Kugaaruk school destroyed after suspicious overnight fire

A fire that burned most of the night at the Kugaardjuq School was extinguished early today, but not before it destroyed the only school in the Nunavut community.

Replacement school could cost $25-$30M

The stone entrance still stands amid the ruins of Kugaaruk's school Wednesday morning. (Submitted by Liederick Ammaq Illuitok)

A fire that burned most of the night at the Kugaardjuq School was extinguished early today, but not before it destroyed the only school in the Nunavut community.

When Kugaaruk RCMP responded to the suspicious fire around 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, firefighters were already on the scene working to contain the blaze. The fire could not be contained and eventually destroyed most of the school.

In the hamlet of 972, Kugaardjuq School has about 300 students and 45 employees.

Vincent Ningark, Kugaaruk's fire chief for nearly a decade, said it's the largest fire he has had to battle, a task made difficult because the community relies on trucks to bring water to the fire trucks.

Kugaaruk, formerly known as Pelly Bay, lies on the northern Arctic Coast in central Nunavut.

The firefighters used two trucks to shuttle water to the fire at the school. It took one truck about half an hour to get to the treatment plant, fill it up and then return to fill the fire truck.

The fire department hired security to keep community members at a safe distance from the fire site, while community volunteers helped run supplies from the fire hall.

"Fire hoses kept freezing up on us, so we had to change our hoses, luckily we have enough hoses in our fire hall, but at –60 C water freezes quick," Ningark said.

Through the night, the firefighters' gloves kept freezing, so at times they had to fight the fire with bare hands, despite the extreme cold. Ningark says none reported frostbite.

Kugaardjuq School, the only school in the Nunavut community, is now out after burning through most of the night. (submitted by Qavvik Kumau Corey)

With winds of up to 40 km/h, the hamlet complex, which is beside the school, was soaked repeatedly to prevent it from catching fire, and therefore was saved.

No other buildings were damaged.

Nearby homes evacuated

At around 5:30 a.m., five families were asked to leave their houses behind the school because of black smoke and burning embers blowing in their direction.

No injuries were reported.

In the territorial legislature today, Nunavut's Education Minister Paul Quassa said his staff are working to find alternate classroom spaces.

Officials from Community and Government Services and the Department of Health will travel to the community Thursday morning to assess the situation and provide support.

The team's first step will be meeting Kugaaruk's hamlet council and seeing what buildings are available for classes.

Nunavut's fire marshal will also be part of the delegation and will begin investigating the cause of the fire.

The school also served as an emergency shelter for the community in case of power outages and provided both a breakfast and soup lunch program.

"I am devastated because I have an eight- and 12-year-old in Grade 2 and Grade 7," said resident Alex Ningark. "My daughter works there and does the breakfast program." 

Environment Canada has an extreme cold weather warning in effect for Kugaaruk, where the temperature is about –35 C, and feels like –52 with the wind chill.

The fire comes just a year and a half after fire destroyed Cape Dorset's Peter Pitseolak High School, leading to charges against five youths in the community.

The cost to replace that school has been estimated at $34 million.

After the fire, finance officials discovered the value of the Cape Dorset school had never been updated with the insurance company after an extensive renovation. The insurance company also decided there would be a $10 million deductible due to several previous school fires in Nunavut. 

Finance Minister Keith Peterson says early estimates peg Kugaardjuq School's value at between $25 million and $30 million. 

Peterson says he's been assured that all the values of Nunavut government buildings are now up to date with the insurance company.

With files from Mike Salomonie