As the world watches a Russian tanker crawl toward Nome, its belly full of gasoline and diesel fuel, two Northwest Alaska villages faced a more immediate need this week.
Dwindling heating oil reserves.
The Inupiat village of Noatak, where temperatures dipped to 45 below or colder each of the past three days, ran out of heating oil Saturday at the village store, residents say. Elder Bernice Monroe said her 78-year-old husband drove a snowmachine to nearby Red Dog Mine to buy a drum of fuel, while the store borrowed drums from the utility pump house and began rationing sales to 10 gallons per family.
People called each other on the VHF radio asking if anyone has fuel to sell or share, said Noatak resident Hilda Booth. "My husband and I are using our fish rack woods to heat up our home because it's so cold to go out and get wood."
The village store manager said she expected fresh fuel to arrive as early as today.
Farther inland is the smaller village of Kobuk, where it's been too cold or too snowy for planes to land at the airstrip for at least two weeks, delaying fuel shipments, said Mayor Edward Gooden Jr. That community was grappling with a power outage that led to blackouts at the clinic and community buildings, said Bob Schaeffer, public services director for the Northwest Arctic Borough.
The borough is monitoring the problems, he said. "Not much we can do from here if we can't get in."
Gooden said the village has been borrowing heating fuel from a reserve tank used to heat the water plant and city buildings. The airport manager has been clearing snow from the airstrip apron and Gooden hoped a fuel plane would be able to land today or Wednesday, he said.
"I don't know how much we've got to sell right now but we're running pretty low," Gooden said.
In both villages, residents said families are turning to wood stoves to heat their homes but the cold temperatures or lack of transportation limit wood-gathering. People in Kobuk who don't have snowmachines pay their neighbors $70 or $80 for a sled load of wood, Gooden said.
Like the ice-breaking fuel run to Nome, the heating fuel shortages underscore the isolation of rural Alaska towns and villages, where commodities arrive by air or sea or not at all.
Noatak, population 500, is on the bank of the Noatak River, where 26-year-old tribal administrator Robyn Mitchell can remember supplies arriving by barge when she was a girl. The waterway is too shallow now, she said.
Heating fuel at the village store sells for about $9 to $10 a gallon, Mitchell said. She couldn't say why the store had run out of fuel. The village store manager, who declined to give her name, said the weekend shortage was a result of a cold snap in the village.
The community also ran out of heating fuel in December, Mitchell said. But a fresh shipment arrived just as the Red Dog Mine prepared to allow villagers to make an early run to purchase fuel at the mine, about 18 miles away, Mitchell said.