Kivalina residents form bucket brigade to control fire

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

KIVALINA (AP) -- Residents of the island community of Kivalina formed a bucket brigade to control a house fire that broke out next to the fuel tank farm.

Kivalina, a community of 377 people the Chukchi Sea, does not have a fire truck.

The fire broke out Wednesday afternoon in the school janitor's house. Janitor Donald Baldwin was not home at the time.

News of the fire spread quickly over CB radio. The potential for disaster was huge, said lifetime resident Enoch Adams Jr. The burning house was located about 200 feet from the stove oil and gasoline storage tanks villagers use to fuel their snowmachines and other equipment.

Alaska State Troopers were not able to get to Kivalina because of bad weather, said Kotzebue-based trooper Rex Leath. They planned to fly there Saturday to investigate. It's believed the fire began because of a problem with Baldwin's fuel stove.

Adams said when he heard about the fire he ran to the home, which was about a quarter of a mile away. The wind was whipping about 20 miles per hour.

''Smoke was coming out through every crack in the ceiling,'' Adams said. ''About a minute and a half later we started seeing flames coming out through the window and the ceiling.''

Men and women started shoveling snow onto the house while others drilled through the ice on the lagoon between the island and the mainland for water.

People brought fire extinguishers, but those were quickly depleted, Adams said.

McQueen School wasn't far from the fire. Principal Gerry Pickner told the high school boys about the blaze and asked them to grab their coats. He instructed his staff to take the remaining students to the farthest end of the building away from the blaze. Elders went to the school to help with the kids, Pickner said.

Pickner and 18 high school students raced to the janitor's house. ''I figured if I have my high school boys out there I ought to be out there with them,'' said Pickner, who recently moved to Kivalina to be the new principal there.

At least 40 to 50 people formed a line and passed pails of water over the roughly 100 feet between the lagoon and the burning house, Adams said.

''I don't know if they've done it before like that or what,'' Pickner said, ''but they knew what they were doing.''

Other villagers filled garbage cans with water and raced them to the fire by snowmachine or found other ways to help. ''People were chopping big snowballs and throwing them into the house,'' Pickner said.

The bucket brigade lasted close to three hours, Adams said. ''We didn't save the house but we contained the fire,'' he said. ''We were all tired but it was good for everybody to work together.''

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