Air quality forecast phone number

A vehicle drives past an illuminated sign displaying the air quality forecast phone number at the corner of Cowles Street and Airport Way Wednesday afternoon, January 24, 2018. Eric Engman/News-Miner

FAIRBANKS — Opponents of rules on wood burning are hoping to have a big turnout at the town hall meeting hosted by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor on Jan. 30 at the library in North Pole.

They are also planning a meeting of their own: A Wood Burning Freedom Summit is being held at Church at North Pole at 6 p.m. on Feb. 3. 

The borough has been sending out warning letters and contacting residents suspected of ignoring burn bans, which has sparked outcry on social media.

Burn bans have become routine, with 18 called so far this winter — mostly in North Pole where a monitor has detected some of the highest levels of PM2.5 in the nation. But compliance with the burning restrictions is low, according to the borough.

“We do not want the government in our homes telling us how we can keep our homes warm,” said Mel Whitlock, who created an event page on Facebook about the town hall meeting with hopes of getting the word out to wood burners. 

“I don’t think anybody will deny there can be an air quality issue up here,” Whitlock said. “The way the borough has gone about to try to fix this issue is not working.”

New tougher rules dealing with smoke emissions are in place this winter as the borough faces pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection agency to reduce levels of PM2.5, a particulate found in wood smoke and other emissions.

Scientific research has shown a link between PM2.5 and various illnesses of the heart and lungs. At least two area physicians have spoken out about PM2.5 and the negative health impacts; the Fairbanks

Memorial Hospital has reported a slight increase in hospital visits when the air is bad.  

The pollution is episodic. It does not happen because of the wood burning alone but because of atmospheric conditions. Intermittent temperature inversions, when a layer of warm air sits on top of a layer of colder air, keep the smoke from dispersing. 

Whitlock said that wood burners feel targeted. PM2.5 comes from a variety of sources, including oil burning.  

“If the problem was just wood burning, I think there could be a clear cut answer to this. But the problem’s not just wood burning,” he said. “The environment plays a role. If you come into an area like this, even with oil burning, (pollution) will settle into an area during inversions.” 

Whitlock said that some see the burning restrictions as a violation of their personal freedoms.

The borough has focused on wood burning because scientific research has shown it as the primary source of the high levels of PM2.5 that happen during the atmospheric inversions.

Borough Mayor Karl Kassel has said he is trying to protect public health. Research shows that PM2.5 is most harmful to the very young, the very old and people with heart and lung ailments. It impacts the rest of the population as well but slowly and over time. 

Whitlock said that people who are concerned about their health should consider moving to an area of town less impacted by the temperature inversions.

He also wants to see the borough focus more on educating residents about proper burning than calling burn bans. 

“They are more worried about losing potential (federal) funds over our freedoms and our rights,” he said. 

Kassel has said that he knows of no community that has solved its PM2.5 problem without putting restrictions on wood burning.

The Wood Burning Freedom Summit is being sponsored by Citizens for Property Rights and will feature speakers, with opportunity for questions and answers, according to Christine Robbins, an organizer.

“People need to know what is going on and how their freedoms are eroding away,” she said.

Borough Assemblyman Lance Roberts, Fairbanks City Councilman David Pruhs, former Fairbanks Councilwoman Vivian Stiver and Sam Tuck, a candidate for Borough Assembly, will be speaking.

“We are not sitting around and complaining. That is not what this is about,” Robbins said. 

She said it’s a meeting about protecting rights and freedoms, such as burning wood for heat. 

“This is just for people who need to heat their house for a family and this is all they can afford right now,” Robbins said. 

The borough offers burning waivers for people who have a financial hardship, but Robbins and Whitlock said people shouldn’t have to disclose their finances to the local government. They consider the waivers an effort to register people’s wood stoves.  

Both Whitlock and Robbins are proponents of a ballot question in October aimed at stripping the borough of the power to regulate home heating. 

“It’s so basic to heat your house with wood. That really shouldn’t be taken away from us,” Robbins said.  

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