Thursday, June 25, 2015

In the Haze

Alaska is on fire.  Over 100 wildfires are currently burning, and only 10% or so being managed by firefighting efforts.  Few people have been directly affected, but they include entire communities whose homes have been destroyed, and who are already beginning the process of rebuilding now, before the long freeze of winter sets in and makes construction difficult, if not impossible.

When I woke up, a haze had settled over Coldfoot.  Even the closest mountains are less distinct, the colors less vibrant.  Smoke from fires hundreds of miles away has saturated the atmosphere, leaving a faint odor in the air and causing the sun to glow orange at certain times.

Some fires are closer.  Anyone driving between Coldfoot and Fairbanks in the last few days has had to deal with dense smoke on the road and, at mile 30 on the Elliott Highway, flames "licking" the road and passing cars.  The phrasing may have been an exaggeration, but I'm honestly not sure.  I haven't made that trip lately.

I have been making other trips up and down the Dalton Highway, however.  Last week, five of us took a truck north to Galbraith Lake to clean up the campground, post fire ban flyers at the outhouse, and collect a big barrel of backcountry camping gear from a spot a couple miles into the hilly tundra.  I'll probably make a separate post about that adventure later.  For now, be assured that I have seen the "midnight sun" (true midnight was closer to 2 AM), and that, thanks to the constant direct sunlight and the greenhouse effect of my tent's rain fly, I didn't get much sleep that night.

My sleep schedule might have recovered, but then two nights later was true solstice, and the Coldfoot staff threw a non-bonfire party to celebrate, and since we were up until 3 AM and I had an opening shift the next day, I got very little sleep that night as well.

These sleepless nights and exhausting days have put me in my own haze this past week, but they seem to be behind me now.  Unfortunately, a complication has arisen in my tidy little life here, mostly affecting the volunteers and BLM staff at the visitor center:  our power is out.

It seems appropriate that the ultimate cause is the same as what's making Alaska so combustible right now.  We're experiencing a major heat wave.  In fact, temperatures have been higher than average since May, and are expected to remain that way until September.  The snow and ice melted weeks ahead of the usual schedule, and the past two weeks have been dominated by sunny, cloudless days with only light breezes and temperatures reaching into the high 80s, Fahrenheit.  We've had some clouds, a bit of rain, and a few days in the 70s, but they've been little relief.  Nights are cooler, but my room doesn't circulate air too well, and I can hardly take advantage of the refreshing night air without a strong breeze to shove it into my only window.

This heat wave has also caused at least two powerful generators in Coldfoot to overheat, their cooling systems not up to the task in these conditions.  Coldfoot Camp itself has a backup for their lights, gas and water pumps, and everything else they need to operate.  But the visitor center is in the dark.  Our water pressure is likely dwindling as we use it, so we use it sparingly.  Drinking water only, pretty much.  We can get showers from Coldfoot Camp for a discounted fee (reimbursed or prepaid by whichever agency we work under), so that just makes for a longer walk than I'm used to.  I can still get online at the old visitor center, but that building has never had good insulation or air circulation, and it's difficult to stay in there for over an hour.

The visitor center itself is still open, for now.  Liability and safety concerns are on our minds, but we haven't been ordered to close yet, and we can still provide useful information and a cool building to rest in after a long drive.  So my work schedule is pretty normal now, but I can't work on any side projects until the computers in the building are powered up again.  This may take a few days still, while a new emergency generator is being sent from Anchorage.  It's meant to be enough to provide power to us again while the current generators have their new cooling systems installed.

So in some ways, life got a little more rustic here, but nothing has actually changed that much.  As I get back to my routine and the haze in my mind clears, it seems to be escaping into the air around me.  Forecasts predicted rain this weekend, and I think we're all hoping it brings the temperatures down, calms the fires, and clears the haze.

Thanks for reading,


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