The fire that took the lives of two young people in the Kuskokwim River village of Napakiak has me thinking about other tragedies in rural Alaska. Larry Black sent me a message on Facebook saying the Napakiak deaths brought back painful memories of his own loss in 1991. I covered the story for KYUK, the public radio and TV station in Bethel, where I worked at the time. 

I remember Larry arriving at his house, after being told his wife and kids had perished in a fire that started while his family was asleep. He says over the years he’s comforted others in their grief, and it’s never easy. Alaska, especially rural Alaska, seems to have more than its share of tragedy. The State Fire Marshal’s office says Alaska has one of the highest fire fatality rates in the nation.

Another buried memory also came to mind – May of 1994, standing outside the Atmautluak school, as it burned. The building was still intact, but staffers had already hauled computers and desks outside. They knew that without fire trucks and other resources, the building was doomed.

Atmautluak is an off-the-road system community about 20 air miles northwest of Bethel in Southwest Alaska, downriver from Napakiak.

As smoke poured from the roof, I stood across a piano that had been moved to the boardwalk outside the school, talking with the principal, Steve O’Brien, who had a sad air of resignation. I was new to Alaska, and it was the oddest fire scene I had ever been to – like a fire in slow motion – and there was little that could be done. O’Brien told me recently that the building had a design flaw -- and that another school in Newtok, with the same design, had also burned years later.

In the Atmautluak school, an electrical fire started in the attic overnight and by the time it was discovered, it was too late to save the building – partly because the community didn’t have the resources to fight it. Volunteers from neighboring villages slogged across the tundra on their snow machines, which took quite a beating -- because it was spring and snow cover was sparse, yet they were determined to help. They pumped water out of a nearby river to fight the fire, just as volunteers did in Napakiak -- when their jail caught fire in the early morning hours of April 28 – which brings me back to the subject of this week’s show.

With less state and federal funding available for fire protection -- and rural communities more vulnerable than ever -- it seems like a good time to take a closer look at what happened in Napakiak and get an overview of the challenges many villages face. 

Here are some of the highlights of this week’s show:

  • Napakiak mourns. A look at how a jail fire raged out of control in a matter of minutes, killing two people and severely injuring a guard. 
  • Project Code Red. Fifteen years ago, Project Code Red was introduced to 138 rural communities. It featured portable fire fighting units, billed as a fire department in a box. What happened to those units -- and why are they not in use today?
  • Special guests: Steve Schreck, who recently retired from the State Office of Rural Fire Protection, joined us to explain how difficult it is to maintain a force of well trained and equipped volunteers in rural Alaska, especially with fewer resources. Richard Boothby, the State Fire Marshal, shed light on why rural Alaska has a much higher death rate than urban Alaska.

For communities who need information about fire prevention and protection, Shield is happy to take your calls. She can be reached at (907) 269-6083.  Her email is:

Although the Code Red Project is no longer funded, George Quinto at Alaska Village Initiatives says he can help communities troubleshoot problems with their fire fighting units and provide information about where they can turn to for repairs and supplies. He can be reached at Alaska Village Initiatives. Telephone: (907) 274-5400. His email is:

Walter Nelson, a city council member in Napakiak, says he hopes the fire in his village will be a wake-up call for other communities. We hope this show helps raise awareness.


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