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With burn area around lower Yukon River villages secure, fire officials lift warning preparing residents to have belongings packed

East Fork Fire map, June 17, 2022. The map shows black containment line–where fire officials are confident the fire will not cross again. The red boundary line on the map is where the fire is still active. The green lines on the map show the Andreafsky Wilderness boundary.
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East Fork Fire map, June 17, 2022. The map shows black containment line–where fire officials are confident the fire will not cross again. The red boundary line on the map is where the fire is still active. The green lines on the map show the Andreafsky Wilderness boundary.

Fire crews have contained most of the burn area near lower Yukon River villages threatened by a historic tundra fire. Federal responders say they have contained nearly 67% of the fire boundary near the communities of St. Mary’s, Pitkas Point, Pilot Station, and Mountain Village.

With the area around the villages secured, officials lifted the Ready warning at 10:30 a.m. that urged residents to have essential belongings packed in case of evacuation.

“You’ll see the fire has not really many places to go except for north,” Alaska Incident Management Team Operations Section Chief Karen Scholl said at a community meeting in St. Mary’s on Friday.

At 153,271 acres, the fire is the largest in Alaska and the largest the region has ever recorded. It’s burning less than four miles from the closest community of St. Mary’s. Another, smaller fire is burning nearby, 24 miles north of Mountain Village at 66,959 acers. Both have grown by about 3,000 acres to the northwest since Thursday.

About half the people who had flown to Bethel to escape the fires flew back home on Thursday and more are continuing to return. St. Mary’s School Superintendent Dee Dee Ivanoff is coordinating the school bus to pick up residents after they land. She welcomed them home during the community meeting.

“It’s good to see everyone, but I also want to remind you that the smoke up there is terrible, and if you do have health issues, please take care of yourself,” Ivanoff said.

Many of the people who left did so because of health conditions. The smoke is expected to persist for a long time, and all of Southwest Alaska remains under a smoke advisory until Saturday.

Light rain fell in recent days and this weekend scattered rain showers and thunderstorms are forecast. But officials warn that significant rainfall is needed to reduce the fire threat.

“We’re still concerned. We’re not going to say that this fire is done just because we’ve had a couple days of good weather, but it certainly is looking better over here than it was before,” Bureau of Land Management Fire Analysist John Kern said at the community meeting.

The full fire crew of 241 personnel will be in the area until the end of next week and then will reduce.

“We’re already working on putting together a smaller organization that can remain for as long as needed to help keep your communities and you lands safe,” Bureau of Land Management Incident Commander Peter Butteri said at the community meeting.

The fires are causing village residents to worry about food security. As the land smokes, the Yukon River is closed to salmon fishing for the second year in a row because of low runs.

“This is going to dramatically affect our moose habitat, and with no fishing for our people, moose is going to be really important,” St. Mary’s resident Eric Winegarth said at the meeting.

He urged fire officials to consider the areas along the Yukon River tributaries as they plan their fire response, saying the river banks are important sources of shade and insects for fish habitat.

He said areas important to bird nesting and berry picking have already burned.

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