Kotlik is searching for the suspect responsible for what may have been an act of arson that destroyed the village's Community Hall early Monday morning. No injuries are reported and only one other building, which was abandoned, sustained damage. The community worked together to save what they could after a weekend of dancing and potlatch inside the hall.
News of the fire spread around 4 a.m. That’s when Kotlik Tribal Council member Alvin Aketachunak heard the announcement over the VHF radio: the Community Hall was in flames. He and his father ran out the door. When they arrived on scene, a neighbor was already there, shoveling snow onto the fire.
Soon, more people started showing up.
“Pretty much, you could say, the whole community," Aketachunak said. "Men, women, and youth. We all worked together and tried to get this fire out.”
Aketachunak ran to the conex by the tribal building to get the fire hose. A group connected it to a hydrant and began dousing the fire, but the flames were moving toward the power lines.
“We didn’t want to have a live wire, so they had to turn off the power,” Aketachunak said.
That killed the hydrant. The community dragged a water pump to the river, where they drilled a hole in the ice with an auger and kept spraying the flames. The volunteers also doused the house nearest the hall.
“Luckily, the wind was blowing south," Aketachunak said. "If it was blowing west, probably that house would have caught on fire."
Then they heard reports of smoke coming from an abandoned house. The house was about a quarter-mile away, the doors and windows boarded up. Aketachunak grabbed a ladder and an ax from the nearby AC store to get inside a window.
“One of us tried to ax it down and look inside," he said, "but there was no fire inside. It was started from the outside.”
That’s when the village suspected arson and set up a patrol. People set out on foot, snowmobile, and four-wheeler and surveyed the village until sunrise. The house was saved; the Community Hall was lost. The fire looks to have started on the porch.
Aketachunak says that losing the community hall is a sadness for Kotlik.
“All of our events we have in our community, we all had in that hall,” he explained.
That weekend both Kotlik and the neighboring village of Stebbins celebrated a dance festival inside the building, a time that Aketachunak says filled the hall with joy. Hours before the fire, Kotlik had been sharing a potlatch inside.
This is the second major fire in Kotlik from a suspected arsonist in two years. In August 2016, the old school, a school shop, generator building, teacher housing, and an office building burned down or were damaged.
Aketachunak says that the Tribal Council will continue looking for the person who might have done this.
“And yes, we could figure out a way to get funding to get us a new hall,” he said. “And we have to work together as a community to do that.”