AD Main Menu

As winter settles in, rural Alaska villages without enough heating fuel

Jill Burke

As winter begins to settle in, a few villages in Alaska remain without the fuel they will need to heat and power homes and businesses during the state’s harsh months ahead.

Many of the state's remote communities are accessible only by boat or plane. Once bays and coastlines freeze up, or rivers become too low, boats and barges are no longer available as transport options, forcing often cash-strapped communities to pay an even higher price per gallon to have their fuel supplies flown in.

Edna Bay, a small, isolated island village in southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest is one of three communities that, as of Nov. 4, doesn't have the reserves it needs to get through an entire winter, according to Alaska's Division of Community and Regional Affairs, which in July began monitoring community fuel preparedness statewide in advance of the 2011-2012 winter season.

The status of five other villages -- Nunam Iqua, Red Devil, Port Alexander, Karluk and Kasigluk -- remains unknown, despite efforts by the division's Fuel Watch program to get in touch with people in those communities to find out whether they are stocked up or need assistance.

Since 2008, Edna Bay has not had a bulk fuel facility that can be serviced by a commercial barge. Costs are reportedly too high to offload a fuel shipment barged in from Ketchikan. To get by, people are hauling fuel into the village in small boats and skiffs.

Meanwhile, Ekwok, a small riverside village in Southwest Alaska, has had its fuel shipment stalled due to low water levels. Hopes were that a ship could get in before freeze-up. In the past, November has served as a cut-off date. After Nov. 1, the community has traditionally resorted to flying in what it needs, something it is again prepared to do this year if necessary.

Fuel shipments made by air can raise the cost per gallon by as much as $1.50 to $1.85, according to Scott Ruby, Director of the Division of Community and Regional Affairs.

For three years, his office has tried to head off mid-winter fuel crises by helping communities plan ahead. Coordinating shipments, assessing facility capacity and assisting with financial paperwork early can go a long way in preventing fuel-shortage emergencies. With the state's bitter winter temperatures, winds and blizzards, the inability to heat a home or shelter can quickly become a public safety crisis -- a situation the state hopes to help villages avoid.

Sometimes it can be finding an alternate shipping company to step in, as happened recently in Nikolski. When one fuel distributor, worried that the village’s barge landing was inadequate during rough, Fall weather, refused to make the delivery, the village found someone else to do it.

Other times it can mean working around an unanticipated obstacle, as in Iliamna this year where a bridge drivers had hoped to cross with tanks full of fuel wasn't passable due to weight restrictions. With five tankers carrying 35,000 gallons of fuel stranded on the far side of the bridge, residents were forced to pump the fuel across the bridge to a tanker waiting on the other side, which then was able to haul the fuel in and "top off" the existing supplies. Even with the work around, Iliamna Development Corp. reports it may still have to fly fuel in later in the winter, depending on demand.

The state monitors 310 rural entities that use or rely on bulk fuel. Of those, all but seven of them -- 2 percent -- have said they have the winter fuel supplies they need.

Unusually long cold snaps, or a colder winter overall, would deplete fuel supplies faster than projected and could push some communities into an unanticipated fuel crisis. But for now, the statewide assessment looks stable.

"From what we can predict at this point we’re feeling pretty good," Ruby said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com