Cleanup begins in Hooper Bay

Fire leaves up to 65 in village homeless as 35 buildings destroyed

Posted: Sunday, August 06, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Elvena Smart was asleep when her sister jolted her awake with the news that the old elementary school was on fire. Soon village police were knocking on the door, telling them it was too dangerous to stay.

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Smart and her family were among the 250 people in the remote Alaska village of Hooper Bay who fled a fire that burned a 15-acre swath of the Yupik Eskimo community Thursday. The blaze burned 35 structures and came within 300 feet of bulk fuel tanks before it was knocked down by residents and firefighters flying in from around Alaska.

Despite the destruction, no one was injured.

Smart's home was spared, but 12 others are gone. So is the elementary school, nearby high school, a teacher housing complex, a store, some village offices and numerous storage shelters. On Friday, people were still reeling from the loss, said Smart, who spoke to many of her displaced neighbors through her job with the tribal government.

"It's painful as you listen to everyone telling of lost and irreplaceable items, lots of memories, photos and keepsakes of family members who have gone on," she said. "People are asking how do you get something back like that?"

But everyone knows how much worse it could have been.

"There's a lot of mixed emotions," Smart said. "There's both devastation but at the same time people are grateful that no one got hurt."

As many as 65 people were left homeless and were staying with relatives around the village. The village lies on the Bering Sea coast, 500 miles west of Anchorage and far from Alaska's limited road system. Two volunteers with the American Red Cross of Alaska arrived Friday to assess the needs of victims.

Residents and emergency responders doused lingering hot spots and began the task of cleaning up the mess left behind. The state fire marshal's office and Alaska State Troopers are still looking for a cause.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Rusty Belanger said the blaze originated in a 10-by-10-foot area under the elementary school, which was propped on pilings like most buildings in the coastal community of 1,100.

Another concern was what to do about the lost schools.

A new village school is under construction, but is not scheduled for completion until January, according to residents. The construction schedule likely will be accelerated, but the school is unlikely to be finished by the time the fall session begins in a few weeks, said Belanger, who toured the damage Thursday night.

A veteran of more than 20 years, Belanger was stunned by what he saw.

"This is the largest fire consumptionwise I've ever seen in a community," he said. "In a large urban area, it might be a block or two, but here it's a big part of their town."

The blaze was so ferocious that it quickly grew beyond the capacity of the portable firefighting equipment Hooper Bay received through a federal project in 2003.

"They utilized it for the initial attack, but this equipment was not going to stop this fire," Belanger said.

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