Villagers rally to put out fire on remote Bering Sea island
June 24, 2016 – Eleven Savoonga and Gambell residents used shovels and their boots to help stamp out two fires that broke out in the Saint Lawrence Island tundra a week ago. The treeless island sits on the western edge of the North American continent, roughly 140 miles off the coast of Nome in the Bering Sea. It’s closer to Russia, about 36 miles away, than the United States. There, two 300 plus acre fires broke out on the northwest portion of the island near an ATV trail the evening of June 14. Then it spread due to unseasonably warm and dry conditions that have dried out the tussocks – the tufts of grasses that grow on many parts of the island.
Gambell resident Chris Koonooka said he heard about a fire that broke out that late afternoon, but didn’t pay much attention to it at first because grass fires aren’t uncommon on the island. However, when word spread that it had grown substantially as the evening progressed, he and others from Gambell and Savoonga took to their four-wheelers and made the treacherous two to four hour ride over a mountain to where the fires were burning.
“We like the land, we travel the land. We’re going to do what we can to save it,” Koonooka said about making the long journey. Once they got there, “the flames, they were just everywhere … Some of the flames were really big and really hot.”
Water sources and methods to pump the water out were scarce so they resorted to using shovels and stomping on the flames for several hours to try to put it out. The four volunteers from Savoonga showed up a couple hours afterward because their journey took four hours to reach the fire. As the hours dragged on, Mother Nature joined the effort when the sun got low on the horizon and dew formed on the tundra, helping the volunteers put out the fire. What was left was two large mostly blackened areas.
The report of the fire was eventually relayed the next day to the BLM Alaska Fire Service’s Galena Zone that provides fire suppression for most of the western side of the Alaska. The information left on an answering machine was there was a wind-driven fire in dry tussock tundra, the locals had responded but many more were needed put out the fire. At first, Assistant Fire Management Officer Mike Roos didn’t know what to think about the report of a fire on a rocky island that sits in the middle of the Bering Sea. He had a hard time tracking down those who were involved because they were still sleeping after working on the fire until 4 a.m. It was enough information to scramble the BLM King Air to check if the tundra fires were completely extinguished or if further firefighting efforts were needed. Since they would need to fly 140 miles over open water to get to the island, it meant making sure that the plane was equipped with enough immersion suits, personal floatation devices and a life raft for everyone on the plane. Once properly equipped, Air Tactical Pilot Paul Lenmark and his passenger, Air Tactical Supervisor John Lyons, flew from Fairbanks to Galena to refuel, then stopped in Unalakleet to top off the tank just in case because they were flying over open water. Meanwhile, the BLM AFS aviation section in Fairbanks was working to outfit a load of smokejumpers in case they needed to fly out to the island.
Lyons said they eventually found the two large blackened patches of earth around 5 p.m. The first fire burned pretty hot and jumped a couple of creeks while the other was stymied by a stream. The largest was about a mile long and a half a mile wide while the smaller fire burned through a roughly half-mile by half-mile strip of land on the northwest side of the 89-mile long island.
“I was surprised to see it get that big in that environment,” Lyons said. “It looked like a star fish.”
After flying over the fire, they landed and talked to villagers in Savoonga. The weather was unusually warm at 60 degrees with a light wind. Lyons found people were really proud of the fact that locals had conquered the large tundra fires. He was also impressed with other things he found – from the subsistence lifestyle where people harvested bird eggs from the cliffs and dove for ivory, to the prospect of BLM AFS fighting a fire on the island.
“It was one of the coolest places I’ve been in Alaska,” Lyons said. “It would have been interesting for people to get on the ground and to see what it’s all about as far as fire ecology.”
Not to mention he could see the mountains of Siberia off in the distance.
~Story by Beth Ipsen, public affairs specialist at BLM Alaska Fire Service (firstname.lastname@example.org or (907)356-5511/(907)388-2159).