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Smoke hinders travel


September 12, 2004

In late August, I was forced to send an email to Curt Freeman, owner of the Fairbanks-based Avalon Development, with the subject line, "Smoke hinders travel."

Throughout the prior week, I could not fly from my remote home 60 miles east to Fairbanks, to attend Freeman's Aug. 20 presentation as a consultant on the Golden Summit project, being explored by Freegold Ventures and its new joint venture partner, Meridian Gold.

I made plans to fly to Fairbanks on Aug. 16, well in advance of the presentation and following day's tour of the property, northeast of Fairbanks. But smoke from wildlands fires that kicked back up in mid-August drifted into the Interior on the evening of the 15th. That effectively grounded small aircraft flying under VFR regulations in most areas of Interior Alaska.

The smoke began clearing about 10 days later, enough for me to catch a flight to Fairbanks on Aug. 27. Even then, the pilot had to obtain a special clearance and we circled over a spruce-covered area a few miles outside of town, waiting about 15 minutes for our slot to land at the floatplane pond at Fairbanks International Airport.

While this was a one-time inconvenience for me, prospectors trying to work this summer at remote Interior Alaska properties have experienced numerous delays, flight limitations and even fire damage. Helicopters, which usually can travel in lower visibility conditions, have also been grounded at times.

This summer's fire season has been the worst on record in Alaska, burning more than 6.3 million acres of land. For those attempting to do business in this climate, delays must be frustrating. Nothing can be done to improve the situation, other than praying for a wind change to move smoke out of the area. And all the while, one breathes in a constant reminder of the smoke, a pervasive acrid smell one really can't escape.

Earlier this summer during the first round of wildlands fires, we had small flakes of ash fall at our house, almost like snow, covering everything outside and even some things inside our windows with a thin film that smudged when wiped away.

One afternoon in late June, after returning from a woodcutting session in our nearby woods, my husband and I saw an angry column of new smoke ascending in billowing volumes, across our lake. A quick call to the fire agency confirmed that a new fire was burning about 10 miles northeast of our home, a concern as a strong wind was blowing from that direction.

State and federal agencies dropped in smokejumpers and attacked the area with water drops, thankfully extinguishing the blaze quickly. Seeing a blaze break out that close is particularly intimidating, as we don't have road access to our home. Air travel in summer is our main access, other than hiking five miles to a river.

Even now, on Labor Day in early September, a thin haze from the smoking fires continues to shroud the rolling hills surrounding our home. I am quick to echo Curt Freeman's sentiment in his email response, "The smoke has cleared a bit but I for one will be glad of snow!"


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