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KLA One Year After The Kilbuck Fire

Anna Rose MacArthur

A year ago this month, the Kilbuck fire in Bethel ignited. Within a day, the two schools on that campus were lost: the elementary Yup’ik immersion school Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, and the alternative boarding high school KLA, the Kuskokwim Learning Academy. Immediately, the community came together, the school district huddled up, and within a few days, both schools had re-started classes. Earlier this month, we looked at what this past year has been like for Ayaprun. Now, we turn to the teachers and students at KLA for their story.

The fire alarm went off around 3 a.m. on the morning of November 3. Forty students who lived in the KLA dorm grabbed whatever clothing was nearby and ran out into the cold. 

“They did the attendance,” said KLA Dorm Director Vicky Spencer, “and there was one student missing. And one of our guys said, ‘I’ll go back in.’”

That student was tenth-grader Jesse Alexie. I actually ran into him the day of the fire across the street from the burning school.

“And I was the first one to go to the door,” Alexie said, standing in the cold wind wearing shorts and no socks. “And I opened it, and I ran to the girls’ room, and I looked for that girl. She was sleeping through it, and then I woke her up and told her to get ready. And I told her there’s a fire alarm, and we went out.”

Alexie has kind of become a school hero since then. Every person I talked to told me his story.

When Alexie was running into the building, Spencer was at the other KLA dorm, a little further from the school.

“I was just sitting down to do some homework,” Spencer said. “I’m kind of a night owl. And I got a phone call at 3:40 a.m. from a student’s phone. I thought, ‘What is going on?’ and I picked it up. It wasn’t the student, it was the dorm parent, and she was shouting. She said, ‘Vicky! There’s a fire, but everybody’s out okay.’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘I grabbed the notebook, and did attendance, and everybody is safe.’ I looked out my door and saw the smoke, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m on my way.’”

Credit Dean Swope / KYUK
The Kilbuck campus on Nov. 7, 2016, a year after the Kilbuck fire.

The students had gathered down the street at the Bethel Family Clinic. Spencer drove them to the other, much smaller KLA dorm, away from the school.

“And we packed 40 kids in there like sardines and just waited. You know, we thought it was going to be a small fire. We had dry cereal for a while for snacks; kids watched TV and just waited.”

They were waiting until they could go back to the dorms, get their things, maybe take a nap, and get back to normal. When the fire alarm had gone off at 3 a.m., the kids had thought it was a drill. Only half awake, they’d grabbed a few items before rushing out. Many weren’t wearing socks. Some had grabbed someone else’s shoes. They were wearing pajamas and shorts. Some guys wore jackets and no shirt. Spencer gave them her own shirts to wear. The flames never reached KLA or the dorms, but they would soon learn that they weren’t going back to get their stuff. Maybe not ever.

“At some point our HR Director came over and said, ‘Here’s the credit card. Take them to AC and start getting them shoes and shirts and what they need,’” Spencer said. “It was just a big effort. JROTC made breakfast for the kids, and some of our staff donated breakfast and cookies. Things just started rolling once word got out.”

And word got out in a big way. Immediately, the community started donating clothes and supplies. They set up a donation fund. The Catholic Church and the Tundra Women’s Coalition opened their thrift stores to students. The VFW set up a charge account at AC. Schools offered books and curricula. And that’s just some of what happened in Bethel. From across the state, and even the lower-48, money, clothes, and supplies poured in.

Spencer said, “We’d spend about an hour-and-a-half to two hours per night sorting through clothes and different donations, and it was overwhelming and amazing. One kid said, ‘Man, I had no idea people cared so much.’”

The night of the fire, the boarding students moved into the dorms at Yuut Elitnaurviat, the adult workforce development center. Two days later, they started classes on the second floor of Yuut Elitnaurviat's main office.

Danielle Craven is the KLA language arts teacher. She says, at that point, the school didn’t have much.

“It’s like moving to a new place with nothing.”

But they did have notebooks and pencils.

“And so it got me, [thinking] okay, this is teaching,” Craven said, “real teaching. Let’s talk. Let’s write. Let’s pull out our notebooks. It was a moment of adapting, talking a lot more.”

She had her students write their stories from the fire. The next day, Governor Bill Walker visited Bethel to meet with school and city officials. He stopped by Craven’s class and a few students, like eleventh-grader Aroarnasaq, read him their stories.

“As I was standing, staring at the smoke,” Aroarnasaq read aloud, rustling her paper, “I could hear the fire burning, and the fire truck sirening, and others yelling and cussing. I was so mad and sad and scared at the same time. All I said was, 'No, no, no, this ain’t happening'. After the fire, I felt lost and I felt like I was dreaming.”

Craven said a lot of the students wrote the same things: the shock of waking up to an alarm and being told to leave quickly. How they thought it was a drill. How they really liked the old school. But the biggest refrain, for the dorm students at least, was about their things.

“A longing. A longing for their belongings and the things they had become attached to, but suddenly didn’t have,” Craven said. “Little things like a phone or an iPad, or my kuspuk, my piluguqs that my grandma had made, pictures, things that were in there that they realized, 'I might not have this'. So a longing for it and a question of, 'Where are these things?'”

Credit Dean Swope / KYUK
Yuut Elitnaurviat in Bethel, which houses KLA on the second floor of its building following the 2015 Kilbuck fire.

Stephanie Wise was a junior at the time. She’d left the dorms in shorts, sandals, and a sweater. Without her stuff, Stephanie said, she became depressed.

“October was PFD, and it was November. And a lot of us ladies had new stuff that we had never touched and worn before. I bought shoes, snow pants, winter coat. And I just maybe like to wear my own clothes, and I like what I have,” Wise said.

She thought that without their clothes, they’d be sent home; no more KLA.

“Without my education, I wouldn’t know where to go. I wouldn’t have a diploma. I wouldn’t find ways to support my son.”

Wise's son is three years old and lives with her parents in Nunapitchuk. Everything she lost was replaced in donations, but still, she says, there’s something demoralizing about all your possessions suddenly gone.

After Thanksgiving, four weeks after the fire, the students and teachers were granted a small window of time to return to their classrooms and dorms and get their things. Dorm director Spencer said that some electronics were damaged by the cold, but the clothes barely smelled of smoke.

Spencer said she never really found out why they couldn’t go back sooner.

“I’m not sure I ever got clear answers. I just kind of rolled with it and said, 'Okay, we’ll do what we’re told and get our stuff when we can get it'. I’m not really sure.”

A year later, KLA is still at Yuut Elitnaurviat. Craven says the kids are carrying on as before.

“Oh, I think many of them are focused on graduating. They’re focused on passing their classes. They’re focused on balancing life. I think to many this was tragic, but not the most tragic they’ve endured,” Craven said.

The fire’s biggest impact on the school has been stopping its growth. Hugh Dyment is the Dean of Students and says that the school still offers the same programs, but with Yuut’s limited space they can’t take more students.

“We have 45 students in the dorm,” he said, “but there’s another 45 who’d like to be in the dorm, and they can’t come to KLA because of housing.”

KLA has 115 students and has slowly been expanding over the years. Most come from the Lower Kuskokwim area, but some come from upriver, the Yukon, and even the Interior. KLA is the state’s only alternative boarding high school, and students come when their home school isn’t working out for them.

“That’s for a variety of reasons,” Dyment said, “and that could be because of disruptions in the family. It could be because of their own substance abuse. It could be because someone else’s substance abuse. It could be because that, for whatever reason, they just weren’t fitting in well in the school they were attending."

KLA takes the students out of their home environment and helps them graduate. They also help students, once they’ve graduated, with things like job applications, resumes, and getting an apartment. Until a new school with more space is built, other kids who want to attend KLA aren’t going to get these resources. For now, because of how the community came together and how the school district quickly acted, 115 students, including 45 boarding students, are getting these resources and education in a safe space every day.

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