassmann reported. “They said that they were sending an airplane over to assess but that they didn’t send any fire suppression support.”
The only agency that responded was the Nome Volunteer Fire Department.
Nome Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim West Jr. said that the department was notified just around 7 p.m. and immediately began to spool up responses. The department sent three planes to Stebbins with Nome Volunteer firefighters and equipment consisting of 800 feet of fire hoses, pumps, breathing apparatus and other gear. The firemen were John Bahnke III, Jason West, Kevin Bahnke, Eric Tungwenuk, Chase Gray, Brandon Tran, Shane Smithhisler and Ryan Kralik.
West said their water source was the ocean and that the pumps sucked up gravel and sand and got clogged up. The school did have a sprinkler system, but the fire was in the attic, so sprinklers shooting water down didn’t help.
A crew of four Nome volunteer firefighters came back Wednesday night about 3 a.m., and the remaining four returned to Nome on Thursday.
The structures lost were all Bering Strait School District property, including half of the teacher housing apartments. “It’s going to be a very devastating impact of this community,” said trooper Wassmann, as the community suffers from a chronic housing shortage, as most villages in the region.
For a short time, Stebbins was left without power or water as a result of the fire, Tapraq’s Saunders said.
Tapraq Rock’s initial efforts were to restore water availability, and water and sewer service to remaining teacher housing, while working with the power cooperative AVEC to assist their crews in restoring power. Power and water availability were partially restored by the following day, and the entire town had power within three days. “We immediately deployed a drone survey team to survey the damaged road between Stebbins and St. Michael in preparation for repair and resurfacing in preparation for bussing students,” Saunders said.

City Administrator Daisy Katcheak caught up with the Nome Nugget in a Zoom call on Tuesday, visibly exhausted, going on only 18 hours of sleep since the fire last Wednesday.  
She reported that a tri-party meeting was held on Friday, including the city, Native corporation and the tribe, in addition to representatives from BSSD, to formulate a plan. “We had suggested to open up three to four of our public buildings that would include our Armory building, our old Head Start building, our existing city office, which is connected to the city hall. Right now the city hall is being utilized as a makeshift retail store, but our new Anica store should be up and running by August,” she said.
A fire last year destroyed the town’s only grocery store.
She emphasized that the main concern is now for the children to have a place to go back to school in August and their ability to continue to play sports and have a play ground, which was destroyed with the fire.
Two houses, she said, had to be evacuated as the walls nearly melted from the fire’s heat, but the families could return to their homes.
She said the wind changed directions four times before the fire could be extinguished. As of this week, there are still smoldering spots and underneath the rubble a burning utilidor was discovered.
As the fire burned, the power went out in the entire community, she said, and only came back on gradually in different parts of town. Water is an issue and the city is on boil notice and bottled water is being brought in. However, some freezer food thawed and spoiled, she said and she worried for families who finally had freezers filling with subsistence foods which have now thawed. Immediate needs are to bring in food for people.
Plans include to use the Armory, old Head Start building and the city hall as makeshift school buildings for elementary, middle and junior high school students and to bus high school students to St. Michaels, an 18-mile ride.
“We’ve been having conversations with the city government at St Michael to lease their old BIA school gymnasium and turn it into makeshift high school classrooms so that our high school students can benefit from the school sports in the BSSD school gymnasium,” she said.
Creating new student classrooms in Stebbins is akin to solving a puzzle as current occupants have to move out before the places can be refurbished to become temporary school spaces. The town is still reeling from the aftermath of ex-typhoon Merbok that ravaged Norton Sound in September 2021 and a fire that consumed their only store last year. The armory building has housed Stebbins’ police department as their police station fell victim to Merbok. The Head Start building, Katcheak said, has been housing five families that were displaced by Merbok. And a city building had been refurbished to house the store. While Tapraq is also working to build homes and the store is scheduled to move into its new building in August, the vacated buildings then need to be turned into school modules.
A priority Katcheak said, is to request firefighting equipment and to stand up a local fire department. She also prioritizes the children. “Getting them to school on time, is priority,” she said. It’s not about us adults right now. It’s all about the children, they’re feeling so insecure.”
With the short barging season, Tapraq Rock scheduled an immediate barge sailing and began purchasing response equipment and supplies out of pocket, Saunders said. The have bought a 60-man self-contained mobile camp with all kitchen and bathroom facilities, a mobile office unit, a workers’ dry shack, a mobile self-contained toilet and shower facility, four school busses for transporting students to the St. Michael school, a second motor grader for snow removal/road maintenance to keep the road to St. Michael safe and open for the busses, two pickup trucks, an electric car, a large excavator for fire debris cleanup and other equipment such as skid steers, telehandlers, manlifts and 11 shipping containers full of support equipment and supplies.
They are also coordinating with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the City of Stebbins to plan for transport and safe burial of the fire debris. “As soon as a plan is in place we can begin transport and cleanup,” Saunders said.
Trooper Wassman said that the State Emergency Operations Center had been activated. “They’re actively working with the community to get assets out here, whatever it is, food supplies, bottled water, and, you know, they’re sending out initial supplies right now and coordinating with the city and the tribe with what’s needed,” Wassmann said.
He said that the Department of Public Safety’s responsibility was turning from fire suppression to investigating the cause of the fire. Two deputy fire marshals from the Department of Public Safety arrived on Thursday to conduct the investigation, they confirmed where the fire started, but have not released the cause of the fire.
He added: “I wanted to make sure you know that the young men of this community and volunteers from all over — the not just men, but women — people from the community all stepped up and gathered around and were helping direct traffic, doing whatever they could.”
Governor Mike Dunleavy declared a disaster for the school fire, which will free up funds for the emergency response efforts and activates the public assistance disaster recovery program.
The program can rebuild critical infrastructure or essential items/services not covered by insurance, according to Jeremy Zidek, public information officer for the state division of homeland security and emergency management.


The Nome Nugget

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Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
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