Setnetters in the Nushagak Section had their first opportunity to put their nets in the water Sunday night. KDLG checked out the first hour or so of fishing, and we didn’t see many fish. But Dee Barker, who pulled up to Rebel, a Peter Pan tender, about 30 minutes into the first setnet opening in the Nushagak Section on Sunday night, says he had a couple fish in his net.
“We got four fish in nets so far. That I could see. And yeah, looking for a good season. Get the bugs worked out, this is a good time to do it. Early. Yeah. See what works, what you need to change. I thought we’d go out, maybe Tuesday. But we were ready, pretty much. I’d had, I got a new motor in the boat, and I brought it out, run it in the water, but we didn’t have this, first time we set the gear out. We still have some gear to put up on the beach.”
Barker was about the eleventh boat to get ice and water at the Rebel on Sunday.
Onboard the Rebel, Kris Straub says the tender gave out about 4 tons of ice in the first 20 minutes of the opener.
“Pretty much everybody that’s fishing is coming to get ice and taking care of their fish this year, and so it’s good with this extra heat. Yeah, it makes a way better quality and that’s what it’s all about this year.”
District Manager Tim Sands says that when the first drift opener in the district occurs will depend on the numbers from those first two setnet openings plus sonar and tower counts, and an aerial survey.
We’ll have more numbers and info from the opener later today.
Dozens of new wildfires are burning around interior and western Alaska, as widespread lightning continues to cause new starts. An Alaska Interagency Coordination Center report listed 47 new fires Monday morning, with 186 active blazes state-wide.
Among recent days new fires getting attention are 2 on either side of the Parks Highway near Anderson. Firefighters are battling what’s being called the Rex Complex fire. The report estimates the combined burn area at nearly 5 thousand acres. Fire Information Officer Andrea Capps says the fires have threatened populated areas.
Caps says the Nenana River lies between the fire and the community of Anderson, and response to the blaze is ramping up as a Type 2 management team from Washington State takes over operations and more resources are diverted to the fire along the Parks Highway.
Many of the other recent new lightning starts are in more remote areas of the interior, but a few are near villages. A new blaze that started Saturday near Northway along the Alaska Highway has quickly grown to 9 thousand acres. Tok area Division Forestry spokesman Jim Schwarber says winds are pushing the flames away from the village and parallel to the Highway.
“The concerns we have are the potential impacts of the fire on the travel corridor there — the corridor for traffic on the Alaska Highway,” Schwarber says. “We are making preparations to have flaggers and pilot cars on scene if safety requires their use to keep the traffic flowing there.”
Schwarber says there have been smoke impacts but so far the fire is far enough from the road not to be an issue. He says a management team has taken over the fire response.
The Card Street Fire near Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula is 25 percent contained after destroying 11 structures. The Sockeye fire near Willow is now 79 percent contained.
One of four Fairbanks men fighting for exoneration from murder convictions was paroled last week. The Alaska Native community gathered in Fairbanks over the weekend to welcome home Marvin Roberts.
Friends and family sang and danced to celebrate the release of Marvin Roberts. Roberts is one of the so called “Fairbanks Four,” men whose convictions for the 1997 beating death of 15-year-old John Hartman, have long been questioned. The three others: fellow Alaska Natives George Frese and Eugene Vent, and American Indian Kevin Pease remain jailed. A request for post conviction relief, currently working its way through court, centers on new information pointing to others being responsible for the Hartman attack. The interior Native Community has increased support for the Fairbanks Four in recent years, something the 37-year-old Roberts recognized in brief comments at the weekend event.
Roberts has been in a halfway house in Fairbanks since last week, after transitioning from prisons where he spent the last 17-plus years. Speaking at the Saturday event, Tanana Chief’s Conference President Victor Joseph reflected on the bitter sweet feeling of many.
Joseph emphasized the importance of the event as a fundraiser for the Alaska Innocence Project, which along with other attorneys is working to exonerate the Fairbanks Four. Their request for post conviction relief largely hinges on self-incriminating statements by two former Fairbanks men serving time for unrelated killings. Alleged statements by one of those men about the Hartman murder, remains under seal of attorney client privilege, a situation Innocence Project Director Bill Oberly calls very unique.
Oberly remains optimistic justice will prevail, pointing to Robert’s parole despite maintaining his innocent. Oberly is hoping for a ruling releasing he sealed statement prior to an evidentiary hearing scheduled for October.
Salvation Army Lieutenant Christin Fankhauser is the face behind the local effort to build emergency supply kits for the Homer community. She is standing in the center of a medium sized room lined with shelves of non-perishables.
“Top Ramen, pasta, spaghetti sauce, rice; we have plenty of canned goods from vegetables to rice to beans,” says Fankhauser.
The idea behind the drive is pretty basic. In the event people are displaced by a disaster, like the fires that flared up near Sterling and Cooper Landing recently, they will still have a place to go for the basics. Batteries, flashlights, rope, gloves; all the things a family might not be able to grab in an evacuation.
“Let’s say the firemen come in and say, ‘you have 20 minutes to evacuate.’ In that 20 minutes you have to gather up what you can. Most people are going for their treasure possessions, their irreplaceable things,” explains Fankhauser. “20 minutes is a quite short time.”
Fankhauser says that inability to grab everything while on the run is why cash donations are also extremely important. She explains that when people donate materials they’ll inevitably end up giving the same items and charity groups like the Salvation Army might already have shelters setup to distribute food.
“People might forget something like their prescription medicine. Well of course the community is not able to donate prescription medicine. So somebody gets to a shelter [and] they’ve got their food, they’ve got their shelter, but now they don’t have their prescription meds,” says Fankhauser.
Fankhauser says that people will always donate after disaster strikes but she stresses it’s extremely important to stock up beforehand.
“That way it gives [us] time when we have those donations already [and] we have these kits ready to go. We can setup, we can get going, and that gives us time for all the organizations to get together and say, ‘this is what we’re going to do [and] this is what you’re going to do,’” explains Fankhauser.
She says that way the Salvation Army, local churches and any other organizations responding can evaluate the gaps they still need filled by the community as opposed to starting off from scratch. The program Fankhauser is building is new and they haven’t built a strong relationship with local charities yet; but she’s confident if a disaster struck, they’d still be a strong safety net able to catch those hit hardest.
“We also have a disaster coordinator for the entire state. She’s a resource for us, she is in Anchorage and if were to have a huge disaster up here they would come down with their mobile canteens that they already have,” says Fankhauser.
In the meantime, Fankhauser is just trying to secure donations. She says they haven’t received many items for the kits yet and the drive ends at on the last day of June.
“I thought maybe I had advertised adequately by sending notice to the papers and the radio, and posting on Facebook, and sending notices to the city and the chamber. I don’t really know if the community even knows that we’re collecting,” says Fankhauser.
She says people can leave items in the Salvation Army’s collection bin at Ulmer’s Drug and Hardware Store. There are lists of the things needed inside of the store.
The long-anticipated hydroelectric project on Chignik Lagoon’s Packer Creek is now operational.
Nathan Hill is the manager of the Lake and Peninsula Borough:
“They are running 100% hydro as we speak. It’s not 100% complete, there’s some dirt work to do still, things we were waiting on for weather. But they are off of diesel right now.”
Hill says the $5 million dollar hydro project is a run-of-the-river system.
“Which means we take water out up at the top and put it into a pipe, and it gets piped down to a lower elevation where it goes through the turbine and then gets put back into the creek.”
The unit will provide electricity to the 70-some residents of Chignik Lagoon. Hill says they may not see a drop in electricity rates right away, but getting away from diesel should lower costs in the long run.
“With the cost of diesel, prices rise and fall, and we have no control over it. But with alternative energy, the goal is to at the very least stabilize the cost of energy so that it doesn’t spike.”
The hydro project was funded with $4 million dollars from the Alaska Energy Authority, as well as contributions from the Borough and the village.
The project has been in the works for several years, and broke ground last spring. Hill says the community plans to hold a ribbon cutting around mid-August.
The Cleveland volcano in the east central Aleutians is showing signs of heating up.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory reports that increased surface temperatures and ash indicate the volcano has entered a period of unrest. According to the release, the alert level for Cleveland was bumped up to advisory, meaning the possibility of explosions has increased.
The Cleveland volcano is located on the uninhabited Chuginadak Island about 45 miles west of the community of Nikolski. Its last major eruption was in 2001 and it has been intermittently active since then.
The Kuskokwim River’s first 6-inch drift opening happens Monday afternoon from the Johnson River down to the refuge boundary at the mouth of the river. It runs from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Monday, June 22, 2015.
Nets must be no longer than 300-feet in length, and 45 meshes in depth.
Managers have been waiting for chum and sockeye to outnumber king salmon at the Bethel Test Fishery. They say a three to one ratio was achieved this weekend and that the ratio is higher than that in the lower river. Federal managers write that they expect a limited chinook harvest in Monday’s opener.
There will be more chum and red salmon in the river compared to king salmon as the season progresses.
Federal managers say they will have additional openings moving up the river as the ratios change. They expect no more than about 200 boats taking part in this afternoon’s opening.
Federal managers this year are in charge of waters below Aniak during the king salmon run, while the state retains control from Aniak to the headwaters.
PacRim Coal is proposing a strip mining operation on the west side of Cook Inlet, in the Chuitna watershed. It proposes removing the water completely from a tributary of the Chuitna River, which is a salmon stream.
On August 21st, there will be a public hearing in Anchorage about the reservation of water applications for the area near the proposed mine. The decision that follows could determine the possible future of the watershed.
With regard to water rights, Alaska, is a prior appropriation state. It follows the logic of first in right, first in time. Basically, the first person to take water from an area for beneficial use, gets the rights. David Schade is the Chief of Water Resources for the Department of Natural Resources, or DNR.
“In 1984, the legislature allowed reservation of water applications, or what some people call instream flow reservations,” says Schade. “Part of that was that a traditional water right, as long as you perfect that right, and use that water, it’s a perpetual right. Reservation of water rights are reviewable.”
So, one is perpetual, one is reviewable.
Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, says it was through this process that local citizens first showed their opposition to the mine.
“There’s been a very strong effort to understand how can we protect this resource without getting sucked into a process we know has a predetermined outcome. So, local citizens with the Chuitna Citizens’ Coalition, on the west side of Cook Inlet, filed to keep the water in Middle Creek,” says Shavelson. “It’s called a reservation of water or instream flow reservation. It’s simply there to say the water belongs in the stream for salmon and other wildlife.”
On the other hand, PacRim Coal has filed for traditional water rights. Schade, for DNR, is currently considering the three applications from the citizens’ coalition.
“So what we have now is a traditional water right that is behind a reviewable water right and it creates a little bit of conflict.”
The purpose of the public hearing is to gather more information on objections to the applications. On one side, there will be people who believe DNR underestimated the value of the fisheries that will be lost if the stream is destroyed in its initial analysis.
Two of the applications are in the footprint of the proposed mine area, while the third is not, which speaks to this group, says Schade.
“In those instances, there’s a direct conflict between reservation of water, leaving the stream there, and the ability or not to mine,” says Schade.
On the other side, there are those who believe it’s not in the public interest to grant any reservation of water at this point in time.
The timeline isn’t standard says Schade. Typically, DNR would look at reservation of water versus traditional water rights at the end of the permitting process, once the mine is given the go-ahead.
“So unfortunately, I’m having to make certain assumptions that these permits will be granted and I will clearly lay out what those assumptions are,” says Schade. “But I’m going to have to assume that these things are going to be able to be put in place as part of my decision, or if I think they’re not going to be put in place because of any further information I get.”
In 2013, the Superior Court ruled that DNR had violated the citizens’ coalition’s right to due process and hadn’t followed the law when they allowed their water applications to sit for four years without consideration. Hence the accelerated timeline.
As part of that, DNR received more than 7,000 public comments on the applications. The majority, like Coalition member Judy Heilman, wanted protection for salmon habitat.
“There’s never been a salmon stream that’s been restored that’s been destroyed like that. I can’t tell you how important it is for us to stop this before it starts,” says Heilman.
But others were vehement that DNR should follow the standard permitting process.
“What I see in the discussion is you have various groups with very specific viewpoints. You have the fisheries viewpoint and they’re very focused on that and that’s a very viable viewpoint to have. You have industry on the other side that has the viewpoint of trying to be able to develop resources,” says Schade.
After the hearing, Schade will make a decision on the applications. That will come by October 6th.
“So it’s a challenge. DNR is a multi-use agency. We have to balance all the uses. The good news, is I have a statute which gives me criteria.”
He says he’ll follow that and, because reservation of water applications are reviewable, will possibly return to the decision once again down the line.
A group of 49 business owners in Southeast Alaska wants the federal government to put more money into recreation opportunities at the Tongass National Forest.
The Juneau Empire reports the group sent a letter in May asking lawmakers to consider the Tongass’ recreation program when Forest Service funding is appropriated.
The group says the recreation budget has dropped 42 percent in the last six years.
Montana-based research firm Headwater Economics released a report in November saying the Tongass is spending more on its timber program than recreation.
Juneau Economic Development Council Director Brian Holst says the House and Senate had been expected to act on a Forest Service budget proposal this week.
He said the state needs improved access to recreation opportunities for its tourism industry to grow.
The Card Street fire near Sterling and two fires near Cooper Landing continue to burn on the Kenai Peninsula.
As of Sunday morning, the Card Street fire was estimated to be around 7,700 acres. Over the weekend, it continued to burn over marshlands and recreational areas around Skilak Lake into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Cooler temperatures, higher humidity, and favorable winds continued to push the fire away from residential areas and all evacuations were lifted on Saturday.
According to the Washington Interagency Command Team, which is leading firefighting efforts, the fire is 20% contained.
Skilak Loop Road and the Skilak recreation area will remain closed until conditions improve.
385 personnel are working on the fire and a total of 11 structures have been destroyed.
Near the community of Cooper Landing, the Stetson Creek and Juneau Lake fires continue to burn, though they haven’t grown much since the end of last week.
As of Sunday evening, Stetson Creek was estimated at 212 acres and Juneau Lake at 488 acres.
Although it’s the smaller fire, Stetson Creek is burning near the Sterling Highway and is in the vicinity of populated areas. Crews from Oregon, the Alaska Midnight Sun Hotshots, and a Chugach National Forest team worked through the weekend to establish a perimeter and protect assets near the highway. It’s estimated to be 30% contained.
The Juneau Lake fire is 10% contained. A crew came in by helicopter to protect structures on Juneau Lake and secure the fire’s edge along the west and south.
134 personnel are working on both Cooper Landing fires.
The Card Street fire is listed as human-caused while the Stetson Creek and Juneau Lake fires were caused by lightning strikes.
A burn ban is in place for the entire Kenai Peninsula, including the Chugach National Forest.
Eight miles north of the Arctic Circle, a fixed 72-panel, 18-kilowatt array of solar panels went online last month atop the Fort Yukon tribal hall.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that the $250,000 project was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Tribal Energy Program and Fort Yukon’s Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government.
The solar panels are only one part of the Alaska city’s energy upgrade, which also includes LED lighting upgrades and increased insulation.
The project also includes outreach and education.
In June, the array should produce and estimated 2,351 kilowatt-hours, saving $1,504. But in December, the city only expects 184 kilowatt-hours, or a savings of $118.
Sitka-based fish processor Silver Bay Seafoods has agreed to pay a $75,000 penalty for environmental violations at its plant in Valdez.
The penalty was levied by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, for improperly discharged fish waste in the Valdez harbor.
In 2013, the pipe carrying the plant’s fish waste was damaged, likely by a ship dragging its anchor across the harbor. The company replaced the pipe without DEC approval.
And while the original pipe had discharged waste at about 180 feet below the water’s surface, the new pipe was half as long and thought to be releasing waste at a depth of about 40 feet. That was already less than the 60 feet required by the plant’s permit — but a dive survey at the end of the 2014 season found the actual discharge level was only three feet deep.
Mike Solter is a compliance manager at the DEC. He explained the agency’s concern.
“When you start discharging in really shallow bits of water, what happens is you end up with really thick, serious waste pile sitting on the bottom,” Solter said. “[That] can actually smother the bottom, it can smother the sea life down there, and it can actually create dead zones.”
In this case, Solter said a small waste pile did build up on the seafloor, but it’s not clear what, if any, environmental impact it had.
The penalty is calculated based on the potential for environmental harm, as well as any economic benefit gained by not complying with the permit. Solter called the fine “pretty significant.” But he said it was reduced because of the company’s efforts to do better.
“They’ve actually hired a full-time environmental staff member,” he said. “And at this plant in particular, they’ve told us they’re working on plans to cut their amount of waste significantly, they’re going to start freezing it on-site and either hauling it to a landfill or taking it to be re-processed into other products.”
In a statement emailed to KCAW, Silver Bay CEO Rich Riggs wrote, “Silver Bay deeply regrets the circumstances that lead to this penalty and takes full responsibility for the incident. We understand the importance of being a good environmental steward and fully support the efforts of ADEC to protect the environment. We have and will continue to take affirmative steps to avoid any further incidents.”
The heat wave that has already brought record-breaking temperatures to Alaska is expected to continue until the start of fall.
The Alaska Dispatch News reports that the three-month forecast from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center anticipates warmer-than-normal weather from July through the end of September.
The strongest changes for warm weather are in Southeast Alaska and along the Southcentral Alaska coastline.
NWS’s Alaska climate science and services manager Rick Thoman says several factors are combining to keep the state warm.
Those include the current positive phase of an oceanic cycle that is associated with warm sea surface temperatures in the North Pacific, unrelated warm temperatures in the Bering Sea and the diminished state of Arctic sea ice.
A French tour boat carrying about 250 people is visiting Southeast Alaska this week. It’s the first of several visits planned this year and next. L’Austral stopped at Petersburg last week.
“Bonjour. Welcome on board.”
Christel Bonomme is Guest Relations for the tour ship and greets our group of ten Petersburg residents with a warm smile and a thick French accent.
It’s a pretty fancy mega-yacht that’s four years old, part of a new fleet of ships owned by the French company called Ponant and passengers pay for it. A week-long trip through Alaska this summer starts at $6,000.
Inside, the color scheme is whites and neutrals with leather furniture and wood trim. Even the standard rooms have king-sized beds which impress the visitors.
There’s a two-story sculpture that depicts rain drops made of hundreds of crystals. There’s a spa that smells like perfume; a dance floor for live music events, and a dining hall for formal evenings.
The ship is parked in front of Petersburg which is an unusual site. Smaller cruise ships this size show up on occasion but the town never gets large ones. It can’t. There’s just not enough room for them to maneuver. The water in front of town, called the Wrangell Narrows, resembles a large river. It’s a channel between Mitkof and Kupreanof Islands and it’s known for its tides which can create strong currents. Today, the conditions were just right for this large ship to park.
In the bridge, Captain Jean Phillipe Lenaire greets the tour group.
“We enjoyed amazing whale watching this morning, exactly what we are looking for,” says Lenaire in a French accent.
The captain brought the ship into the Narrows this time because the water was calm and the tides were in his favor.
“I guess you have not so much cruise in Petersburg. That is why we are here,” Lenaire says. “It is just the reason we are here because our concept is to be able to go where the other one can’t go. That means the others, let them go to Ketchikan, Juneau, and other places, because it’s really our concept as a small cruise ship to be able to give another experience to our passengers.”
Although the ship does regular cruises to places like the Caribbean and Japan it also takes expeditions to the Amazon River and around the ice flows of Antarctica and Arctic. They have a dozen zodiacs which they can take out from the ship for impromptu excursions.
Lenaire says they pride themselves on their stewardship of nature. They have a dozen expedition staff on board including ten naturalists. Petersburg being a small community on an Alaska island is just the type of place his clientele want to visit:
“They are looking for how is the life here in the small community in the middle of nowhere, on an island and in winter, you know. You need to give more than just a nice landscape and a nice excursion,” Lenaire says. “The people enjoy a lot to feel a warm welcome of a community, to feel that all of the community have a true smile, not just something to commercial.”
The French ship is also scheduled to visit Juneau, Ketchikan, and Haines and Skagway this summer.
This week, we’re hearing from Adine Fullerton, a Willow resident who evacuated her home on Monday because of the Sockeye fire. Adine left with three kids, five dogs, two cats, a hamster. She had to leave three tarantulas behind. When we talked to her she had just discovered her home was spared, along with the spiders. Adine Fullerton evacuated from her home in Willow because of the Sockeye fire.
Progress Being Made To Contain Sockeye Fire
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
The Sockeye fire near Willow is five percent contained. Fire information officer Sarah Sarloos says the progress is made at the Northern portion of the perimeter. But a recent windshift could change that. Sarloos says the wind is from the South pushing North, with gusts of 20 mph, and that could test the gains made by firefighters.
Anatomy of the Wildland Firefight in Willow
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
Officials lifted the evacuation order WHEN? over parts of Willow where threats from the Sockeye fire have lessened. As responders chip away at the blaze, KSKA’s Zachariah Hughes spoke with the front-line responders that have worked around the clock since it’s rapid spread last week.
Evacuation Notices Lifted Near Card Street Fire
Shaylon Cochran, KDLL – Kenai
The Card Street Fire near Sterling is still officially tabbed at zero-percent contained, but most evacuation notices have been lifted. The Kenai Peninsula Borough made a local disaster declaration Thursday night to get help with relief efforts. As KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran reports, the fire continues to push away from homes and into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Vets, Lawmakers Irate Over New VA ‘Choice’ Program
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington
When the scandal erupted last year over long wait lists at the Phoenix VA, Alaska was found to have quite short wait times. The Alaska VA has for years been buying care for veterans outside the VA, at community and private-sector clinics, and especially through the Native health care system. Care Closer to Home, it’s called. That’s the model Congress chose when it passed the Veterans Choice Act last year. But as the new Choice program spreads across the country and takes hold in Alaska, vets and providers say it’s undoing parts of the Alaska-grown system that have worked well.
Dead Whales Near Kodiak Island Pose Mystery
Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak
At least 10 Fin whales are dead, having fallen victim to a mysterious affliction that seems to have killed them all near Kodiak Island. Kate Wynn, marine mammal specialist with the University of Alaska in Kodiak, said all the whales seemed to have met their fate at the same time and place.
AK: Citizen Scientists Deploy ‘Bat Mobiles’ In Southeast
Emily Files, KHNS – Haines
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is stepping up its research on bats in Southeast. The nocturnal, bug eating animal is being threatened in the Lower 48 by a disease called White-Nose Syndrome.
49 Voices: ADine Fullerton of Willow
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage and Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Now it’s time for 49 voices. This week, we’re hearing from Adine Fullerton, a Willow resident who evacuated her home on Monday because of the Sockeye fire. Adine left with three kids, five dogs, two cats, a hamster. She had to leave three tarantulas behind. When we talked to her she had just discovered her home was spared, along with the spiders. Adine Fullerton evacuated from her home in Willow because of the Sockeye fire.
When the scandal erupted last year over long wait lists at the Phoenix VA, Alaska was found to have quite short wait times. The Alaska VA has for years been buying care for veterans outside the VA, at community and private-sector clinics, and especially through the Native health care system. The concept is dubbed “Care Closer to Home.” That’s the model Congress chose when it passed the Veterans Choice Act last year, aimed at solving the backlog for VA services in the Lower 48. But as the new Choice program spreads across the country and takes hold in Alaska, vets and providers say it’s undoing parts of the Alaska-grown system that have worked well.
Damita Duplantis is an Air Force vet and has back pain. She didn’t know about the Choice program until she got a call from the office of the neurosurgeon she hoped would operate on her back.
“And they called and told me that they had to cancel my appointment, because the VA was doing some kind of new funding thing and they were not accepting that type of funding that the VA was changing over to,” she says.
So Duplantis called the VA. She eventually learned that for an appointment outside the VA, now she has to go through something called the Veterans Choice program. In Alaska and 27 other states, Choice is administered by a company called TriWest. DuPlantis says she probably spent five hours on the phone, bouncing between TriWest and the VA.
“The thing that frustrated me, is one, my appointment is being canceled, I’m in pain,” she said. “And two, they changed over to this new program and didn’t even tell the veterans what they were doing.”
Alaska’s congressional delegation has received dozens of calls from angry veterans. Vets say clinics they’d been going to aren’t accepting Choice, and that appointments elsewhere are hard or impossible to get. They tell of long hold times to reach TriWest call centers, emails that get no response and broken links on VA websites.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski was furious when she learned of the changes in late May.
“This is a threat to a collaborative effort that has been built over a period of years that has been very beneficial to our veterans,” she said earlier this month.
She fired off a four-alarm letter to the VA secretary. Congressman Don Young sent his own this week, and Sen. Dan Sullivan called for a congressional hearing. By late this week, the VA relented, in part: They’ve restored funds for non-Native veterans to get care at Native hospitals and clinics.
Andy Teuber, president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, says last year, some 1400 Alaska vets used their VA benefits to get care at Native health facilities, and most of those vets were non-Natives. The VA reimbursement came to nearly $6 million, a small part of the $100 million or so the Alaska VA spends each year to purchase care outside the VA system.
Before the VA restored money for tribal providers this week, Teuber said he didn’t see the utility of TriWest, the contractor for the Choice program. By inserting a private company in the administration of VA care, Teuber says, you add a middleman that needs to make a profit.
“And it’s a wasteful layer of bureaucracy that effectively rations care of the veterans here in Alaska,” he said.
Hal Blair, deputy program manager at TriWest, says the company provides an important service, or the VA wouldn’t have asked the contractor to take on the Choice Program for much of the country, and on short notice.
“We had basically 30 days, with our VA partners, to go from a blank sheet of paper to having contact centers that could respond to the Choice requirements,” he said.
Blair says TriWest is working hard to sign up more providers in Alaska. Thanks to a special amendment to the Choice Act, they can now pay Alaska providers above the Medicare rate. Blair and VA officials say that should help.
Saving the government money is a big part of the mission at TriWest, Blair says.
“We like to think of ourselves as taxpayers first and businessmen second,” he says.
But contracts like this are expensive to administer, especially, he says, in their initial phases. A recent VA Inspector General’s report found that, for a related contract TriWest has with the VA, the government paid TriWest $8.4 million last year to buy $2.3 million worth of medical care for veterans.
Blair says he hadn’t seen the IG report, but he says TriWest’s value will become clear once more veterans sign up.
In Alaska, the new Choice program is baffling for some vets not well situated to cope with it. Jesse Gotschall, of Anchorage, was a truck driver in the Army. He served in both Iraq and Aghanistan.
“I have back problems, right? And I need help with it,” he says.
He says accupuncture and chiropractic care help him stand up straight so he can work. He also has PTSD, and trouble remembering things. It was hard enough for him to learn how to use the VA system before the rules changed. Now, he says, he feels like he’s trying to play chess on a Scrabble board.
“I honestly don’t know. And like, that’s part of the problem,” he said. “I try to figure this stuff out and I don’t know where to call, and you try to talk to someone and (you’re told) ‘you gotta do this, you gotta do that.’”
He’s beyond frustrated. He says sometimes he feels like giving up on the mortgage he’s trying to pay and leaving the country. One person who has helped him was his acupuncturist, Valerie DeLaune. He says she explained the VA programs to him, and also encouraged him to get treatment for his PTSD. Gottschall, though, will soon have to find treatment somewhere else. DeLaune was a TriWest provider, but says she dropped out due to a messy accounting dispute with the company.
The Alaska VA director says they’re planning a big campaign to explain the Choice program to veterans.
Update: Friday, June 19. 4:45 pm
The Card Street Fire near Sterling is still officially tabbed at zero-percent contained, but most evacuation notices have been lifted. The Kenai Peninsula Borough made a local disaster declaration Thursday night to get help with relief efforts. The fire continues to push away from homes and into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Original Post: Friday, June 19. 10:00 am
Smoke clearing in the Card Street Fire near Sterling allowed Alaska Division of Forestry managers to get a better look at the areas burned. As of 11 a.m. Friday, the estimate is 7,578 acres, down from previous reports due to better mapping.
The blaze, sparked Monday, continues to move east into the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The area is uninhabited, but Refuge Fire Management Officer Kristi Bulock says the goal is to stop the fire, nonetheless, to keep it from threatening homes.
“This is an unwanted fire. This fire has the potential, if it crosses the Sterling Highway with the right conditions, it could actually come back in to the north side of Sterling and we absolutely do not want that to happen,” Bulock said. “The goal is to stop the fire. There’s just too much risk to communities.”
Evacuation notices were lifted Thursday in Sterling from the intersection of Feuding Lane and Kenai Keyes north to the Sterling Highway. Evacuation status remains in effects from Kenai Keyes south to the Kenai River.
Homer Electric Association reports that it will leave power off to 169 meters in the area, due to extensive damage during the fire.
The two fires started by lightening Tuesday in the Cooper Landing area saw little growth Thursday. The Juneau Creek Fire is estimates at 100 acres, and Stetson Creek at 400 acres. Crews are working to protect Forest Service cabins near Juneau Lake, and air support continues to limit the growth of both fires.
A Type II management team is taking command those fires Friday, with at least 40 additional firefighters expected.
The Card Street Fire continues to get new support, as well, including from Alaska villages. Hotshot crews from Grayling, Hooper Bay and Chevak arrived Thursday.
Update: Friday, June 19. 5:00 pm
The Sockeye Fire near Willow is five percent contained. Fire information officer Sarah Sarloos says the progress is made at the Northern portion of the perimeter. But a recent windshift could change that. Sarloos says the wind is from the South pushing North, with gusts of 20 mph, and that could test the gains made by firefighters.
Almost 600 firefighters remain on the job, for just such a possibility, and they will stay on the Sockeye Fire for at least two more days.
Update: Friday, June 19. 7:00 am.
Managers of the Sockeye Fire near Willow plan to begin letting residents back into the evacuation area Friday. At 10 this morning, the evacuation zone will be reduced to the fire perimeter line, controlled by nine security checkpoints. Homeowners who have lost homes will be let into the fire zone, starting at 11. The evacuation is set to end entirely on Saturday but security checkpoints will remain in place through the weekend. On the Parks Highway, traffic will be controlled between mileposts 71 and 78 until Monday. Authorities are also reducing the flight restrictions this morning, starting at 8, to allow airplanes into Long Lake, Willow Lake and the Willow Airport. At least 26 homes were destroyed in the 7,000-acre blaze. Firefighters are still working in the area to put out hotspots.
At least 10 Fin whales are dead, having fallen victim to a mysterious affliction that seems to have killed them all near Kodiak Island. Kate Wynn, marine mammal specialist with the University of Alaska in Kodiak, said all the whales seemed to have met their fate at the same time and place.
“The evidence suggests that all of these whales that we’ve found died at about the same time, which is like the third week of May, around the 20th, in a short period of time in a fairly localized area, and that’s about all we know right now,” Wynn said. “So it rules out a couple of things. And the fact that the carcass are intact, it rules out killer whale predation. But other than that, we’re at a loss.”
The area the whales were found were all south of Afognak Island, the second largest in the Kodiak Archipelago, just north of Kodiak Island.
All the dead whales spotted have been adults, except one calf and a couple of sub-adults, with a mix of genders. It’s the feeding that Wynn thinks may be the most likely culprit in their death.
“It suggests that there’s something, a feeding group of fin whales ran into a toxin, or bio-toxin, human caused, induced, toxin, something that they were exposed to together in a short period of time,” Wynn said.
“So we’re looking at water temperature, harmful algae bloom possibilities. But there’s a lot of things that don’t add up with that theory. Mainly that we don’t find the prey species dead on the beach or other species that would be eating the same prey, dying.”
Fin whales, the second-largest species after Blue Whales, are filter-feeders, meaning they strain tiny sea life in its baleen to eat. They do not eat larger seafood such as salmon or halibut.
Wynn says that a colleague at the Marine Advisory Program in Kodiak is checking for evidence of paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Blubber and muscle samples, and an eyeball, recovered from one whale has been sent for laboratory examination, and Wynn says results might be available next week.