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St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point ready their communities for fire evacuation

A photo of the St. Mary's fire from June 4
Fire Services
Bureau of Land Management
The St. Mary's fire as seen on June 4, 2022.

Two communities along the lower Yukon River have begun the process of readying residents to evacuate. A tundra fire is burning less than 8 miles from St. Mary’s, population 599, and Pitkas Point, population 120. Meanwhile, wind continues spreading the fire closer to the villages.

The City of St. Mary’s and its two tribes, the Yupiit of Andreakfsiy and the Algaaciq Tribe, held a community meeting on June 9. There, resident Geraldine Beans said that community leaders chose an optional evacuation for Elders and people who are considered vulnerable. Other residents will have to wait

The fire is the largest in the history of the Lower Yukon valley. It’s been burning for a week and a half, since May 31, and has grown to about 50,000 acres.

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. Like, right over here on the horizon,” Beans said.

Beans said that she and her family won’t be evacuating just yet, even though her husband is technically an Elder. At 68, she said that he’s still active. But she said that the wind is picking up, which is not good news for the community. She said that 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,” she said.

Beans said that for now, though, she and her family are holding out.

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

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

As of 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 9, most Yute Commuter Service flights across the region were canceled. Yute is sending all its planes to St. Mary’s to evacuate residents. A Yute spokesperson said that the airline will first evacuate 60 people who have health problems who have opted to leave. Yute planes seat five to six people.

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

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 regions. 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 is in effect until 11 p.m. on June 9.

Corrected: June 10, 2022 at 8:45 PM AKDT
This story has been corrected to say that most Yute Commuter Service flights were cancelled on June 9 and diverted to St. Mary's. The story originally said the airline cancelled all flights.
Updated: June 9, 2022 at 5:53 PM AKDT
This story has been updated to say that Yute Commuter Service will first evacuate people with health problems who have opted to leave.
Olivia was a News Reporter for KYUK from 2020-2022.
Anna Rose MacArthur served as KYUK's News Director from 2015-2022.
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