NEWS | June 24, 2022

Alaska State Defense Force assists Red Cross, state agencies in sheltering relocated citizens from wildfires in Southwest Alaska

By Victoria Granado , Alaska National Guard Public Affairs

As tundra wildfires in Southwest Alaska burned closer to the villages, approximately 50 people from Mountain Village, Pilot Station, Pitkas Point and St. Mary’s were relocated to the Alaska National Guard armory in Bethel as a precaution against the fires and potential smoke inhalation, June 17 – 20.

Volunteers from the Red Cross and Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation provided food and hospitality services to those staying in the armory-turned-shelter.

According to Desiree Chambers, the mass care coordinator for the State Emergency Operation Center, Red Cross determined that additional personnel would be needed to maintain operations in the National Guard armory.

“We needed more volunteers to keep up with the pace,” said Chambers. “In those situations, the partnerships we’ve cultivated and the willingness of people to step up really makes a difference.”

Six members of the Alaska State Defense Force answered the request for support: Sgt. Gail Balzer from Wasilla, Sgt. William Sharp and Spc. Henry Bavilla from Quinhagak, and Pvt. Mary Michael, Pvt. Vasily Nicolai and Pvt. Kobe Ayapan from Kwethluck.

Balzer, an ASDF member since 2015, delivered food provided by the YKHC to the shelter twice a day as part of her duties. Though the assignment was for less than a week, Balzer said she took pride in being able to provide a uniformed presence in the AKNG armory.

“For me, it was very rewarding to go and serve the people there,” said Balzer. “The ASDF has a lot of history up there and every single time that we work with other agencies it strengthens our capabilities to respond to future events.”

The ASDF is comprised entirely of Alaskan residents who volunteer and often provide first-hand experience of the rural communities they support. After being mobilized, Michael did not have to travel far from her home in Kwethluk, a city just east of Bethel, to the mission location.

“It was great learning experience,” said Michael. “Not only did I get to help the people in villages close to my own, it also showed me another way Alaskans can be there for each other.”

In Balzer’s experience volunteering in the ASDF, missions like these give them experience in helping connect organizations such as the Red Cross with local community members.

When they were in Bethel, Michael said, the Red Cross was grateful for their assistance and that the people they were helping felt a sense of security seeing the ASDF among them.

Chambers said that effective coordination between government agencies and local organizations makes for successful disaster response when the time comes.

“This was a great cooperative effort to be there for the people from the communities and help them in their time of need,” said Chambers. “Everyone had a common goal and worked well together.”