The Air Quality in Fairbanks, Alaska is Worse than in Beijing

Written by Lloyd Alter

Wood is a renewable resource, and the carbon dioxide released in it is considered better than that from fossil fuels because it was so recently absorbed. Marc Gunther once called it “a renewable energy technology that gets no respect”.

However, burning wood makes a lot of smoke and a lot of pollution. Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times describes how the smoke in Fairbanks, Alaska is so thick that it is beyond all acceptable standards.

Most people think of Alaska as one of the last great escapes from urban pollution. But they have not spent a winter in Fairbanks or the nearby town of North Pole, where air-quality readings in November were twice as bad as Beijing’s.

There’s lots of wood in Alaska, and the alternatives are expensive. There’s no gas pipeline, and fuel oil costs $ 4.50 a gallon, so people burn wood or whatever else they can throw in their furnaces, and there is nothing anyone can do about it because this is America and people can do whatever they want.

This is Alaska’s freedom belt, and nearly every attempt to regulate the offending stoves has been beaten back at the polls most recently in October, with an initiative prohibiting the borough from regulating any heating appliance using any fuel in any way. “This whole thing has gotten conflated in Fairbanks: ‘My wood burner is next to my gun don’t take it out of my cold, dead hands,’” said Sylvia Schultz, who runs a clean air advocacy website.

So there are no environmental controls at all; since the October initiative anything goes: “any combustible fuel. Natural gas. Trash. Tires…. Railroad ties. Feces. Animal carcasses.”

There are people trying to change this; at Clean Air Fairbanks they say Polluting is a choice; breathing is not. They note that if something isn’t done, The EPA will move in.

Extremists thumbing their noses at reducing smoke pollution no matter what the cost are winning the race to the bottom. Our smoke pollution is among the worst in the nation and rising each year. Families, neighbors, and the economy are being damaged. Controls with stiff economic costs are unavoidable. Digging in our heels only prolongs the harm and removes our community from taking a seat at the table where those controls will be hammered out.

This is an extreme example of a problem that happens all over North America. The fact of the matter is, even EPA certified wood stoves are dirty. Trees may be renewable, but lungs aren’t.

This post was originally published by TreeHugger.


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Mary L.
mary Lee4 years ago

To my dear fellow Baby Boomers:

Join the Freedom Movement all you who are retired but still alive and kicking...
What have you got to lose? Your youth was wasted smoking joints, talking about changes you and your peers would make but alas, upon earning that diploma you signed up for the rest of your life as a working slave to the corporate world in exchange for house, car and more enslavement toys of technology. You FORGOT your principles and ideals. People's Park to the golf course. Freedom of Speech became twitter and facebook. Now you are running the last quarter of your life's race towards the sacred rendezvous...this is your chance to wake up and heed the need of your soul...

Let the younger generations speak of our courage and not just of our consumption...we had it good, drank the fresh waters from icy streams, warmed ourselves with camp fires we built instead of propane, we looked up at the clear night skies with the brillant stars and went to sleep with dreams of abundance. Let us not waste away the last of our vigor in convalescent homes. Even if cancer from the toxins in the food and environment has taken parts of your body you still have your spirit which is untouched and pure – a gift from the Divine. You will leave this physical life and they who sent you will asked “Did you do what you came here to do?”

Wake up and smell the smoke of forest fires burni

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Arild Warud


John B.
John B5 years ago

Thanks for providing Mr. Alter's article.

Sue T.
Susan T5 years ago

Al this aricle says to me is China is better tha the USA. Which is probably true since they pretty much OWN us,

As for me I am going to go light a fire, have a glass of wine ans smoke a cigarette while I still can.
( lol I have no wine or smokes so it's a fire for now) while I watch the TV show about a hoard of serial killers....just saying

Christine Stewart

Trees are renewable, but if we cut them down and burn them faster than they can grow, it is not sustainable and the pollution outpaces the carbon sequestration!

Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M5 years ago

Good article Lloyd. Thank You.
Could the pollution of the wood smoke have anything to do with the extreme cold. Seems to me
everything is pushed downwards with all the ice pellets in the air. The smog just from vehicles stays closer to the ground. One thing is for sure I do not want to see anymore coal mines, and to pipe oil for home heating would be cost prohibitive.

Pamela W.
Pamela W5 years ago

Sue T ....... Good question !!! Their cooking and their hot water too ???

Pamela W.
Pamela W5 years ago

The air might be polluted and smokey but I know what I'd rather pollute my lungs with ..... I'll take WOOD every time, (at least it's "natural") rather than breathing in oil / gas pollution !!!! And I'm not convinced that the "fallout" from oil or gas isn't worse for the rest of the environment, either, than wood-smoke !!! Maybe Big Oil is behind all this fuss about wood ...... getting their prospective new customers lined up for when they get the "go ahead" for drilling there ??????

Jeanne M.
Jeanne M5 years ago

When we were living in the north of Canada, we had a wood-burning furnace - to put fuel oil in a 200 gallon tank was over $1500, and I can assure you that in the coldest stretch 200 gallons would not last the month. Add higher costs for food, gas, travel and we opted for whatever stretched the paycheque.
It is easy to sit in Los Angeles and make ecologically sound heating choices - those choices are a little tougher when it's minus 55 outside and you're dressing your children in layers to put them to bed.