FORT YUKON — An extreme sense of relief could be felt throughout Fort Yukon on Thursday afternoon, after the National Weather Service gave the all-clear for possible flooding from the Yukon River, but new sources appeared to be threatening the community late Thursday night.
Earlier Thursday, National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb and Fort Yukon flood coordinator Velma Carroll went on the air at the KZPA AM radio station in the afternoon to tell the 600-person Yukon River community 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks the good news.
“It appears the jam upriver is a non-issue at this point,” Plumb said. “And between Beaver and Fort Yukon, there’s a clear channel of water. There’s slim to no chance of a jam forming up there. ... The threat of flooding from above is over, and there’s nothing from below.”
But the relief was short-lived.
Carroll returned to the radio in the evening to notify the community that overflow water from an upriver ice jam was spotted flowing through the woods on the side of town opposite from the Yukon River.
“Here we go again,” Carroll said by phone Thursday night as she went to inspect the new source of water.
Although the National Weather Service lifted the flood alert for Fort Yukon earlier in the day, Carroll said she posted people at certain points to monitor the flood water.
“If they hit those points, we’ll know how fast it’s coming in, and we’ll have enough time to do the things that we need to do here,” she said. “We just can’t let our guard down. We have to be aware. Just because the National Weather Service lifted their flood watch doesn’t mean that the community does.”
Fort Yukon has been well-prepared for the chance of a flood with evacuation sites lined up and stocked with water, food and fuel. Many residents had packed up boxes and moved furniture off the floor in case water breached their doors.
A rigorous plan had been put together beginning in 2009, a year of serious flooding all along the Yukon River and the same year Carroll took over as the community’s volunteer flood manager. She’s been picked to continue in that role every year since then.
“Thank you to everyone in our community for pulling together,” she said over the radio earlier in the day. “We get ready for it every year, and we never know what’s going to happen.”
Before Thursday night, eyes had been on a massive ice jam 12 miles north of the community that had accumulated a lake of river water estimated to be 7 miles wide and 30 miles long. It posed a risk of creating a flood surge if it had gone out all at once.
A morning flyover by Plumb and David Lee, who is with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, showed much of the water has escaped through a 200-foot-wide crack in the jam.
That relieved the risk of flooding from the Yukon River itself, but Carroll said she believes that the new appearance of water is a result of extensive overflow from the ice jam.
The exact source of the new flooding and overflow won’t be known for certain until additional flyovers can be conducted in the morning.
Ice downriver from Fort Yukon also had posed a risk of creating a second jam, but the same Thursday afternoon flyover found clear water down river past Beaver.
When they heard the news in the afternoon, Carroll announced some much-welcomed news to the community.
“It’s safe for our elders to come home,” she said over the radio.
When breakup flooded Eagle, 170 miles upriver, last Friday, the community began evacuating elders with medical conditions. She said 10 left and some are expected back today.
Throughout Fort Yukon on Thursday afternoon, people were starting to unpack clothes, take showers and get some overdue rest.
But on Thursday night, Carroll said people were anxious and were preparing in case an evacuation is needed.
Carroll, who had been up nearly 24 hours per day since water rose Monday, said she’ll stay vigilant to ensure her community is safe and is looking forward to a warm drink when it’s all over.
“I have not had a hot cup of tea in about a week,” she said at the Fort Yukon City Hall, a note of exhaustion in her voice. “A hot cup of tea with so much sugar in it.”
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Flood watches are still in effect for much of the Yukon River down from Fort Yukon. The National Weather Service issued a flood watch from Beaver to Rampart effective through 4 p.m. today. A second flood watch is in effect through Sunday afternoon on the Yukon River from Rampart to Tanana.
The breakup front is about 40 miles north of Stevens Village, which puts the village at high risk for flooding. National Weather Service Hydrologist Ed Plumb said water had risen about 2 feet in Beaver, but it’s still below the banks.
The Yukon River still is largely frozen over near Stevens Village and Rampart, but he said ice is continuing to degrade with temperatures forecast to break 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the next few days will help decrease the chance of serious jam.
Tanana and Rampart are bracing for possible flooding, with the breakup front expected to reach lower communities this weekend.