ANCHORAGE - State fire marshals began sifting through the blackened ruins of a historic commercial fishing complex in South Naknek on Sunday, seeking the cause of an explosive fire that consumed 35 fishing boats and 16 buildings a day earlier.
"It's just utter devastation over there," said Ken Blackmon, chief of emergency services for the Bristol Bay Borough. "There are puddles there of aluminum, and you're thinking, 'That's somebody's fishing boat."'
South Naknek is a village of about 120 across the Naknek River from Naknek. The fire came just as fishermen were getting ready to put their boats in the water for the annual run of salmon into Bristol Bay. The sockeye season began last week at Naknek.
Only one fisherman storing a boat at the camp lives in Alaska. The rest are from Oregon, Washington and California.
With flames soaring and fuel tanks exploding, the fire swept through the complex, owned by Peter Pan Seafoods. At least $3 million in vessels were destroyed, but no people were injured.
The fire burned more than 15,000 gallons of fuel, possibly preventing it from leaking into the surrounding water, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The fire burned five boats moored at the dock and five fuel tanks, but an inspection Saturday afternoon found only minor sheening, the Coast Guard said.
One fishing boat still had 200 to 300 gallons of fuel on board, and workers surrounded it with an absorbent boom until the fuel could be removed.
The fire mobilized the community, Blackmon said.
Peter Pan superintendent Matt Sobotta reported the fire at 3:05 a.m. Saturday. Four firefighters in South Naknek responded immediately with two engines and tanker, Blackmon said.
On the north side of the river, fire response teams first rushed to a Trident Seafoods plant, where a watchman had seen the flames boiling into the sky and mistakenly thought his own facility had caught fire.
Blackmon then began ferrying his crews across the river on airplanes chartered from King Air. Within minutes, 17 Bristol Bay Borough personnel were fighting the fire alongside a dozen Peter Pan workers and fishermen.
The fire covered an area larger than a city block, Blackmon said. At one point, the fire crawled within 30 feet of more buildings.
"They stopped the fire at the housing complex," Blackmon said. "I call it drawing a line in the dirt and making a stand. ... They basically put up a wall of water."
The main fire was contained by about 9 a.m., Blackmon said.