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Governor declares disaster as tundra fire spreads closer to St. Mary's and Pitkas Point

A tundra fire is burns near the communities of St. Mary's and Pitkas Point on June 9, 2022.
Rex Nick
A photo of the St. Mary's fire from June 4, 2022

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has issued a disaster declaration in response to the tundra fire threatening multiple communities along the lower Yukon River. The fire has spread closer to the communities of St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point, burning 7.5 miles from the communities as of, June 10. Evacuations continue, and federal officials are deploying more resources to the area to try to prevent the fire from reaching the villages, where over 700 people live. Meanwhile, another fire has ignited nearby and to complicate efforts, the community water tank is leaking.

Tribes in St. Mary’s and the nearby village of Pitkas Point are working with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) to provide a way out for people who need to leave due to age or health conditions. The groups are working with regional airline Yute Commuter Service (YCS) to fly people to Bethel. YKHC said that they are supporting tribes to “voluntarily relocate” people, not evacuate them.

YCS flew about 80 people to Bethel on June 9. YKHC is continuing to arrange flights out. The health corporation said that people wanting to relocate to Bethel should call their local health clinics.

In Bethel, people are being housed at the National Guard Armory and Gladys Jung Elementary School. Some people are instead choosing to stay with family or friends in Bethel, or traveling on to Anchorage.

YKHC is accepting donations at the Women’s Care and Support Center next to the Prematernal Home on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway until 6 p.m. on June 10. Personal care products are needed, and YKHC is working to create a list of other requested items

Federal officials continue to work to contain the fire. Air tankers are dropping fire retardant around St. Mary’s. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the fire agency working to contain the blaze. BLM Public Information Officer Beth Ipsen said that the retardant will wet the vegetation and help prevent the fire from moving past it to the community. BLM also deployed about a dozen more firefighters to the area since Thursday, June 9, increasing the crew to 66.

Even more firefighters are scheduled to arrive. YCS Director of Stations Andrew Flagg said that the airline is sending six planes to fly firefighters from McGrath to St. Mary’s. The planes can carry 30 passengers combined.

The fire has spread for a week and a half, and BLM satellite data estimates that it has grown to 71,000 acres. Ipsen said that constant wind, hot weather, dry grass, and little rain have thwarted fire crew’s attempts to contain it so far.

“This is what we call a wind and fuel driven fire, meaning that the wind is pushing it through, and the vegetation is very receptive to burning. It’s also resistant to control,” Ipsen said.

Some firefighters are traveling along the river by boat, working to protect Native allotments and fish camps.

Management of the fire response will change on Saturday, June 11. A larger team accustomed to coordinating more complicated responses will take over. Temperatures this weekend are forecast to drop by less than 10 degrees but remain dry.

Meanwhile, lightning started another fire nearby. This one is burning 33 miles north of Mountain Village and has grown to at least 60 acres. Four smokejumpers have been deployed to the fire, and helicopters are dropping water on the area. Ipsen said that surrounding wetlands could help contain its spread.

To complicate efforts, water levels are dropping in St. Mary’s drinking water tank. St. Mary’s School District superintendent Dee Dee Ivanoff said that the water in the tank has been falling for days. On June 9, it fell 12 inches and workers have been unable to locate the leak.

Ivanoff is working with volunteers to raise money through a GoFundMe campaign to buy pallets of bottled water.

“So in case we have to use up all our water we will at least have potable water,” Ivanoff said.

YKHC is also sending bottled water. YCS said that it will fly the water to St. Mary’s for free.

State Emergency Operations Center spokesperson Jeremy Zidek said that the state does not anticipate that St. Mary’s will experience a drinking water shortage.

Meanwhile, on the ground in St. Mary’s, Ivanoff is coordinating rides to the airport for people who want to leave. Her parents already flew to Bethel.

“It’s a relief to get people out, including those who are elderly and high risk,” she said.

She drove people in her truck while her employees drove others in the school bus and van. She called the scene “surreal.”

Ivanoff said that so much smoke blew into the community recently that it set off a school smoke alarm.

She is hosting the fire crew in the St. Mary’s school and leasing them their vehicles. Community members are also donating their vehicles.

Her sister is loading a boat in case her family needs to leave. But Ivanoff intends to stay to oversee the school.

Prime fire conditions exist across most of the region. The National Weather Service has issued aRed Flag Warning for the lower Kuskokwim River Delta. 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 10 p.m. on June 10.

Corrected: June 10, 2022 at 8:43 PM AKDT
A previous version of this story said that St. Mary's Corporation had organized a GoFundMe. This is incorrect. Angelina Lott, while an employee of St. Mary's Corporation, organized the fundraiser in her capacity as a private citizen.
Updated: June 10, 2022 at 8:43 PM AKDT
This story has been updated to say that YKHC is housing people in Bethel who have fled St. Mary's and Pitkas Point at Gladys Jung Elementary School, in addition to the National Guard Armory.
Anna Rose MacArthur served as KYUK's News Director from 2015-2022.
Olivia was a News Reporter for KYUK from 2020-2022.
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