Fire in Remote Alaska Village Already Struggling With Coronavirus Leaves Residents Without Safe Drinking Water

Kyle Peter pounded on Nelson and Kristy Napoka’s front door, urgency in every knock.

“The washeteria is on fire!” he burst out when his sister’s door opened.

Kristy had been cooking a turkey for her daughter’s birthday, but a threat to the village’s only source of treated drinking water spurred her to action. She threw on her dark purple coat. Nelson dropped the diced moose meat with steamed jasmine rice he had been eating and ran outside.

It was Jan. 16, around 11 a.m. With no running water to the homes in Tuluksak, Alaska, most residents relied on the water piped to the village’s laundry building, which also housed the water treatment plant. Now, thick smoke poured through cracks in the building and from under the doors. The only hope to put it out was with a hose – which was in the burning building.

Even with no one inside the building, the danger was great. If the fire reached the two 18,000-gallon fuel tanks 35 feet away from the building or the Napokas’ house, just 50 feet away, the damage could be catastrophic.

Nelson Napoka ran to one door. Locked. He ran to another. Locked again.

They needed that hose.

Napoka raced home to get his ax.

Tuluksak, a 457-resident village in southwest Alaska, is among the most rural places in the country’s 49th state. No roads connect it to nearby villages. A 400-mile trip from Anchorage takes two plane rides. Since everything needs to be flown into the village, life in Tuluksak is expensive. A case of water costs up to $61; a 10-pound bag of sugar, $22; a half-gallon of orange juice, $12. About half of residents live in poverty, and many use food stamps.

Despite the isolation, the coronavirus has hit rural Alaska hard. About one-third of Tuluksak’s residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and like many other villages Tuluksak is on lockdown. A beloved dog sled driver, Joe Demantle Jr., recently died from the virus. The school has been closed since October.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Andrea Ball