Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2005

Peninsula fire makes for smoky Anchorage

ANCHORAGE - A lightning-caused fire that is being allowed to burn inside the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and a shift in the wind covered Anchorage in smoke on Friday.

It was one of the smokiest days Anchorage has seen in years. Conditions weren't expected to change until today.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, Anchorage residents can expect some periods of very unhealthy air because of the Fox Creek fire burning on the southern shore of Tustumena Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. Peninsula residents can expect periods of unhealthy, even hazardous air, north of the lake.

In areas where the smoke was very unhealthy or unhealthy, some vulnerable groups were being told to avoid outdoor activity. Everyone was being told to avoid prolonged exertion.

The fire, which began Monday, more than doubled in size in recent days and was more than 16,000 acres on Friday, said Brett Ricker, a fire information officer with the Division of Forestry. It is not threatening any homes.

Ricker said it is being allowed to burn in a designated area of 128,000 acres inside the refuge.

Train kills boy sleeping on tracks

ANCHORAGE - A 13-year-old boy was killed Friday night when an Alaska Railroad train ran over him.

Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson identified the boy as Austin Webb. The teen lived with his family in the town of Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage.

Alaska Railroad spokesman Tim Thompson said the accident happened about 6:20 p.m. at Mile 187.1 of the rail line near the Willow Creek Bridge.

The 13-year-old and another teenage companion were apparently on the tracks and the victim was reportedly asleep when a southbound passenger train approached, Wilkinson said. The other boy got out of the way, but the 13-year-old never roused.

Train operators applied emergency braking, but officials did not know Friday night whether the engineer discovered the boy was on the tracks before taking evasive action.

Governor may sue over base closures

JUNEAU - On the heels of a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania officials, Gov. Frank Murkowski sent letters Friday to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Closure Commission Chairman Anthony Principi stating he may not consent to base closures in Alaska.

Murkowski and officials in Pennsylvania contend that the governor is the only official who can deactivate an Air National Guard unit.

"The Department of Defense did not obtain my consent nor even consult with either my office or the Alaska adjutant general to discuss the potential closure of Kulis Air National Guard Base as it is required to do under the U.S. Constitution and federal law," Murkowski said in a written statement.

Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said the governor has not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit similar to the state of Pennsylvania's.

"Other states are looking into this issue as we are," she said. "If necessary, he will consider similar action."

Bison population down in state's largest herd

FAIRBANKS - The bison population in the state's largest herd is shrinking for unknown reasons, prompting state wildlife officials to cut the number of bison-hunting permits issued this year.

The Delta Bison Herd population has fallen from about 480 bison two years ago to an estimated 400, according to this year's count.

The reasons for the smaller numbers could include disease, natural mortality or poaching, said state wildlife biologist Steve DuBois with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Delta Junction. Or scientists could have missed counting a group of them, he said.

The decline prompted Fish and Game officials to issue 65 Delta bison permits to hunters this year rather than the 120 it was planning to distribute.

Delta bison permits are among the most coveted hunting permits in Alaska. The state received 13,952 applications this year for the 65 permits issued.

The Delta herd was started in 1928 with 20 bison from Montana and grew large enough to for the state to establish a hunt in 1950.

Carriers to up rates

FAIRBANKS - Some Fairbanks-based air carriers said they plan to increase prices on flights to western Interior villages following a decision by postal officials to pay lower mail rates.

Frontier Flying Service and Warbelow's Air Ventures said they are adding a $35 one-way surcharge to passenger fares from the western Interior starting Monday to make up for the loss of mail revenue.

The U.S. Postal Service in June began paying Everts Air Cargo, which flies larger planes, 45 cents a pound to ship groceries and other heavy items to rural areas at parcel post rates from Fairbanks to Galena on twice-weekly flights.

The service had been paying $1.23 a pound to Warbelow's and Frontier, to carry mail and passengers on smaller aircraft. The service decreased the payments to match Everts because it is required by law to pay the federal rates set for larger planes, which are the lowest, when the large carriers are available.

Paying the lower rates to Galena will reduce the Postal Service's shipping bill by millions of dollars each year.

The agency has an obligation to use the larger planes, which are more cost-effective, and pay the lower rates, said Steve Deaton, a network operations specialist for the Postal Service in Anchorage.

Bob Hajdukovich, Frontier's president, said the cut will take millions out of the Fairbanks-to-Galena economy.

He said the Postal Service until recently was spending about $5.2 million for mail service to the Galena region using the basic Bush rate for small planes.

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