Fire commission hammers away at public health issues

Fire commission hammers away at public health issues

12February 2005


The Fairbanks North Star Borough Wildland Fire Commission met Friday to discuss public health concerns from last summer’s heavy smoke from wildfires.

Air quality specialist for the the Fairbanks North Star Borough, James Conner, testified about the high levels of pollution created by smoke during the haziest days.

He said he first realized smoke was inundating the Fairbanks area on June 27, a Sunday. He was able to check air monitors at his home and determined that the pollution had reached an unhealthy level, 10 times the normal pollutant levels. By the time he returned to work on Monday, the borough’s monitor had a reading of fine particulate level of nearly 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter. The normal level is 65. Conner said the monitor plugged up and maxed out at 995 micrograms.

Conner’s office, in conjunction with Department of Environmental Control, the Environmental Protection Agency and the borough mayors office, began issuing alerts and health information.

Commissioner Ken Barrick asked Conner if there was any other natural occurrence or disaster he could relate to the intense summer haze that would produce similar levels.

“I don’t have a good comparison,” Conner said.

The commission questioned Conner whether there were ways he thought the borough could better monitor, prepare or inform the public during such air-quality alerts.

Conner said a mobile monitoring unit, in addition to the borough’s single stationary unit, would better track particulate levels closer to fires. Conner has already secured a unit with $100,000 from the EPA. Conner said the borough will have to foot only minor maintenance expenses.

Asked if additional stationary units would help in determining air quality in such instances, Conner said several would be needed to adequately cover the borough and produce useful information.

“You would need an army of them,” Conner said.

Instead, Conner said mobile units are more versatile and able to travel to various inhabited areas to check air quality, allowing officials to better determine where, when and whom to evacuate.

The commission was pleased that steps are already being taken to improve air-quality measurements with a mobile unit but wanted to know what else could be done.

“You’re the only guy who didn’t really show up with a wish list,” commissioner Lance Parrish said.

Conner did suggest improving communication between officials and the public about what to do during air-quality alerts. He said last summer the media didn’t rely or emphasize warnings and precautions forcefully enough to the public when the borough and agencies released them. But Conner said they are now better prepared for such occurrences.

“We have learned a lot,” Conner said. “We have foresight.”

Commissioner Ken Barrick questioned whether fire planning put too little emphasis on public health.

Manager for Alaska Fire Service, Scott Billing, who was in attendance, asked to speak. Billing said he was concerned the commission was inferring that the majority of the smoke that blanketed Fairbanks came from the Boundary Fire, a fire that burned north of Fairbanks and was not initially attacked. He said the spikes in particulate levels could have been from a combination of fires burning across the Interior caught up in a weather pattern, pushing it into Fairbanks.

But the commission was wary.

“I’m going to bet the farm the Boundary Fire had something to do with that,” Barrick said, pointing to a graph depicting the spike in particulate levels soon after the Boundary Fire began increasing in strength.

“From where I was sitting, (the smoke) was not coming from Russia that day,” Parrish said.

Parrish also questioned Billing about the fact that on a list of 10 guiding principles authored by the fire service, public health and environmental concerns are not mentioned until No. 7.

Billing said public health is taken into consideration most often in scheduling prescribed burns. But all planning goes out the window when conditions cause several fires to start at once and resources are strapped.

“I don’t think we’re out to smoke anyone out with our land-management policies,” Billing said.

In other testimony, pulmonary physician Dr. Owen Hanley testified that he saw no increase in patients during the smokiest days.

Hanley said many of his patients with asthma or respiratory illnesses took proper precautions to avoid exacerbating their conditions. He said he did receive calls from residents asking how to deal with the smoke, and he said he refereed them to the borough Web site for information.

Commissioners asked Hanley if he knew about the long-term effects of such conditions, but Hanley said he hadn’t seen any data on similar circumstances.

“There’s not much data on a summer like this,” he said.


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