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Aftermath of Stebbins School Fire: Leaders Plan Recovery and Rebuild

The smell of burning rubber filled the air as residents of Stebbins pored over what was left of their only school. The pungent odor wafted out of piles of dirt on the north side of the ruins, where red rubber mulch once laid under the school’s playground. The wilted remains of a metal jungle gym protruded from the pile as still-red-hot embers glowed in the background.

The school is a complete loss. Eight nearby buildings were also destroyed in a fire that started around 5:00 p.m. The blaze began in a shop adjacent to the school where an old boiler was kept. The fire then spread to a welding shop next door. Explosions could be heard as pressurized tanks in the shop burst. 

George K Dan received a text from a friend at 6:01 p.m. that simply read “the school is on fire”. Still in his flip flops, Dan grabbed a thick Carhartt jacket and hopped on his four wheeler. The Stebbins School graduate didn’t hesitate to join the effort to save the school.

“I just wanted to be there to help, I’m just trying to do my best and be a part of whatever crew there was. I literally grew up in that building, I have so many memories and it's a tragedy that it's lost. Everybody tried, the whole community, they were all doing the best we can."

As he desperately jammed his thumb into the end of a long hose to increase the reach of the low-pressure water line, Dan lifted his thick jacket to insulate his face from the extreme heat. At times, he doused himself with water so he could stand his ground just a little bit longer.

George K Dan poses for a portrait. Ben Townsend photo.
Fire begins to spread from Stebbins School to a nearby housing unit. Photo courtesy of George K Dan.

The blazing hot temperatures then caused the wood siding of the Stebbins School to combust. In a matter of an hour shifting winds spread the fire from the north to south side of the building. Residents helplessly formed a bucket brigade from the nearby Norton Sound and tossed water on the school.

116 miles to the north the Nome Volunteer Fire Department (NVFD) scrambled to respond to the fire. They sent eight firefighters, hoses, water couplings, and a water pump. The first team arrived around 8:45 p.m. with a second flight arriving around 9:15 p.m. The crews promptly got to work and installed a water pump in the ocean water. 

As the fire continued to grow local construction company Tapraq Rock used dozers and loaders to push two nearly brand new portable classroom buildings into the blazing school. Dustin Scalisi, manager of Tapraq Rock, helped the community make what he called a “bold” decision.

“We were like, ‘well the schools done’, now let’s save the portables,” Scalisi explained. “Then we were like ‘the portables are done, now let’s save the rest of everything else’ so that’s when we took bold action and we started pushing everything in. 

Tapraq’s crew moved massive amounts of dirt to establish a perimeter. In coordination with NVFD they successfully prevented any further spread. By 2:00 a.m. the fire- and the school it claimed- were reduced to a smoky pile of wood beams and sheets of metal.

Dustin Scalisi, grey hoodie, sits in on a meeting held at the Tapraq Rock office. Ben Townsend photo.
City Administrator Daisy Katcheak looks worringly out of a window. Ben Townsend photo.

Moving Forward

As the people of Stebbins struggle with the fallout of the fire, leaders in the community met to light the path forward. Over 30 people crammed into the office of Tapraq Rock where representatives for Stebbins, Bering Straits School District (BSSD), and Tapraq Rock listened attentively as City Administrator Daisy Katcheak opened the meeting. 

“Right now I’m looking at 102 homes that are disabled with no electricity, no heat. I’m worried about their freezers and children that are dependent on nebulizers and oxygen for the elders,” Katheak said. 

Representatives from regional nonprofit Kawerak and nearby village St. Michael joined the meeting by phone. Katcheak outlined her needs for the community and requested Kawerak’s assistance with fuel deliveries to keep generators running. The nonprofit provided guidance on a joint resolution Stebbins was drafting with St. Michael to request a disaster declaration with the State of Alaska.

Once declared by Governor Mike Dunleavey the village would be eligible for reimbursement for a number of recovery projects. The letter, at time of writing, was en route back from St. Michael after receiving signatures. In it, they requested funding for improvements to the road connecting the two villages in the event students will need to travel to St. Michael for school. Gov. Dunleavy 

BSSD Director of Maintenance Gary Eckenweiler traveled to Stebbins to assess the situation. He issued an estimate for how long it would take for students to return to a new school. 

“Stebbins will get a new school built. That'll be three years minimum. That's really the only good thing about this whole thing”

A meeting will be held on Friday between Stebbins officials and BSSD administrators to discuss the path forward. According to Eckenweiler, no option will be left off the table.

“Tomorrow’s meeting we’re going to put any potential idea for how we can get school operating in August out there, and then we’ll start whittling those ideas down to the good ones,” Eckenweiler said.

Stebbins lacks a fire department, prompting the volunteer-run crew from Nome to respond. Many in the meeting expressed frustration at the precious hours wasted trying to fight the fire with inadequate resources. 

By all accounts, City Administrator Katcheak rose to the challenge presented by the fire. Throughout the night she paced around town supporting her community. She says she didn’t sleep until eight the morning after the fire began and after almost two hours of sleep she was right back to it.

Katcheak led the community through 2022’s Typhoon Merbok, the destruction of the village’s only grocery store just two months later, and now 2024’s Stebbins School fire. As she reflected on a turbulent tenure as City Administrator, she felt assured that her place as leader of this community is where she’s supposed to be. 

“I had to go cry away from people,” Katcheak said as she recalled the last night while once again fighting back tears. “I was asking God for something, and he kept coming to encourage me. And I said, God is this? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”

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