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Deep flooding expected at Fort Yukon

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Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 1:30 pm | Updated: 12:54 pm, Thu May 30, 2013.

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1:30 p.m. Tuesday:

FAIRBANKS — Fort Yukon residents took emergency measures Tuesday afternoon as they braced for the inevitable breakup front of the Yukon River.

A mandatory curfew for children 18 and younger was instituted and everyone living in low-lying areas of the town were asked to evacuate to emergency shelters or to houses on higher ground, said Velma Carroll, village flood coordinator. Hunters also were called back into town.

On Tuesday evening, after reconnaissance flying by the National Weather Service ceased around

9 p.m. two Fort Yukon men, Anthony Carroll and Tony Peter, were dispatched with satellite phones to an area upriver of the town, known as 9-Mile, as lookouts, Carroll said.

“The area has very, very high banks, so if the river breaks, we’ll have an hour and a half to move to high ground.”

A dozen or so residents were keeping watch on the village riverbank as ice chunks started floating by beginning about mid-evening.

“What we’re seeing now is from a sheet of ice 7 miles upriver that has broken,” Carroll said.

Earlier in the evening, fly-overs spotted an opening estimated at 100 to 200 feet wide on the north bank of the huge ice jam located approximately 12 miles upriver from the village.

Carroll said everyone is hoping the flow of ice chunks will work through the solid ice sheet about 5 miles downriver from the village and alleviate some of the built up water pressure.

“That would be the best-case scenario,” she said.

The town meeting, which included representatives from the city, village, utilities, health clinic and the Alaska Commercial store, also sent a disaster declaration to the governor, Carroll said.

National Weather Service satellite images show a large lake building up behind the ice jam. The jam could break at any time, said hydrologist Ed Plumb with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

“It could go now. It’s hard to say,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “We didn’t think it would last this long with all the water building up behind it. The only thing you can do now is keep monitoring it and make sure the people in the community are prepared.”

Fort Yukon, which is about 150 miles north of Fairbanks, began to see flooding in low-lying parts of town Monday when the Yukon River poured over its banks. The old tank farm, baseball field and part of the old cemetery were reported to be under water on the west side of town, and a few residences were taking on water.

Fort Yukon police officer Sgt. Peter Hawbaker said water levels began dropping Tuesday morning but everyone is expecting it to get worse when the ice breaks.

“The water level has dropped three inches since yesterday morning, but we’ve heard there’s an ice jam upriver. When that lets go, things could get interesting,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Everybody knows that the worst may be yet to come.”

In addition to the surge when the ice jam finally breaks, Plumb said, there’s a chance that the flooding could get caught on iced-over downriver sections of the Yukon River. That could cause more flooding in the wake of the surge.

“Regardless when the jam breaks, the water will rise in Fort Yukon,” he said. “The worst case scenario is another jam will build up.”

The later-than-usual breakup could exacerbate flooding conditions, he said, as the temperatures abruptly jump into the 60s and ice and snowpack begin to melt at once.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics. Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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