Wood smoke pollution makes Alaska area ‘rectangle of death’ — but locals reject regulation
Detroit Free Press February 18, 2013
By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times
NORTH POLE, Alaska — In Krystal Francesco’s neighborhood, known here as the “rectangle of death,” the air pollution was so thick, she could hardly see across the street. Wood stoves were cranking all over town — it was 40 below — and she had to take her daughter to the emergency room.
“She’s crying because she can’t breathe, and I can just see her stomach rapidly going in and out. Sometimes, she’s coughing to the point of throwing up,” Francesco said of her 2-year-old daughter, Kalli, who uses two inhalers. “Even in the house, the smoke is coming in and it smells awful.”
Most people think of Alaska as one of the last great escapes from urban pollution. But they have not spent a winter in Fairbanks or the nearby town of North Pole, where air-quality readings in November were twice as bad as those in Beijing.
Here, it’s not freeways or factories fouling the air — it’s wood stoves and backyard wood furnaces that send thick clouds of gray smoke roiling into the pines. On the cold, clear days when the temperature hits 50 below, an inversion layer often traps a blanket of smoke near the ground, and driving to work in North Pole can be like motoring through fog.
“It’s like soup. Like gray soup. I call it the epicenter of hideousness,” said Angela Dowler, a veterinarian.
Yet this is Alaska’s freedom belt, and nearly every attempt to regulate the offending stoves has been beaten back at the polls — most recently in October, with an initiative prohibiting the borough from regulating any heating appliance using any fuel in any way.
“This whole thing has gotten conflated in Fairbanks: ‘My wood burner is next to my gun — don’t take it out of my cold, dead hands,’ ” said Sylvia Schultz, who runs a clean-air advocacy website. Schultz moved to Washington state in July after her husband was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and her daughter faced the prospect of attending middle school in a high-smoke zone.