FORT YUKON — “We dodged a bullet here.”
Those were the words of Fort Yukon resident Walter Solomon as he and dozens of others watched slabs of river ice suspected to be from a once-menacing ice jam 12 miles up the Yukon River pass safely below the town’s levee late Wednesday night.
The 600-person Yukon River community collectively breathed a sigh of relief after many days of being on high alert for what was expected to be a serious flood.
City flood coordinator Velma Carroll had been paying close attention to the shape of the ice jam 12 miles upriver. The jam had accumulated a lake of water estimated to be 7 miles wide and 30 miles long and could have created a serious flash flood if it broke at once.
Instead, the National Weather Service spotted a roughly 200 foot-wide hole in the jam early Wednesday morning. At about 8 p.m. Wednesday, it is suspected that hole began to grow, sending more ice downriver.
Shortly after the deluge of ice appeared Wednesday night, Carroll got on the radio to tell the community that she believes the worst has been avoided.
“It’s been breaking more and more and more off from upriver,” Carroll said. “There’s no other place we have all this ice.”
Confirmation of the speculation will have to wait until this morning, when the National Weather Service conducts a flyover.
Water levels rose slightly when ice began to run, but fell considerably during the next two hours.
“We dodged a bullet,” Solomon said. “But we really still don’t know what’s coming next.”
There also was the danger of a second ice jam forming downriver from the town. Although much of the ice is believed to have started to decay with the warm weather, a jam could build up and flooding could back up into Fort Yukon. The National Weather Service, as of Wednesday evening, had a flood warning in place through early today.
Carroll said the chances of that scenario were quickly dwindling on the news that the river outside Beaver had gone out. Carroll said she believes that means there should be less ice for a second jam to build up on.
Still, Carroll said people are feeling good even though the safety is still an “educated guess.” Carroll has been working floods since 2009.
“There is a sigh of relief tonight,” she said.
The tone in the 600-person Yukon River community was somewhat relaxed Wednesday under clear skies and in temperatures well above 60 degrees even though there has been some flooding.
People could be seen returning to low-lying areas that had been flooded Monday to inspect homes. The water level has dropped at least 3 feet since it hit a high on Monday night.
Carroll estimated about eight homes were in the path of the floods, and she knew that at least five took on water. The extent of the damage still is unclear.
On Wednesday night, dozens of people lined the levee to watch the ice go out. Many told stories of flooding in 2009, 1992 and 1982.
Community member Anthony Carroll, who went upriver in a boat Tuesday night with another resident to investigate the ice jam, said much of the town has been saved from flooding thanks to a levee constructed about 15 years ago.
“If it wasn’t for the flood dikes, then three-quarters of the town would be under water,” he said. “But a foot more of water and it’d be in town.”
The levee has a few low points, he said, after years of use and four wheelers crossing it. He added that flooding isn’t as bad — so far — compared to 2009, when both the Yukon River and the Porcupine River went out at the same time.
The community has been well-prepared for flooding, Carroll said. She has helped coordinate regular community meetings, radio updates and plans to evacuate and shelter people living in downtown Fort Yukon.
The Air Force Long-Range Satellite Facility is one of the highest points in town and is being readied to house as many as 150 people as well as a clinic. The building also has its own power generation and water facilities.
“Everyone is still prepared, but there is a lot of relief,” she said. “But we’re technically realistically not out of danger at this time.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.