St. Mary’s residents pitch in to keep their village from burning

A boy hugs a woman in a kitchen
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 180 firefighting personnel who have flown into fight the East Fork Fire. June 11, 2022 in St. Mary’s, Alaska. (Katie Basile for KYUK)

A historically massive wildfire is threatening four villages on the Yukon River. On June 12, the fire was within 3.5 miles of one of those villages and many people had evacuated. Residents who chose to stay have been pitching in to keep their communities from burning.

Pamela Tai stood over the stove in the home she shares with 11 family members. They’ve all chosen to stay despite the fire’s proximity to the village. Outside the kitchen window, smoke blanketed the Yukon and Andreafsky Rivers. Tai was making meatballs.

“Just makin’ my balls. Balls of glory! Hamburger balls and gravy over rice. That’s what’s for dinner,” she said.

Tai had been cooking all day. Earlier, it was a big pot of goulash. She donated that to the firefighters for dinner.

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

Like Tai, many women in St. Mary’s have been cooking for the 130 firefighters in the village, lugging meals to a makeshift distribution center each evening. From there, the food gets sent to firefighters’ camps on the outskirts of town.

A firebreak dug into the tundra with a village in the background, and the air filled with smoke
Up to 180 firefighting personnel have descended on comunities along the Yukon River to fight the East Fork Fire. A fire break is now set up between the East Fork Fire and the village of St. Mary’s. June 11, 2022. (Katie Basile for KYUK)

Out on the tundra, they’ve been digging wide lines of defense to try to prevent the fire from reaching town.

Tai’s 17-year-old son Cameron has been helping too, along with other men in the community. Older men cut down trees that younger men drag to the river. They’ve been clearing brush away from critical structures so that if the fire does reach the town, they won’t burn. Cameron said that doing this work gives 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,” Cameron said.

The fire has more than doubled in size over the past four days and is threatening St. Mary’s, Pitkas Point, Pilot Station, and Mountain Village. Climate specialist Rick Thoman said that at 121,831 acres, this is the biggest wildfire the region has ever seen and the second largest Alaska tundra fire in 40 years. Thoman said that a warming climate has contributed to this fire’s fast spread. Over the past century, the Y-K Delta has warmed three times as quickly as the lower 48.

Local officials estimate that about half the community evacuated on June 9 and 10. Evacuation flights were offered to Elders and vulnerable people the first two days. Others left by boat, bound for downriver villages or fish camps. Evacuations have been optional so far, but that could change.

A family watching coverage of the fire in their living room with dense, smoky air visible outside
Mike Joe Sr. watches a statewide news report about the East Fork Fire with his grandsons at home in St. Mary’s, Alaska on June 11, 2022. (Katie Basile for KYUK)

Grandfather and Elder Mike Joe Sr. is Cameron Tai’s grandfather and Pamela Tai’s father. His recliner is parked in front of the TV and he’s watching St. Mary’s on the local news. He said that he wants the whole family to stay as long as possible because he thinks leaving would be hard on the kids, but he said that it wasn’t an easy decision.

“Nobody wants to see smoke and loneliness out there,” said Joe Sr., gesturing out the window.

A boy flies a pink kite on a dirt road with dense smoke in the air and a village in the background
Chase Tai flies a kite outside his home in St. Mary’s, Alaska during a historically massive wildfire on June 11, 2022. (Katie Basile for KYUK)

He said that he’s prepared to evacuate if the fire reaches his backyard.

“We got the boats all ready, got our grub and everything,” said Joe Sr.

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 they can grab in case they need to run out the door. Their plan is to boat across the Yukon River and camp out until it’s safe to return.

Besides this fire, which officials have dubbed the East Fork Fire, there are more than 20 tundra fires burning around the Y-K Delta. Several are less than 15 miles from villages.

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleRent is increasing rapidly in Anchorage, and experts say the trend will continue
Next articleThe largest homeless shelter in Alaska will close this month. Many staying there aren’t sure where they’ll live next.