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Eagle residents on watch for potential Yukon River flooding

Laurel Andrews

Residents of Eagle and Eagle Village along the Yukon River at the Canadian border in Interior Alaska are on alert as the mighty river slowly thaws and swells, triggering memories of the 2009 flood that devastated the communities.

The city of Eagle, population 87, sits near the bank of the Yukon River near the Alaska-Canada border, with Eagle Village, population 74, a mile away.

In 2009, a flood destroyed the old Eagle Village, which was in the process of being relocated farther away from the eroding river bank. Ice jams swept away historic cabins, and destroyed all the public buildings, including the health clinic and St. John’s Episcopal Church. Now, the village has been relocated about three miles from the original site.

Pat Sanders, National Park Service community liaison, has lived in the city of Eagle for 33 years, and has never seen anything like it.

So far this year, flooding dangers are pegged as moderate, but if temperatures warm rapidly, the towns could be in danger. On Wednesday evening, the Yukon’s ice broke up in Canada’s Dawson City, just up river.

“We learned a lot from the 2009 flood,” Sanders said. Now, “we’re going to keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.”

 “Generally when Dawson goes out it’s about 24 hours until it goes out here,” Sanders said. The breakup of ice will give water and opportunity to flow, bringing water levels down, but if ice jams occur “then we’ll face the issue of flooding.”

In the city of Eagle about 20 homes are in the potential path of flooding this year, she said. The mayor has gone from door to door, informing residents of potential dangers and asking them to be prepared. One lesson learned from 2009 is to secure and close their fuel tanks. In 2009, ice chunks heaving from the river smashed into the tanks, discharging diesel and propane into the water.

“They could smell [it] all the way down to Tanana,” Sanders said.

Scott Lindsey, service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service River Forecast Center, said that most people in Eagle have been proactive in making preparations for possible flooding. “You’ve got a mixture as far as moods go,” he said. Some folks are concerned, while others have decided to leave town although their homes may be in danger. “Most folks are sitting back and waiting.”

He said folks are being advised to gather important papers and belongings, and relocate any belongings near the river bank to higher areas.

Ann Millard, principal of the school in Eagle, lives about 30 feet above the river bank with her husband.

“We are preparing to evacuate,” she explained, “not because we’re convinced it’s going to happen, but because we’re not convinced it won’t.”

One detail they still haven’t figured out is how to protect their well. “That’s the issue for us,” she said.

In 2009, the Yukon River consumed old Eagle Village out near the Canadian border.

While their house was not destroyed in 2009, it was flooded in about 8 inches of water. They were extremely grateful, Millard said. “We didn’t know until the very end that our house had actually survived.”

Now, “people are concerned because we have several conditions that were the same as in 2009,” Millard said. 

There are two major factors that contribute to spring flooding, said Claude Denver with the Alaska Department of Homeland Security. The first is an ice jam, when ice becomes locked together on the river and acts as a dam, causing water and ice to rise up and flood the banks. The second is snowmelt, which streams down from the mountains in the spring and can overflow the river.

In 2009, a week of 70 degree weather “just turned on the tap,” Denver said. “You had all this water, all this ice that was hard and locked in place.”

This year, a slow breakup season due to colder-than-normal temperatures around the state has allowed for some melting during the day that stops during colder evening hours, mitigating some flooding risks. But the city has also gotten a lot of snow this winter, and whether Eagle floods will depend largely on how temperatures fare in the next few weeks. If temperatures rise suddenly to normal mid-May levels, in the 60s, that could cause major problems.

“Hopefully if the snowmelt flooding occurs the ice jams won’t be as intact … and [flooding] will be less likely,” Denver said.

Denver is in Eagle monitoring river conditions. He said most Eagle residents are “ready to take whatever precautions they need.”

For now, residents are waiting to see how the spring unfolds. Besides making preparations, “there’s not a lot we can do, because water does what water wants to do,” Sanders said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com