Fire In Little Diomede Destroys One Home

Diomede, Alaska

A fire erupted in the community of Little Diomede last Friday night, leaving one home destroyed.

According to Frances Ozenna, tribal coordinator at the Native Village of Diomede, the fire started between 10 and 10:30 p.m. Friday at a house in the center of town. By 10:30, it was engulfed in flames. The homeowner was able to escape to a neighbor’s house, and no one was injured.

Ozenna says another homeowner adjacent to the fire ripped a 55-gallon fuel drum off his house to prevent it from catching on fire. Community members shoveled snow and used 27 fire extinguishers from homes, the clinic and the city office to fight the fire. But there were 1000 rounds of bullets in the burning home, so first they had to wait for all of them to go off.

Since the house was so close to the others in the tightly-built village — one house was only three feet away — Ozenna says the situation could have been much worse.

We’re fortunate the winds weren’t blowing hard. We’re fortunate there was a lot of snow on the ground to help turn off the fire.

By 11:35 p.m., the burning flames were controlled. But Ozenna says salt water wasn’t able to be pumped as usual, so volunteers had to draw water from the community tank. About 26,000 gallons of water were drained from the 460,000-gallon tank, leaving only 109,000 gallons. Now, she says that will have to be rationed until the next fill-up in June.

Opik Ahkinga, environmental coordinator at the Native Village of Diomede, says the fire qualifies as a local disaster.

A handful of volunteers were affected by inhaling smoke, according to Ozenna, and were treated at the clinic. One suffered hypothermia as a result of shoveling snow in the cold. And Ahkinga says there’s concern about the safety of children playing near the debris that now fills a hole in the center of the community.

This is the second major emergency in Diomede in less than a month. On February 19th, loose sea ice combined with a big storm to wreak havoc on the 2.8-square-mile island, Ozenna says.

It’s not so easy when events like this occur and we still have a really full-time work life and a full-time family life with heavy chores involved. So adding on, it’s been a really tough February/March for Diomede.

A silver lining, though, has been the way the community has come together:

There was everybody I see involved that normally steps in, but when the fire occurred on the 2nd, there was way more community participation. I’m sorry to say it had to happen with disasters.

At a community meeting that lasted most of Saturday, Ozenna says 27 people showed up to discuss emergency response plans for the future. More people signed up to strengthen what has been a weak volunteer fire department.

Ozenna says a monitor heater in the home is thought to be the cause of the fire, but official confirmation will have to wait until a fire marshal arrives later this week.

The Native Village of Diomede and City of Diomede would like to thank the 23 volunteer firefighters, including the health aide and former health aide; the school for opening up for shelter; Melanie Bahnke at Kawerak for calling in during the fire and contacting outside agencies; the Red Cross for providing assistance to the family; NSEDC; Pathfinders for providing donations and equipment; and the community for working together.

Image at top: The community of Diomede. (Photo: KNOM file.)