Wildfires prompt Fairbanks health advisory

Large number of blazes filling air with smoke

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Heavy smoke from forest fires poured into Fairbanks on Thursday, fouling the air for residents and tourists and prompting air quality officials to issue a health advisory.

Air quality officials at the Fairbanks North Star Borough declared particulate levels to be unhealthy and said the National Weather Service forecast called for poor dispersion conditions in the borough, which has more than 97,000 residents.

Borough officials warned people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children to avoid prolonged exertion and everyone else to limit prolonged exertion.

A major source of the pollution is the blaze dubbed the Railbelt Complex Fire about 12 miles northwest of Nenana. The fire began with a lightning strike June 21. As of Thursday afternoon, fire had consumed 340,884 acres, or about 532 square miles.

Borough air quality technician Jim McCormick said other fires were adding to the haze.

"So many fires putting so much smoke into the air, it's the Railbelt first plus other fires plus the new Wood River fire that's 27 miles south of Fairbanks," McCormick said.

Seventy-three fires were burning Thursday in Alaska. Nine were staffed with firefighters.

About 224 personnel are assigned to the Railbelt Complex fire outside Nenana 55 miles south of Fairbanks.

They were expected to receive an assist from a Boeing 747 equipped to drop retardant on forest fires.

Evergreen International Aviation of McMinnville, Ore., flew its plane to Fairbanks to demonstrate its ability to douse an area three miles long and 100 yards wide. The jet can carry up to 20,000 gallons of retardant and water. That's about 10 times the amount of two tankers the state Division of Forestry has under contract.

The objective of the drop was to reinforce fire lines near the Arctic Wolf drill rig site.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that state officials had not decided whether to sign a contract with Evergreen for future use of the jumbo jet tanker.

Firefighters have concentrated on protecting cabins and structures, Alaska Native land allotments, timber resources, and a drill rig site. There are no evacuation orders or road closures.

However, ash had fallen in Fairbanks, McCormick said, and the irritating smell of burning brush was penetrating buildings.

Crews on Wednesday worked on the fire's north and east flanks. They constructed fire lines and conducted burning operations to protect allotments, cabins and timber.

Crews at Dune Lake continued mopping-up the fire's edge after controlled burns around structures.

Eight smokejumpers prepared structures at Totek Lake for protective burning operations and delivered and all-terrain vehicle by "paracargo" to a crew at Totek Lake.

Light west winds pushed smoke into Nenana, with about 500 residents, on Thursday morning. Firefighters set up a command post at the Nenana Student Living Center.

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