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School Fires in Alaska Prompt Code Questions

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Five times since 1994, residents of remote Alaska villages have seen their only school destroyed by fire.

None of the schools had a sprinkler system--a major factor contributing to their destruction, according to the state fire marshal. The small, isolated towns often have little in the way of equipment, trained firefighters, or an adequate water supply.

"The big problem in the bush is, when they have a fire in any kind of building, it burns down to the ground in a big pile of ash," said Fire Marshal Craig Goodrich.

The most recent incident, a Jan. 22 blaze that destroyed the K-12 school in the coastal village of Wales, on the Bering Strait, has raised new questions about the state fire codes for schools.

The village's volunteer fire department did not have the proper hose fitting to hook up a pump to draw water from the Bering Sea. But even the right equipment probably would have made little difference, Mr. Goodrich said. He estimated damage from the fire at $4.5 million.

A sprinkler system, however, could have saved the building and limited the damage to a few thousand dollars, he added.

A 1994 review of building fire codes in Alaska recommended that all new schools have sprinkler systems. That recommendation is under review by the state's attorney general and would be adopted with Gov. Tony Knowles' signature.

But the revised codes will provide little relief to the remote villages, where schools are usually built of wood.

'Frozen Ground'

"Many of these villages are in areas where they have permafrost," Mr. Goodrich said. "Water doesn't soak into the frozen ground, so they have to get water elsewhere." That can drive up the cost of adding sprinkler systems to existing schools, he said.

Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, is the only community in the state to require sprinkler systems in all its schools, Mr. Goodrich said.

In addition to the fire in Wales, schools have burned down over the past two years in Fort Yukon in northeast Alaska and in three towns in the western part of the state: Lower Kalskag, Mountain Village, and Newtok. State officials estimate total damage from the five fires at $25 million.

In many villages, the schools are important to the community for more than education.

"The school could be the only structure with reliable heat, or indoor plumbing," Mr. Goodrich said. He noted that more than 600 children were displaced as a result of the five fires.

Wales' Kingikmiut School also served as a community meeting place and town hall for the 175 people who live there. Since the fire, the 62 students have been attending school wherever the town can find room for them--a church, a parsonage, and the National Guard armory.

Owen Citrowski, Kingikmiut's principal, said last week that if all goes well, the school should be rebuilt in about a year. "We'll clean up the mess and start planning for another school year."

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