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The Yup'ik people of St. Mary's, Alaska, are working to save their village from fire

Mike Joe Sr. and family are packed and ready to evacuate St. Mary's if necessary. The family plans to cross the Yukon River by boat and camp if they have to leave their home.
Katie Basile
Mike Joe Sr. and family are packed and ready to evacuate St. Mary's if necessary. The family plans to cross the Yukon River by boat and camp if they have to leave their home.

A historically massive wildfire is threatening four Yup'ik villages on the Yukon River in southwestern Alaska.

On Sunday, the fire was within approximately three and a half miles of one of those villages and many people had evacuated. Residents who chose to stay are pitching in to keep their community from burning.

The Joes and Tais are an intergenerational family of 11. They share a home on a hill in the village of St. Mary's. It overlooks the Yukon and Andreafsky Rivers, which are currently bathed in thick smoke.

Grandfather and Elder Mike Joe Sr. says his family is staying as long they can, because he thinks leaving would be hard on the kids. But he says it wasn't an easy decision. He gestures out the window.

"Nobody wants to see smoke and loneliness out there," said Joe.

He says he's prepared to evacuate if the fire reaches his backyard.

"We got the boats all ready, got our grub and everything," said Joe.

Most of the family's possessions are packed in their boat at the harbor. Their food is next to the front door, staged in 5 gallon plastic buckets with handles they can grab in case they need to run out the door.

Members of the Afcan and Thompson family ready their possessions to evacuate by boat in St. Mary's, Alaska.
/ Katie Basile
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Katie Basile
Members of the Afcan and Thompson family ready their possessions to evacuate by boat in St. Mary's, Alaska.

Their plan is to boat across the Yukon River and camp out until it's safe to return.

Local officials estimate about half the community of about 600 evacuated on Thursday and Friday. Evacuation flights were offered to elderly and vulnerable people the first two days. Others left by boats bound for downriver villages or fish camps. So far, evacuations have been optional, but that could change.

St. Mary's and its neighboring Yukon river villages of Pitkas Point, Mountain Village and Pilot Station are only accessible by river boat or small plane. They sit in Alaska's Yukon Kuskokwim Delta.

Climate scientist Rick Thoman with the University of Alaska Fairbanks says that at 190 square miles, this is the biggest tundra wildfire the region has ever seen, and the second largest tundra wildfire in Alaska in over 40 years.

Residents and firefighters are clearing brush to try to stop structures from burning if fire nears

As this historic fire burns, St. Mary's residents who stayed behind are banding together to try to stop it from burning their village.

Mike Joe Sr.'s grandson, Cameron, is a 17-year-old who just finished his junior year of high school. Over the weekend, he joined the community's remaining able-bodied men to clear brush around key structures so they won't burn if the fire reaches town.

"They had the older men cut down trees and the younger ones dragged the trees onto the side of the road, and we'd bring it down to the river and we'd dump all the trees in the water, and we'd go back up and haul and keep going back and forth," Cameron said.

He said doing this work gave him mixed feelings.

"It was really good to see most of the community and most of the men who live here work together. It was fun, but it is kinda scary. But we're being cautious and we at least did a little something for our community. And I just pray and hope that nothing gets any worse than this," said Cameron.

Pamela Tai and her son Chase Tai embrace in the kitchen while Pamela prepares dinner for firefighters. Women in the community have organized to feed up to 160 firefighting personnel who have flown in to fight the East Fork Fire.
/ Katie Basile
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Katie Basile
Pamela Tai and her son Chase Tai embrace in the kitchen while Pamela prepares dinner for firefighters. Women in the community have organized to feed up to 160 firefighting personnel who have flown in to fight the East Fork Fire.

On the opposite side of the house, Cameron's mom was doing her part too. Pamela Tai stood next to steaming pots of food. She was in the kitchen for much of the day on Saturday, preparing food for firefighters. Over 130 have arrived in town. Goulash was on the menu.

"I make it with love, honey, with love. So when they eat, they fill themselves up with lots of love," Tai said.

Many local women like Tai have been volunteering their time to cook for the firefighters, lugging meals to a makeshift distribution center each evening. From there, the food gets sent to firefighters' camps on the outskirts of town. There, they've been focusing on digging deep lines of defense in the surrounding tundra to try to prevent the fire from reaching town.

Other residents have been pitching in to deliver donations of bottled water from a GoFundMe and a local Tribal Health center. Most of the water has been sent upriver to the village of Pilot Station, where running water has been intermittent since their tank sprung a leak.

Firefighters clear a fire break outside of St. Mary's, Alaska, on Saturday.
/ Katie Basile
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Katie Basile
Firefighters clear a fire break outside of St. Mary's, Alaska, on Saturday.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy submitted a disaster declaration for the fire on June 10, 11 days after it began. The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center is managing the fire suppression efforts. A spokesperson for the center says 40 more firefighters are expected to arrive on Monday.

Climate change is exacerbating conditions that make wildfires more likely

The fire started when a bolt of lightning struck the tundra, but the conditions that have allowed it to spread so rapidly were created by climate change, according to Thoman, the climate specialist.

Over the past century, Alaska's Yukon Kuskokwim Delta has warmed three times as quickly as the lower 48 states, he said.

He says the weather in the past week has skewed hot, dry and windy, which is unusual for Southwest Alaska at this time of year.

"What we really need is a nice Bering Sea storm to come in and produce a couple of days of cloudy, cool, wet weather. And that is not on the horizon," Thoman said.

Besides this fire, which officials have dubbed the East Fork Fire, there are more than 20 fires burning around the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, several of which are less than 15 miles from villages.

Copyright 2022 KYUK

Olivia Ebertz