Fire threatens Tyonek, moves to Beluga

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Division of Forestry. Fire nears the village of Tyonek on Tuesday.

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Division of Forestry. Fire nears the village of Tyonek on Tuesday.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

A wildfire threatening Tyonek took a turn for Beluga on Tuesday, offering some relief to a community that has been anxiously watching the blaze jump the Chuitna River on the north edge of town, but renewed fear that it might now reach the neighboring community 10 miles away.

“They kind of contain it then it jumps, it flares up over the place. You talk to the firefighters and they say it’s a hard type of fire to deal with because it’s so spotty and so quick,” said Donita Slawson, Tyonek tribal administrator. “It’s been jumping back and forth on the Chuitna River. Once they think they got it under control then it hops somewhere else unexpectedly. I’ve never seen a fire of this magnitude. It’s almost out then it’s like you can just see the fire and flames moving again.”

“It feels like a dream, it really does,” she said — a bad one.

Slawson called 911 to report the fire Monday afternoon, after power flickered in the village and residents went outside to see quickly growing billow of smoke.

The fire was estimated at 10 acres initially, but strong winds helped it spread to 350 acres by Monday evening, and reportedly over 1,000 acres by Wednesday morning.

The Division of Forestry dispatched helicopters and air tankers to work the fire from above, and more than 70 personnel are fighting it on the ground, including help from Central Emergency Services in Nikiski. Even villagers are pitching in, helping clear and strengthen firebreaks. Swanson said Tuesday she was looking out her window and saw two village women working with the crew on a fire truck going past her house.

“Whatever we can do,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Alan Boraas. A wildfire in Tyonek makes a dramatic sight to air commuters between Kenai and Anchorage on Tuesday.

Photo courtesy of Alan Boraas. A wildfire in Tyonek makes a dramatic sight for air commuters between Kenai and Anchorage on Tuesday.

Winds have been strong and shifting suddenly in the area, causing the fire to head north toward Beluga on Tuesday evening. Firefighters scrambled to reposition away from Tyonek to try and block the burn from reaching the community. By Tuesday night the fire was reported as being within two miles of town.

Before the fire shifted away from Tyonek, many in the village evacuated. Those with health problems and many of the elders flew out of town. Others retreated to a timber camp a few miles from town and fishing camps along the beach. Planes and helicopters flew in shipments of donated food and supplies Tuesday.

“It’s so incredible how people just pull together,” Slawson said. “We’re just a little village over here, but people have really come through to help save Tyonek. I’m just amazed and we’re just so thankful for everything.”

Fire crews have been working in shifts, and so have villagers to help keep them fed and provide them places to rest. Slawson herself got less than three hours of sleep Monday night, she said.

“This (Tuesday) morning the firefighters were telling our people, ‘We just so much appreciate your hospitality and everything you’ve done for us.’ Everybody just started cooking for them, making coffee and whatever was needed, whatever they could do,” Slawson said. “And the girls looked at the guys and said, ‘We’re thankful for you. You guys are helping us.’”

An account had been opened at Wells Fargo by the Tebughna Foundation to accept donations for food and supplies for displaced residents and firefighters.

Dry, windy conditions are expected to continue throughout the week, though winds were expected to lessen.

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