School facilities burn at Akiuk Memorial School in Kasigluk
At Akiuk Memorial School in Kasigluk, school facilities are on fire. No injuries or deaths have been reported, but multiple buildings have been damaged. Local and state agencies are working to suppress the flames and keep them from spreading.
The fire started around 10:30 a.m. on May 26. Third and fourth grade teacher Laura Spence was inside her home. She lives with her husband and their dog in a teacher housing unit next to the school.
“What I saw was dark black smoke,” she said.
The building that housed the old generator for the school was on fire. Her husband came in from outside.
“He just told me to get up and get our stuff, and get our dog and get out,” Spence said.
She grabbed the dog, but was not able to gather many belongings before evacuating.
The fire spread to the principal’s housing unit, and then to the teacher housing. The school semester ended last week, and classes were not in session. Kasigluk Tribal Council President Natalia Brink said that the principal had already left for the summer and so had several teachers. Other teachers who had planned to leave had already packed their belongings and were able to move them out of the houses before the fire reached the units.
After the fire overtook the teacher housing, Brink said that it spread beneath the school.
“Holy cow! It’s getting worse. Under the school and teacher quarters are on fire, and it’s getting really smoky,” she said, observing the fire around 12:30 p.m., two hours after it began.
Brink said that volunteer firefighters were using hoses to spray the buildings with water from the Johnson River. She said that the water pump initially did not work in Kasigluk, but volunteer fire fighters from the nearby community of Nunapitchuk quickly boated over with their equipment to help suppress the flames.
“They’re splashing water with hoses. They’re spraying along the ground because it’s really dry,” Brink described.
The Alaska Division of Forestry sent smokejumpers and two airplane tankers filled with fire retardant to the site. Division spokesperson Kale Casey said that the fire spread to five acres, but it's now contained after a tanker released two-thirds of its load. The other tanker flew back to McGrath without needing to deploy its retardant. Two smokejumpers remain in Kasigluk.
The division said that dry conditions are a concern across much of Alaska this year. In April, a wildfire in the region grew to 10,305.5 acres over 12 days. It did not reach any villages or private property, and eventually burned out on its own. It was Alaska’s largest April wildlife in 25 years, and it could indicate an extreme wildfire season ahead.
Alaska State Troopers are also responding to the Kasigluk fire. Trooper spokesperson Austin McDaniel said that once the fire is out, a deputy fire marshal will investigate its origin and cause.
Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that she is in contact with community members in Kasigluk who are updating her as the fire progresses.
If a new school is needed, constructing one before the fall semester is unlikely. In Bethel, a fire destroyed two schools in 2015. Their replacement is being constructed this year, seven years afterwards.
This is the second large fire in the village in recent years. In September 2020, the only store in Kasigluk burned down and has not yet been rebuilt.