People in line with a bunch of bags in the territory
Residents of Mountain Village and St. Mary’s await their flight home after spending a week at Bethel as evacuees due to a massive tundra fire. (Kathy Basil)

On Thursday morning, the Yute Airlines hangar at Bethel Airport was in an uproar. A man was playing the harmonica, and two small children were dancing nearby. Children fidgeted in chairs or twirled basketballs, and some of the adults chatted on the phones.

About 20 people were waiting to be called by their names to select a seat on a flight back to St. Mary’s, a Yukon River community of about 600 people, after a week-long stay at Bethel.

Elder Sebastian Cowboy said that there is one thing that worries him the most.

“My own pillow!” he said.

A man in a green jacket sits on a red plastic chair.
Sabastian Cowboy waits to be named so he can return home to St. Mary’s where he will cut wood for the winter and work on other home projects. (Lex Trainen/Alaska Public Media)

Yukon Health Corporation Kuskokwima said it had warned residents that there was still a risk of thick smoke, shifting winds and approaching fire. The YKHC sent about half of the evacuated residents back to their home villages, but said it did not have the resources to evacuate them a second time if conditions worsened.

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

There is a short-term risk that the winds will blow the smoke back into the village. But there are also long-term risks of a warming climate, which scientists say is contributing to unprecedented wildfires in the region that have already burned hundreds of thousands of acres.

The changes are noticed not only by the elders and scientists. Teenager Carmen Tinker said she noticed something too.

“It gets windy in the spring,” she said. “My Yupik teacher said that it is never windy in spring. It got windier.”

Some residents say the northerly winds that pushed the fire towards their community were strange for a village that is often cooled by coastal western breezes. Maureen Andrews, who lived at the Bethel Orphanage with three children, said the warmer climate means the vegetation around St. Mary’s is also changing.

“The trees around my house, I noticed, are getting thicker every year,” she said.

Aerial view of East Fork Fire from the flight deck on June 16, 2022. (Video AK IMT/Karen Scholl.)

The larger the trees, the more fuel for the fire.

RELATED: Alaska never had a tundra fire as big as the East Fork fire until climate change provided more fuel.

In addition to the health effects of smoke, some residents are concerned about food security. Salmon fishing was closed last year and has remained closed this summer. Fire evacuations in mid-summer mean less time for other subsistence work, and the fire itself interferes with harvesting.

“The fires are burning all our berry patches. I don’t know what we’re going to do with the berries this year, god! No fish, no berries,” said Rosanna Jo, another evacuee from St. Mary’s Hospital.

Joe said that most of the time she walks in the hills in the area that is now on fire. She said she picks 15 gallons of salmon berries and 25 gallons of blueberries.

Elderly woman and three teenagers holding a child
Rosanna Jo (center) waits for her flight home to St. Mary’s. She says she is worried about her children and grandchildren, who have survived the pandemic, the closure of salmon fisheries, and now evacuations due to tundra fires. “Now I’m a grandmother and I’ve never, never seen anything like it,” she said. (Kathy Basil)

“It’s scary to think what my kids will see when they grow up,” she said.

While Joe decided to go home, it was safer for the others to wait until the smoke cleared. George Moses said he didn’t want to risk his pneumonia-damaged lungs.

“I’m having a hard time breathing and I really can’t do too much,” he said.

He said he would not return until the smoke had cleared, but it was not known how long that would last.

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