ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The largest documented wildfire to burn through the tundra in southwestern Alaska was within miles of two Alaska Native villages, prompting officials Friday to urge residents to prepare for possible evacuation.
This came a day after dozens of elderly and residents with health problems were voluntarily evacuated due to smoke from the nearby fire.
Officials on Friday put the communities of St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point on “ready” status, meaning residents must collect important items they will want to carry with them if they must evacuate, said Beth Ipsen, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land. Management Alaska Fire Service. by text. That would be followed by “set” or prepare a go bag and leave when the “go” command is given.
The fire consumes dry grass, alder, and willow bushes on the largely treeless tundra as wind gusts of up to 30 mph pushed the fire general towards St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point, Yup’ik subsistence communities with a combined population of approximately 700 people and about 10 miles (16 kilometers) apart.
About 65 firefighters are fighting the blaze, with about 40 more expected later Friday, Ipsen said by phone earlier.
The fire hadn’t gotten much bigger since Thursday and was still estimated at 202 square kilometers. The north wind pushed the fire to within 5 miles of St. Mary’s, officials said in a recent update Friday.
Ipsen said she was not aware of any structures that were lost.
Crews cleared brush and other fuel from a strip of land in the path of the flames, and air tankers dropped retarders between the line and St. Mary’s as another buffer. Other planes had spilled water on the fire until another fire broke out north of a nearby community, Mountain Village.
Climate change played a role in this historic fire, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
He said this is the largest documented wildfire in the lower Yukon River valley based on data from the Alaska Fire Department dating back to the 1940s. Much larger fires have been recorded just 50 or 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of St. Mary’s, but they have burned in boreal forests.
The area where the tundra fire is burning, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, lost its snow cover early this year, causing grass and other vegetation to dry for longer. Coupled with the warmest period recently recorded in the region, it provided the perfect storm for this blaze started by lightning on May 31.
““Climate change did not cause the thunderstorms that caused the fire, but it increased the likelihood that environmental conditions would be receptive,” he said.
The Bethel hub community in southwestern Alaska, about 160.93 kilometers southeast of St. Mary’s, is the closest long-term weather station.
For the period spanning the last week of May and the first week of June, Bethel had its warmest temperatures on record this year, 9 degrees F (12.78 degrees C) above the normal 48 degrees F (8.89 degrees C), said Thomas.
About 80 village elders and others with health problems were transferred to the Alaska National Guard Armory in Bethel on Thursday, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Two commuter companies in roadless Western Alaska have taken passengers to Bethel.
One was Yute Commuter Services, which operated 12 flights from St. Mary’s on its six-seat planes, said Andrew Flagg, the company’s Bethel station manager.
On Friday, he said they were being asked to provide drinking water to the community so it could be given to firefighters.
St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point, at the confluence of the Andreafsky and Yukon Rivers, are about 724 kilometers west of Anchorage.