People who fled the lower Yukon River tundra fires are asking when they can return home

“It’s very stressful. Especially not knowing where we’re going, what we’re doing, what’s gonna happen when we’ll be back how, you know, if our stuff is still gonna be there. One of my dogs is pregnant and is due any minute,” St. Mary’s resident Veronica Babich said at the National Guard Armory in Bethel on June 9, 2022. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

People who left communities threatened by the East Fork Fire on the lower Yukon River are asking when they will be able to return home.

“It’s going to be a personal decision and a family decision on whether it makes sense to have those folks come back,” Alaska Incident Management Team Operations Section Chief Karen Scholl said at a public meeting in St. Mary’s on Monday. “The situation is kind of fluid.”

Everyone who has left has done so voluntarily. No evacuation orders have been issued in any communities so far.

Scholl said the wind has shifted to the south and is forecast to blow the smoke away from the communities for the next seven to 10 days. People could return to their homes during that time, but the wind could shift again.

“That has to be part of the consideration: Do you want to come back, and possibly have to leave again in another 10 days or so?” Scholl said. “This fire is going to smoke and be on the landscape for a long time.”

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She said the fire might be reduced in 10 days, but the smoke will likely persist for longer.

The East Fork Fire is burning 3.7 miles northwest of St. Mary’s, 6.5 miles from Pitkas Point, and 12 miles from Pilot Station. It has grown to an estimated 129,197 acres, according to the Bureau of Land Management. A shift in the wind is pushing the fire to the northeast, away from the communities, allowing fire crews time to fortify their protections around the villages.

Another fire is burning 24 miles north of Mountain Village. The Apoon Pass Fire has grown to 43,820 acres.

St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point are under a “ready” notification from the Bureau of Land Management. 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.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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