Bethel declares local disaster after Kilbuck fire

Bethel fire fighters dousing the Kilbuck campus fire around 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)
Bethel fire fighters dousing the Kilbuck campus fire around 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)

Bethel City Council has declared a local government disaster following the Kilbuck fire that incinerated the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup’ik immersion school and damaged the Kuskokwim Learning Academy school and dorms.

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The fire raged for over 12 hours last week and demanded extensive city resources from the fire, police, and public works department, which hauled over a quarter million gallons of water to the site.

The declaration asks the governor to declare an emergency and allocate recovery funds to the city to help rebuild the school and repair city equipment, among other requests, including help with property reclamation from asbestos, a carcinogenic mineral.

The school district informed the city and Fire Department two days after the incident that the demolished school contains asbestos. The school district has to hire certified crews to clean up and dispose of the rubble. And emergency personnel involved in containing the fire were possibly exposed to hazardous materials.

City Manager Ann Capela said the accident opens an opportunity to update the municipal code and require buildings to post notices of dangerous substances.

“It’s certainly opened our eyes on having the ability to know what is in the building when you’re fighting the fire,” Capela said.

The city owns the land where the fire occurred and the school district owns the buildings, entwining the entities in the environmental recovery process.

Tuesday morning, City Manager Ann Capela had met with various groups including the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Section, and Dept. of Health and Social Services to discuss the clean up process and options for city employees potentially exposed to asbestos.

Capela said the site might also contain PCBs and lead.

“The site is secured, and the site is in possession of the school district. So the school district is the lead on that,” Capela said. “We, the city, stand ready to assist. And our first responsibility is to our employees. We will act in accordance with OSHA and notify and do any communications with our employees.”

Capela developed the disaster document with the Dept. of Homeland Security, and Gov. Bill Walker said his subcabinet had readied itself to receive the declaration when he visited Bethel last week to view the disaster site and meet with city and school officials.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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