Fire in North Slope village of Kaktovik engulfs school overnight

A fire engulfs the school in the North Slope village of Kaktovik on Feb. 7. (Photo courtesy of Melvin Jack Kayotuk)

The school in the North Slope village of Kaktovik is a “total loss” after a fire burned Thursday night into early Friday morning, according to local officials.

North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr. said there were no injuries to report. He said the weather, which dipped to -35 degrees, made fighting the fire difficult for first responders. Western winds between 16-18 mph had hit the community all morning.

Kaktovik resident Wayne Kayotuk said he brought his son to the gymnasium at the Harold Kaveolook School on Thursday night.

“When I brought my son there and let him play, I could smell something in the air,” said Kayotuk. “But I thought it was just smoke from the landfill burning.”

That was around 6 p.m. By around 8 p.m., Kayotuk said the building was on fire. By midnight, it was engulfed.

In a Facebook message posted at about 3:30 a.m., the North Slope Borough School District wrote that everyone had been evacuated from the school and fire departments were trying to contain the fire.

According to Kaktovik City Clerk Katheryn Aishanna, officials had a heater going at the school to thaw frozen pipes, and the heater ignited a fire. She wrote that Kaktovik Mayor Amanda Kaleak says the school is a “total loss.”

Local residents posted video and photos of the fire, showing tall, bright-orange flames across the dark early morning sky.

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Posted by Melvin Kayotuk on Friday, February 7, 2020

The school was a gathering place for the 250-person village, and it was connected to a recently-opened $16 million basketball gymnasium.

“We lost a community place,” said Kaktovik resident Marie Rexford. “It’s where everyone goes to for their gym nights. What are they going to do now? What are the kids going to do now? What is the community going to do now?”

She said the whole town is feeling immense sorrow.

“A lot of the community members are crying,” Rexford said by phone. “Our kids got no more school. How long is it going to take to build our school?”

Kaktovik is the easternmost village in the North Slope Borough, about 50 miles north of the Brooks Range. It’s the only village within the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Reporter Nat Herz with Alaska’s Energy Desk contributed reporting from Anchorage.

This story has been updated.

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