Pitkas Point residents are hopeful that rain and shifting winds will keep their village safe

a boat on the water
View of the East Fork Fire from the St. Mary’s boat ramp on the Yukon River. (Jacob Welsh/AK IMT)

In Pitkas Point, the Southwest Alaska village about six and a half miles from the massive East Fork Fire, many residents are choosing to stay in town, despite the close flames.

That includes 63-year-old Joseph Oney, though he said he’s prepared to evacuate if things get worse. So far, he said, the biggest problem is the smoke.

“It’s been smoky the past few days,” Oney said. “The smoke’s been kind of strong for us Elders and the kids.”

The fire is the largest the region has ever seen. It was started by lightning on May 31 and has burned across about 130,000 acres of tundra, brush and black spruce.

Residents in Pitkas Point and the village of St. Mary’s have been under a “ready” warning from federal officials since last week. The warning urges residents to pack essential belongings, like prescriptions and important documents, and plan a way to leave if evacuation is needed. No evacuation orders have been issued yet, and winds shifted Monday pushing the fire away from communities.

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

Oney said he feels pretty safe, but he and his wife are prepared to leave with their grandkids if they need to.

“We got prepared in case it spreads or in case the winds pick up,” Oney said. “We got some groceries in case they send us out. Got our camping gear ready and everything.”

Susie Pete, 47, has also packed up much of her and her boyfriend’s stuff in case they need to evacuate by boat. She said they’ve been cutting down trees too.

“A lot of the trees are close to the homes,” Pete said. “It had us kind of scared.”

While Pete, Oney and other residents have chosen to stay in Pitkas Point, others have decided to evacuate on their own, said Pete.

“There’s quite a bit of the Elders that left and some that are handicapped that left,” Pete said. “I’m relatively happy that they left in case the fire comes really close, trying to rush them out, that’s going to be pretty hard.”

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

Another thing keeping residents optimistic is the wind. Jade Morrell, 22, said most of the smoke has been blowing east toward St. Mary’s.

“Most of the time. Either that or above Pitkas,” Morrell said. “It’s actually raining a little bit right now.”

Fire officials described the shift in wind on Monday as a “a significant change in the weather that will help push the fire away from communities.” More than 200 firefighters are working on the fire, and the wind shift and cooler temperatures have helped slowed the fire’s progression, officials said in a statement Tuesday morning. Though, they cautioned, the fire remains active and conditions remain dry.

Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org

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