Fire destroys old Chevak school and plans for community center

A fire destroyed the old Chevak school on March 8, 2021. (Greg Slats)

A fire demolished Chevak’s old school building, damaging power and sewer lines and destroying a community dream.

It was just after midnight, in the early hours of March 8 andASxsWAQ Mary Pingayak was in bed, trying to fall asleep. Outside, the wind was blowing over 40 miles per hour when suddenly, it began howling.

“And when I went outside, I was checking to see what was going on, I saw the flames. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was orange, and it was growing, and it looked like it would spread,” Pingayak said.

In the center of the village, Chevak’s old school building was on fire.

Across town, Chevak Vice Mayor Ulrich Ulroan woke up to a phone call from his uncle, who gave him the news. Ulroan raced to the fire.

“There was absolutely nothing we could do,” Ulroan said. “The flames were already so big in the gym, the whole old gym section was burning.”

About 25 yards away stood the public safety building. The flames began charring the walls.

“We had to have our guys hose down the side of the public safety,” Ulroad said. “Even though the heat was so tremendous.” 

Bystanders also stood ready to hose down the nearby traditional council building. While flames quickly consumed the entire school, the fire never spread to another structure.

“The south winds were in our favor,” Ulroan said.

North of the burning school lay a frozen lake. All night, the wind blew the flames towards the lake, partially melting the ice. Also in the flames’ path were electrical wires.

“Those wires caught on fire and snapped in half,” Ulroan said.

For the next 12 hours, sections of the town had intermittent power and phone service. A line crew temporarily fixed the wires. The electric utility Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, AVEC, contacted a team in Toksook Bay to deploy to Chevak to provide a permanent fix once the weather cleared. The fire also destroyed a sewer line that services Ulroan’s neighborhood, knocking out the suction that pulls the sewage down the pipe.

“My tub is overflowing,” Ulroan said. “And I can’t drain any water in my sink or flush my toilet because it’ll just back into my tub.”

Ulroan called the city and was told repairs might take weeks.

“We’re going to have to go back to the honey buckets for now,” Ulroan said, referring to unplumbed toilets.

The damaged sewer line services the school, and the superintendent canceled classes on March 8 until the problem could be better understood.

The old school building burned quickly and collapsed within an hour of when the flames were first seen. By sunrise, only smoldering remains lay in the snow. The cause of the fire is under investigation. No one was injured, but the building was a total loss.

“It’s very unfortunate, and it’s very devastating. We had really big plans for it,” Chevak Mayor Richard Tuluk said.

For eight years, the city and tribe have been laying plans to turn the old school into a community center.

“We had met with the community,” Tuluk said. “And they had come up with ideas: putting in a library, a teen center, a place for cultural activities, things like bingo.”

And basketball in a community gym.

The school shut down in 2005 when a new school opened to accommodate Chevak’s growing population. The old school, built decades ago, needed to be cleaned of toxins, like asbestos, before it could reopen as a community center. The city planned to apply for clean-up funds.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.