A large tundra fire is threatening the village of St. Mary’s. The fire has been burning since the tundra was struck by lightning on May 31, and it is now within 12 miles of the community. Federal entities sent in more firefighters on June 7, and some residents are thinking about preparing their go-bags.
Elder George Beans Sr. lives on a hill in midtown St. Mary’s. He’s been smelling smoke ever since the fire began on May 31.
“It was a little uncomfortable and hard to breathe,” Beans said.
On June 7, the wind switched and gave the village a short reprieve from the smoke. But Beans can still see it, and it’s getting worse.
“There’s a lot of smoke. It’s thick over up north of us. Real thick, and it seems to be getting closer too,” Beans said.
The fire is getting both closer and larger. What the Bureau of Land Management first reported as an 1,800 acre fire around 25 miles from the village on June 3 had grown by June 7. The fire is now estimated to be 30,000 acres and is just 12 miles from the village.
“It’s been hot, it’s been dry, and it’s been windy. And those winds gusts of 20 miles per hour, it’s kind of funneled through the Andreafsky River drainage,” said Beth Ipsen, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management’s fire service.
Ipsen said that the conditions and the proximity of the fire to the village prompted officials to send in more smokejumpers and the BLM’s Chena Hotshot firefighters on June 7. Eight smokejumpers had been there since June 3. Now there are over 40 fire fighters in St. Mary’s.
The firefighters are setting up camps in town and will hike up to the site of the fire each day. The weather forecast looks hot and dry for the next few days, but Ipsen said that she hopes that changes.
“We’re trying to stall this fire. The weather is not cooperating. We’re hoping that some of the forecasted cooler temperatures pan out this weekend. And we’re hoping that Mother Nature will help us out with this,” Ipsen said.
Ipsen said that she’s not worried yet, but Beans said that he is concerned. Beans has been living in St. Mary’s for most of his life, and said that this is the biggest and most dangerous fire he had ever seen.
He said that June 7 was the first day he considered stocking an emergency bag with essentials that he can quickly take with him if he needs to leave the village in a rush.
“I instructed my family, ‘We need to get something ready here just so we can grab and go,’” Beans said.
He said that he lives just a short distance from the boat harbor, and that he plans to take his family to another village on the Yukon by boat if the fire reaches St. Mary’s.