The Nome Refueling Effort: Answers to Reader’s Questions

By , January 19, 2012

I generally try to avoid writing about current events on this blog, since it focuses on our life here on the homestead. However, I received the following comment from one of our readers, Judy:

” Would you want to share with us “Lower 48″ bloggers what the residents of Nome would have been dealing with if the tanker had not finally arrived with the fuel supply… assuming the off-loading of fuel went as planned today? How far do you live from Nome? How isolated is that village/town? I thought the Iditarod race begins there? And, other than wood, what kind of fuel do you use (for cooking, heating, etc.)?”

I began writing this as a simple reply to the comment, but if I’m going to go on to the extent I have done, I may as well make it a regular post! In fact, I find I have enough to say about it that I’ll need to divide my answer into two posts. Besides, it does relate to life here on the homestead, and we’re certainly thinking a lot about the situation in Nome these days.

The questions here point out once again that our homestead is not particularly spartan by Alaskan standards. As I tried to express in an early post which stands almost as our standard disclaimer, we are city slickers compared to many Alaskans. Nome and many other bush communities in our state make our life look luxurious by comparison.

I don’t know a whole lot about Nome; I’ve never been there, although I’ve known people who live there. It lies more than a thousand miles to the northwest of us, in a very different bioregion. Their current population is about 3,500, less than I would have thought. I still think of it as a “larger” town, as its current population is larger than Sitka’s and Wrangell’s were in the years I lived in those towns (some 40 years ago, so my perceptions are wildly out-of-date now!). They are a fairly modern town, although 5% of their homes are not on the sewer system. Their modernity is counterbalanced by their isolation, which makes obtaining fuel oil a huge expense, and sometimes, as now, problematic. Nome is the transportation hub for its region. It is, in effect, “the big city” to the surrounding villages!

The Iditarod does not start in Nome, but ends there. The race commemorates and largely duplicates the route of the famous serum run, an epic overland effort that saved the children of Nome in 1925.

Nome is inaccessible by road; large deliveries, including fuel oil, come by sea or air, at costs that are mind-boggling, even to most Alaskans. Since the Bering Sea locks their shore in with ice, as is currently the case, most deliveries must take place in summer months. Had the Russian tanker, Renda, and the U.S. ice breaker, Healy not reached Nome, I imagine the fuel would have been delivered by plane, at astronomical expense. I have no idea how Nomeites could have heated their homes otherwise. Some homes may have electric heat, but the town’s electricity comes from diesel generators! Their tundra environment offers very little, if any burnable wood. I doubt there are any woodstoves in the town. If this unprecedented winter delivery had not occurred, Nome would have run out of heating fuel in March, long before their winter weather abates.

This whole event has been triggered by circumstances that aren’t entirely clear to me. Nome had a contract with a provider to deliver the necessary fuel last summer. The modern town was established in the Gold Rush era, at the beginning of the last century; I assume its fuel has been provided by outside sources ever since. Exactly why this contract was not honored hasn’t been discussed much. In my opinion, someone, somewhere, for some reason, dropped the ball. This is the frightening aspect of this story; the threat of crushing tons of sea ice pales somewhat in comparison. An entire community was held hostage to the whims of a commercial decision.

Incidentally, the icebreaker Healy is named for one of my heroes, Captain Michael Healy. He is one of the most important players in Alaskan history, effectively the law on much of our coast in Alaska’s early days as a U.S. territory. His story is an amazing one.

Tomorrow, I’ll address your questions about our homestead in particular.

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