Several tundra fires are threatening Southwest Alaska communities. A climate specialist says a warming climate has made them spread faster and farther
The largest tundra fire in the history of the Lower Yukon valley has grown and is burning 8 miles from the city of St. Mary’s. Officials say that they’re assessing whether to evacuate the village’s nearly 600 residents. On the coast, another fire is burning within 5 miles of the communities of Tununak and Toksook Bay. Fires are also burning in the Bristol Bay region.
The fire near St. Mary’s has been burning for 10 days, since May 31, and has grown to about 50,000 acres. The Bureau of Land Management [BLM] is managing the fire. BLM Public Information Officer Beth Ipsen said that there are 51 firefighters working to contain it, but 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.
Ipsen said that firefighters are setting up breaks around the perimeter of St Mary’s to either stop or slow the fire if it reaches the community.
When KYUK talked to Ipsen, she was about to get on a plane to St. Mary’s for the first time since the fire began. When she lands, she’ll meet with city officials, Tribes, and firefighters in St. Mary’s. The community held a public meeting on June 9 at 3 p.m. Ipsen said that there has not yet been an evacuation ordered, but that that could change.
“So that is something that we're looking at as far as contingency plans,” Ipsen said.
This coming weekend, on June 11, the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Green Team will take over management of the fire.
St. Mary’s Mayor, Walton Smith, said that he was too occupied with helping coordinate the fire suppression efforts to talk with KYUK.
The fire is threatening several other villages in the area including Pitkas Point, which shares a road and airport with St. Mary’s, as well as Mountain Village downriver and Pilot Station upriver. Also at risk are Native allotments and cabins. University of Alaska Fairbanks Climate Specialist Rick Thoman said that this fire is historically massive.
“Out on the tundra area, there's no fire that's even approximately this large in the documented history,” Thoman said.
Though this is the biggest fire burning in Southwest Alaska, it is far from the only one.
Several fires are burning 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. This fire began three days ago, on June 7. By the next day the fire had grown to 30 acres, according to the Alaska 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. The division deployed a plane and a dozen smokejumpers to contain the fire.
“Firefighters were able to get around the fire [June 8] 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,” Alaska Division of Forestry Public Information Officer Ari Lightsey said.
The fire crew recorded 15 to 20 mile per hour winds. As of June 9, the smokejumpers remained on the scene to monitor the fire and respond to any changes.
“The fire growth [on June 9] will all be determined by wind and if they’re able to keep the containment lines secure,” Lightsey said.
Toksook Bay Search and Rescue Coordinator Harry Tulik said that as of June 9, he no longer saw smoke rising from the tundra.
All of these fires were ignited by lightning, but Thoman said that what caused them to grow so large were abnormally warm and dry weather patterns consistent with a warming climate.
“It is worrisome,” he said.
In April, a fire near the lower Kuskokwim community of Kwethluk grew to 10,000 acres in 12 days. It was Alaska’s largest April wildfire in 25 years.
BLM's Ipsen said that she hopes this weekend’s forecasted cooler temperatures will help slow the current fires. But she acknowledges that it's mostly the high winds causing the fire to spread, and that’s not expected to slow. Thoman said that there is 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 a couple of days of cloudy, cool, wet weather. And that is not on the horizon,” Thoman said.