Rainy weather tamps down fires near St. Mary’s for now as officials warn of flammable conditions in Interior

Smoke rises from a fire in trees. Red lines of retardant can be seen along the flanks of the fire. Yellow rain flies mark where firefighters camp’s are locate
Smoke rises from the Aggie Creek Fire on Friday afternoon. The red lines of retardant can be seen along the flanks of the fire. The yellow rain flies mark where firefighters camp’s are located. (Tim Whitesell/Division of Forestry)

Fire officials say dry conditions paired with forecasted lightning storms mean that Interior Alaska is a likely spot of new wildfires over the weekend.

“It may not immediately strike a fire,” Division of Forestry spokesperson Sam Harrel said of the lightning, “but the potential for it to smolder for a couple of days and then come back on a bluebird sunny day is very real.”

He said lightning is typical in the Interior. But, with little rain so far this summer, the forests are particularly flammable. He said crews from Alaska and the Lower 48 are on standby. They’ve already responded to a few fires in recent days and were able to keep the flames away from property.

“I hate to say we’re waiting for the boot to drop or the lightning to fall, but that’s kind of where we’re at,” Harrel said. 

Statewide, there are about 90 fires burning, 13 of them staffed with firefighters and the rest being monitored. 

Among the fires is one called the Iowithla River Fire that firefighters are working to contain nine miles from Dillingham.

The largest fire is still the massive East Fork Fire that has spread across more than 150,000 acres of tundra in Southwest Alaska. Light rains tamped down the fire overnight and into early Friday as firefighters built containment lines to protect the nearby community of St Mary’s. 

Officials said there’s no immediate concern that the fire could reach the village, and on Friday they lifted a warning to residents about potential evacuations. 

But residents said smoke was still lingering in the area, even as those who evacuated to Bethel last week started to return home. 

RELATED: Southwest Alaska fire evacuees start returning home, but changing climate presents lingering risks

Speaking on Friday morning, St. Mary’s City Manager Walton Smith said smoke had cut visibility to about three miles. 

“From where I’m living, in fact, I can stand out on this porch and see all the fire,” he said. “A lot of it’s coming behind ridges. I don’t see the flame. But yeah, I can see it pretty easily.”

He said smoke had died down substantially since Thursday, when he could hardly see the half mile across the Andreafsky River.

He said he hopes people will remain cautious.

“I want to make sure that people realize that it means you can’t forget about it and not think you might have to evacuate just that the probabilities are lower,” he said. 

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation paid for about 50 residents who had evacuated to Bethel last week to return to St. Mary’s and neighboring Mountain Village on Thursday. But most residents chose not to leave their homes, even as flames reached within 3.5 miles of St Mary’s.

St. Mary’s resident Theresa Joe said she stayed to take care of her brother and elderly parents. She said even though official warnings have been lifted, she’s keeping her things packed. She and her parents plan to flee upriver in their boat if the fire kicks back up. 

“Frozen food and the dried food are in five gallon buckets and our clothing and blankets is stuffed inside plastic bags,” she said. 

Officials say while recent rain helped slow the fire activity, the region needs a lot more to end the fire threat. Alaska Interagency Coordination Center spokesperson Jacob Welsh said only about a 100th of an inch of rain fell around St. Mary’s.

“It moderates fire activity and keeps it from being as active but the tundra is still dry, the fields out there are dry, so it’s still carrying through the tundra and through the spruce trees,” he said. 

There’s only scattered rain in the forecast in the next few days. Welsh said the fire will likely continue to burn to the north until there’s a substantial rainfall. 

RELATEDAlaska never saw large tundra fires like the East Fork Fire until climate change provided more fuel

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@gmail.com.

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