Fire in Newtok destroys village school’s power plant

Fire in Newtok destroys village school’s power plant
Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 5:39 PM AKST
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BETHEL, Alaska (KTUU) - A fire that started on Thursday evening destroyed the power plant located at the Ayaprun School in the village of Newtok in Southwest Alaska.

An Alaska Division of Homeland Security report issued Friday morning says that a fire occurred at the school around 6:30 p.m. Thursday that damaged the power plant at Newtok’s Ayaprun School.

In a region prone to extreme weather and environmental emergencies due to climate change, Ayaprun School principal Dawn Lloyd was not surprised to see Newtok villagers spring into action when the fire broke out.

“All the villagers come out to try to help. I mean, they’re good people, and they will rally when there’s an emergency,” Lloyd said. “It burned up until about midnight, which is when we — the last couple of us — finally put out the fire by throwing snow at it.”

Lloyd confirmed that the damage at the school was contained to the outbuilding that housed the school’s power unit, and no one was injured. No other buildings were damaged, including the main school building.

“Fortunately, the wind was blowing not towards the school — it was blowing not entirely toward the tundra, but it was blowing in a direction that there weren’t any buildings close by,” Lloyd said. “If there had been ... I don’t want to think about that.”

Efforts to extinguish the fire were hampered by a lack of water, with the school itself being the closest source of water.

Without power, villages like Newtok may receive additional damage to any existing wells or water pipes, as unheated water can expand within those systems and render them useless. Power has been restored to the main water plant in Newtok, according to Lloyd, which will prevent damage.

Workers from the Lower Kuskokwim School District arrived in Newtok on Friday morning to begin the process of getting the Ayaprun School powered with generators to keep heat and water running in the main building. Upon arrival, those teams found the spare generators in the community —as well as the one they brought — were incompatible with the school’s existing power system. Pipes in the school were drained to prevent freezing and breaking.

“The school district is trying to find any available generators that they could send out here, but a generator large enough to power a school is not something you find quickly,” Lloyd said.

Loss of power at the school presents challenges not only to the students and staff at Ayaprun School, but also to residents of Newtok who collect water from the school for use in their homes.

When the remnants of Typhoon Merbok slammed into the Bering Sea coast in Sept. of 2022, the school became the village’s emergency gathering place. It also provides a place for villagers to stay during power outages, storms, or when temperatures drop too low for people to stay in homes with inadequate weatherproofing or insulation.

The school is also a water source for many in the village, which is now under an advisory to boil water before use.

“The community has requested bottled water and we are responding to that request,” Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesperson Jeremy Zidek said in an email. “The State Emergency Operation Center has reached out to BIA, YKHC, and Calista to see if they can provide bottled water. Transportation is the biggest hurdle as weather is poor and flying windows are brief at this time.”

Newtok has approximately 350 residents and is one of many Alaska Native communities suffering from the environmental effects of climate change. Coastal erosion and melting permafrost has forced many residents to relocate to nearby Mertarvik, and as villagers relocate, Newtok itself has scaled back. Lloyd said that recovery efforts have been slowed by the lack of resources available in the village.

“Part of it is because of the relocation and not having the funding to relocate,” Lloyd said. “So the village is not being kept up to the level it normally would be because they’re relocating.”

According to the school’s website, the Ayaprun School works closely with its sister school, Mertarvik Pioneer School, as families relocate. Newtok’s Ayaprun has around 40 students enrolled this school year, while Mertarvik serves just over 40 students. Both schools provide instruction in both English and the local Yugtun language and utilize cultural knowledge in their curriculum.

Patrick LeMay, Newtok Relocation Project Manager, said the fire “underlines just the basic need of getting this community moved.” LeMay said the state still hasn’t funded a new school in Mertarvik to accommodate the ongoing addition of Newtok students.

“The 40 children that are moving from Newtok, they’re not going to have a space to be educated, and schools in villages, it takes three, four years to get them built,” LeMay said. “So, you know, the disaster this summer, and then this fire in the old school just really underlines, you know, just where we should be focusing.”

Despite the present challenge, Lloyd is hopeful that students will be back in the classroom soon.

“We’re pretty good about running school when most places would close because frankly, it’s Newtok and we’re resilient,” Lloyd said. “So I think that we will start up earlier than many schools would in similar circumstances.”

Late Friday afternoon, Zidek said the Lower Kuskokwim School District is in the process of purchasing a new 75-kilowatt generator to be shipped to Newtok as soon as weather allows. Technicians will also travel to the school to connect the new power unit.