Bethel visit humanizes Kilbuck fire to Gov. Walker

Gov. Bill Walker visiting the Kilbuck fire site along with LKSD Superintendent Dan Walker and Rep. Bob Herron. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)
Gov. Bill Walker visiting the Kilbuck fire site along with LKSD Superintendent Dan Walker and Rep. Bob Herron. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

Gov. Bill Walker visited Bethel Friday to meet with city and school officials as well as teachers and students displaced by Tuesday’s fire that incinerated the Kilbuck campus, housing two schools and residential dorms.

Mayor Rick Robb presented the governor with the city’s disaster proclamation, asking the governor to declare an emergency and allocate recovery resources. The Bethel City Council will vote to approve the declaration at next week’s meeting.

The city has been working with the Dept. of Homeland Security to prepare the document, and Walker said his sub-cabinet has readied themselves to receive the proposal.

City Manager Ann Capela told the governor Bethel requires more clean up assets than initially expected. The city discovered Thursday that carcinogenic asbestos contaminates the collapsed school, and Capela is asking the state for resources to properly dispose of the rubble and to test emergency personnel for toxins.

“Nothing can be moved or disturbed until such time as the agencies come and look at us, knowing the EPA is aware this is an asbestos clean up site. So that’s why we want to press the governor to get this process moving as soon as possible,” said Capela.

The governor then visited teachers from the Yup’ik immersion school, who are busy erecting walls and arranging temporary classrooms in the school district’s office building. While there, Walker met Ayaprun Lottie Jones herself, the school’s namesake and kindergarten teacher. Principal Sam Crow introduced the two.

Asbestos warnings surrounding the KIlbuck campus. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)
Asbestos warnings surrounding the KIlbuck campus. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

“You might be in charge of the state of Alaska, but this lady is in charge of us,” Crow said to Walker. “I’m following her lead, buddy,” Walker said.

The governor then visited with students from the Kuskokwim Learning Academy at Yuut Elitnaurviat. One boarding student, Arnasagaq, told him her story about the morning she was evacuated.

“As I was standing, staring at the smoke, I could hear the fire burning, and the fire truck sirening, and others yelling and cussing. I was so mad and sad and scared at the same time. All I said was no, no, no, this isn’t happening. I felt like we were homeless,” said Arnasagaq.

Gov. Walker said the trip to Bethel humanized the community’s situation to him.

”I’m presented with a lot of dollars and cents, lot of calculations and costs and whatnot,” said Walker, “and now I can put faces to these pages of numbers and students and teachers, so it puts the human side on the paper for me.”

Many people emphasized the significance of Kilbuck to Bethel. Council member Nikki Hoffman showed Walker a picture of her third grade class at Kilbuck, her son’s preschool graduation photo in front of the school, and a handmade Yup’ik textbook.

Council member Chuck Herman was in Ayaprun’s third graduating class and shared the story of his mother helping create such materials to illustrate the community’s dedication to Ayaprun.

“My mother, who doesn’t speak a lick of Yup’ik had to spend hours literally cutting out and pasting with glue over the textbooks. In the early years, they were all just handmade,” said Herman.

Classes resumed Thursday for KLA and will begin Monday for Ayaprun Elitnaurvik.