In this aerial photo provided by the BLM Fire Service in Alaska, the East Fork fire burned about 25 miles north of St. Mary, Alaska on June 2, 2022. The largest documented wildfire ever burned through the tundra in southwest Alaska. is miles from two Alaskan home villages, prompting dozens of residents with respiratory problems to evacuate voluntarily. Credit: Pat Johnson, BLM Alaska Fire Service via AP

The largest documented wildfire burning in the tundra of southwestern Alaska was within miles of two Alaskan villagers, prompting authorities on Friday to urge residents to prepare for a possible evacuation.

This came a day after dozens of elders and residents with health problems voluntarily evacuated due to smoke from a nearby fire.

Officials on Friday put the communities of St. Mary and Pitcas Point on standby, which means residents must collect important items they would like to have with them if they have to evacuate, a U.S. government spokesman said. on the ground in Alaska Beth Ipsen by text. This will be followed by “setting up” or preparing a bag for movement and departure, if the order “go” is given.

The fire engulfed dry grass, alder and willow bushes in the mostly treeless tundra, as gusts of up to 30 miles per hour (48.28 km / h) pushed the fire in the general direction of St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point, settlements in Yupik with a total population of about 700 people and about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from each other.

There are about 65 firefighters battling the blaze, with another 40 expected later Friday, Ipsen said earlier on the phone.

The fire has not spread much since Thursday and is still estimated at 78 square miles (202 square kilometers). North winds pushed the fire up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) from St. Mary’s, officials said in a late update on Friday.

Ipsen said she did not know about the lost structures.

Crews cleared bushes and other fuel from a piece of land along the path of the flames, and air tankers released a retarder between the line and St. Mary’s as another buffer. Other planes released water into the fire until another fire broke out north of the nearby community, Mountain Village.

Climate change has played a role in this historic fire, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Center for Arctic Studies at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks.

Large forest fires in the tundra in southwestern Alaska are threatening villages

In this aerial photo provided by BLM Alaska Fire Service, the east side of East Fork Fire is seen near St. Mary, Alaska, on June 9, 2022. The largest documented wildfire ever burned through the tundra in southwest Alaska is on miles from two Alaska Native villages, prompting dozens of residents with respiratory problems to evacuate voluntarily. Credit: BLM Alaska Fire Service via AP

He said that based on records from the Alaska Fire Service dating back to the 1940s, this was the largest documented forest fire in the lower Yukon Valley. There are much larger fires recorded just 50 or 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of St. Mary’s, but these burned in boreal forests.

The area where the tundra fire is burning, the Yukon-Cuscoquim delta, lost its snow cover earlier this year, leaving grass and other vegetation to dry out longer. Combined with the warmest period in the world recently in the region, it provided the perfect storm for this fire, which began with lightning on May 31.

“Climate change has not caused the thunderstorm that caused the fire, but it has increased the likelihood that environmental conditions will be receptive,” he said.

Alaska’s southwestern hub community in Bethel, about 100 miles (160.93 kilometers) southeast of St. Mary’s, is the nearest long-term weather station.

For the period covering the last week of May and the first week of June, Bethel had the warmest temperatures this year, 9 degrees F (12.78 degrees C) above the normal 48 degrees F (8.89 degrees C), Toman said.

About 80 village elders and others with health problems were transferred to the Alaska National Guard Armory in Bethel on Thursday, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Two airline companies in roadless western Alaska brought passengers to Bethel.

One of them was Yute Commuter Services, which provided 12 flights from St. Mary’s on its six-seater aircraft, said Andrew Flag, manager of the company’s Bethel station.

On Friday, he said they had been asked to supply drinking water to the community so that it could be given to firefighters.

Point St. Mary and Pitcas, located at the confluence of the Andreafski and Yukon rivers, are about 450 miles (724 kilometers) west of Anchorage.

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