Year in review

Part 2, July to December


July 2: With recent national attention on racial bias and police brutality, the community met via web conference June 29 for an evening town hall meeting to discuss policing practices in Wrangell. The meeting provided an opportunity for residents to ask questions of Chief Tom Radke and to share their opinions on the Wrangell Police Department. Those who spoke in the meeting, by and large, expressed support for the police and their current practices.

July 9: The cities of Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan suffered a power outage early morning July 4. Rod Rhoades, light and power director for Wrangell, said that the outage hit Wrangell at 3:05 a.m., but started in Ketchikan. Rhoades said that Wrangell switched over to diesel power at approximately 4 a.m., and hydroelectric power was fully restored by 7 a.m.

July 16: The City and Borough of Wrangell will begin rolling out a series of programs of economic relief for businesses, nonprofits and residents who have been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. The city has designated up to $915,000 of federal CARES Act funds received from the state for the assistance programs, intended to provide economic relief.

July 23: The Wrangell Public School District held a virtual town hall meeting July 16, with school officials answering submitted questions from families regarding the SMART Start reopening plan for the upcoming school year. The nearly two-hour meeting at one point had 72 participants. Although a plan for how the school district will operate under COVID-19 restrictions in the fall hasn't been finalized yet, a draft of the document is being written with input from the borough Emergency Operations Center and the public.

July 30: Four people died in a car crash late Monday night or early Tuesday morning on Mitkof Island when their SUV drove off the roadway near the 27-Mile marker of Mitkof Highway. Two of the passengers were Wrangell citizens: Siguard Decker, 21, and Helen Decker, 19. Another passenger was identified as 29-year-old Ian Martin, of Petersburg. The fourth passenger was Dennis Lord, 37, of New York.


Aug. 6: The deaths last week of Wrangell residents Siguard and Helen Decker shook the community, which has come together in a variety of ways to express their grief and support for the Decker family. A GoFundMe page was put together by the United Fishermen of Alaska to raise money in their memory. As of Aug. 4, $161,273 had been raised. Wrangell resident Lucy Robinson also organized a Meal Train for Gig and Julie Decker, Sig and Helen's parents. Wrangell residents Addy Esco and Laurie Hagelmen stationed themselves at the middle school for several afternoons in a row to make themselves available for anyone who needed someone to talk to or a shoulder to cry on. A Gathering of the Fleet was held the evening of July 29. Approximately 50 vessels congregated off of City Dock in memory of Sig and Helen, who were active members of the fishing community. They were joined by many members of the public who stood on the dock itself. The Mariners' Memorial lighthouse was lit for the very first time in honor of Sig and Helen, too, the evening of July 29. The community gathered on Aug. 1 for a celebration of life. Following the service, everyone was invited to City Park for a potluck lunch where people could share food and stories of the siblings.

Aug. 13: About this time a century ago, eight members of the U.S. Army Air Service reached an important milestone of a long journey. Using DH-4 biplanes, flown as bombers during World War I, several members of Black Wolf Squadron were attempting something never done before: To fly from New York City to Nome. Their planes were among the first ever seen in Alaska skies. The round trip was 9,000 miles and 112 hours of flying. On their way north 100 years ago this week, Wrangell was their first stop within Alaska.

Aug. 20: During their Aug. 17 meeting, the Wrangell School Board adopted a mandate requiring face masks be worn on district property.

Aug. 27: The Wrangell Borough Assembly on Aug. 25 decided to rescind its contribution of $250,000 in CARES Act funding to the school district. The decision follows recent concerns from the school board, and the public, after a recent shopping trip by the schools superintendent and some staff members to Juneau. According to Superintendent Debbe Lancaster, in a special school board meeting, the trip was to purchase supplies for reopening schools amid COVID-19 mitigation measures. The trip cost $5,788, she said. Of that, $1,332 would be CARES Act expenses. The discussion continued for some time, but the assembly voted to rescind the $250,000 in funding and decided they would revisit the topic at a later date, providing CARES Act funding to the school district with stricter parameters in place.


Sept. 3: The Wrangell School Board held a special meeting to review updated SMART Start plans for the upcoming school year. With the first day of school scheduled for Sept. 8, and the district planning for in-person classes, the SMART Start plans are meant to act as a guide for how schools will respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the "medium-risk" level the schools will open at, staff and students will be required to wear face masks, non-instructional gathering of more than 20 people are discouraged, and social distancing will be in place, among numerous other guidelines.

Sept. 10: The Wrangell Public School District opened its new year with in-person classes. The final decision between in-person and online classes was made Sept. 3. The first day of school Sept. 8 proceeded smoothly, Superintendent Debbe Lancaster said. Students were asked screening questions before getting on their bus or entering the schools themselves, she said, and everyone was wearing masks and sanitizing their hands.

Sept. 17: The Wrangell School Board held a special meeting Sept. 9 to issue a formal reprimand and improvement plan for the superintendent. This was in response to the superintendent and other district staff taking an unexpected shopping trip to Juneau to purchase COVID-19 mitigation supplies without board approval and in violation of a district travel ban. The improvement plan stated that Lancaster must receive authorization for any travel, all future communications with borough officials and the media will only be made after consultation with the board, and outlined several other guidelines.

Sept. 24: During the Sept. 22 meeting of the borough assembly, Borough Manager Lisa Von Bargen announced that the city has recently been advised by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation that they have exceeded the allowable limits of HAA5 in Wrangell's drinking water source. Von Bargen explained that HAA5, or haloacetic acids, is a result of chlorine mixing with organic compounds in the water.


Oct. 1: Wrangell Parks and Recreation on Sept. 22 announced a new photo contest for the public. The "Pups in Parks" contest will give Wrangell dog owners a chance to go enjoy the great outdoors with their canines, and take a few pictures while they're out. There will even be a chance for their dogs to be featured in a new Parks and Recreation calendar.

Oct. 8: Applications for Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets are now open, according to Lt. Jon Tollerud of the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army and the Wrangell Ministerial Association are partnering to provide the baskets for Wrangell families in need of assistance during the holiday season, he said. The application process is simple. There is only one form to fill out, he said.

Oct. 15: The Wrangell Borough Assembly held a special meeting Oct. 8 to certify the final election results from Oct. 6. Following a canvass board meeting to review preliminary election results, it was determined that a total of 483 ballots were cast and counted this election cycle, 419 on election day and 64 absentee. Steve Prysunka was reelected mayor for another two-year term. Anne Morrison and Ryan Howe were reelected to the assembly for three-year terms. Terry Courson was elected to a one-year unexpired term on the assembly. Gary Morrison was reelected to the port commission for three years. Laura Ballou was elected to the school board for three years. Wrangell voters also decided in favor of Proposition One, which would remove Wrangell from the Inter-Island Ferry Authority.

Oct. 22: Moose season came to a close on Oct. 15. Final harvest numbers came in on Oct. 20, according to Hilary Wood with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Petersburg office. This season saw 115 moose harvested within Permit Hunt Area No. RM038. There were two bagged on Wrangell Island, both legal.

Oct. 29: The Wrangell Borough Assembly held a workshop Oct. 20 to discuss the water treatment plant improvement project. This has been an ongoing project for some time now, and the workshop was to make sure new assembly members were up to speed on the current situation, and to share opinions on how it is going so far.


Nov. 5: A member of Wrangell's Emergency Operations Center recently received threats on social media, according to city officials. The threats were made Oct. 29, according to Police Chief Tom Radke. An investigation was conducted into the situation and all the parties involved were contacted and interviewed, he said. Police closed the investigation without filing any charges.

Nov. 12: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has released preliminary data on state salmon harvests for 2020. Information for Southeast Alaska shows that only half as many fish were hauled in this year compared to last year. 2020 data shows that 14,301,964 salmon were harvested this year, totaling a little over 74 million pounds. The estimated ex vessel value for the 2020 harvest is about $50 million. This is a major decrease from 2019 numbers, reported at about 32 million fish, 163 million pounds, and almost $102 million in ex vessel value.

Nov. 19: Results are in from the Wrangell Cooperative Association's recent election. According to the WCA, there were 83 ballots cast, six absentee ballots, three questioned ballots and two invalidated ballots. The new members of the council are Frank Churchill Jr. (68 votes), DJ McConachie (61 votes), Ed Rilatos (59 votes), and Lovey Brock (50 votes). They have all been elected to the council for two-year terms. All winners but Rilatos were incumbents.

Nov. 26: The Wrangell Salvation Army passed out the Wrangell Ministerial Association's Thanksgiving baskets Nov. 20. Lt. Jon Tollerud, with the Salvation Army, said 138 people signed up for baskets, but they were "not turning away anyone who asks." They had enough food to supply 400 Thanksgiving meals in all, he said, just in case. He also pointed out their COVID safety plan, having people drive up to Harbor Light Assembly of God while volunteers would put together the baskets for them.


Dec. 3: Former Wrangell Sentinel owner Larry Persily has agreed to buy the weekly newspaper from Petersburg couple Ron and Anne Loesch, who have owned it for 17 years. Depending on the schedule for the closing agreement and transition details, Persily will take over Jan. 1 or Feb. 1.

Dec. 10: During their meeting Dec. 8, the Wrangell Borough Assembly was scheduled to consider an extension of the city's mask mandate. However, the item was pulled from the agenda during the meeting. The assembly adopted the mask mandate in November, requiring people in Wrangell to wear face masks or other face coverings while out in public. Assembly Member Patty Gilbert made a motion to amend the meeting's agenda by pulling the item from consideration. This motion was made, according to city officials, because the city was not seeing support for keeping the mandate at the state level. Mayor Steve Prysunka said that part of the reason for the emergency order in the first place was because of Gov. Mike Dunleavy's "pressing of the big buzzer" back in November warning about an increase in cases, and a desire for people to take action to try and stall the rise. After that, he said, the governor was largely silent on the matter.

Dec. 17: Delayed by bad weather, Wrangell's annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony finally took place Dec. 11. The tree, put up by the Municipal Light & Power department, was decorated with ornaments made by students at Evergreen Elementary School.

Dec. 24: There were no sled dogs, and Nome is far away from Wrangell, but last week's delivery of COVID-19 Pfizer vaccines was still very Alaskan. Wrangell received its first batch of vaccines for the virus Dec. 16. The medicine was flown in from Sitka on a floatplane. Steve Kamm, with Sea Wind Aviation, landed at the harbor a little after noon with two boxes of vaccines. They were delivered to SEARHC staff Aaron Angerman and Kathy Jo Blackburn. Angerman did not say how many vaccines were delivered, but did say that vaccinations were scheduled to start immediately upon delivery.

Dec. 31: Construction of the new Wrangell Medical Center, ongoing since a groundbreaking ceremony in May 2019, is nearing completion. According to a Dec. 22 press release from the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, the project has reached 95% completion.


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