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St. Mary’s residents grieve following the East Fork Fire

For the past several weeks, St. Mary’s resident Sylvia Nerby has watched as flames and smoke surround her hometown.
Published: Jun. 21, 2022 at 3:13 PM AKDT
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ST. MARY’S, Alaska (KTUU) - For the past several weeks, St. Mary’s resident Sylvia Nerby has watched as flames and smoke surround her hometown.

“We’re not sure what’s out there, we’re not sure if our berry spots are burnt. We not sure where we can go and collect our traditional plants and berries,” Nerby said.

On May 31, a lighting strike created what is now called the East Fork Fire stretching at one point approximately two-thirds of the way around St. Mary’s. As the fire eats everything it touches, it leaves behind a dark smoke for Nerby to look through while she stayed in her village. Portions of the land she once knew are now gone and reduced to ash.

“My parents came home on Friday and my mom’s looking out the window and she said our salmonberry hill is gone, our blueberry hill is gone,” Nerby said. “Where can we pick our tea.”

As the flames inched closer to St. Mary’s, many fled the village by self-evacuating across the river to other nearby villages, and to Bethel by plane. Meanwhile, others like Nerby stayed back and assisted others, as well as first responders.

“We’re continuing to hand out all the water, some perishable foods that were donated,” Nerby said. “We’re going to continue to do that until we have no more ingredients, until the water is gone.”

Now after three weeks of burning, the smoke has died down. Nerby said that everyone who has self-evacuated has made their way back home, and her small community once again felt whole.

“It just feels good knowing we can bring them back home and have them back here and it was a really good feeling in welcoming them back home,” Nerby said.

Although the residents of St. Mary’s escaped the flames, they now face the challenge of healing.

“The next stage is grieving,” Nerby said. “I want to go up river and look, but then again I don’t want to go look.”

As her community learns to adjust to what life post fire will be like, Nerby said that a large concern would be understanding and learning the impact that the fire will have on their vegetation. Nerby said that many St. Mary’s residents are still working to understand the impact the retardants — dropped around the fire perimeter — will impact their land.

“We’re wondering, if it’s safe to pick our traditional items and if so, where can we pick them,” Nerby said. “We just need more education on where the retardant was laid down. How do we take care our traditional foods that we gather. If it is in a place where there is retardant, how long do we have to wait to go out there to see where we can gather our traditional foods?”

The healing process in St. Mary’s will continue long after the fire has been completely extinguished.

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