Northwest Digest

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2007

Alaska sending fire engines to Montana

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FAIRBANKS - For the first time, Alaska is loaning fire engines to firefighting efforts in other states.

Ten Alaska engines being pulled from a half-dozen places will be loaded onto flatbed trucks and taken down the Alaska Highway this week to Montana, said Alaska Division of Forestry spokeswoman Maggie Rogers.

"Alaska is sending as many resources as we can spare," Rogers said.

While recent rain has lowered the fire danger in Alaska, wildfires continue to sweep across many Western states. Rogers noted the nation's wildfire preparedness level remains at level five, indicating "a significant amount of fire activity in multiple geographic areas."

California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington are among the states experiencing a heavy wildfire season.

Rogers said state officials are being careful to keep enough resources to handle things at home. Firefighting crews are staffing three wildfires in northeast Alaska.

The 10 engines from Alaska are due to arrive in Missoula, Mont., Saturday night, Rogers said. There, Alaska firefighters will staff the engines for two-week shifts.

Hooper Bay pilot program takes off

ANCHORAGE - Hooper Bay high school students are building an airplane for an experimental class that federal aviation officials hope eventually will address a shortage of homegrown pilots in rural Alaska.

Organizers say the project could be a perfect fit for the Western Alaska village and others where jobs are scarce and nearly everything arrives by plane. A Dallas-based company recently donated parts for the two-seater at the request of Build A Plane, a California nonprofit that puts aircraft-building materials into students' hands.

The Thorp T-211 light sport plane began arriving in the Yup'ik village of 1,200 last month, packed in boxes containing aluminum sheets, rivets, instructions and other parts, said Grant Funk, a flight instructor who teaches one of the state's few high school ground courses.

About 15 students will rivet together the wings and fuselage in a shop class this fall, Funk said. But some are giving up their summer afternoons to assemble smaller sections like the rudder and flaps.

Aviation jobs such as commercial pilots and aviation mechanics are in demand statewide, officials say. Between 2004 and 2014, for example, the industry will need 167 new pilots, according to a state Department of Labor estimate. That's a 30 percent increase, making the profession one of the state's fastest-growing.

Fed chair says oil cushions inflation

ANCHORAGE - The head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco said Alaska's oil-rich economy should help dampen the inflationary risks that the rest of the nation is facing.

Janet Yellen, president and chief executive officer of the Fed's San Francisco district, said with weak housing markets, higher energy prices, which includes $70 a barrel oil and $3 a gallon gasoline, personal consumption nationally is expected to slow.

Alaskans, too, pay more for gasoline and heating, but because Alaska is an oil-rich state, residents also benefit from the higher oil prices.

"You've seen the side of higher oil prices and the pinch at the pump," she said. "But high oil prices bring substantial income to the state, and no doubt, this has helped to keep employment and personal income growing here at a healthy clip."

Yellen spoke to about 120 business leaders during an invitation-only luncheon July 12 at the Downtown Marriott.

Homer ski area gains permanent protection

HOMER - It has taken several years, a variety of grants, several different plans, a complicated land exchange and thousands of dollars in donations from throughout the community, but it has finally happened.

An L-shaped section of land at the top of Baycrest Hill that is home to several popular ski trails, as well as important wetlands and watershed drainage, is now protected for future generations of skiers and recreation users, not to mention birds, plants and other less-vocal inhabitants.

The 275-acre parcel abuts the Homer Demonstration Forest property off Rogers Loop, and stretches behind borough land to the Sterling Highway to the west and across the Diamond Creek drainage to the north.

It was owned by the University of Alaska, and is now in the hands of the city of Homer, thanks to more than $750,000 in fundraising and grant acquisition by the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust.

Protections were put in place so that the property will remain as park land for the public, as well as protected from development that would infringe on the properties' wetlands.

Senate panel clears wilderness expansion

WASHINGTON - A plan to expand the Mount Hood wilderness area cleared a Senate committee Wednesday and could be taken up by the full Senate in September.

The bill by Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith would extend wilderness protection to about 125,000 acres surrounding Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. It would increase existing wilderness protection on the mountain by nearly two-thirds and add "wild and scenic" protection to about 80 miles of rivers.

Wyden and Smith called the voice vote by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee a victory for Oregonians.

"It's a new day for wilderness and we are now poised to pass the protection that Mount Hood deserves," said Wyden, a Democrat.

"A successful climb is measured by a successful return," added Smith, a Republican. "The Oregon delegation has worked together to meet the goal of preserving the lands and waters of Mount Hood. Let's keep forging ahead to the summit and bring this effort home together."

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