The number of fatal fires in Alaska appears to be on the upswing again. The state fire marshal’s office says, on average, Alaska has about 15 deaths a year. But after two people died in a jail fire in Napakiak last month, fire deaths for 2019 jumped to 10.

Six of those deaths were in off-the-road system communities.

Nationally, Alaska is regularly at the top of the list for its high rate of fire fatalities.

On KTVA's Frontiers program Sunday, state fire marshal Richard Boothby said the death rate from fires in rural Alaska is three times higher than what it is in urban Alaska even though the actual number of fatalities is higher in cities. (One caveat: The fire marshal’s office defines rural by the level of training in a community. The state does not classify urban hubs like Bethel, Kotzebue and Nome as rural.)

There are many reasons why fires in remote communities are more deadly.

Rural Alaska doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all fire safety plan, and that's the challenge. The firefighting scenarios in rural communities are as varied as the state’s geography, where some communities are connected by a network of boardwalks rather than roads. There are places where people collect rainwater or pack it from local lakes, and others where children have never seen a fire hydrant before.

Are remote communities equipped with fire protection?

Another big challenge: state and federal money for rural fire protection in Alaska is harder to come by.

About 15 years ago, there was a big push to develop uniquely Alaskan solutions to fighting fires in remote communities.

One of those was Project Code Red, spearheaded by Alaska Village Initiatives (AVI), a nonprofit with a problem-solving and economic development mission focused on rural Alaska.

When AVI rolled out Project Code Red in the early 2000s, it was billed as a fire department in a box. The system was simple enough for volunteers to operate.

George Quinto, who oversaw the project for AVI, says 138 of these units went to villages over a period of several years with initial training provided. Quinto says another 100 communities were in need of Code Red equipment and training, but in 2008 the funding ran out.

“It’s a sustainable program only if they have re-training, year after year, after year,” Quinto said.

“With a budget crisis, folks say we can’t afford a project like this,” said Charles Parker, president of AVI. “But at the same time, they spend 50, 60 maybe even 70 million a year replacing assets that burned up in rural Alaska when for a couple million a year, they could actually protect these assets.”

How has fire damage affected rural Alaska?

The State Office of Rural Fire Protection gave some examples of fire losses — $35 million from the 2006 fire in Hooper Bay, which started in the school and spread to homes nearby; an estimated $60,000 from a 2014 store fire in Kivalina; and $3.4 million in losses after a 2016 school fire in Kotlik.

George Morgan Senior High School in Upper Kalskag burned twice, once in 1995 and a second time in 2009.

In Upper Kalskag, on the Kuskokwim River, the high school burned twice — the first time in 1995 and again in 2009. In both cases, the fire started in the shop and neither school had sprinkler systems. The cost to replace the two schools came close to $8 million.

All of these losses add up. In 2017, the Alaska Department of Public Safety recorded more than $95 million in statewide property damage from fires.

In comparison, Parker says the state and federal government spent about $12 million to equip communities with Code Red units and provide start-up training.

When Parker first heard about the fire in Napakiak last month, he thought, “Did they have Code Red? And did somebody there know how to use it?”

What protections existed in Napakiak during the jail fire?

Napakiak does have a Code Red unit, but it sat in a shipping container while the fire in the jail burned. It’s not clear that the unit would have changed the outcome, because the fire was extremely hot and spread in a matter of minutes. A guard was seriously injured while trying to reach the two people trapped inside. Witnesses said they heard their cries — and then suddenly, they stopped.

Walter Nelson, a city council member, was one of the first in his community trained to use the Code Red portable fire fighting unit, which is designed to be pulled by a four-wheeler or snowmachine.

Walter Nelson and Vera Southern open the Code Red firefighting system in Napakiak

Nelson said he can’t remember when he received training, but it was more than 10 years ago. He says he’s forgotten how to operate the equipment and needs a refresher on firefighting basics.

“If that structure is on fire,” he said, “How do you fight it? Do you break the windows? Do you break the doors? How do you get inside?”

Nelson said the Code Red unit has been out of operation since a fire several years ago, when its pressurized fire-suppression canisters were expended and have yet to be refilled — an expensive and difficult process since new airline restrictions went into place.

The shipping containers which house the units also need to be heated, and electricity is expensive in rural Alaska.

“It's like anything else. If it costs money, eventually it gets unplugged, especially in rural Alaska,” Quinto said. “It still bothers me that the one thing that could save somebody's life is being unplugged because they can't afford it.”

Although AVI no longer manages Project Code Red, Quinto says he can help tribes and city governments troubleshoot their units and offer advice on how to address the problems.

Napakiak can also turn to the Bethel Fire Department, which can reach Kuskokwim River villages by boat in the summer and snowmachines in the winter. It recharges Code Red fire suppression canisters at no cost.

What can be done for fire protection in the future?

In Napakiak, Walter Nelson is working on a wish list for fire protection — which includes getting a new fire station. The old one is no longer operational and the fire truck needs parts. He’d also like to get the Code Red fire fighting system working again.

Volunteers in Napakiak pumped water from the river to put out the jail fire, even though there was a well right next to the building. It’s the only source of drinking water in Napakiak, which does not have running water and sewer service.

Nelson says the well is not a practical source of water to fight fires. The hose has a very slow flow and the watering station also requires tokens. Nelson says a dollar will buy about 15 gallons.

Others in Napakiak, like Vera Southern, are taking matters into their own hands.

“You got to be real careful, try to prepare yourself, if you want to protect your family and your property,” Southern said. “Since this incident happened, I double-checked our fire extinguishers at home and they’re actually expired. But they are full, so I’m not sure they’re going to work.”

These are things Southern says people haven’t thought about in a long time.

“This is a wake-up call for this community,” Nelson said. “This can happen to any village anywhere.”

To answer Southern’s questions about expired extinguishers, it isn’t easy to refill them. They must be flown to Anchorage, and when they are shipped back people must pay an additional hazardous materials fee.

The Bethel Fire Department recommends that people discharge expired extinguishers and buy new ones to replace them.

For struggling communities there are solutions, but they come at a cost. And as Napakiak learned, the trade-offs can be devastating.

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