With no sustained rain in forecast, there's no end in sight for when the smoke will clear from upper Kuskokwim River communities
Heavier than usual smoke has blanketed upper Kuskokwim River communities in recent days. The fires burning nearby are not threatening communities or moving closer to them at this time, but the unrelenting smoke from the fires is causing poor air quality and reduced visibility.
Sleetmute Tribal Council President Ellen Yako can’t get away from the smoke. She flew to Anchorage earlier this week for her auntie’s medical appointment. In the city she couldn’t see the mountains through the haze. Now she’s back in Sleetmute where the smoke is even thicker.
“Our village is right on the river of the Kuskokwim and you couldn’t even see across the river,” she said.
About 160 fires are burning across Alaska, creating smoky conditions for large portions of the state. The Aghaluk Mountain Fire is burning about 10 miles southwest of Sleetmute and has reached over 116,000 acres.
It’s one of multiple fires in the area that have burned for nearly a month after a lightning storm ripped through the area in early June, igniting the dry landscape. No significant rain has fallen since, and with none is in the forecast, there's no end in sight for when the air will clear.
“Some days it’ll get really bad, and then it’ll get good for a couple of days, then it’ll come in again. Whole month of June has been like that,” Yako said.
Yako said that she’s worried about the Elders. The Sleetmute Tribal Office is offering free N-95 masks to residents. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation sent the masks to the village for residents to wear while cleaning buildings damaged by spring flooding. Now, the masks are being used to filter out smoke instead of mold.
Yako said that she’s comforted by the state fire crews based in Sleetmute. Firefighters are lodging in the community building and launching helicopters from the village to respond to the fires. Multiple days a week, the firefighters hold a community meeting with residents to update them on their efforts and the fire activity.
“We’re helping them out and they’re helping us out,” Yako said.
The fire crews are also injecting capital into the village of 95 people, where other forms of income are scarce. The firefighters are renting four-wheelers from residents and paying villagers to boat them around the area.
Upriver, in the community of Stony River, Tribal Council Member and Tribal Administrator Mary Willis said that ash fell from the sky on the last day of June. It coated her car and everything else. The Stony Mountain Fire is burning 20 miles to the south, spanning over 77,000 acres. She said that the smoke causes the days to end early, unusual in a land used to the midnight summer sun.
“It feels like it’s late right now,” Willis said, speaking around 1 p.m. on July 1.
The smoke hurts her nose and throat and obscures the other side of the river. She jokes with her son that they don’t need to light a fire in their smokehouse. They can just hang their salmon outside. The Stony River tribal office is also offering N-95 masks free to residents. They were originally bought to protect them from COVID-19. Now they're being used against another widespread respiratory threat.
In Aniak, the tribal office is also offering residents free KN-95 masks that were originally purchased for COVID-19. Acting City Manager Lenor “Missy” Kameroff said that she’s been staying inside a lot more with the windows closed. Usually she’s in her garden.
“Every so often I turn my fans on to get the smoke out of the house,” Kameroff said.
She didn’t want her voice recorded for a radio version of this story. She said that it was too scratchy from the smoke.
The Alaska Division of Forestry is managing the fire response in the upper Kuskokwim River area. Spokesperson Kale Casey asked that anyone with property in the area let them know its location so they can set up protections around it.
“That might be a cabin, a lodge, an allotment,” he said.
Casey said that smoke can block fire crews’ ability to see structures from the air. The team is managing 22 million acres, and wants help locating all the structures within it.
If you have a property in the fire area you want them to know about, you can call 907-290-2699 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.