Historic tundra fire spreads within 3.5 miles of St. Mary’s as another fire burns 10 miles from Sleetmute

A fire crew moves brush away from a firebreak
The Chena Hotshots fire crew works on a fire break between the East Fork Fire and the village of St. Mary’s, Alaska. June 11, 2022. (Katie Basile for KYUK)

A historically massive tundra fire is burning within approximately 3.5 miles from the lower Yukon River community of St. Mary’s, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the fire agency responding to the blaze. The fire has moved 1.5 miles closer to the community since Saturday. It has also spread eastward and is approximately 7.5 miles from Pilot Station. To the west, it is burning 18 miles from Mountain Village. A second fire is burning 24 miles north of Mountain Village. Meanwhile, a different fire is moving closer to upper Kuskokwim River communities.

“The next 72 hours are critical,” the BLM wrote in a statement on Sunday morning.

Approximately 145 people from St. Mary’s, Pitkas Point, Mountain Village, and Pilot Station have flown to Bethel where they are being housed at the National Guard Armory and Gladys Jung Elementary School. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is organizing the flights and housing. On Saturday, eight Red Cross volunteers arrived in Bethel to assist.

Other residents from the fire-threatened area have left their communities by boat to travel to fish camps or other villages. Many residents remain in the communities to protect their properties and assist fire crews. Those residents have been under a ready warning from the BLM since Thursday. The warning urges residents to pack essential belongings, like prescriptions and important documents, and plan a way to leave the communities if evacuation is needed. No evacuation orders have been issued.

Incident Commander Peter Butteri said in a video issued by the BLM on Saturday that his crew would issue an evacuation notice if the fire jumped across control lines. In another video issued Sunday, Butteri said firefighters continue working on a containment line to protect St. Mary’s, Pitkas Point, Mountain Village, and Pilot Station.

“Progress on those containment lines is good. The intent of those lines is that if the fire continues to burn towards St. Mary’s, that we could be able to burn off of that line and blunt the progression of the fire towards those villages,” Butteri said. “We’re pretty confident that we have a good plan in place for those folks.”

The number of firefighters assigned to the fire has grown to 201, and more firefighters from the lower 48 are expected to arrive Sunday.

“Biggest challenge we’re looking at right now is the fire situation around the state and starting to feel pressure on the number of resources that are available,” Butteri said.

Butteri said that he plans to hold a public meeting for the remaining residents in St. Mary’s on Monday.

Meanwhile, on the upper Kuskokwim River, a fire is burning 10 miles southwest from Sleetmute and 12.5 miles from Red Devil, according to Alaska Division of Forestry Public Information Officer Brentwood Reid. This fire began during a lightning storm on June 6 and has grown to approximately 95,000 acres. Eight smokejumpers arrived in the area on Saturday, and a 20-person hotshot crew is heading to the area on Sunday.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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