School Fire Races Through Eskimo Village

A school in a remote Eskimo village caught fire Thursday and the blaze quickly grew out of control, engulfing several homes and buildings and forcing 250 people to flee.

No injuries were reported among the 1,100 residents of Hooper Bay.

"There are no roads or a formal fire department with big shiny red fire engines here," said Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske. "The water supply is also a challenge. All the things we take for granted in urban areas are not there, which makes everything so much more difficult."

The fire's cause was not immediately known.

The school and nearby buildings burned to the ground, Tandeske said. At least 12 homes, a teacher housing complex and one of two village grocery stores also burned, sending up clouds of thick smoke.

By early afternoon, only the store was still ablaze, while the other buildings smoldered and smoked, said trooper Ramin Dunford.

"I can see the flames of the store burning," Emma Bunyan said in a phone interview from her home a half mile from the blaze. "I can hear the ammunition in the store popping, too."

Among the buildings that burned was her mother's home, said Bunyan, 46, a lifelong resident of the Yupik Eskimo village some 500 miles west of Anchorage.

"To see my old stomping grounds get burned, it's kind of sad," she said. "But fortunately no humans got burned."

Alaska state troopers and firefighters were en route to the village and the state Division of Forestry was sending a firefighting aircraft. Firefighters from the nearby village of Chevak arrived earlier and were battling the blaze.

On the other side of the village, a new school has been under construction. But it wasn't expected to be completed until January, Bunyan said.

"Our kids have no school now," she said. "I don't know what they're going to do when school opens in a few weeks."

Rusty Belanger, assistant state fire marshal, said the village was among rural communities that received some firefighting equipment through a federal project in 2003.

He said he didn't know if the equipment was of any use Thursday.