Northwest Digest

Posted: Monday, January 30, 2006

Augustine volcano keeps on belching ash

ANCHORAGE - Plumes of fine ash from another eruption of Augustine Volcano on Sunday wafted toward sparsely populated regions south and southwest of the uninhabited volcanic island.

Particulate clouds from Augustine, in south-central Alaska, prompted the National Weather Service to issue an advisory to small communities near the eastern Alaska Peninsula, the Shelikof Strait and Kodiak Island, as well as the northwest Gulf of Alaska.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory received several reports of ash mixed into clusters of snowflakes falling on Kodiak Island.

"Just very light small amounts, you have to be looking for it to find it in the snow, very fine-grained stuff," said Chris Waythomas, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, which helps run the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Alaska Airlines canceled one passenger and one freight flight from Anchorage to Kodiak, said spokeswoman Caroline Boren. Another passenger flight leapfrogging from Anchorage to King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula to Adak in the Aleutian Islands also was canceled.

Alaska Airlines flights from the Lower 48 shifted their routes slightly north and east as they neared Anchorage to avoid possible clouds of ash, Boren said. The particles can damage jet and other vehicle engines.

There were no reports of ash in skies surrounding Anchorage, about 180 miles northeast of the volcano.

The latest in a recent series of eruptions, Sunday's blast occurred at 11:17 a.m. and lasted between five and six minutes, according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Skagit housing prices rose the most in '05

SEATTLE - King County is still driving Western Washington's economy, but home prices here rose only a fraction last year compared to other area counties.

Skagit County was the leader, with a 26.93 increase in single-family home prices. Next were Mason County at 24.55 percent and Thurston County at 23.31 percent. Base prices are lower there, but buyers may have suffered some sticker shock.

Also logging increases of more than 20 percent were fourth-ranked Grays Harbor County at 22.79 percent; Kitsap County, 20.83 percent; and Pierce County. 20.04 percent.

King County, with a 15.43 percent appreciation rate, ranked in the bottom third of 15 mostly Western Washington counties, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service's annual analysis of home-sales data. Sparsely populated Kittitas, Lewis and Grant counties were the only ones to post lower appreciation rates than King County.

Numbers for Whatcom County were not available.

Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University, said there are two main reasons King County's 2005 appreciation lags behind most of its neighbors: Prices are so high in the Seattle area that many buyers are priced out of the county market. And the King County real-estate market has been hotter longer.

The median price of a single-family home in King County last year was $374,000. Even the median condo price $214,000 was more than the median house price in two-thirds of the surrounding counties.

Median means half the properties sell for more, half for less.

NSA listens from Army training center

YAKIMA, Wash. - Just a few miles north of town, the National Security Agency is eavesdropping on the world with satellite dishes that pick up satellite and microwave signals from cell phones, e-mails and home phones.

The listening post has a view of Interstate 82 from its location on the Army's gigantic Yakima Training Center, but it may be one of the best kept secrets in the Pacific Northwest.

That could change during the debate over Bush administration surveillance of domestic communications with parties overseas.

"In the entire country, it happens to be in your back yard," said James Bamford, a former network news investigative producer who documented the Yakima installation in his 1982 book about the NSA, "The Puzzle Palace."

"It doesn't make noise, doesn't send smoke," he said. "It's almost invisible. The whole agency is virtually invisible."

Bamford and others keyed into electronic eavesdropping say the Yakima Research Station has played a major role for decades in Echelon, the global surveillance network operated by the NSA and its counterparts in the British Commonwealth - Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

And it has a sister installation in Sugar Grove, W.Va.

According to Bamford, the low-profile NSA has 58,000 employees in the United States and abroad more than the CIA and FBI combined. Its budget, reportedly more than $6 billion, is classified.

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