A map of Alaska with the Statewide region highlighted.
Initiative: Code Red
Organization: Alaska Village Initiatives
City: Anchorage
Region: Statewide
Program Area: Human Services \ Public safety
Grants Received:
2002: $318,066

Here, the margins of life are thinner, more apparent

Mission Statement
Alaska Village Initiatives

Organized by and for rural Alaskans, AVI promotes the economic well being of rural Alaskans through economic development assistance, networking, advocacy, and education.

Project Code Red: to provide micro-rural firefighting units to protect 18 remote Alaskan villages.
It's a quiet December evening in Ambler, five below zero. I work at my woodpile, splitting and stacking. Far overhead, the northern lights flicker across the stars in pale green wraiths.

A snowmobile roars by. Kids, I think. Then two more machines follow, and I hear shouts. Trotting around the corner of the cabin, I almost slam into Ronald, one of my junior high students. He's running for his life. More kids are behind him.

"Fire at us!" he yells. "Fire!" I look toward his family's log cabin, 200 yards away through the trees,and see the smoke, a glowing white plume against the sky. The breeze shifts, and I'm wrapped in the acrid pall. A neighbor runs by with buckets; I race into my shed to grab mine. The village siren wails, and all the dogs
in town join in, hundreds howling in chorus.

A photo of Project Code Red fire equipment.Spacer Image

Dozens of people are already at the cabin. Most houses in town have a CB radio, and a shouted announcement, "Fire at 73!" has brought everyone running.

Some have buckets, axes, and fire extinguishers. "Is everyone out?" people ask. "What about the kids?" There is a moŽment of panic, and then word is passed along that the children are safe.

"Aarigaa -that's good!" people nod, relieved.

Smoke billows from the eaves, but there are no flames showing yet. Clarence Wood steps in with an ax, breaking out a window, and those who have brought their home fire extinguishers dash forward. When they're done, the smoke seems thicker than ever. A snowmobile pulls up, a trash can full of water in the sled, and the call goes out for more.

There is no fire department in Ambler beyond a loose volunteer organization, no truck; in an emergency, people must depend on their neighbors and themselves. Clutching three empty buckets, I ask which nearby house has running water.

A photo of Ambler Village.Spacer Image

"Katherine's," a high school boy says, and we sprint the hundred yards. Rena, age ten, answers the door. She points.

"The bathroom's over there!"

"Fill all the pots and pans you can find!" I tell her, and she nods. Two half-naked toddlers squall on the couch—the rescued children from the cabin.

My buckets finally full, I dash out, sloshing water on the floor. "Never mind!" says Katherine. "Go!"

Outside, the night is bathed in an orange glow; the fire, drafting through the open window, has erupted through the roof. I run to the window, stooping low to escape the heat and smoke, and throw my puny ten gallons into the heart of the flames. Choking, face scorched, I stagger away, and another man steps forward. Another run to Katherine's, then another. The fire ignores us, gathering into a bright roaring pillar. We throw all the water we have, then shovelfuls of snow, until the roof collapses, throwing sparks toward the stars. Far above, the aurora pulses its own cold green flames.

Fred and Arlene Greist stand among their friends and relatives, watching all they have disappear. They were hardly wealthy to start with, but they had a home, a place they built together, where they raised children and passed the years. In a matter of minutes, they're down to the clothes they're wearing. Tragedies like this occur everywhere, but here, ringed by wilderness, the margins of life are thinner, more apparent. As the cabin's wall collapse in a spray of embers, it's ten below zero and falling. Without help, the family wouldn't survive the night.

Though there is nothing left to be done here, few people leave. All of Ivisaappaatmiut share in the misfortune, offering comfort simply by standing together in the night. And, though shaken, we're less alone than before. The fire was "at us." We were all there.

Photo credit: Home page photo, key page photo, and Ambler Village photo by Nick Jans.

Nick Jans is a longtime contributing editor to Alaska Magazine and a member of USA Today's board of editorial contributors. His latest book is the Grizzly Maze (Dutton, 2005).