Bethel fire chief says BIA building could burn for up to two days

An abandoned Bureau of Indian Affairs building on the outskirts of Bethel caught fire on April 15, 2018. (Photo by Teresa Cotsirilos/ KYUK)

An abandoned Bureau of Indian Affairs school building on the outskirts of Bethel caught fire Sunday morning and could burn for a long time.

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Bethel Fire Chief Bill Howell said that the fire was reported to his department around 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. Given the state of the blaze when they got there, he suspects that the building had already been burning for several hours. Howell has decided to let the fire burn itself out, which he said could take another two days.

“We’re not interested in risking our firefighters’ lives to save an abandoned building,” Howell said.

Howell said this fire isn’t a risk to the community. The abandoned building is a good 10-minute drive from Bethel’s city center and people aren’t living or squatting nearby. Howell said that there’s no real risk of the fire spreading; the nearby brush has been cleared, the trees are damp, and the building is ringed by two feet of snow. But the fire has chewed its way through the BIA building’s roof, so it would be dangerous for Howell’s crew to fight it. The best thing to do, he said, is just let the building be consumed.

The derelict building complex used to be home to a BIA school. Howell says that the fire started near the old cafeteria, and that the building has already caught fire at least once in the past, in 2001. The building was also rife with asbestos, which Howell said was cleared out by the federal government over 15 years ago.

Still, Howell said, “I would encourage the public to stay away from the site. The site is not secure.”

The Bethel Fire Department doesn’t know how the fire started, but Howell suspects that it was caused by humans. He doesn’t know yet if it was set intentionally or not.

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