Southwest Alaska fire evacuees start returning home, but changing climate presents lingering risks

People in line wiht a bunch of bags on the grounds
Residents of Mountain Village and St.Mary’s wait for their flights home after spending a week in Bethel as evacuees from a massive tundra fire. (Katie Basile)

People were excited at the hangar for Yute Airlines at the Bethel Airport on Thursday morning. A man played the harmonica while two young children danced nearby. Children squirmed in their chairs or spun basketballs while some of the grownups talked on their phones. 

Together, there were about 20 people waiting for their names to be called for a seat on a flight back to St. Mary’s. They had left their homes, headed for Bethel, about a week ago, when the East Fork Fire crept too close and the smoke got too heavy. The Red Cross opened two shelters in Bethel to house the Alaskans who fled from the flames.

On Thursday, Elder Sabastian Cowboy was among those going home to St. Mary’s, the Yukon River community of about 600 people. He had one thing he was most excited to return to.

“My own pillow!” he said. 

Listen to this story:

A man in a green jacket sits in a red plastic chair
Sabastian Cowboy waits for his name to be called so he can return home to St. Mary’s, where he’ll chop wood for the winter and work on other house projects. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation said it has warned residents that there’s still a risk of thick smoke and shifting winds pushing the fire closer. YKHC flew about half of the evacuated residents back to their home villages but said that it doesn’t have the resources to evacuate them a second time if conditions worsen.

That’s left many St. Mary’s residents uncertain about the future.

There’s the short-term risks of winds shifting smoke back toward the village. But there’s also the long-term risks of a warming climate, which scientists say is contributing to the unprecedented fires in the region that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres already. 

RELATED: Alaska never saw large tundra fires like the East Fork Fire until climate change provided more fuel

It’s not just elders and scientists who are noticing changes. Teenager Carmen Tinker said she’s noticed things too. 

“It’s getting windier in the spring,” she said. “My Yup’ik teacher said that it used to never be windy in the spring.”

Some residents say the north winds that pushed the fire toward their community were strange for the village, which is often cooled by a coastal western breeze. Maureen Andrews, who stayed at a Bethel shelter with three kids the past week, said a warmer climate means the vegetation around St. Mary’s is changing too. 

“The trees around my home, I noticed they have gotten thicker every year,” she said.

An aerialview of the East Fork Fire from the cockpit on June 16, 2022. (Video by AK IMT/Karen Scholl.)

Bigger trees mean more fuel for fires to burn. 

Aside from the health effects of smoke, some residents are concerned about food security. Salmon fishing was closed last year and has stayed closed through this summer. Evacuating for fires in the middle of summer means less time for other subsistence work, and the fire itself disrupts harvesting.

“The fires burning all of our berry spots. I don’t know what we’re gonna do for berries this year, jeez! No fish, no berries,” said Roseanne Joe, another evacuee from St. Mary’s.

Joe said most years she goes up in the hills of the area that’s now burning. She said she picks 15 gallons of salmon berries and 25 gallons of blueberries. 

An older woman and three teenagers hold a baby
Roseanne Joe (center) waits for a flight home to St. Mary’s. She says she worries about her kids and grandkids, who have lived through a pandemic, the closure of salmon fisheries, and now, evacuations due to tundra fires. “I’m a grandma now and I’ve never, never seen something like this,” she said. (Katie Basile)

“It’s scary to be thinking what my kids are going to grow up to see,” she said.

While Joe decided to return home, for others, it’s safer to wait until the smoke has cleared. George Moses said he doesn’t want to risk his lungs, which were damaged by pneumonia.

“It’s hard for me to breathe, and I can’t really do too much,” he said.

He said he won’t return until the smoke clears, but it’s uncertain how long that will be.

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

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

Previous articleSpecial election results prompt losing candidates to consider dropping out of regular US House election, too
Next articleLarge portion of unexpected Alaska deaths in 2020 and 2021 directly tied to COVID-19