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Alaska fires prompt health warnings

Smoke creates 'very, very bad' air quality in parts of state.


"Air quality in Fairbanks is very, very bad"

—Pete Buist, Alaska Forestry Division

Four new fires were reported to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center (AICC) Tuesday and another Wednesday night to join the now 79 active wildfires currently burning in the state, according to AICC.

“That’s our problem here,” said Pete Buist, spokesperson for the Alaska Forestry Division. “There have been lots of new fires.”

More than 1,000 personnel have joined in the efforts to fight the 15 fires that most directly threaten villages across Alaska. The smoke, however, is creating unhealthy conditions for an even larger portion of the population.

“Air quality in Fairbanks is very, very bad,” said Buist. “There is a 1,000 acre fire south of town and another fire west of town…whatever direction the wind blows we get smoke here.”

It is also this smoke that has hindered workflow for Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), repairing homes in Tanana after the spring floods of May.

Jay DeBoer, the regional manager for CRWRC in the area, said, “Materials are sitting on planes in Fairbanks and cannot make it to Tanana.”

Some villages the flood hit hardest cannot be reached by road, and the small planes that would be flying materials to volunteers have been grounded for several days, according to DeBoer.

In addition, smoke from the wildfires in British Columbia, Canada, has drifted into the southeastern parts of Alaska.

“It’s one disaster after another,” said National Weather Service forecaster John Dragomir. “We had flooding that lasted basically a month, then things dried out and the fires started.”

This season Fairbanks experienced a record for its driest July. The prolonged heat wave and drought in the last month have provided optimal conditions for fire growth.

“Today we are actually getting rain. (Unfortunately) whatever areas don’t see rain today may not see rain for quite awhile,” Dragomir reported.

But rain can also be a double-edged sword, warns Pete Buist. “Rain makes it miserable for firefighters and hinders burnout procedures.”

A burnout is when firefighters establish a line burn to remove potential fuel from the path of the fire; this secures the line and makes it more resistant to fire.

Of the 79 active fires in Alaska, five have been considered large, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

The Railbelt Complex of fires is the largest, consisting of three fires that have burned a total of 529,165 acres of land and continue to threaten some local communities. Fire managers at the Railbelt Complex have recommended the evacuation of the Windy Creek Subdivision, 13 miles southeast of Anderson, AK.

The recommendation is a precautionary measure due to possible easterly winds that would push the flames towards the mouth of Windy Creek.

Fire weather forecasters have been deployed to aid fire officials in making these decisions, according to John Dragomir.

Alaska is not alone in its battle against fire; the NIFC has reported 39 large fires plague 13 different states, including California and Oregon, which both have eight active large fires.

Yet, the 23,531 acres ablaze in California do not even come close to the more than one million acres of land in Alaska that has been consumed by flames already.

The good news is that there has been very minimal structural damage as a result. A handful of cabins and homes have been caught in the blaze, but firefighters have managed to keep flames away from villages.

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