Stebbins lost school and teacher housing to devastating fire

Buildings are a total loss, but no injuries are reported


A fire that started Wednesday night, June 26 around 6 p.m. has consumed the Stebbins school, teacher housing units and other school-related structures, burning the entire complex to the ground.

There are still smoldering spots that are monitored as the response to the fire now shifts from extinguishing the flames to forging a path forward. The community needs to figure out where to house teachers and where to send students to school as the school buildings are destroyed.

Two deputy fire marshals arrived in Stebbins on Thursday determine the origin and cause of the fire.

No injuries or deaths have been reported. The buildings appear to be a total loss.

On Wednesday night, Tukurngailnguq School Principal Robert Cooper confirmed that the fire began in a toolshed that housed a boiler next to the school and then jumped to the school building.

Alaska State Troopers in a dispatch said that despite efforts from the community to slow the spread of the fire, it jumped to at least five other buildings, including the school.

Alaska State Trooper Brian Wassmann happened to be in Stebbins when the fire broke out. He told The Nome Nugget in a phone interview that he was inside the school when the fire started and received a phone call by the city administrator, who told him that there was a fire outside. “I went running out […] and there was a detached tool shed building that was on the west side of the school and already flames were shooting out above the roof line, and the side of that building was completely engulfed in flames,” Wassmann reported.

He said that about 16 young men from the community formed a bucket brigade line filling buckets with water from the school. “I joined that bucket brigade line, and we were trying to dump water on the on the structure to put the fire out. But the fire had already started spreading in that building and was burning too hot to effectively fight the fire,” Wassmann said.

Fanned by strong winds out of the southeast, the fire spread from the toolshed/boiler room building to another building on the side of the school. “Those two structures combined were burning so hot that the heat from the fire was getting onto the west side of the school, and it caught the eaves of the roof line of the west side of the school on fire, and then it just spread from there,” he said.

“There was still water available from the school, but the fire was getting so hot that you couldn't stand close enough to it to get the water on, and we couldn't get enough water on the structure fast enough to put it out, and we’re doing the best we can,” Wassmann said.

The fire just burned too hot and there was too little water for the bucket brigade to get close enough to suppress the flames. Contractors then used frontend loaders and scooped ocean water in the loader bucket, to dump it on the flames and others tried to run pumps from the ocean to the fire, but those kept getting clogged with ocean sand and gravel to effectively allow for water flow.

While the community rallied to try to dump water on the inferno, Wassmann reported the fire and tried to get assets to respond from state forestry, BLM and the Nome Volunteer Fire Department. He said he was working with the fire dispatch center in Galena trying to get air support, either a helicopter with a bucket and fire suppression capabilities, but they declined because the fire was not a threat to wildlands. “They said they were not going to respond,” Wassmann reported. “They said that they were sending an airplane over to assess but that they didn't send any fire suppression support.”

The only agency that responded was the Nome Volunteer Fire Department.

Nome Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim West Jr. said that the department was notified just around 7 p.m. and immediately began to spool up responses. The department sent three planes to Stebbins with eight Nome Volunteer firefighters and equipment consisting of 800 feet of fire hoses, pumps, breathing apparatus and other gear. West said their water source was the ocean and that the pumps sucking up gravel and sand got clogged up. The school did have a sprinkler system, but the fire was in the attic, so sprinklers shooting water down didn’t help. He said an outside contractor used their equipment — an excavator, Dozer and a loader — to made a perimeter around the fire. “Shifting wind conditions created problems,” West said.

A crew of four Nome volunteer firefighters came back last night about three o'clock, and he was waiting on the remaining four to come back on Thursday.

The structures lost were all Bering Strait School District property, including ten teacher housing apartments. “It's going to be a very devastating impact of this community,” said trooper Wassmann, as the community suffers from a chronic housing shortage, as most villages in the region.

West said a meeting took place in the afternoon to figure out a path forward as about 240 Stebbins students need to go back to school and their building has burned.

He said power has been affected, too, and an AVEC crew was picked up in Kivalina and flown to Stebbins. AVEC CEO Bill Stamm could not be reached by Thursday afternoon.

Phone lines to Stebbins were constantly on the busy signal, and city officials could not be reached to comment.

Trooper Wassman said that the State Emergency Operations Center has been activated. “They're actively working with the community to get assets out here, whatever it is, food supplies, bottled water, and, you know, they're sending out initial supplies right now and coordinating with the city and the tribe with what's needed,” Wassmann said.

He said that the Department of Public Safety’s responsibility is now turning from fire suppression to investigating the cause of the fire. Two deputy fire marshals from the Department of Public Safety arrived on Thursday to conduct the investigation.

He added: “I wanted to make sure you know that the young men of this community and volunteers from all over — the not just men, but women — people from the community all stepped up and gathered around and were helping direct traffic, doing whatever they could, helping with pulling hoses. And then when the fire department got here, they had many young men from this community helping, hauling hoses and trying to help the firemen from the Nome Volunteer Fire Department.”




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Nome, Alaska 99762

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