Officials investigate Emmonak blaze, faulty fire gear

ANCHORAGE — Kwik’Pak Fisheries plans to rebuild facilities that burned at its fish-processing plant in the western Alaska village of Emmonak, company officials said.

The fire began Saturday night in a combination office building and warehouse. When firefighting equipment failed, fire spread to two Kwik’Pak dormitories and two buildings operated by Yukon Marine Manufacturing, a boat-builder. Alaska State Troopers estimated damage at $3 million or more, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

Trooper William Connors, Emmonak village public safety officer Jay Levan and the company’s caretaker employees were the only ones to respond to the fire, Kwik’Pak manager Jack Schultheis said Tuesday. Staff at the Emmonak city offices said no local officials were available to comment on the response.

The fire could have been contained if firefighting gear had been working, Schultheis said. Connors said Sunday water pumps were not working and ice augers that could have helped draw water from the Yukon River were not available

“We have three fire hydrants on the property; all of those hydrants were froze up,” Schultheis said. “It’s just sad, it’s the circumstances of western Alaska — that’s how it is.”

State fire marshal Dave Tyler said staff from his office will try to determine the cause of the fire and review the condition of the firefighting equipment. His office does not have authority to order improvements.

In situations where a fire department’s gear has not received proper upkeep, Tyler said, “the community’s not as involved in it as they need to be.”

Kwik’Pak flash-freezes 4 million to 5 million pounds of salmon and whitefish annually in Emmonak. The main fish processing facilities were not damaged, Schultheis said. Production should not be affected this year if dormitories to handle about 500 summer workers are rebuilt.

“Those communities depend on that fishery; it’s all they have for income,” Schultheis said. “It’s our job — it’s my job — to make sure we’re operational by the first of June.”

The company hopes to begin construction when insurers sign off on a plan and land is cleared.

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