East Fork Fire nearing St. Mary’s

The largest wildfire in Alaska thus far this summer is less than five miles away from St. Mary’s, and some residents have begun voluntarily evacuating.
Published: Jun. 10, 2022 at 6:22 PM AKDT
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ST. MARY’S, Alaska (KTUU) - The largest wildfire in Alaska thus far this summer is less than five miles away from St. Mary’s, and some residents have begun voluntarily evacuating although there is no emergency evacuation order at this time.

The East Fork Fire began on May 31 due to a lightning strike. Driven by dry conditions and winds, the fire has grown to over 50,000 acres burned — greater than 20% of the total acreage wildfires have burned in Alaska this year — as both Alaskan wildland firefighting crews and smokejumpers from the Lower 48 have converged on St. Mary’s in an attempt to protect the village. The Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service has been coordinating the response, but an incident management team will take over Saturday morning.

“It’s a very large fire. So we’re kind of in a defensive posture right now, we are building dozer line, we have two crews that are fortifying that firebreak around St. Mary’s and the neighboring village of Mountain Village,” Fire Service Spokesperson Beth Ipsen said. “It’s it’s a low intensity burn, but it has the potential to move pretty quickly.”

According to the fire service post about the East Fork Fire, the fire crossed the Andreafsky River on Tuesday. Residents of St. Mary’s and nearby Pitka’s Point have been issued the “ready” notification of possible evacuation. Ipsen said that is the main concern, because St. Mary’s sits on the west side of the Andreafsky River. Ipsen said that two crews were currently in St. Mary’s, and two more were on their way.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy took to Twitter on Friday to announce that he would issue a disaster declaration for the Lower Yukon Regional Education Attendance Area.

Ipsen said that smokejumpers have been traveling by boat to nearby Alaska Native land allotments and fish camps to engage in defensive measures to attempt to protect the properties.

“There’s a concern because these winds have been relentless, since we’ve been out here and they’re blowing out of the north, sometimes the northeast,” Ipsen said. “That’s pushing the fire in the direction of the villages. And with the winds, kind of pushing the fire through what’s mostly predominantly tundra grass, and a lot of it’s still dead. There’s been some rapid fire growth.”

The fire service lists the villages of St. Mary’s, Pilot Station, Pitkas Point and Mountain Village as the nearby communities of concern. Smoke in the air has been bothering residents, according to St. Mary’s School District Superintendent Dee Dee Ivanoff.

“I’m just relieved that we got elders and our high risk community members out,” Ivanoff said. “We moved about 80 people yesterday, today we’ll probably move another 30. We’re trying to get people out before our road to the airport could get shut off.”

Ivanoff grew up in St. Mary’s and moved back two years ago. She has since become Superintendent of the St. Mary’s School District. Ivanoff said that the high school gym — recently built in 2016 — has become the main station for the fire crews in the village.

“Being the leader of this district, I fear for school. It’s pretty much the hub of the community, and I’m glad that we are able to assist the fire crew and their incident commanders to oversee and hopefully stop and keep this from coming into town,” Ivanoff said. “I’ve seen a lot of tears. You know, there are there are community members that are scared that have come to me and cried just in fear of you know, I’m going to lose my home.”

Smoke in the air from the East Fork Fire near the lower Yukon River.
Smoke in the air from the East Fork Fire near the lower Yukon River.(Photo credit Sylvia Nerby)

Of the over 231,000 acres of Alaska that have burned in wildfires this year, the East Fork Fire has consumed over 50,000 of those. A flight restriction was issued Wednesday to help clear the airspace for forestry planes dropping water and retardant.

“People have been getting gasoline and groceries and getting ready. Right now we’re considered in the ready stage,” Ivanoff said. “There are a number of community members that are choosing not to leave, we’ve had maybe about eight to 10 boat loads of people leave to either camps or villages below us.”

Ipsen said that lines of retardant had been dropped by planes between the dozer line and the village, hoping to slow the fire if it reaches that point.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, Alaska currently has 18 of the 24 large fires burning in the U.S.

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