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Yukon River breakup posing few problems so far

FAIRBANKS -- All is quiet on Yukon River breakup front, and that's fine by the people who live along the banks of Alaska's largest and longest river.

"We all feel better now," Ann Millard of Eagle wrote in an email after the ice went out in Eagle on Saturday without so much as a whimper.

Many of the town's 150 residents witnessed the event. Eagle is at the end of the Taylor Highway, about 10 miles from the Canada border. It is the first of 20 villages that sit on the river's banks in Alaska.

After eight months of snow and ice, breakup is always greeted with enthusiasm in Eagle, Millard said. The school has a contest to see who can guess the day and time. Residents speculate about when the river will break up and what the chances are for ice jams, she said. River watching is a favorite springtime activity.

Villagers stood along the riverbank or sat on their front porches and watched the ice go out.

"People were watching from the porch of the (Falcon Inn Bed & Breakfast in downtown Eagle) all the way upriver to the Old Village," Millard said of a 5-mile stretch of river that separates the town's two villages. "What made it unusual this time is that we were all visible to each other.

"All the trees were gone and you could see (everybody)," she said.

The trees that used to line the riverbank, as well as the houses that were tucked among them, were washed away in a breakup flood two years ago that devastated the town. More than a dozen homes were destroyed after the river swelled as a result of a week of record-warm temperatures in late April and early May. Huge ice chunks were pushed over the river bank, lifting houses off their foundations.

Given the ice conditions, the cool weather this spring, an above-average snow pack, and the low water level at freeze-up, the general opinion among Eagle residents was that this year would be an easy break-up, Millard said.

So far, so good.

Breakup on the Alaska portion of the Yukon River, which comprises 1,265 of the river's 1,980 total miles, takes anywhere from two to three weeks, depending on the weather. By Monday afternoon, the "breakup front," as experts at the National Weather Service's Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center in Anchorage call it, had traveled approximately 130 miles downriver from Eagle and was about 30 miles upstream of Circle.

At this point, chances of flooding in all those villages are low, hydrologist Jim Coe at the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center in Anchorage said.

"There's not a whole lot of water upstream at this point," Coe said. "We haven't had a lot of snow melt because it's been cool. We haven't had a huge push (of water) come down yet."

The River Forecast Center has teams monitoring breakup on both the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers. Each team consists of a representative from the National Weather Service and one from the Department of Homeland Security Emergency Operations. The teams survey the rivers from the air each day to track the progression of breakup and spot ice jams on Alaska's two longest rivers.

On Sunday, the breakup front moved 30 miles in a matter of five hours at one point, leading experts to speculate it could reach Circle by Monday.

"Then it slowed way down," Coe said.

There is about 15 miles of broken ice chunks upstream of the breakup front but there's not much ice coming downstream behind that, Coe said. Downstream, the ice appears to be deteriorating all the way to Fort Yukon, he said.

"Once it goes it may go pretty fast for a while," Coe said. "I don't think there's going to be much past Circle that's going to hold it."

The Yukon River ice at Tanana was reported to be solid on Monday. Farther downstream, the ice between Ruby and Galena was reported to be hard and white with a little blue in places as of late last week.

While the breakup on the Yukon River has been quiet, that hasn't been the case on the Kuskokwim. An ice jam downstream of Crooked Creek was causing major flooding in that village, lifting several houses on the town's main street off their foundations, according to the National Weather Service. The road to the village's airport was also inundated.

A flood watch was issued by the National Weather Service for areas downstream of Crooked Creek.

Breakup on the Tanana River was stalled at Manley. Ice shifted some on Monday morning but was still in place with the water slowly rising. The Tanana River went out in Nenana last Wednesday.

The Koyukuk River in the Brooks Range north of Fairbanks has yet to begin breaking up. The ice is still reported to be solid at Bettles, Coe said.

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