FIRE AT THE POLARIS— Nome Volunteer Fire Dept. fire fighter Kevin Knowlton walks by the burning Polaris building in the early morning of Oct. 31. Later that afternoon, one person’s body was recovered from the burned rubble of the back building. The identification is pending

Fire at Polaris Hotel and Bar kills one person

This story has been updated from its print version to reflect new developments:

The fire that consumed most of the Polaris Hotel on Tuesday has claimed the life of Bette Haugen, 63, whose body was found after the initial fire was brought under control. According to a press release from the City of Nome, the Nome Police conducted a search for the unaccounted for guest with the assistance of NVFD member and equipment operator Shane Smithhisler and a backhoe donated by Charles Reader.  While searching the debris, Haugen’s body was recovered.  The State Medical Examiner was notified and an autopsy has been requested. Next of kin were present at the scene and additional notification was completed upon confirmation of identity. 

Investigation indicates that Dae ‘Justin’ An smelled something burning in the building.  While investigating, he discovered a fire.  He immediately alerted guests of the fire and due to his quick actions, was able to evacuate many people from the hotel.  His actions saved lives, the city’s press release states.

Investigators from the Department of Public Safety, Division of Fire and Life Safety will be responding to Nome to conduct additional investigation due to the loss of life and significant property loss. 

Damage is estimated to exceed $750,000.


Original story:

The Polaris hotel and bar in the center of Nome completely burned out in the early morning hours of Halloween day, Oct. 31 but not until the afternoon did the fire catastrophe turn into a tragedy.

As firefighters were still containing hotspots from flaring up and cleaning up the partially collapsed building in the afternoon, they found the remains of one person. As of press time that evening, the identity of the person was still unknown and identification was pending. The person was found in the west part of the Polaris building complex that borders Bering Street to the east and Lomen Avenue to the south.

According to Nome Volunteer Fire Dept. Chief Jim West Jr., it was unknown how many people had stayed at the hotel and how many long-term renters were in the building. At first, West received information that there were possibly two people not accounted for. One person then was accounted for, but one renter was not.

The body was later found in the rubble.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. What is known is that the fire was first seen by a relative of the Polaris Bar and Hotel near the liquor store cooler unit. He then called dispatch at 2:43 a.m. saying there was a fire at the Polaris. The Nome Volunteer Fire Department and the Nome Volunteer Ambulance Department were toned out and arrived on scene at 2:49 a.m. According to Fire Chief West Jr., whose father Jim West Sr. used to own the building in the , fire fighters first cleared the building of guests and then began attacking the fire from the outside.

Eye witnesses said that the building was burning from one end to the other.

West said four individuals were taken to Norton Sound Regional Hospital to be examined for possible smoke inhalation and burns. Hospital spokeswoman Reba Lean declined to release information of how many people were taken to the hospital or what their status is.

West said that fire fighters made entry through the hotel lobby, went upstairs and got people out. One man was getting out of the building without shoes. Flames came out of windows and smoke filled the hallways. West decided to pull all his volunteers out of the building as he deemed it unsafe for them to fight the flames from inside. He said the building had several layers of roofing, keeping the heat in and making it hard to attack the fire from within the building. After getting the fire fighters out of the building, they attacked the fire from the outside with several engines’ two-and-a -half inch and one-and-three-quarter inch water hoses trained on the building. At 3:18 a.m. West glanced at his watch, after the water began to flow and douse the flames.

Fire engines 4, 7, 8 and Ladder 9 were responding, with 22 of all 31 NVFD volunteers plus retired volunteers showing up to help. In the meantime, wives and girlfriends of the volunteers began making coffee and cooking for the men and one lady volunteer, Erica Wieler, at the fire hall. By mid-morning, West said, Nome Joint Utilities were a bit concerned about the water consumption as already half a million gallons of water were poured onto the fire, which mixed with the slushy remnants of snow and washed down into gullies on Bering Street and sidewalks. Water was diverted from the hospital to keep a steady flow. West said they did use only water, not foam to combat the flames.

A neighbor on the west side of the Polaris was awoken by banging on his door – not unusual, but this time it was not a drunken person, but a police officer advising him that the Polaris is on fire next door. Shortly after being awoken, he joined the crowd outside and witnessed the windows break like a jet engine blasted through there. The man’s worry was the propane tanks that were kept at the back of the Polaris hotel, directly adjacent to his home. West said that once the fire at the southwest corner of the building was under control, the propane tanks were removed and a back hoe was placed there to controlled doze the building to keep it from collapsing outwards.

Throughout the night, morning and into the afternoon, fire fighters continued to monitor reoccurring hot spots that flared up. 

The city issued a press release saying that in addition to the fire trucks and ambulance vehicles, three police cruisers responded to secure the perimeter. At 11:37 a.m., City Manager Tom Moran said, the Rec Center was opened as a community emergency shelter. Norton Sound Health Corporation also put out an announcement offering temporary housing for those affected by the fire. NEST, the Nome Emergency Shelter Team, also announced that they open the shelter at the Nazarene Church a day ahead of schedule, on Tuesday evening at 9 p.m. to offer shelter.

The State Fire Marshal was expected to arrive in Nome on Nov. 1 to begin investigating the incident.


The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112

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