(ST MARY’S, Alaska) – Relentless northerly wind pushed the East Fork Fire within 5 miles north of St. Mary’s Friday afternoon, prompting officials to issue a Ready notification for residents in St. Mary’s and nearby Piktas Point. This warning is to urge residents of the two neighboring villages to start packing important items such as prescriptions, important documents and come up with a plan in case there an evacuation order issued in the future.
This is the first level of the Ready, Set, Go process to help residents prepare as the fire progresses toward the St. Mary’s and its southerly neighbor, Pitkas Point. Fire officials are working with state emergency management officials on identifying scenarios would cause additional levels of preparedness. A “Set” order means residents should have a bag packed with clothes, important documents, emergency supplies such as medication and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. A “Go” order means an evacuation is in progress and people need to leave the immediate area to ensure their safety. The Alaska Department of Public Safety and Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management are helping coordinate these measures.
While there is no evacuation order in place, about 80 residents – mostly elders, people with respiratory ailments and mobility issues – voluntarily relocated to Bethel Thursday with the assistance of Native, Tribal, village and city organizations. These organizations are also heavily involved in the preparedness process.
Winds gusting of up to 30 mph has pushed the fire as it rapidly burns through dry vegetation – predominately dead, dry grass underneath new green grass. The fire is also burning through the abundant brush with few spruce trees.
The BLM Alaska Fire Service Chena Hotshots and BLM AFS North Star Crew are busy fortifying a dozer line constructed to the north and east of St. Mary’s and north of Mountain Village. The communities are connected by a more than 20-mile gravel road. Firefighters are also installing a system of pumps and hose along the several miles of fire break. Air tankers dropped lines of retardant just outside St. Mary’s Thursday and Friday to moisten the vegetation inside fire breaks and greatly reduce the chance of burning. This creates a larger protective buffer around the village. The village of Pilot Station is also nearby, but is at a less risk due to distance and natural barriers such as rivers and marshes.
Two Type 2 BLM contract hand crews crews are joining the efforts today. The Big River Crew is made up of firefighters from the local villages and the Mooseheart Crew is made up mostly of firefighters from Tanana and Minto. The two crews were working on a fire near McGrath.
At last estimate, the fire has burned 50,000-acre, with 5,000 acres fire on the west side of the Andreafsky River after it crossed the river Tuesday afternoon. This has likely increased as the fire progressed 2 miles closer to St. Mary’s Friday. The fire also spotted to the east of the East Fork Andreafsky River in the past two days. These spots are much smaller and have exhibited little growth due to the wetlands in the area.
Twenty smokejumpers are using boats to shuttle around the area and protect Native allotments closer to the fire’s edge. While some Native allotments have burned, smokejumpers have so far been successful in protecting cabins and fish camps. Most of the burned area on allotments have been tundra grass with very little timber impacted so far.
BLM AFS Galena Management Zone officials are working with Tribal, Native corporation and community to ensure the safety of the community residents. The priorities on the incident are still public and firefighter safety, and protecting sites of value, including Native allotments and cabins along the Andreafsky and East Fork Andreafsky rivers as well as St. Mary’s and neighboring villages of Pilot Station, Pitkas Point and Mountain Village.
The Alaska Type 2 Incident Management Green Team will take over management Saturday morning due to its proximity to numerous Native allotments, historical sites and communities. An incident management team is mobilized during complex emergency incidents to provide a command and control infrastructure in order to manage the operational, logistical, informational, planning, fiscal, community, political, and safety issues associated with complex incidents.
For the last week, the fire has experienced significant growth late into the evening due to wind channeling south down the river drainage, pushing the fire south in between the Andreafsky River and the East Fork of the Andreafsky River. This wind also intermittently brought smoke into neighboring communities.
The area experienced red flag conditions Friday with low humidity levels and very gusty winds. A cooling is predicted to continue through the weekend as an upper-level trough moves over the area. However, the north winds are forecasted to persist and even strengthen at times as this trough moves long the Alaska Range.
A temporary flight restriction was placed over the fire area to provide a safe airspace for firefighting aircraft.
While smoke from the East Fork Fire has inundated the area, residents can also see smoke from a new wildfire, the Apoon Pass Fire (#254), burning in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge about 33 miles north of Mountain Village. Four smokejumpers deployed while two water-scooping airplanes and a helicopter dropped water on the fire’s Thursday night. The fire is estimated at more than 100 acres by Friday morning and is burning in tundra in an area with an abundance of lakes, rivers and sloughs. Despite the best efforts on the ground and in the air, the fire progressed pass the initial suppression capabilities. The smokejumpers were demobilized from the fire Friday. Instead, Galena Zone managers will monitor the fire while the focus remains on the East Fork Fire.
Contact BLM Alaska Fire Service Public Affairs Specialist Beth Ipsen at (907)388-2159 for more information.
|Acres: 49,904 acres||Start date: May 31||Cause: Lightning||Personnel: 71|
Categories: AK Fire Info