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Tyonek residents return home as wildfire shifts toward Beluga

Zaz Hollander
Alaska Division of Forestry

Update 10:30 a.m. Wednesday:

The fire between Tyonek and Beluga had grown to 1,500 acres by Wednesday morning and was approaching Beluga, but Tyonek residents were allowed to return home Tuesday night, state forestry officials say. 

As of late Tuesday, the fire was getting “pretty close” to structures on the outer part of Beluga, according to Alaska Division of Forestry spokeswoman Sarah Saarloos. Winds did shift Tuesday evening, however, and that helped with securing the area. 

The fire does continue to threaten Tyonek and Beluga, as well as the Chugach Electric Association power plant north of Beluga and area natural gas lines and infrastructure, according to an Alaska Interagency Coordination Center update.

Tyonek residents were told by fire commanders that they could go back to their homes after evacuating Monday night but needed to be ready to leave again if conditions changed, Saarloos said. 

About 90 people are fighting the fire, with requests in for five Type 1 crews from the Lower 48 and multiple aircraft, according to the update. Two village crews are expected to arrive today. 

 ORIGINAL STORY:

A wildfire that had threatened Tyonek by Tuesday evening was moving away from that village on the northwest shore of Cook Inlet -- and bearing down on the small community of Beluga, 10 miles away.

Fanned by suddenly shifting winds, the more than 1,000-acre fire triggered a scramble as firefighters stationed near Tyonek shifted to the northern front on the Beluga side where they hoped to stop it in a large boggy area.

The fire was within about two miles of Beluga by Tuesday evening, officials said.

Smoke surrounded Kaydee Scarola's log home in the small community. Ash was starting to sprinkle from the sky. Her head hurt.

"We're packing up our belongings right now. We're kind of in that panicked, scared stage," Scarola said. Her husband and father had left with chainsaws to see if they could help state forestry crews make a fire break. She was home with their three kids, ages 3 to 8.

Scarola, who grew up in Beluga and moved back after college, said the family would be ready to evacuate if they had to.

"We're just trying to be proactive -- guns, small safes, jewelry, old baby blankets and baby books," she said. "I have a small dog lot, so I've got six sled dogs that will have to fit in the back of the truck."

The family planned to drive the dirt road leading north for 18 miles out of town -- past the Chugach Electric Association power plant -- if they got word it was time to go.

Chugach Electric officials said their last report Tuesday afternoon still put the fire about five miles from the power plant.

State fire commanders Tuesday night said they were repositioning crews away from Tyonek.

"We're pretty much pulled out of the south end and basically trying to fight the head of the fire to keep it out of Beluga right now," Palmer-based fire management officer Norm McDonald said.

With fire racing to the north, state Division of Forestry Tuesday evening asked for help from the Lower 48, requesting hotshot crews to help the roughly 70 firefighters working the fire Tuesday, McDonald said. Two additional air tankers are coming in from Canada to drop retardant Wednesday, with two tankers and two helicopters already on the fire.

"Last night it was really active until the early morning. We're kind of expecting the same thing," he said. "The issue we face is being right off the coast, with onshore winds and south winds, it's just really squirrely right now."

Earlier in the day, before the fire moved away from the Tyonek, the fire led to mass evacuations in that village of fewer than 200.

As many as 50 people -- mostly elders or those with respiratory problems -- flew the 45 miles across the Inlet to Anchorage Tuesday morning for relief from the smoke-choked air, according to tribal administrator Donita Slawson. About 80 set up temporary lodging at the Tyonek Lodge outside the village, at a timber camp about five miles away, or at several fish camps on the beach.

Planes and helicopters brought in shipments of donated food and other supplies for evacuees and firefighters.

Residents hoped to go home by night. An emotional talking circle and prayer vigil was held Tuesday evening at the Tyonek Native Corp. offices in Anchorage. Some residents did start going back home when winds shifted during the day Tuesday and started fanning the fire away from the village. Many in its core never left.

"Personally, it feels like we're in a dream," said Slawson, who got about two hours of sleep Monday night. "That's what it feels like. We're going to wake up and everything's going to be back to normal. Our nice beautiful village is going to be OK. We won't be worrying about our families and our possessions."

Winds shifted all day, complicating efforts to contain the blaze. A north wind blew through part of the afternoon -- which renewed concerns about Tyonek -- before switching to a south wind combined with an onshore sea breeze, McDonald said.

Two air tankers and two helicopters were working the fire into the night Tuesday, as were roughly 70 firefighters under the command of a Type III incident management team brought in Tuesday. Along with the hotshots, crews working the fire include smoke jumpers from the Bureau of Land Management, Nikiski fire crews as well as local volunteers.

The cause of the fire was not released on Tuesday.

Slawson made one of many 911 calls on Monday afternoon when the fire started. About 10 or 20 minutes after the power flickered in the village offices, she stepped outside to spot a terrifying column of gray smoke.

"It just kept getting bigger, fast," she said. "You could tell it was really close."

The wind-driven fire jumped the Chuitna River on Monday and started burning near the village airstrip and a new subdivision overnight Monday into Tuesday, authorities said. It was estimated at 350 acres Monday night and 450 by Tuesday morning.

Members of the Pioneer Peak and Midnight Sun hotshot crews conducted a "burn out operation" to remove trees and dry grass and asked residents in the area to leave their homes overnight Monday, according to a state Division of Forestry news release. Crews, with help from village heavy equipment operators on bulldozers, strengthened a fire line along an existing road.

Firefighters held the line protecting the village through the day, forestry spokeswoman Sarah Saarloos said.

The National Weather Service said "very dry conditions" will prevail over Southcentral through the week but winds will drop below "critical" fire thresholds, according to a fire weather forecast issued Tuesday afternoon. The strongest winds were expected from the Susitna Valley down south through Cook Inlet.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 

The Tebughna Foundation has started an account at Wells Fargo to accept donations for food and other supplies for displaced Tyonek residents and firefighters. The account number is 775 854 3065.

 

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com