On Saturday, Jan. 16, a fire destroyed Tuluksak’s only source of clean, running water. Cases of bottled water are sitting in Bethel because airport runway closures and thin river ice have delayed delivery.
Tribal council secretary Kristy Napoka lives right next door to her job at the water plant in Tuluksak, which is how she knew it was on fire. "The smoke was starting to get in through the windows and through the vents,” she said.
She watched when her husband went to put out the fire. “When I looked out the window, my husband and a few other men were trying to get into the water plant and washeteria. They had to break the door, but they were a little too late. My husband did grab a hold of the hose. He was trying to turn the valve to get the water going, but the smoke was so heavy and he couldn't stand there any longer,” said Napoka.
Eventually, Napoka’s family started hauling up water from the river with their snowmachine. “And they started splashing water into the fire, but it didn't do any good. It just kept getting bigger and worse,” she said.
According to Alaska State Troopers, the fire burned from about noon until 4:30 p.m., destroying the town’s only source of clean, running water. Now, residents will have to find other options. The Napokas have about 20 gallons of clean, drinkable water left to share between the nine family members in their household. They’ve been hauling water from the Tuluksak River for dishes and cleaning, but they’re not drinking it. In the past, residents have complained to the Alaska State Legislature about sediment making the Tuluksak River water unsafe to drink.
Villagers who don’t have potable water saved in their tanks can either haul water from the Kuskokwim River or ship in bottled water. Donated bottled water in Bethel is ready to be shipped out on the next plane, but Tuluksak’s runway has been unusable because of weather conditions. The man who usually plows it is in Anchorage being treated for COVID-19.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the fire that destroyed Tuluksak's water plant occurred on Jan. 19, 2021. That is incorrect. The fire occurred on Jan. 16, 2021.