Rural Alaska

Historic Lower Yukon wildfire forces evacuations from St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point

This story originally appeared on KYUK and is republished here with permission.

BETHEL — Two villages along the Lower Yukon River have begun evacuating their most vulnerable residents from a tundra fire.

The fire late Thursday was burning less than eight miles from St Mary’s and nearby Pitkas Point, and wind continues spreading the flames closer to the villages with a combined population of over 700 people.

The fire is the largest in the recorded history of the Lower Yukon River. It’s been burning for a week and a half and has grown to about 50,000 acres, about 80 square miles.

St. Mary’s and its two tribes, the Yupiit of Andreakfsiy and the Algaaciq Tribe, held a community meeting about the fire Thursday afternoon. There, resident Geraldine Beans said, community leaders chose an optional evacuation for elders and people who are considered vulnerable. Other residents will have to wait.

Beans has lived in St. Mary’s her whole life. This is the first time she’s ever heard about the village being evacuated due to a tundra fire.

“Right now I can look out my bedroom window and just see the smoke billowing up, you know, like right over here on the horizon,” said Beans.

Beans says she and her family won’t be evacuating just yet, even though her husband is technically an elder. At 68, she says, he’s still active.

But she said the wind is picking up, which is not good news for the community. She said if the fire reaches the village, her family and others will leave by boat.

“We noticed a lot of people today getting their boats ready, getting gas and bringing tents and sleeping bags and water and stuff down to their boats so they’ll be ready to go out to a safer spot,” said Beans.

Beans said for now, though, they’re holding out.

“We’re doing good right now and so far we’re not in panic mode,” said Beans.

The Bureau of Land Management sent 51 firefighters to contain the fire. But spokeswoman Beth Ipsen says they have not been able to prevent the flames from spreading closer to the community.

“We’re in a defensive posture, because really, unless there’s a significant change in weather there, it’s going to take a lot to stop that fire,” Ipsen said.

Jeremy Zidek is the spokesperson for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He said workers at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. Sub-Regional Clinic in St. Mary’s are creating a list of people who the clinic considers vulnerable and is calling them, asking if they want to evacuate. He said in most instances the state defers to local leaders to declare evacuation orders.

As of 3 p.m. Thursday, all Yute Commuter Service flights across the region were canceled. Yute instead sent all its planes to the St. Mary’s airport to evacuate residents.

Children, Elders and vulnerable people were evacuated first. About 60 people arrived on Thursday night and were being housed at the Bethel National Guard Armory.

Another regional airline, Grant Aviation, is on deck to also provide planes for evacuation if needed. Director of Operations Dan Knesek said that the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. will let the airline know if more support is needed.

[Thunderstorms in Southcentral Alaska spark at least one structure fire]

Smaller fires are also burning in Southwest Alaska. There are several in the Bristol Bay region. And a tundra fire between the coastal communities of Tununak and Toksook Bay seems to be contained for now, but wind could spread the fire closer to the communities.

That fire has been burning for three days and has grown to at least 30 acres. According to state Division of Forestry, it spread within 5 miles of the communities of Tununak and Toksook Bay, and within a half mile of power lines that serve the villages. On Wednesday, the forestry division deployed a plane and a dozen smokejumpers to contain the fire.

Ari Lightley is a spokesperson with the Division of Forestry.

“Firefighters were able to get around the fire last night and secure the fire’s perimeter, and it’s looking pretty windy there, so they’re just working on making sure that perimeter stays secure,” Lightley said Thursday.

The fire crew recorded 15 mph to 20 mph winds. The smokejumpers are remaining on the scene to monitor the fire and respond to any changes.

“The fire growth today will all be determined by wind, and if they’re able to keep the containment lines secure,” Lightley said Thursday.

Toksook Bay Search and Rescue Coordinator Harry Tulik said as of Thursday morning, he no longer saw smoke rising from the tundra.

All of these fires were ignited by lightning. But University of Alaska Fairbanks climate specialist Rick Thoman said what caused them to grow so large were abnormally warm and dry weather patterns consistent with a warming climate.

“It is worrisome,” Thoman said.

Ipsen with BLM says she hopes cooler conditions forecast this weekend will help slow the current fires. But she acknowledges that the wind is doing the most to help the fire spread, and that’s not expected to slow.

Climate specialist Thoman said there’s one thing needed to really stop the fires.

“What we really need, though, across Southwest Alaska is a nice Bering Sea storm to come in and produce, you know, a couple of days of cloudy, cool, wet weather. And that is not on the horizon,” Thoman said.

Prime fire conditions exist across most of the region. The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for almost the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bristol Bay region. The warning means that the area is experiencing or could soon experience critical fire weather. The area is facing hot, dry conditions and has seen large amounts of lightning. The warning was set to remain in effect until 11 p.m. Thursday.

Sponsored