NORTH POLE, Alaska — In Krystal Francesco's neighborhood, known here as the "rectangle of death," the air pollution recently was so thick she could hardly see across the street. Wood stoves were cranking all over town — it was 40 below zero — and she had to take her daughter to the emergency room.
"She's crying because she can't breathe, and I can just see her stomach rapidly going in and out. Sometimes, she's coughing to the point of throwing up," Francesco said of her 2½-year-old daughter, Kalli, who uses two different inhalers. "Even in the house, the smoke is coming in and it smells awful."
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.
Here, it's not freeways or factories fouling the air — it's wood stoves and backyard wood furnaces that send thick clouds of gray smoke roiling into the pines. On the cold, clear days when the temperature hits minus 50, an inversion layer often traps a blanket of smoke near the ground, and driving to work in North Pole can be like motoring through fog.
"It's like soup. Like gray soup. I call it the epicenter of hideousness," said Angela Dowler, a veterinarian.
Yet 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. Schultz moved to Washington state in July after her husband was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and her daughter faced the prospect of attending middle school in a high-smoke zone.
"What's different in Fairbanks is that people are burning not just wood, but coal, and no one's stopping it. They're promoting it," Schultz said.
Cities across the country struggle with the same kind of soot pollution that is plaguing Fairbanks: tiny particles measured as PM2.5, so small they can lodge deeply in the lungs and cause respiratory ailments, heart problems and possibly lung cancer.
Salt Lake City has lately been tagged as having some of the nation's dirtiest air, but here it often is worse. Since the beginning of the winter stove season, the greater Fairbanks area has logged 48 days that exceeded health limits established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The Los Angeles Basin had only 13 such days in all of 2011.
The smoke in Salt Lake City is attributed mainly to industry and automobiles, while Los Angeles suffers from ozone pollution and the myriad effects of diesel and car exhaust, along with pollution from ships, planes and other facts of urban life.
A toxic fog in Salt Lake City in January drew international headlines when it hit three times the pollution allowed by the federal Clean Air Act, but those levels also are far from unheard of in the Fairbanks region.
"This is a place where the [levels] are just ridiculous," said Dowler, who suffers from an irregular heartbeat during the heavy-burning winter months. Her teenage son has had a persistent respiratory infection since September and was recently diagnosed with pleuritis, an inflammation of the lining of the lungs.
Francesco has had to start using an inhaler after she exercises. "We have worse pollution than L.A., and it's just ridiculous that nothing's been done," she said.
One reason the area's air problem seems so intractable is that, in one of the coldest inhabited regions on earth, there are few affordable alternatives to burning wood and coal.
Though the city lies just 500 miles south of some of the biggest gas fields in the world, there is as yet no way to move it, and Fairbanks has limited access to natural gas. Since 2008, when fuel oil prices took a sharp upswing, residents have been paying $4.50 a gallon to fill their furnaces.
"People seriously were in a panic. It really became a question of heat or eat," said Michael Dukes, a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly who recently installed a coal stove — only slightly less polluting than a wood stove — in his home in North Pole's rectangle of death. "I was paying twice what my mortgage was just to heat my home."
Borough officials are asking residents to install low-emission stoves and burn dry wood. They are discussing a plan to pay families up to $1,000 a year to burn oil instead of wood on bad air days.
Borough air quality manager James Conner said the October ballot measure rebuffed broader attempts to outlaw smoky boilers or adopt burn bans, and also prevented any controls on what residents burn in their outdoor units.
"The interpretation is, it applies to any combustible fuel. Natural gas. Trash. Tires.... Railroad ties. Feces. Animal carcasses," he said.
Do people actually burn such material? "Yes, absolutely they do," Conner said. "You would not believe what they burn."
Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said he had warned the community that failure to meet the EPA's December 2014 deadline for complying with federal air quality standards could lead to onerous reviews on new construction and restrictions on federal transportation funds.
"There's a lot of people who say, 'Tell the EPA to go to hell.' People don't like the idea of the EPA coming into a community and saying, 'You shall.' But it's because Congress said we shall have clean air. This is a health issue," Hopkins said.
Responsibility now lies chiefly with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is weighing new regulations of its own. The agency initiated a lawsuit last month against a landlord who has been using two smoky outdoor wood boilers to heat rental properties he owns in Fairbanks across the street from Woodriver Elementary School — where the staff had been complaining for years.
"Our eyes hurt; our throats hurt," said counselor Dawn Brashear, who developed a cyst — her doctor said it could have been caused by the smoke — in her left sinus. It required two surgeries.
The school installed an air filtration system that helped, but Brashear said an acrid haze still blankets the playground when an inversion layer holds it close to the ground.
"The borough keeps saying, 'We have to educate, we need to advise people, it needs to be voluntary,'" she said. "If someone mugs me, am I supposed to ask them to stop?"