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Firefighters make more headway against wildfire as winds push it away from Southwest Alaska villages

View of the East Fork Fire from the St. Mary's boat ramp on the Yukon River.
Jacob Welsh
View of the East Fork Fire from the St. Mary's boat ramp on the Yukon River.

Firefighters aided for another day by favorable winds made additional progress against a historic wildfire that had threatened several Southwest Alaska communities.

The East Fork Fire moved within 3 1/2 miles of the village of St. Mary’s on Saturday and also threatened nearby Pilot Station and Pitkas Point. A shift in winds on Monday pushed the flames away from the communities.

Another wildfire, the Apoon Pass Fire, is about 24 miles north of Mountain Village.

The East Fork Fire covered more than 200 square miles by Tuesday morning and had grown about 9 square miles since Monday.

Though progress slowed this week, the fire was still “actively burning dry fuels with wind-driven movement” on several sides, according to an update Tuesday from the Alaska Incident Management Team. Most of the fire’s growth shifted to the northeast edges this week, instead of the south, adding more opportunity for “direct firefighting on the edge,” the update said.

Crews on Monday burned an area of land near St. Mary’s that sits between the East Fork and Andreafsky River, fire officials wrote in a statement. The work will continue Tuesday to burn off any fuels in the area to slow the fire’s progress toward St. Mary’s if the wind shifts again.

No structures have been damaged.

Firefighters improved a fireline around Pilot Station on Monday and officials said crews were improving containment lines around St. Mary’s, Pitkas Point and Mountain Village on Tuesday.

Persistent dry conditions have caused the fires to spread rapidly in Southwest Alaska. The East Fork Fire was started by lightning on May 31.

A spell of favorable cool weather conditions could continue into early next week in the area, but officials said there may be slight warming on Wednesday accompanied by variable winds.

[St. Mary’s residents pitch in to help protect their village from a historic tundra wildfire]

No mandatory evacuations have been ordered, but residents in St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point were told to be prepared to leave if conditions worsen. About 145 people had voluntarily left St. Mary’s, Pitkas Point and Mountain Village over the weekend and were relocated by plane and boat to Bethel, according to a Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. update Sunday.

In Pilot Station, about half of the town was without water this week due to a leak in the aging system, as reported by KYUK.

In Pitkas Point, many of the village’s 120 residents remained in town, according to reporting by Alaska Public Media published on KYUK’s website. They are hopeful that rain and winds will prevent the fire from reaching the community.

Smoke moved into Southcentral Alaska from the fires on Sunday, but was expected to clear significantly by Tuesday afternoon.

Statewide, 250 wildfires have spread to more than 1,200 square miles so far this year. At least 60% of the fires have been caused by humans, according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center’s situation report.