The Alaska State Defense Force helps the Red Cross and state agencies protect displaced citizens from wildfires in Southwest Alaska

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Members of the Alaska State Defense Force assist the Red Cross and Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in providing essential services to approximately 50 personnel at the Alaska National Guard Armory in Bethel, Alaska, June 18. People from Mt. Village, Pilot Station, Pitkas Point and St. Mary’s were moved to the Bethel Armory as a precaution against wildfires and potential smoke inhalation. (Photo courtesy of Alaska National Guard)

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — As tundra fires in southwest Alaska burned closer to villages, about 50 people from Mountain Village, Pilot Station, Pitkas Point and St. Mary’s were moved to the National Guard Armory in the Alaska to Bethel as a precaution against fires and potential smoke inhalation, June 17 – 20.

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

According to Desiree Chambers, mass care coordinator for the state’s Emergency Operations Center, the Red Cross has determined that additional personnel will be needed to maintain operations at the National Guard armory.

“We needed more volunteers to keep up,” Chambers said. “In these situations, the partnerships we’ve cultivated and people’s willingness to step up really make a difference.”

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

Balzer, an ASDF member since 2015, delivered YKHC-provided food to the shelter twice a day as part of his duties. Although the mission lasted less than a week, Balzer said she was proud to be able to provide a uniformed presence in the AKNG armory.

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

The ASDF is staffed entirely by Alaska 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 town just east of Bethel, to the mission location.

“It was a great learning experience,” said Michael. “Not only was I able to help people in villages close to mine, but it also showed me another way for Alaskans to be there for each other.”

In Balzer’s experience as a volunteer with the ASDF, assignments like these give them experience to help connect organizations like the Red Cross with members of the local community.

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

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

“It was a great cooperative effort to be there for people in the communities and help them when needed,” Chambers said. “Everyone had a common goal and worked well together.”

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