Here’s how tundra fire evacuees are spending their time in Bethel
Teenager Ashley Tinker says she’s getting bored. It’s a sunny and dry afternoon outside of Gladys Jung Elementary School in Bethel. The school is one of two shelters operated by the Red Cross in Bethel for about 100 people who have left their villages on the lower Yukon River as a historic tundra fire burns close to their communities. Seventeen-year-old Tinker has a few friends staying at the shelter with her, but they can’t do all their usual activities.
“Us teenagers mostly play ball, but we can’t play ball any more. We have to move to a different spot to play ball,” she said.
The court at the school is under construction, and the alternative was too far away. Instead Tinker, who evacuated last week from the Yukon River village of St. Mary’s, said that she went swimming at the pool with a group of friends. A local foundation donated taxi fares and rec center passes to give the evacuated children something to do. Tinker said that she had fun, but she’s not a big fan of the chlorine.
“The pools make my skin feel funny,” she explained.
As one of about 50 people staying at the school emergency shelter, Tinker and two siblings have had to get used to a lot of change in the past week. They’re sleeping on cots and have to turn the lights off at 10 p.m. each night, an unusual feeling for villagers used to working or playing under the midnight sun. They can come and go as they please, but have to sign in and out with volunteers from the Red Cross. There are some positives.
“The store is better here,” Tinker said.
She’s been buying Chex Mix and Spicy Cheetos at the Bethel store, where prices are cheaper than her village.
For some of the adults, the burden of not knowing what’s best for their families is weighing heavily. Tinker’s mom, Maureen Andrews, said that she decided to leave St. Mary’s a week ago when the smoke started seeping through her doorway.
“I got worried for my girls that would be sleeping all night inhaling that smoke,” Andrews said. “And it was getting lonely. People were leaving.”
Now that winds appear to be pushing the fire away from St. Mary’s, and with her kids getting antsy, Andrews is thinking of returning soon. She said that she’s been checking updates on her phone every few minutes.
“It's a risk to try to go back because the winds can change, but we really miss home,” she said.
Across town, the Red Cross is operating another emergency shelter at the National Guard Armory. Outside the shelter, George Andrews is sitting with his six kids. They’re looking over at the parched tundra.
If he were back in St. Mary’s, Andrews said that he would be busy fishing and preparing for the winter. But he can’t do that here.
“I feel helpless and kind of sad. Trying to stay strong for my kids, you know. I don’t want them to see me break down in front of them,” he said.
Instead of harvesting his food, Andrews and his family are being served meals prepared by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and Bethel Lions Club.
The first couple days, Bethel residents brought subsistence food to the shelter, like moose, dry strips, and other Native foods. Then, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation said that it could no longer accept perishable items, but said that they’re still serving subsistence meats. Andrews and the other evacuees at the armory said that they were missing home-cooked Native foods a lot.
Then, like a miracle, a red SUV pulls up and the trunk opens. It’s filled with Native foods.
“I made some akutaq, salmon spread. I cut up some muktuk [from Utqiagvik],” Bethel resident Rose Domnick describes.
Domnick is originally from St. Mary’s. Her dad died 25 years ago, and many of his siblings are staying at the Armory shelter. She also has nieces, nephews, and cousins staying there. So she decided to host a parking lot feed. It’s like a family reunion.
“We’re all here celebrating,” Domnick said.
For the people sheltering in Bethel, it’s a welcome taste of home that they hope to return to soon.