Eskimo Village Destroyed By Fire

Flames Thursday engulf a school in the remote Eskimo village of Hooper Bay, Alaska.
Flames Thursday engulf a school in the remote Eskimo village of Hooper Bay, Alaska.

 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, she said.

Smart and her family were among the 250 people in the remote Alaska village of Hooper Bay who fled a massive fire that flattened 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 extinguished by residents and firefighters who flew in from around the state. No one was injured.

Smart's home was spared, but 12 others are gone. So is the elementary school, a 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, which sits on the Bering Sea coast and is 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 displaced residents' needs. 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 state troopers were still investigating the 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 a long way from completion. It was originally slated to open in January, according to residents. The construction schedule likely will be sped up, but the school probably won't 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 consumption-wise 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."

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