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Wind shift in Southwest Alaska pushes wildfire away from villages for now

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Ryan McPherson
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Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service via AP
This Friday, June 10, 2022, aerial photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service shows a tundra fire burning near the community of St. Mary's, Alaska.

Winds shifted Monday in Southwest Alaska, pushing a wildfire away from a village it has threatened over the last several days, officials said.

The East Fork Fire had covered more than 193 square miles by Monday morning and was about 3.7 miles northwest of St. Mary’s, fire officials said in a statement. The fire was started by lightning on May 31 and has continued to burn through tundra, dry grasses, brush and black spruce.

The fire moved significantly closer to St. Mary’s on Saturday, but progress slowed on Sunday. A change in wind direction paired with favorable weather early this week is expected to move the blaze farther from St. Mary’s and nearby villages, officials said.

The fire grew only about 2,000 acres overnight and rain was falling intermittently in St. Mary’s on Monday morning, said Jacob Welsh, a public information officer for the Alaska Incident Management Team.

St. Mary’s is home to roughly 700 people about 450 miles west of Anchorage.

The wind also shifted from north, which pushed the flames south toward St. Mary’s, to southwest by Monday, meaning the blaze was being driven northeast, he said.

No structures had been destroyed, and Welsh said there were no injuries.

Temperatures dropped Monday, and Welsh said the cooler weather was expected to last for a few days, giving firefighters an opportunity to attack the fire differently.

Crews will take more preventive measures around communities, including cleaning up fire breaks and placing pumps or hoses around the area to stop or slow the fire if it returns.

“Basically we’re creating a line of defense for these communities if this fire decides to get up and move again,” he said.

The fire was burning closest to St. Mary’s but also presents a threat to nearby Pitkas Point and Pilot Station. A nearly 30,000-acre wildfire was burning nearby and was about 24 miles north of Mountain Village Monday.

No mandatory evacuations were ordered, although residents near the fires have been told to prepare in case they need to leave. The remoteness of the villages complicates potential evacuations.

People voluntarily left the villages over the weekend and about 145 people were relocated to Bethel by Sunday, where two shelters had been set up, according to the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. Residents flew out on commercial airlines or left by boat.

About 105 people, many of them elderly, medically vulnerable or young, were utilizing shelter services that afternoon, according to the American Red Cross of Alaska.

Residents remaining in St. Mary’s over the weekend were helping clear brush and cooking food for the now more than 200 firefighters who have come into the area.

Kale Casey, a fire information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry, said that while cooler weather is helpful, the persistent dry conditions and long sunshine this time of year make it easy for wildfires to spread rapidly.

“That drying trend, the lack of numerous days of storms that have that real low pressure, that kind of Alaska wet where you layer up -- we need those,” he said. “We need many of them and we need them soon.”

Firefighters from the Lower 48 have arrived to help control blazes, and Casey said Canadian firefighters are also assisting.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a disaster emergency Friday for the Lower Yukon Regional Education Attendance Area to support the fire response and recovery.

A series of fires started last week in Southwest Alaska after a lightning storm, Casey said. There are more than 50 burning and smoke from the area moved into Southcentral Alaska over the weekend.

Firefighting crews were in Sleetmute on Sunday and Monday to prepare the village if the Aghaluk Mountain Fire moves toward the area. The roughly 95,000-acre fire is about 10 miles southwest of the community, officials said.