Half of Pilot Station is without running water as tundra fire nears

smoke on the tundra
Smoke from the East Fork Fire fills the air over the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on June 11, 2022 in Southwest Alaska. (Katie Basile/for KYUK)

About half of the Southwest Alaska community of Pilot Station is without running water as a historically large tundra fire burns to its north.

By Monday, the East Fork Fire burned about 12 miles from the village, and the Pilot Station mayor said he may soon have to turn off running water to the entire community of roughly 750 residents.

“It’s been pretty hectic,” said Mayor Art Heckman Sr.

Heckman Sr. said he’s been watching the water level dwindle in the city water storage tank. City workers believe there’s a leak somewhere in the water system, but the community doesn’t have the heavy equipment to find it. The city has begun rationing water.

“If it gets to a point that we’re losing too much water into the ground we need to completely shut off,” said Heckman Sr.

The goal is to try to keep enough water in the storage tank to serve each resident’s basic needs. The city would distribute it from a watering point.

The community has been experiencing water issues for years. But it recently reached a tipping point.

About half the town lost access to running water about a month ago. That’s the old half of the system built more than four decades ago. The other half was replaced in 1997. The high school is on the older part of the system and does not have running water. That’s been a problem because summer school was still in session through last week. And now there are 47 fire personnel staying at the school while responding to the East Fork Fire.

About half the village’s homes are also without running water, including Heckman Sr.’s. Six to eight people sleep under his roof, and he hauls water for all of them from his daughter’s house. She lives in the half of town with running water.

“We have a truck that we use, but it’s still, you know, a lot of work,” said Heckman Sr.

He estimates that his family uses eight to 12 gallons of water a day for drinking, cooking and washing dishes. He said they are forgoing showers and using their steam bath instead.

The nearby village of St. Mary’s also has a leak in its tank that it can’t find, but many of its residents left as the tundra fire has come within approximately 4 miles of the village. It’s the closest community to the fire. Since then, their water level has gone up. Still, the city manager is urging residents to conserve their water. He’s asked them not to soak their homes.

RELATED: St. Mary’s residents pitch in to keep their village from burning

St. Mary’s has received over 60 cases of donated bottled water. Most of the water was donated with money raised from a GoFundMe page, which was organized by a woman from Tuluksak. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation donated additional water, but most of the water was sent upriver to Pilot Station. The tribe distributed it to residents on June 11.

Pilot Station has the funds to entirely replace its water system, but Heckman Sr. said that he doesn’t expect it will be finished for two to three years.

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