On my tours, I talk about how dry the interior of Alaska is. A combination of permafrost and tundra keep the little precipitation we do get (between 12 and 15 inches, on average) available to vegetation, and allows this region to green up rather spectacularly in the summer. For the most part we don't get a lot of rain, which makes for nice warm summer days.
This summer has been an exception. Especially this week. Unusually wet weather, and recent heavy rain has flooded the Tanana, Salcha and Chena rivers that run through Fairbanks and her surrounding communities.
The water came up fast. On Wednesday morning at about two thirty, my fire department pager went off requesting assistance evacuating a neighborhood in our district that sits along the Chena where it runs into the already flooded Tanana. I listened to the chatter over the pager for a few minutes and determined, a little guiltily, that there was quickly more manpower than vehicles and decided to forego the twenty minute drive to the station.
Thursday night, I showed up for my shift and was immediately requisitioned along with three other volunteers and two canoes to do a door-to-door paddle and determine what residents had decided to wait out the flood, see if they wanted out or needed anything. We loaded our gear and headed down to the borough's incident command post (incidentally, in the Paramedic Academy building that will be my life in ten days) to get instructions, hip waders and heavy rubber gloves.
We were out canoing down streets and up to flooded houses until one in the morning. The water wasn't moving very fast, but it was nasty. Fumes from diesel and heating oil slicks made me dizzy, but that wasn't as bad as the ooze from flooded septic systems and outhouses. I was very, very thankful for hip-waders and gloves. I didn't get many good pictures - I only took the small digital camera, and what with the rain-cloud gloom and our continuing distance from solstice, they didn't come out very well. Besides, I was spending most of my energy trying to avoid downed trees and submerged cars with canoes, and determine which gaps in the trees were driveways that needed to be explored.
For the most part, the raised foundations made to avoid melting permafrost kept houses from being ruined. Power was still on, and in most of the houses that were still occupied folks were watching cable TV and seemed unconcerned about the water inches below their floorboards. Yards told a different story, however, as we navigated submerged cars, flooded workshops and floating freezers full of a summer's catch of salmon heading out towards the Yukon.
[lt. gelvin attempting contact from our canoe]
We found a few elderly folks who had survived the great flood of '67 and were pretty nonchalant about ruined gardens and yards full of river silt. Almost everyone had a canoe tied up to their porch railings, plenty of fresh water and food. Some had even managed to get cars out to higher ground before the water came up, and had been canoing out to work every day. It was, over all, a pretty mellow disaster.
I'm headed down to Valdez to help a friend move. I'll be back to post more journals from the fire on Wednesday.