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Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers are arriving in Willow, Alaska,  ready to work as quickly as possible to get wildfire survivors safely into their homes before the onset of winter—and do it as safely as possible during the pandemic.

Many of those who lost their homes during a 2019 wildfire in that state have scraped together funds to build foundations. Many have also worked with their own hands to get their dwellings as far along as possible. But they’re running out of time.

The main priority for MDS is to ensure the homes—which range in size from 700 to 1,000 square feet—are weather-proof enough for residents to live inside for the winter, even if they have to finish the interior themselves.

The goal is to complete at least five homes, but MDS project director Harold Miller, who has already been onsite for two weeks, estimates that the volunteers will actually help up to eight homeowners. Willow’s local long-term recovery group is currently helping 22 families recover from the wildfire.

MDS volunteers will be staying at LaDaSa Camp in Willow, about 70 miles north of Anchorage.

“We will make these homes waterproof and airtight so people can live in them by the time winter comes,” said Miller. “They may not have sheetrock on the walls or a kitchen. But they can finish their homes during the winter. These folks are somewhat used to doing that.”

In fact, many in the town had built their own homes before the 2019 fire, but now are staying in temporary housing as they struggle to rebuild. “Some fire survivors are staying in apartments, but the cost of housing is taking all their money,” said Miller.

The disaster did not receive a presidential declaration, so individual assistance was not available. “You wouldn’t even know these families were there before the burn,” said Miller. “Now you have these black sticks, and it’s depressing because you know it was kind of pretty before.”

Yet already the grasses are starting to regrow, and Miller sees hope in people he meets. The Willow project marks his fourth time serving for MDS in Alaska, and he has a love for the state and its independent-minded people. “I was a store manager in Anchorage for eight-and-a-half years,” said Miller, who now lives in Portland, Oregon.

At the same time MDS volunteers are helping people get back in their homes, they are planning to do it safely during the pandemic.

The Willow project was originally going to be organized by MDS Region IV, which takes in the western half of the U.S., including Alaska. When they had difficulty getting enough volunteers from that region, they turned to the MDS office in Lititz for help.

As a result, this is one of the first projects the MDS U.S. national office has been able to coordinate in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Volunteers were required to have a COVID-19 test before they left home and will have additional testing while on location. MDS has also instituted guidelines and protocols for volunteers regarding safe practices during the pandemic, including the wearing of masks when social distancing is not possible.

As he made plans and got ready to put volunteers to work during a pandemic, Miller reflects that just as every fire survivor is in a different place in rebuilding their homes, MDS is at a unique place in responding.

“There are no blueprints,” he said. “But I do understand what people need.”

Susan Kim, freelance writer

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