By Gretchen Wehmhoff
A major fire broke out in the former “Jim Jewell” building on Ninth Avenue, Sunday, Feb. 26 around or after 9:45 a.m.
Calls to 911 dispatch started coming in shortly after and Skagway Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) units were dispatched to the structure by 9:53 a.m. After an initial assessment, an all-call was made for reinforcements and more engines. SVFD reports that about 45% of the building was engulfed in flames when they arrived.
No occupants were reported to be in the building, built during WWII, and no deaths or injuries were reported. Several firefighters were treated briefly throughout the day for exhaustion and issues related to the cold weather, then returned to duty. Fire personnel frequently needed to change out their turnout gear as it became crusted with ice.
Temperatures ranged from 8 – 20 degrees through the day with strong northwinds from 5 – 28 mph. SVFD said the winds kept engines from staging on the south side of the structure.
The building, owned by Max Jewell, housed four businesses: Hanson General Contracting, Packer Expeditions, Skagway Development Corporation and the State of Alaska Courts.
Residents and business owners nearby rushed to assist. Employees of Packer Expeditions and passers by helped pull equipment such as chain saws, radios, a trailer of kayaks and more out of the office and yard until the SVFD cleared the fire area.
Orion Hanson, owner of Hanson General Contracting, stood with friends across State Street as his business on the east end of the building became fully engulfed in flames. He said about nine people started calling and texting him about the fire.
According to SVFD, the fire first appeared to take over the southeast corner of the area and fire crew worked to save the home to the east from damage.
“There is some charring, but the home was saved,” said borough manager and point of contact for the incident, Brad Ryan.
Fire Chief Emily Rauscher’s radio was busy as the crews took on the fire. SVFD and Ryan reported that a crew worked to evacuate residents on the east end of Ninth and on Eighth Avenue. Most residents complied, some waited. Thick smoke billowing to the southeast caused residents to leave their homes further into town.
Annie Matsov and her children evacuated their home due to the smoke then observed from the Assembly of God yard as husband and dad, Alex Matsov, a firefighter, worked on the blaze. Later in the afternoon they would help roll hoses.
Tim Bourcy watched from across the street as the fire and smoke came closer to his business, Packer Expeditions. Eventually the fire claimed the building. Bourcy was phasing out his business after 30 years. While his employees and others tried to save as much as they could, the building and most equipment succumbed to the fire, settling in a final smoking heap. Bourcy is insured.
By the afternoon the fire had reached the entire length of the structure. As parts of the building threatened to fall into State Street, Public Works used an excavator to push the front wall back onto itself.
Ryan said Public Works, including the water department, worked to make sure the water was flowing. SVFD utilized three hydrants — Ninth and Broadway, Eighth and Broadway to attack the southeast and Ninth and State.
“Tyson Ames of Public Works was there all day helping in so many different ways. He was everywhere,” Ryan said.
“The hydrants need to flush and the hoses need to be clear,” said Ryan, as the water is pumped through the truck for optimal pressure.
Public works installed barriers and sanded the surrounding roads, now coated with ice.
Alaska Power and Telephone monitored the electrical grid, shutting off power when needed.
Community members came to watch and assist. SVFD credits municipal management and Public Works employees for their help holding defensive hose lines; former fire volunteers showed up to help.
Becky Baker offered hand warmers to people watching and working the blaze, Billi Clem walked down the sidewalk in front of the Assembly of God Church with a tray of hot chocolate and an invitation for folks to go inside to get warm or grab more hot drinks. Later, the church and multiple community members brought food to the firefighters, police and public works employees.
Assemblymember Sam Bass was seen helping the crew, Ryan helped hold hoses and Police Chief Jerry Reddick and the Skagway Police Department provided crowd control and additional hose handling.
In the late afternoon a call was made to Mayor Andrew Cremata that the incident could use assistance in clean up by rolling and gathering hoses. Soon an army of families and city officials were loading the hoses into trucks to be taken back to the station to thaw and get prepped for the next call.
In a press release SVFD says that the fire, labeled the Jewell Fire, “has been assigned to Alaska State Fire Marshal Richard Harrop and a fire investigation is undergoing. The fire scene has been secured and we will continue to monitor and secure the property until Fire Marshal Harrop makes it into Skagway for a sight inspection scheduled for Feb. 28, 2023. We ask all residents to stay clear of the fire scene as to not interfere with the fire investigation.”
“The community response was tremendous,” said Cremata who praised the agencies working the fire. “Nobody was hurt and the other structures on the block were saved. It was a success for the department and the community,” he said.
Ryan agreed in his own statements. “The community came together showing support, no one was hurt and the fire didn’t spread,” he wrote.
Rauscher added a personal note in her press release that “not all fire departments experience the support we had yesterday.”
She praised the former volunteers who joined in, the municipal employees, the police and management for their help.
“The community support was truly exceptional, and I will never be able to fully express my gratitude to all of you,” Rauscher said.
Editors note: This is a developing story. We will post a comprehensive story and photos in the next issue of The Skagway News. Look for a photo gallery on the website this week. If you have photos you would like to share, submit them to email@example.com.