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A slight wind shift is now pushing the tundra fire parallel to St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point rather than towards the communities

A tundra fire burns 5 miles from the lower Yukon River community of St. Mary's on June 10, 2022.
Ryan McPherson
/
BLM Alaska Fire Service
A tundra fire burns 5 miles from the lower Yukon River community of St. Mary's on June 10, 2022.

The tundra fire burning near St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point gained a half mile overnight, but did not spread closer to the two lower Yukon River communities. Federal officials responding to the fire from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said that the fire remains 5 miles from the communities. Thanks to a wind shift, the fire is now spreading parallel to instead of towards the communities. The BLM also said that the flames are spreading at a slower rate than before as wind speeds have slowed. No injuries or structure fires have been reported.

“Right now, we’re feeling pretty good for the immediate future here,” Incident Commander Peter Butteri said in a video issued by the BLM Saturday afternoon. “A slight wind shift in the fire has, instead of coming directly at St. Mary’s, it’s been doing more of a flanking action and giving us some breathing room so we can continue to bolster our defenses here.”

St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point are under a ready warning from BLM. The warning urges residents to pack essential belongings, like prescriptions and important documents, and plan a way to leave the communities if evacuation is needed. BLM issued the warning on Friday. That day Gov. Mike Dunleavy also issued a disaster declaration to “fund reimbursement of emergency protective measures such as evacuation, shelter support, and feeding,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Butteri said that his crew would issue an evacuation notice if the fire jumped across the control lines.

Firefighters ignited a controlled burn beginning at 2 a.m. Friday, “on the west side of the East Fork of the Andreafsky River to protect equipment and structures near the fish weir,” BLM wrote. They then began another defensive burn on the east side of the river to protect more structures.

Two planes are dropping retardant near St. Mary’s. Two helicopters are also at the scene and another is on the way. Crews are constructing an additional check line between St. Mary’s and Mountain Village to protect nearby Native allotments. Other lines are being reinforced. Some firefighters are traveling by boat upriver to protect fish camps.

Temperatures have dropped by more than 10 degrees since Friday. The wind has also dropped from gusts up to 30 mph to 18 mph over the past day. Clouds have also formed, and mostly cloudy skies are forecast through the end of next week. A low pressure front moving in from the west could begin blowing the fire away from the communities.

“So we’re feeling pretty confident. We have a good plan in place. We’re here for the long haul,” Butteri said.

The historically large tundra fire has reached 108,347 acres, nearly doubling in size from the BLM’s estimate of the day before. The number of personnel responding to the fire has more than doubled to 180 people, compared to 71 on Friday. More firefighters are expected to arrive on Monday.

Over 700 people live in St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point. Many have chosen to travel to Bethel on flights coordinated by local Tribes, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, and regional airline Yute Commuter Service. The people leaving are mostly Elders, mothers with young children, and people with health conditions.

They are being housed in Bethel at the National Guard Armory and Gladys Jung Elementary School. Donations can be dropped off at the Women’s Care and Support Center, located next to the Prematernal Home on Chief Eddie Hoffman Hwy, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. "Items that are currently being requested include juice, unopened snacks, new kids toys and new toasters," YKHC wrote on its Facebook page.

Corrected: June 11, 2022 at 6:42 PM AKDT
This story originally said that food donations could be taken to the Gladys Jung Elementary School kitchen. That information is incorrect. Donations can be dropped off at the Women’s Care and Support Center, located next to the Prematernal Home on Chief Eddie Hoffman Hwy, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. "Items that are currently being requested include juice, unopened snacks, new kids toys and new toasters," YKHC wrote on its Facebook page.
Anna Rose MacArthur is the KYUK News Director. She has worked at KYUK since 2015 and previously worked at KNOM in Nome, Alaska.
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