Kongiganak Community Rallies To Save Burning House

Jun 28, 2016

Ruth Kowalczewski's house that burned down in Kongiganak.
Credit Leonard Lewis

A fire destroyed a house in Kongiganak this weekend, displacing a mother and son. The town rallied to contain the flames and is housing the victims. 


Sunday evening, around four o’ clock, a power outage cut electricity to Kongiganak.

Hill: The generators in town kept going on and off, and the lights kept flickering. For a while, there was no power.

Scott Hill is the Kongiganak Tribal Police Officer.

Hill: And then all of a sudden, I hear over our VHF, ‘There’s a house fire! There’s a house fire!’

Ruth Kowalczewski and her 13-year-old son lived in the house. When the power went out, Ruth was getting ready to make dinner. Unable to cook, she and her son hopped on their four-wheeler to go to the store.

Kowalczewski: The lights turned back on, and I was going to buy that tissue. Then I got a call that my house was smoking. I went up. It was in flames.

Volunteer fire fighters and community members raced to the scene with VPO Scott Hill.

Hill: Most of the young men and pretty much anyone who thought they could help, they helped.

The first thing they did was remove the fuel tank from the side of the house. Then they started dousing the flames.

Hill: We all had water buckets: five-gallon buckets, three-gallon, two gallon buckets. Anything to help. From small ponds and puddles that were muddy, but it was still okay.

Meanwhile, a crew stretched a hose more than a 1,000 feet from a tundra lake to the house. But the trailer holding the pump got a flat. A four-wheeler carried the hose the rest of the way.

Ruth says the whole time she couldn’t do anything but stand there.

KYUK: What was going through your mind when you were watching that?

Kowalczewski: Where’re we going to stay? What’s going to happen? We don’t have clothes. All our clothes are in there. I have to apply for social security and birth certificates now.

The blaze grew enormous.

Hill: The flames were coming out of the windows, and the door mostly. And from there on it just kept on getting bigger and bigger. People from Quinhagak said they could see the smoke.

The responders dunked their shirts in water and kept throwing buckets of water on the flames. The community has helmets and gloves for fire crews but no suits. Scott says the equipment is old and not often maintained. When the hose finally arrived, the crew put out the fire in 15 minutes. They tended to the smoldering debris for several hours.

Ruth and her son lost everything they owned. Most of the house no longer exists.

Kowalczewski: I’m still in shock. Nothing, nothing. I know I have my job though. I still have my job. But I don’t know what we’re going to do.

Ruth works with AVCP construction. She and her son are staying with neighbors, but she doesn’t know how long she’ll be welcomed.

There were no reports of injuries. Ruth is collecting clothing donations. Her mailing address is PO Box 5038 Kongiganak, AK 99545.

Julian, 13-year-old son, clothing sizes:

Pants— Size 16 Regular

Shirt— Size Youth XXL or Adult Medium

Shoes—Size 7

Ruth Kowalczewski, mother, clothing sizes:

Pants— Size 12 or 14 Petite Stretch Pants or Jeans

Shirt— Size XL

Shoes—Size 6 or 6.5