Black smoke arched across the Bethel skyline on Tuesday, Oct. 1, alerting the town to a house on fire. The house, near H-Marker Lake, belongs to Warren Polk. The fire destroyed all his family’s possessions, but before the flames had settled, the community had already started replacing them. KYUK talked with Polk about how his family is doing, and how the community can continue providing support.
Many people know Warren Polk by another name: sensei. That’s the role he was in Tuesday afternoon, teaching judo at the Kuskokwim Learning Academy. The windows of the building look west across the tundra, and through them, school staff pointed to smoke rising in the direction of Polk’s house.
“I was like, ‘Oh!’ I was so involved in my class that I didn't even notice it,” Polk said.
He wasn’t sure if the fire was from his home, but it looked too close for comfort. So he got in his car, and the closer he drove to his house, the faster he went.
“I apologize for breaking any speed limits, but I took off once I realized it's coming from our house,” he described.
Polk had one thought in his mind: Constance, his 10-year-old daughter. She could be home from school, and because of her wheelchair she might not be able to get out. But she wasn’t inside. No one was. By the time Polk arrived, the fire department had already searched the two-story log house, now engulfed in flames. Polk remembers what he was thinking, watching fire consume the house his father and brothers had built 40 years ago: “It's unbelievable that it's actually yours. And it's about to disappear.”
The community began mobilizing to help the family of six. Polk, his wife, and their four school-age children were living in the home. The Red Cross called. His sister began organizing donations for clothes, toiletries, and other essentials. His niece set up a GoFundMe page.
“Which is extremely helpful right now,” Polk said. “Because you never quite fully understand how important a toothbrush is or one sock [is], for that matter, when you have no other toothbrush or another sock.”
A stranger walked up to Polk and put $200 in his hand, saying, "Don’t worry about it."
“And then all of a sudden, phone calls and texts started coming in from everywhere,” Polk remembered. "I was amazed."
Polk left the burning house and picked up his wife and children. They hugged and said a prayer of thanks for their safety. They drove to the store to get toothpaste and shampoo for the night. Then they went to a cousin’s house, where they’ve been staying since. They walked inside to find that bags of clothes had already arrived. That night, the whole family slept in the same room, just to be close. Polk and his wife focused on their children.
“We had to explain to them everything can be replaced except you,” he recounted. “So at this point we may lose some memories, but we're going to create some new ones, probably even better than the other ones. More important, we learn to stand together.”
The next day, the kids went to school where, Polk says, their teachers, school staff, and friends rallied around them. Donations continued pouring in. All his children have new wardrobes. Polk says that his kids are already back to being themselves. It’s only been a few days since the fire, but he doesn’t detect any trauma or emotional scars, and he owes that to the immediate, immense community support. He’s grateful for everyone who’s helped his family.
“It's kindness like that that you just never forget,” Polk said. “So thank you, all of you, that have reached out to us thus far. Much appreciated.”
Donations can be taken to where the family is staying at 9459 Tundra Ridge in Bethel. Financial donations can be deposited in Alaska USA Credit Union, account number 1063090.