Air quality zone map

FAIRBANKS — Excessive PM2.5 pollution triggered air quality alerts in both Fairbanks and North Pole on Tuesday. 

The alerts call on residents to stop burning wood and coal unless a waiver has been obtained. 

This is the first blanket burn ban for the city of Fairbanks under the tougher new rules in place this winter in an ongoing effort by the Fairbanks North Star Borough to curb smoke pollution. 

The air in Fairbanks was classified as moderate under the Air Quality Index on Tuesday. Under the moderate air classification, people sensitive to pollution are encouraged to reduce prolonged exertion, according to the Air Quality Division website.

The air in North Pole was categorized as unhealthy under the Air Quality Index, meaning the PM2.5 pollution is so high as to impact the general population. 

Fairbanks was put on a Stage 1 alert — the least restrictive of the two types of air alerts — under which residents with one of two types of waivers can keep burning wood or coal in their stove. All others must stop feeding their stove under local law. 

The Stage 2 burn ban in North Pole is stricter. The only residents allowed to keep burning are those with a NOASH waiver, meaning No Other Adequate Source of Heat.

Air Quality Manager Nick Czarnecki said people with no other way to stay warm but with wood or coal should call the borough for help. 

“Don’t stop using your device if your house is going to get cold,” he said. “We will just keep working through the situation.”

High levels of PM2.5 have been linked with heart and lung illnesses in multiple scientific studies, prompting the federal limits on the particulate. 

PM2.5, a byproduct of wood smoke and other emissions, tends to settle in the Tanana Valley on cold winter days when the air is stagnant.

The forecast is for stagnant air for the next few days and the air alerts are in place until 5 p.m. on Thursday unless weather conditions change, according to Czarnecki. 

“They are forecasting poor dispersion up until we get the snow that will clear it out on Thursday,” he said. 

Burn bans in North Pole, where a monitor has observed some of the highest PM2.5 levels in the country, are nothing unusual. 

Last winter, Fairbanks experienced nine partial burn bans under which residents with modern stoves were allowed to keep burning.

The burn bans are in effect in the borough’s Air Quality Control Zone, which encompasses large portions of Fairbanks and North Pole along with the Badger Road area in between the two cities.

The first burn ban of this winter was called last week in North Pole, which had a Stage 1 air alert. The current Stage 2 alert is the first Stage 2 alert for the city. 

Borough air quality staff along with staff with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation are watching chimney pipes so the borough can contact suspected violators of the burn bans, according to Czarnecki. 

Last week, the borough issued warning letters to 25 suspected violations of the burn ban in North Pole. Czarnecki said more warning letters will go out to those suspected of violating this week’s burn bans.

Some of the letter recipients last week called the borough.

“I think most of the responses were, ‘OK, I understand what is going on. I won’t be burning anymore,’” Czarnecki said. “There were also some folks who weren’t entirely happy with the situation.”

Those who didn’t respond to the letter are likely to get a call from Borough Mayor Karl Kassel or a member of his staff, according to Czarnecki. 

Those suspected of a second offense are subject to a $500 fine, though only one person has been cited on suspicion of violating local air quality rules. 

More than 100 people so far have signed up for waivers from the Stage 1 air alerts, according to the air quality manager. He said residents in the Air Quality Control Zone can file for a Stage 1 waiver by going to the Air Quality Division website at www.aqfairbanks.com.

The process involves providing photographic evidence that the resident’s stove is certified and that their wood is properly stored. Those seeking the waiver must also watch a video about proper burning and take a quiz. The video and quiz reportedly take less than an hour to complete.

Czarnecki said the air quality office has been receiving complaints about suspected violators of air quality rules on a daily basis. He said the goal of his division of to help residents burn more cleanly. 

“As long as you are making progress to come into compliance with the regulations, we are not going to pursue any of these citations or warning letters,” he said. “We don’t ever want to hand out a citations. That is kind of a lose-lose for both parties. We want the air to get cleaner.”

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.