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First pollution alert of the season for Fairbanks/North Pole

Debbie Dean
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Temperature inversion traps particulates near the ground in Fairbanks.

The Fairbanks/North Pole area’s first air-quality alert of the season is in effect. That means state monitors predict the air near the city will be polluted enough to pose a health risk, and residents should not use their woodstoves.

Surrounded by hills on three sides, the Fairbanks North Pole area is susceptible to wintertime temperature inversions trapping emissions from combustion, like wood smoke and vehicle exhaust near the ground.

“The folks at the state of Alaska, the meteorologists, they have run some PM 2.5 forecasting models and that they're predicting the air quality to be unhealthy.”

That’s Nick Czarnecki, a program manager for the state’s Division of Air Quality. He watches for pollution around the state, including the Fairbanks North Pole area.

Local emissions from wood stoves, oil-fired heaters, industrial sources, and vehicles all contribute to particulate pollution. The state has a scale of health risk for the amount of pollution in the air; it starts with good, then moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy for everyone, then Very Unhealthy, then Hazardous.

The air quality alert which started last (Mon) night at 10 p.m. goes until 2:00 p.m. today (Tuesday,) but conditions are likely to stay “Moderate” or worse all week as high pressure dominates the air near Fairbanks. Especially for North Pole, where they predict PM2.5 values greater than 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air. That doesn’t sound like much, but it could drop North Pole into the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” category.

And the current Stage 1 Alert requires residents to stop burning wood, coal or pellets.

“Some of the actions that residents can take to improve air quality is to not use your solid fuel or wood burning appliances and to switch over to another form of heat.”

Czarnecki says in a Stage 1 Alert, there are some folks who can still burn if they have a special waiver that shows they have an EPA-compliant woodstove, or what’s called a “clean appliance.”

“A stage one waiver, you just need to have a clean appliance and you don't have to have a justification or a reason to apply for that waiver.”

If the pollution gets worse, the state will call a Stage 2 Alert. Then no one can burn except the rare household that has no other way to heat the home.

“Whereas the NOASH, the No Other Adequate Source of Heat means that you can burn anytime. And so, in order to do that, folks have to justify that they have a clean appliance AND that they don't have any other source of heat for the house.”

Residents can apply for waivers on the state’s Division of Air Quality website:

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.