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Evacuees from St. Mary's arrive in Bethel, as tundra fire gets closer to town

Olivia Ebertz
A National Guardsman prepares cots at the Bethel Armory.

Behind a thin, white sheet, a makeshift clinic set up by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) gave COVID-19 tests and health checks to evacuees arriving from fire-threatened St. Mary's and Pitkas Point.

Mothers with children waited on the other side of the sheet, along with Elders and people with health conditions. Veronica Babich waited with her six children, whose ages ranged from six months to young teenagers.

Olivia Ebertz
“It's very stressful. Especially not knowing where we're going, what we're doing, what's gonna happen when we'll be back how, you know, if our stuff is still gonna be there. One of my dogs is pregnant and is due any minute,” Babich said.

Babich said that she had very little time to get ready to leave St. Mary’s.

“Like two minutes before a car came to pick us up. And she was just about to nap. He was just about to nap,” Babich said.

Evacuees from St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point began arriving in Bethel on June 9. The tribes worked with YKHC to provide a way out for residents who wanted to leave due to age or health issues.

Regional airline Yute Commuter Service (YCS) canceled most of its flights yesterday, sending its fleet to St. Mary’s to shuttle about 80 evacuees to Bethel.

It was hot and windy at the National Guard Armory in Bethel, the same conditions that have allowed tundra fires to grow and persist in Southwest Alaska. Evacuees came in on shuttle vans as more YCS planes flew overhead.

Babich said that she's worried about what could happen to her home and dogs while she’s gone. It sits on a hill near the tundra, closest to where the fire is burning.

“It's very stressful," she said. "Especially not knowing where we're going, what we're doing, what's gonna happen, when we'll be back. How, you know, if our stuff is still gonna be there. One of my dogs is pregnant and is due any minute."

Babich said that nobody in town can care for her dogs while she’s gone, so she’s hoping to get home soon.

Olivia Ebertz
Cots set up in the National Guard Armory in Bethel.

Behind the Babich family, Army National Guardsmen cleared a dusty Christmas tree out of a fluorescent-lit conference room and set up cots in its place. They pulled creased bedding out of plastic packaging.

Back in the waiting room, a family leaned up against an empty Pepsi machine. Two kids, 13-year-old Andrea and 11-year-old Dion, accompanied their Elder grandmother to Bethel. They said that they’re experiencing a range of emotions, but Andrea is glad that she’s not in St. Mary’s right now.

Olivia Ebertz
Caroline White and her two grandkids Andrea and Dion are glad to be in Bethel, away from the smoke in St. Mary's.

“Because it'll be too smoky. Unhealthy for us,” Andrea said.

She described the last 10 days.

“Really smoky and kind of scary. I'm scared of if the fire will reach St. Mary’s,” said Andrea.

Her brother Dion and his friend hung out nearby. Dion said that he’s having a good time in Bethel.

“Because I got my friend here,” he said.

He said that it’s like a free vacation, but his sister objected.

“It’s not free! It’s scary,” said Andrea.

The boys’ plan?

“Stay up all night,” Dion said.

Outside the armory, some evacuees waited for cab rides to the store. Many said that they didn’t have time to think about packing food. Alison Johnson was one of those, who is now in Bethel with her 11-week-old baby.

“His name is Francis. He’s not very happy right now,” Johnson said.

He’s her first child. She said that she’s used to getting much more help with the baby from her family in St. Mary’s. Her parents, sisters, nieces, and nephews are still in the village. She said that she was anxious about whether the rest of her family would be able to leave.

Back in St. Mary’s, the fire has come within 5 miles of the village. Remaining residents are being asked to pack their emergency supplies and prescriptions in case they need to evacuate.

This story has been updated with new information about the proximity of the fire.

Olivia Ebertz is a News Reporter for KYUK. She also works as a documentary filmmaker. She enjoys learning languages, making carbs, and watching movies.
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