Stebbins ANICA store burns down
By Megan Gannon and Diana Haecker
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, Nov. 28, a Stebbins building housing the ANICA store and the Tapraq Fuel Company office burned to the ground. According to Stebbins Mayor Marian Mike, the fire started around 4 a.m. and quickly consumed the half-century old building.
Tribal Coordinator Jacinta Martin said the fire seemed to have started near the electrical box by the loading dock of the store. A neighbor, who was still up, saw flames and alerted his mother who then notified the police.
VPO Herbert Aluska Jr. was one of the first responders on the scene. His wife had received a phone call around 5:15 a.m. from someone who told her that the store was smoking and that there might be a fire inside. Aluska said that when he ran over to the building, none of the doors were open but the corners of the store were up in smoke. He said the fire seemed to be inside the storage area, but he couldn’t get to it.
“I got one door open, but I couldn't get through the door because the smoke in there was just too thick and too black,” Aluska said.
Other residents in the town were starting to wake up and began working together to keep people away from the blaze. “People were protecting the homes close to the store, keeping the houses watered down on the side of the building and just watching out for the store,” Aluska said.
They effectively secured the premises around the building and prevented the fire from spreading. But the store itself was devastated.
Stebbins has no fire department or fire truck, Mayor Mike said, so people came with fire extinguishers, but couldn’t fight the blazing flames. Aluska said the city has fire hoses but they weren’t working so well.
“The fire was out of control,” said Martin. She said luckily the winds were calm and then flames didn’t spread to nearby buildings. “The fire burned itself out, but there are still some smoldering spots,” said Martin.
Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Aileen Witrosky said the building is totaled and collapsed on itself. She said she was notified of the fire at 6:45 a.m. There was no loss of life or any injuries reported as of press time. “At this time there is no indication that the fire was caused by foul play,” Witrosky said. She said, based on employee statements, the store building had electrical issues.
The Fire Marshal has been notified but won’t travel to Stebbins to investigate further, Witrosky said.
Witrosky said a trooper from Unalakleet happened to be in Stebbins and assisted the community volunteers in containing the flames and preventing the fire to jump to surrounding buildings.
Jacinta Martin said that one building close by had windows crack from the heat. No other damage has been reported as of Tuesday afternoon.
Martin said the police went door to door to ask residents of nearby homes to go to the school for emergency evacuation. The power to the northside of the town has been cut. Mayor Mike said linemen from AVEC are requested to come and fix the power. Mike estimates that 60 homes have no electricity or heat until the power is back on.
Witrosky said connexes containing propane bottles were in the vicinity and but luckily the fire did not spread to the gas tanks behind the store building. Local responders used a loader to move the tanks away from the flames, Aluska said.
Nome Volunteer Fire Department has offered its help, but as of Tuesday, no additional assets were going to Stebbins, Witrosky said.
The building was about 55 years old by the estimate of Mayor Mike and ANICA Store Advisor Jim Petosa. Petosa said ANICA is working with the City of Stebbins and other entities to secure a space for a temporary store. Mayor Mike added that City Hall would function as the interim store.
“Everything was destroyed in the store,” Jerilyn Pete, the manager of the store, told the Nugget. “We had a ton of food that was delivered over the weekend and a ton of cash [in the register].”
On Tuesday, Pete was already mobilizing to create the temporary store inside a municipal building. “The city's already moving their stuff,” she said. Now she’s just waiting for replacement food and registers to be delivered.
There is an AC store 10 miles away in St. Michael, but with icy weather taking hold in the region, Pete wasn’t eager to make such a trip for her shopping.
“It's winter now and I don't want to go back and forth from St. Michael to Stebbins just for groceries or items I need at home,” Pete said.
Pete said the building had been having electrical problems in the past few weeks and suspected faulty wires may have sparked the fire. She added that her ANICA store advisor told her the company planned to rebuild the facility as soon as possible. “Hopefully it’ll be a little bigger with more storage space,” she said.
Petosa, the store advisor at the headquarters in Seattle, said the burned down ANICA store had a square footage of about 4,500. At this moment, he couldn’t say how much inventory they lost to the flames. He said new supplies for the temporary store such as cash registers, safes and shelving are being ordered. He said that luckily there are good folks on the ground in Stebbins to help organize the response. “I anticipate a bit of hardship for the people of Stebbins but I hope we have a temporary store open soon,” he said.
The fuel company’s offices were also a total loss, with all office records lost to the fire. Mayor Mike said they’re trying to set up a temporary office for the fuel company in a connex.
Photos posted on social media show the store burning in the night and empty shell of crumpled metal siding left in morning, at daylight.
Bering Air accepts grocery and clothing donations to be flown to Stebbins. The packages must be labeled with the City of Stebbins as the recipient. Donations will be accepted until Dec. 9 on a space available basis.