Crews contain fire in Southwest Alaska that burned school buildings

Smoke rises from a school building off the water
School facilities burn in Kasigluk on Thursday. (Natalia Brink)

Crews have contained a fire in the Southwest Alaska village of Kasigluk that burned school facilities, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry.

No injuries or deaths have been reported, but multiple buildings have been damaged.

The fire started around 10:30 a.m. Thursday. Third and fourth grade teacher Laura Spence was inside her home. She lives with her husband and their dog in a teacher housing unit next to the school. She saw dark black smoke outside.

The building that housed the old generator for the school was on fire. Her husband came inside.

“He just told me to get up and get our stuff, and get our dog and get out,” Spence said.

She grabbed the dog, but was not able to gather many belongings before evacuating.

The fire spread to the principal’s housing unit and then to the teacher housing. The school semester ended last week, and classes were not in session. Kasigluk Tribal Council President Natalia Brink said the principal had already left for the summer and so had several teachers. Other teachers who had planned to leave had already packed their belongings and were able to move them out of the houses before the fire reached the units.

After the fire overtook the teacher housing, Brink said that it spread beneath the school.

“Holy cow! It’s getting worse. Under the school and teacher quarters are on fire, and it’s getting really smoky,” she said, observing the fire around 12:30 p.m. Thursday, two hours after it began.

Brink said that volunteer firefighters used hoses to spray the buildings with water from the Johnson River. She said the water pump initially did not work in Kasigluk, but volunteer firefighters from the nearby community of Nunapitchuk quickly boated over with their equipment to help suppress the flames.

“They’re splashing water with hoses,” said Bring. “They’re spraying along the ground because it’s really dry.”

The Alaska Division of Forestry sent smokejumpers and two airplane tankers filled with fire retardant to the site.

“The tanker dumped retardant to help contain the fire, which had spread south, scorching about five acres of tundra. Because vegetation near the buildings was sparse, there was little spread within the village,” the division said in a statement.

The fire was contained Thursday and the division said it’s no longer a threat.

The deputy fire marshal from the Alaska Department of Public Safety will investigate the cause of the fire, the division said.

Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said she was in contact with community members in Kasigluk Thursday who kept her updated on the fire. If a new school is needed, constructing one before the fall semester is unlikely. In Bethel, a fire destroyed two schools in 2015. Their replacement is being constructed this year, seven years later.

This is the second large fire in the village in recent years. In September 2020, the only store in Kasigluk burned down and has not yet been rebuilt.

The forestry division said that dry conditions are a concern across much of Alaska this year. In April, a wildfire in the region grew to more than 10,300 acres over 12 days. It did not reach any villages or private property, and eventually burned out on its own. It was Alaska’s largest April wildlife in 25 years, and it could indicate an extreme wildfire season ahead.

RELATED: Alaska forestry officials warn of dangerous fire conditions heading into holiday weekend

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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