Thursday, June 8, 2023

Tundra fire threatens villages through southwest Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska ( Associated Press) — The largest documented wildfire burning through the tundra in southwest Alaska was within miles of two Alaska Native villages, officials Friday urged residents to prepare for possible evacuations .

It came a day after dozens of elderly and residents were voluntarily evacuated due to health concerns due to smoke from a nearby fire.

In this aerial photo provided by blm alaska fire service, the east fork fire burns approximately 25 miles north of st. Mary, alaska on june 2, 2022.
In this aerial photo provided by BLM Alaska Fire Service, the East Fork Fire burns approximately 25 miles north of St. Mary, Alaska on June 2, 2022.

Associated Press. via Pat Johnson, BLM Alaska Fire Service

Officials Friday put the communities of St. Mary’s and Pitcas Point in “ready” status, meaning residents must collect the important items they want to take with them if they have to evacuate, the US Bureau of Lands said. Management Alaska Fire Service spokeswoman Beth Epson said by text. This will then be “set” or the go-bag will be prepared and discarded when a “go” order is placed.

The fire is eating dry grass, alder and willow shrubs on largely treeless tundra as gusts of 30 mph (48.28 kph) are pushing the fire in the general direction of St. Mary’s and Pitcus Point, Yupik subsistence communities . Combined population of about 700 people and about 10 miles (16 km) apart.

Ipsen had earlier said over the phone that about 65 firefighters were battling the blaze and about 40 more were expected on Friday.

In this aerial photo provided by blm alaska fire service, the east side of the east fork fire is seen near st. Mary's, alaska on june 9, 2022.
In this aerial photo provided by BLM Alaska Fire Service, the east side of the East Fork Fire is seen near St. Mary’s, Alaska on June 9, 2022.

Associated Press. Via BLM Alaska Fire Service

The fire had not grown much beyond Thursday and was still estimated to be 78 square miles (202 square kilometers). Officials said in an update late Friday that northerly winds pushed the fire to within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of St.

Ipsen said she was not aware of any structures that have been lost.

Crew cleared brush and other fuel from a section of land in the path of the flames, and air tankers dropped the retardant as another buffer between the line and St. Other planes were pouring water over the fire until another fire broke out in a nearby community, north of Mountain Village.

Climate change may have played a role in this historic fire, said climatologist Rick Thoman of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

He said that based on Alaska Fire Service records in the 1940s, it is the largest documented wildfire in the lower Yukon River valley. Very large fires have been recorded just 50 or 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of St. Mary’s, but they have burned in boreal forests.

The area where tundra fires are burning, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, lost its snowpack earlier this year, drying out grass and other vegetation. Coupled with the hottest period on record in the region recently, it provided the perfect storm for this fire that was started by lightning on May 31.

“Climate change didn’t cause the thunderstorms that sparked that fire, but it did increase the likelihood that ambient conditions would be receptive,” he said.

The Alaska hub community southwest of Bethel, approximately 100 miles (160.93 km) southeast of St. Mary’s, is the nearest long-term weather station.

Thoman said that for the period covering the last week of May and the first week of June, Bethel recorded the hottest temperature this year, 9 degrees Fahrenheit (12.78 degrees Celsius) above the normal 48 degrees Fahrenheit (8.89 degrees Celsius). ) was excessive.

About 80 village veterans and others with health concerns were transferred Thursday to the Alaska National Guard Armory in Bethel, Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesman Jeremy Zideck said.

Two companies providing commuter air service in roadless western Alaska flew passengers to Bethel.

One of them was Ut Commuter Services, which provided 12 flights from St. Mary’s on its planes, each with six seats, said Andrew Flagg, the company’s station manager at Bethel.

On Friday, he said he had been asked to provide drinking water to the community so that it could be given to firefighters.

St. Mary’s and Pitcas’ Point, at the confluence of the Andreyfsky and Yukon Rivers, are located approximately 450 miles (724 km) west of Anchorage.

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