Rural Alaska

Tundra fire slows, but still aiming at Southwest Alaska villages

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A large fire burning in the tundra continued to move toward a Southwest Alaska village Saturday, though fire managers said its pace had slowed.

The East Fork fire, which was started by lightning May 31, remained about 5 miles from the Yup’ik village of St. Mary’s, according to an update from Alaska Wildland Fire Information.

The fire was listed at just over 108,000 acres in size, more than double the last estimate. The increase was attributed to better mapping.

Tundra is a treeless area covered with low-lying plants, and the fire was being fed by extremely dry grass and brush filled with alders and willow.

There were 180 personnel working the fire, with more crews expected to arrive Monday.

There are no mandatory evacuation orders, but about 700 residents of St. Mary’s and the nearby community of Pitkas Point were told to prepare in case they needed to leave.

There have been voluntary evacuations by residents, as well as others living in the nearby communities of Mountain Village and Pilot Station.

About 80 people had chosen to leave by Saturday, according to Emery Johnson, lead public information officer for the Alaska Incident Management Team that took over firefighting operations on Saturday.

Residents flew out on commercial airlines and also left by boat, Johnson said. “Most are going to different villages where they have family members,” she said.

Early Saturday morning, firefighters completed a defensive burnout on the west side of the East Fork of the Andreafsky River to protect equipment and structures near a fish weir — a fence placed in flowing water to direct the movement of fish.

St. Mary’s, a subsistence community, sits on the bank of the river. Firefighters were also working to protect structures on the east side of the weir, as well as fortifying a fire line a half mile outside St. Mary’s. Aircraft have also been dropping retardant along that line.

Boats have been used to shuttle firefighters to protect structures upriver of St. Mary’s. Crews also have also been working to protect Alaska Native properties.

The area’s remoteness complicates any potential evacuations.

Fire managers are in discussions with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Alaska Department of Public Safety, the agencies that would make any evacuation decisions in concert with village officials, Johnson said.

The different entities are talking about “if we need to do a mass evacuation, how would we do that?” she said.

Generally, fire officials could start telling residents to have bags packed for possible evacuation if the fire came within a mile of the village, Johnson said. Crews would also start preparing a burn to protect buildings by eliminating fuel for the fire.

Managers wouldn’t order an evacuation until the fire got closer than a mile away and crews lit that burn, she said.

Hot, dry conditions were expected to continue Sunday, but a low pressure system moving in from the west could bring favorable conditions and a chance of showers by Monday. It could also bring a wind switch that would help push the fire away from the villages, officials said in the statement.

St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point, which is situated to the south at the confluence of the Andreafsky and Yukon rivers, are located about 450 miles west of Anchorage.

Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed reporting to this story.

Mark Thiessen, Associated Press

Mark Thiessen is a reporter for the Associated Press based in Anchorage.