St. Mary’s school superintendent is helping the community stay safe as the surrounding tundra burns

Firefighters conferring with each other in a classroom
Firefighting personnel are set up in the St. Mary’s Elementary School. (Katie Basile/For KYUK)

School Superintendent Dee Dee Ivanoff steps out of her white pickup truck at the St. Mary’s airport. She’s here to shuttle fire personnel to the school, where they’re sleeping and working out of a makeshift headquarters. She’s become one of their main drivers.

The road from the airport into town cuts through tundra bathed in smoke. Firefighters dot the road side. Many are cutting brush away from electric poles so that they don’t burn. Ivanoff drives past a local crew walking single file.

A portrait of a woman standing outside under very smoky skies
Dee Dee Ivanoff grew up in St. Mary’s and now serves as the St. Mary’s School District superintendent. (Photo by Katie Basile/For KYUK)

“Now you see all the crew. It just makes it really real,” Ivanoff said.

As Alaska’s largest tundra fire in 15 years has burned behind her home village, Ivanoff has become one of the key organizers of the response effort. Lightning ignited the East Fork Fire on May 31 and it’s grown to 141,100 acres, tearing across tundra, brush and black spruce in Southwest Alaska.

Over the past two weeks, Ivanoff has been liaising between the community of St. Mary’s — now less than 4 miles from the flames — and the different responding organizations, overseeing donations and helping with evacuation plans. She’s also helped agencies rent trucks from locals who evacuated.

Ivanoff is from St. Mary’s and moved back during the pandemic to help her aging parents. Then, the former superintendent left and the school asked Ivanoff to take the job. She’s the first Yup’ik superintendent of the St. Mary’s School District.

Why has the superintendent of a school ended up helping so much with a fire response?

“I feel I have a sense of responsibility for this community. These are my kids, these are my parents,” Ivanoff said.

Plus, the St. Mary’s elementary school has become the hub for fire operations. Logistics has taken over the second grade classroom, planning response operations from tiny chairs. Spokespeople for the responding agencies are in the fifth grade classroom, writing press releases from slightly larger chairs.

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The North Star Fire Crew clears brush around power poles on the road between St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point on June 11, 2022. The crew is made up of firefighters in training from around the country. (Photo by Katie Basile/For KYUK)

Beth Ipsen is a spokesperson from the Bureau of Land Management. She said that having Ivanoff help out made the whole process of getting firefighters and support staff on the ground much smoother.

“She’s been a huge help, and she’s really engaged, and she’s wonderful. She has a lot of heart with the people and the kids here too,” said Ipsen.

Self-care has been difficult for Ivanoff during this time. She hasn’t gotten much sleep.

“I’m running on fumes,” Ivanoff said.

But she’s not stopping yet. Her community needs her.

“I don’t think I’ve even thought about taking a day off. Just because the fire’s not gonna take a day off,” Ivanoff said.

Two women standing in a road
Rene Paukan and Sylvia Nerby are helping to organize water distribution for St. Mary’s residents and meals for firefighters. (Photo by Katie Basile/For KYUK)

This is true even as the fire’s spread has slowed over the past few days. A confluence of good weather has bought firefighters more time to dig defenses around the community.

But there’s still plenty for Ivanoff to do. On Monday she helped organize a meeting for community members and agencies. She’s attending at least two meetings a day with state, local and federal officials. She’s doing all this while taking a class so that she can finalize her superintendent certification.

Ivanoff is one of many people in the community who are leading local response efforts. She’s been working closely with her sister, the director of the subregional clinic, and St. Mary’s mayor. They’ve all been helping out with evacuations and food and water donations. She calls one of them at the end of a busy day to reflect.

“I think we’ve been working really good as a team. Gail, Scumpy, Mooch, and the coordination has been going well,” said Ivanoff.

Other community members who have stayed in town are helping too. They’re cooking food for the firefighters and clearing brush from around buildings.

Gail Alstrom runs St. Mary’s sub-regional clinic. She’s also Ivanoff’s sister-in-law. Alstrom helped vulnerable people fly out of St. Mary’s as the smoke was worsening and the fire was nearing.

Scumpy is the mayor of St. Mary’s. His real name is Sven Paukan. He’s been helping deliver bottled water to other communities impacted by the fire.

Moochie is Sylvia Nerby, Ivanoff’s sister. She’s been distributing bottled water to residents and food and water to firefighters. And the Roses of Andreafsky, a group of 7th to 12th grade girls, have been helping her.

Three skiffs on a river bank, loaded with supplies
Boats along the Andreafsky River are packed and ready if evacuation orders come through in St. Mary’s. (Photo by Katie Basile/For KYUK)

One of Ivanoff’s key tasks is to run the community’s communications system. She’s set up text alerts to let residents know if they’ll need to evacuate. Right now, they’re on ready status, meaning they should have their belongings ready to go if the fire gets too dangerous. And people are listening to her. Most plan to leave by boat.

“I have the school boats prepared. But not for me. It’s for our community,” said Ivanoff.

She said that she plans to come to the community’s dock if the fire reaches town. But to get away from the flames, not to hop in a boat.

“I’ll just stay down here. I’m not leavin’,” said Ivanoff.

KYUK - Bethel

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