Fire rips through Hoonah's center

Cause unknown in blaze that destroys 3 buildings

Posted: Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Public safety officials are investigating the cause of a fire that destroyed three structures near the center of Hoonah on Saturday. Though no one was injured seriously, the fire caused at least $50,000 in damage and destroyed a historic home, officials said Monday.

Hoonah, population about 1,000, is a village 40 miles west of Juneau on Chicagof Island.

Resident David Bowen sustained first-degree burns to his right ear while helping firemen put out the blaze, said Hoonah Public Safety Director Hugh Miller. Bowen, 45, was treated at the scene and released.

"All I had was my little garden hose thinking I could do something with it," Bowen said Monday. "I was trying to protect my machine shop because we have a lot of flammable materials in it. It was just too hot for my little garden hose. I'd never been that close to a fire that hot before. Anything on my body that was exposed got burned by radiant heat. My ear got the worst."

Hoonah Emergency Services received a call around 6:35 p.m. Saturday from a resident reporting a shed was engulfed in flames, Miller said.

"The (shed) was so intensely burning it was see-through, so you could see the sticks in the frame," said Bowen. "It was freaky. I'd never seen anything like it."

The fire spread from the shed to Bowen's adjacent double-wide trailer, which was unoccupied.

"It caught in the under-space of this other house next to mine and the grass around it," he said. "Then it spread to the grass around my trailer and shot up the side of it to the eaves. It was like someone was pouring gasoline on it and flames were just shooting out of the eaves. It just went up so fast."

The other house hit by the fire was a two-story residence owned by James Dybdahl and used for storage, Miller said. Dybdahl was unavailable for comment by the Empire's Monday evening deadline.

The buildings were within 10 to 15 feet of each other, which made it difficult to keep the fire from spreading, Miller said. About 15 firefighters fought the blaze with two small engines, which had mechanical problems.

"One of the engines overheated and the electrical shorted on the other," Miller said. "Both problems were fixed on the scene."

Numerous volunteers pitched in to help keep flames contained, Miller said. Bowen was trying to keep the fire from spreading to his machine shop, Super Dave's Automotive, 10 feet from the burning trailer, when he was hurt, Miller said.

Bowen said the smoke was extremely thick.

"I didn't know whether to stand still or to move," he said. "I couldn't see anything and didn't know what I was walking into. I just tried to make my way to the harbor. That's where the EMTs met up with me. I couldn't take a breath. It was like my lungs were Glad sandwich bags or something."

The fire was out by 9:30 p.m.

Miller said the cause of the fire is unknown, but it doesn't look like it was set. He also said he didn't have a total damage estimate, but that the shed and the trailer were valued at about $10,000 and $15,000 respectively. The residence was valued at between $25,000 to $35,000. Miller said the residence, which housed many family heirlooms, was one of the oldest homes in town.

• Melanie Plenda can be reached at

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