It is now a misdemeanor in Anchorage to violate a burn ban. That’s after the Assembly unanimously approved an emergency ordinance Tuesday against open burning when it’s prohibited.
The Anchorage Fire Department declared a burn ban on Friday — until further notice. That ban prohibits all open fires including backyard fire pits.
The emergency ordinance makes it a class A misdemeanor to knowingly create an open burn when it is prohibited, or to permit open burning without contacting emergency services. Penalties for a class A misdemeanor can include up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Before the ordinance, the consequence for violating a burn ban was a civil penalty.
The emergency ordinance will last for 60 days. The Assembly anticipates voting on a more permanent version of the ordinance at its next meeting on June 7.
The National Weather Service says fire danger will remain high through the upcoming Memorial Day weekend in much of Southcentral Alaska, with warm and dry conditions in the forecast.
On a sunny, Saturday afternoon, Ziona Brownlow showed volunteers the ins and outs of the new community fridge in Mountain View, a north Anchorage neighborhood that’s one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country. It’s also an area that’s been targeted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having high levels of food insecurity.
Brownlow said about 10% of Anchorage residents, upward of 30,000 people, suffer from food insecurity.
“So one in every 10 people that we know doesn’t know where they’re going to get their food from,” she said. “They might have to decide if they’re going to pay for their prescription or pay for gas, or if they’re going to pay for food.”
Brownlow hopes the new community fridge helps combat hunger in the city, where food insecurity soared during the pandemic and where inflation continues to drive up food prices. The community fridge had its grand opening on Saturday. “Bring what you can, take what you need, and help us #FeedAnchorage,” said the invitation.
Brownlow started thinking about the concept of a community fridge during the pandemic.
She’d been working in food activism since 2018, when she founded Food for Thought Alaska. It started as a blog and she wrote about the ways local businesses were helping keep people fed. Then COVID-19 hit.
“My sort of ‘shop small, eat local’ mission got drowned in this wave of ‘Save Anchorage’ and ‘keep the restaurants open,’” she said. “And so I stepped away from that and food blogging and just looked at the very obvious need of employees being laid off, and the increase of homelessness services, and the increase of need at the Food Bank.”
She saw community fridges pop up across the country in cities like Miami, Atlanta and Chicago. And she decided to try to open one in Anchorage. She began organizing with other community groups.
While it’s been a chronic problem for years, food insecurity ballooned during the pandemic as people lost their jobs, said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we saw the level of need shoot up about 75%, which of course is just unprecedented,” Durr said. “Every day we were talking to people who lost all their household income, are turning to programs like SNAP and our food pantries. And it has remained elevated ever since.”
Even as the pandemic has winded down, Durr said issues like inflation are keeping food insecurity above pre-pandemic levels.
“So we’re seeing those levels creep up really close to what we saw at the height of the pandemic, which is pretty scary,” she said.
The Food Bank works with federal grants and programs to distribute food across Alaska, and so it’s limited in which organizations it can partner with, said Durr.
“We can’t partner with something like a free fridge project just because there isn’t the level of monitoring for food safety and regulation that we are held to” she said. “But just because we’re not partnering doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea or something needed by the community.”
Durr said that’s also not to suggest the food at the community fridge isn’t safe to eat, and Brownlow said that volunteers follow national food safety precautions when handling food. Brownlow said she thinks the community fridge is more personal than the traditional food bank model.
“We’re coming as close as we can to mirroring what food distribution looks like in a nonprofit industrial complex, but decentralizing making it more accessible at a grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor level,” she said.
Brownlow wants the community fridge to complement the work the Food Bank is already doing.
The new community fridge is tucked right off Mountain View Drive. It’s about the size of a small shed, with a couple double-door fridges inside, like the kind you might see in a grocery store. There are stands for fruit and metal shelves drilled into the wall for canned goods. Cup Noodles boxes and granola bars were stacked in a corner. The outside is weatherized, and Brownlow said it was bear-proofed as well. Volunteers check on the fridge throughout the day.
For Alaskans looking to get something to eat, it’s as easy as walking up and taking food.
Brownlow said donations can be dropped off at the fridge doors. And they’re not just accepting food. On a table near the volunteer sign-up on Saturday were rapid COVID tests, and Brownlow said other non-perishable, non-food items like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are accepted as well.
“Diapers, baby formula, hygiene products, you need to share them,” Brownlow said. “I’m looking in here and I’m seeing pads and there’s juice… there’s Similac in here. It just makes my heart so happy.”
Brownlow said she looks forward to seeing other harm-reduction items like bandages, contraception and fentanyl test strips in the fridge.
While the fridge isn’t limited to just food, Brownlow said it is limited to what kinds of food and goods it can accept at this point.
“So we don’t have a freezer, and it’s easier for us to avoid any mishandling of food if we don’t have any raw meats, any frozen meats, any frozen food that might need to remain frozen,” she said. “So we don’t want anything like that there. We don’t want any medication, alcohol, furniture, clothing.”
Brownlow said in addition to Mountain View, the neighborhoods of Muldoon, Spenard, Government Hill and Midtown have been targeted by the USDA as areas with high rates of food insecurity. She hopes to see fridges in those communities in the future.
The Mountain View community fridge is now open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A new federal class-action lawsuit filed against Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services asserts that the state is failing children in foster care. Lawyers for the 13 child plaintiffs claim the state has known about widespread foster care problems for years, but hasn’t addressed them.
In the 90-page complaint filed Thursday, they say problems include high caseloads for caseworkers and high turnover among those workers, plus few adequate foster homes and a lack of adequate support for placing foster children with family members.
The group of attorneys representing the plaintiffs include A Better Childhood, a New York-based advocacy nonprofit focused on foster care. The group has filed a number of class action lawsuits in other states such as Oklahoma, West Virginia and Indiana.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, said Alaska isn’t the worst state when it comes to meeting federal requirements, but it’s far from the best.
“Alaska is fifth-worst in returning kids to their family homes and seventh-worst in the country on the frequency with which children are visited, which is a federal mandate,” Lowry said.
The state Department of Health and Social Services and OCS are listed as defendants in the complaint.
Officials with the state agencies said Friday that they hadn’t been served with the complaint yet, and couldn’t comment on the case. In a statement, they said, “what we can say is that the State takes its obligations for reunification of families, foster care, and the health and welfare of all Alaskan children very seriously.”
The complaint says the problems in the state’s foster care system are widespread.
It says the system is causing particular harm to Alaska Native children, who make up roughly two-thirds of all Alaska children in foster care, despite being a little over a fourth of the state’s population. Under the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, child welfare agencies are federally compelled to work as hard as possible to house Native foster children with their families, or with their tribes.
The complaint details numerous stories from the plaintiffs, including five Alaska Native siblings who hadn’t been placed in homes that complied with ICWA, a boy with ADHD who had been moved to seven different homes since April of last year and a 16-year-old girl who reported she was sexually assaulted at a mental health treatment facility she was placed at hundreds of miles from her home.
The complaint also says the state isn’t doing enough to address foster children who have disabilities.
Lowry said another issue is that sometimes when kids are placed with family members, the families aren’t licensed by the state as official foster parents, so they don’t receive the funding and support that comes with that licensing.
“And the children either struggle alone without adequate money available for their food and clothing and other activities,” Lowry said, “or the foster parents basically break under the pressure and the kids get moved out and moved to another placement, and another replacement, and another placement.”
Lowry said the plaintiffs hope their lawsuit results in the Superior Court ordering the state to take a number of actions, including reducing caseloads for foster care workers. Currently, those workers sometimes are trying manage case numbers that total three times the national average. Turnover among staff is roughly 60 percent.
“So there’s a lot that has to be done with regard to caseloads, and the state has to develop more and better foster homes,” Lowry said. “At the same time, the state needs to provide services so that kids can return home more quickly, or if that’s not appropriate or safe, so the kids can be adopted, either by relatives if possible or other people as well.”
There are roughly 3,000 children in the foster care system in Alaska.
A former Alaska resident living in Utah has been charged with kidnapping and murdering a Homer woman who disappeared in 2019.
Authorities arrested Kirby Calderwood, 32, in Ogden, Utah on Monday, according to a statement from the Homer Police Department.
The charges against Calderwood are the first public explanation of what happened to Anesha “Duffy” Murnane since she went missing in October 2019.
Homer police “actively investigated the case ever since, chasing down hundreds of tips and talking to numerous people,” the police statement says. The department also hired an investigator whose sole job was to track down Murnane.
Murnane, 38 at the time, was last seen in downtown Homer walking to an appointment that she never arrived at. Searchers on foot and on ATVs, as well as by air in a helicopter, were unable to find her. Based on tracks by search dogs, police said at the time it appeared someone in a vehicle had picked up Murnane.
That is alleged to have been Calderwood.
According to the charges, here’s what police say led them to Calderwood:
Calderwood had been considered a person of interest in the case in May 2021, but the charges do not explain why.
Then, an anonymous tipster in April 2022 gave specific information about Murnane’s disappearance that had not been revealed publicly and named Calderwood as the person responsible. Among other things, the tipster said Calderwood still had a watch that belonged to Murnane.
Two of Calderwood’s ex-wives and his ex-girlfriend in Homer told an investigator, in separate interviews, that he harbored violent sexual fantasies — including that he wanted to torture and kill someone — and had been sexually abusive toward them.
On Thursday, police pulled over Calderwood’s car in Utah and searched his home, where they found a watch that matched Murnane’s near a missing person’s flyer about her disappearance.
Investigators also interviewed Calderwood’s current wife, who turned out to be the anonymous tipster. She said Calderwood told her in 2021 that he’d killed Murnane, who he’d known because he worked at the assisted-living facility where she lived.
According to the wife, Calderwood had told her he hadn’t specifically intended on killing Murnane but had seen her walking while he was driving around looking for a victim. He offered her a ride, then told her he needed to stop somewhere for a phone charger.
The wife said Calderwood told her he took Murnane to his then-girlfriend’s parents’ house, where he’d prepared their crawlspace as a place to torture someone.
The wife said Calderwood told her he’d pushed Murnane into the crawlspace, where he raped and killed her and disfigured her body, according to the charges.
The charges say Calderwood claimed to have put Murnane’s body in thick plastic bags and a fish tote before leaving it in a dumpster, which was near the home of an elderly woman he cared for, so that he could look at the dumpster.
It’s unclear from the charges what happened to Murnane’s body. Police never announced finding it.
Homer police declined to comment, but said the investigation remains open.
Anyone with information relevant to the case — especially about Calderwood and his possible interactions with Murnane — is asked to call the Homer Police Department at 907-235-3150.
National park rangers in Alaska on Friday located the body of the year’s first registered climber on Denali.
Because it’s so early in the climbing season, Matthias Rimml, a 35-year-old professional mountain guide from Tirol, Austria, was alone on the upper part of Denali, a 20,310-foot mountain about 240 miles north of Anchorage. The climbing season usually runs from May through mid-July.
Other climbers and rangers are camped below the 14,000-foot level.
Rimml hadn’t been considered overdue compared to his planned return date and food and fuel supply, according to Denali National Park and Preserve officials. However, a friend who had been receiving periodic check-ins from Rimml contacted mountaineering rangers Tuesday after not receiving a call for days, officials said in a statement.
Park officials said Rimml was already acclimated to the altitude because of recent climbs. He had planned to climb Denali “alpine style,” or traveling fast with light gear. His goal was to make the summit in five days even though he carried enough fuel and food to last 10 days.
The average Denali expedition is 17 to 21 days for a round trip, with climbers making the summit on day 12 or 13, according to the National Park Service.
Rimml began his climb April 27 from the Kahiltna Glacier base camp at 7,200 feet, officials said.
His last known call to his friend was on April 30, when he reported he was tired but not in distress. Rimml reported his location as just below Denali Pass, at 18,200 feet elevation on the West Buttress, the most popular route for Denali climbers.
On Wednesday, a pilot and mountaineering ranger in a National Park Service helicopter looked for Rimml. Intermittent clouds didn’t allow a thorough search, but they did not see any signs of him.
They saw his tent at 14,000 feet but didn’t observe any recent activity, the statement said. High winds and poor weather prevented the helicopter from landing at the campsite, but the helicopter returned Thursday when weather was better. Rangers confirmed Rimml hadn’t returned to the tent.
Clouds prevented the helicopter from flying above 17,200 feet on Thursday, but park spokesperson Maureen Gualtieri told The Associated Press a helicopter with two rangers aboard took off Friday morning from Talkeetna, the nearest community, to resume the search.
Rimml’s body was spotted in the fall zone below Denali Pass during the aerial search, park officials said Friday evening in a statement.
Rimml likely fell on the steep traverse between Denali Pass at 18,200 feet and the 17,200-foot plateau, a notoriously treacherous stretch of the West Buttress route, officials said. Thirteen climbers, including Rimml, have died in falls along that traverse, the majority occurring on the descent, the statement said.
Recovery efforts will not be attempted until an national park ranger patrol is acclimated to the high altitude.
Weather conditions on the mountain have been cold, which park officials say is normal this time of the year. Daytime highs have been around minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit with winds at the two base camps registering up to 30 mph. Five inches of snow have fallen in the past week on the upper mountain.
On the website for his guide business, Rimml said he always has been close to mountains and nature.
He trained as a carpenter after receiving his high school diploma. In 2015, after he completed military service, Rimml switched to being a freelance ski instructor in Austria and outside Europe.
He became a professional mountain guide in 2015, the fourth generation of his family to do so, his biography states. His specialty was long, technically difficult combined tours.
The National Park Service is searching for a solo climber on Denali, after he failed to check in with a friend by satellite phone for several days.
The search started Wednesday. According to the park service, 35-year-old Matthias Rimml left his camp at 14,000 feet altitude on Denali’s West Buttress late last week, intending to summit the mountain and return to camp in one day.
“Already acclimatized to altitude due to recent climbs, the soloist’s strategy was to climb alpine style, or travel fast with relatively light gear,” said a statement Thursday from the park service.
Park service spokesperson Maureen Gualtieri said Rimml was last heard from Saturday afternoon, when he called a friend on his satellite phone with about 2,000 feet left to climb. He said he was tired, but not in distress.
“It sounds like, from his friend, he had at least a sleeping bag and a stove with him,” Gualtieri said. “He had listed other items he intended to take to the summit on his registration sheet like climbing, protection — a picket, an ice screw, some rope. I’m not sure what else beyond that he had with him but it does sound clear that he had not intended to overnight … He did not have a tent, for instance.”
Rimml had been periodically checking in with his friend on his climb, according to the statement. His friend alerted the park service on Tuesday after several days passed with no word from Rimml.
Gualtieri said temperatures on the upper mountain have been around 25 to 30 degrees below zero during the day. About five inches of snow has fallen on the upper mountain since Saturday.
A park service helicopter and mountaineering rangers conducted searches Wednesday and Thursday. The helicopter landed at Rimml’s tent site at 14,000 feet on Thursday and rangers confirmed he had not returned to camp.
Rimml is reportedly an experienced mountain guide from Austria with search and rescue experience. He is the first registered climber to attempt Denali this season, and is alone on the upper part of the mountain, according to the park service.
Gualtieri said searchers are hopeful Rimml is still alive.
“We’ve had a handful of remarkable survival stories in the Alaska Range so we’re certainly not ruling that out at this point,” she said. “We are actively searching for him.”
Gualtieri said the park service planned to continue searching Thursday evening or Friday.
An Alaskan painter and videographer has released a short film about the dangers of ocean plastic.
It’s called “If You Give a Beach a Bottle,” it’s by Max Romey and it incorporates scenes of volunteers cleaning up Alaska shorelines littered with marine debris, coupled with images from Romey’s watercolor sketchbooks.
Romey says the title is a reference to the children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” because the issue of plastic in the ocean seemed like a similar, circular, never-ending story.
That’s after Romey started going on trips to Alaska beaches remove tons of washed up debris.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Max Romey: Alaska has these islands, which kind of stick out and scoop this stuff all up. And so it was this completely overwhelming experience. For the last seven years, it’s just been kind of sitting in the back of my head. And this is one of the first times where I went back out, this time with a sketchbook, and kind of just tried to tell a story of this huge, huge thing. And this is one of the first times I’ve been able to share the film publicly. This is very much just the first step in what is probably going to be a journey that I might not see the end of until you know, I’m 90 or 100.
Casey Grove: You’re in deep now.
MR: I am indeed now, yes. We’ll see where this goes.
CG: Am I understanding this correctly, that it started with a sketchbook and watercolor, right?
MR: Yeah, well I guess my whole journey with this started with a sketchbook and watercolor. I’m really dyslexic. So I struggle with reading and writing. My handwriting is close to illegible, but the spelling makes it even worse. And that’s where sketchbooks came in. My grandmother is an amazing painter, and my whole family really encouraged me to get into art, because you can’t really misspell a painting. People see it, they understand it, doesn’t matter if they speak English, or like, speak nothing at all, people understand sketches. And so from age six to now I’ve been kind of sketching this whole time, but rarely have actually used it in films. And all the sudden, these giant complex issues that words had no real way to capture, I’m finding that sketches could get a grasp of of these things that that words really couldn’t.
CG: (If You) Give a Beach a Bottle, it’s about five minutes or so right? And you’re showing your progress on the art that you’re making while the beach cleanup is going on, and some of the negative aspects of that and animals that are affected by it and whatnot, affected by marine debris. And then also just these beautiful landscapes. It seems like the things that you decided to sketch were sort of crystallized, bigger ideas that then had maybe more impact, just in those those moments in the film like that. I mean, having seen it for yourself and spent so much time looking at this problem. How big is it?
MR: Marine debris is like a slow motion tsunami that’s hitting Alaska. And it’s nets, it’s lines, but it’s also bottles, it’s buoys, it’s barrels, it’s coolers, it’s Styrofoam. Everything is made out of plastic, nowadays, all over the world. Stuff gets thrown away, a lot of this is coming from rivers, so it goes into a landfill, landfill is not very good, landfill ends up in the river, river ends up in the ocean. Or it just gets dumped directly into the ocean. That happens, too. But then plastic will never break down, it will only ever break up. And so as it ends up in the ocean, the ocean currents kind of spin around, and then Alaska is just stuck out right in the middle, like putting your hand into a washing machine full of clothes. And it just kind of captures all of this. These winter storms just blow it all up on shore.
We’re kind of this cheese grater that all of these ocean plastics are ending on, and we just shred them into all these tiny pieces. And then these tiny pieces are, once they get small enough, they bioaccumulate, they pick up a lot of toxins and they end up back into the environments that these cycles of nutrients make possible. The salmon go up the stream, they die, all that nitrogen from the ocean goes up, the bears eat ’em, the eagles eat ’em. Most of the trees have these salmon nutrients in them. But we’re basically injecting plastic into this whole situation. So once these things are broken down into trillions of little pieces, you lose them.
Right now, you could go to the beach, you could go to Cordova, you could go to Kodiak, Katmai, and you can find big, big piles of bottles and buoys, and you can pick them up. But the scary part is what you don’t find, all of those things that have been broken up into thousands of pieces. And then that will build up in a lot of these systems. And by the time it builds up, when we actually see it in the nature, it’s too late. It’s this funny little time where you can actually do something about it now, but it’s super complex, it’s really hard to see and it’s slow moving. So it’s not like, you know, an oil spill. It’s like asbestos. This stuff is gonna affect Alaska for a very long time, and we have a chance to kind of do something about it now. But the longer we wait, the harder it’s going to be.
CG: And a lot of people don’t see that every day. I mean, it sounds like it kind of changed how you thought about it to see it up close and personal and be out there on the beach like that.
MR: Yeah. You see buoys, you see things that you don’t see every day, but you also see laundry baskets, you see dish detergent bottles, you see lunch containers, and you see pieces of all this as well. The big pieces are just what you could pick up, that’s not too late. The little pieces, it’s gone. But you see all this stuff and you realize this came from somebody’s car, this was in somebody’s trash can, somebody ate off of this plate and now it’s in Alaska for some reason. So it’s this major global problem, and we could have people picking up these beaches 24/7, all day every day for years, and we wouldn’t get it all.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland says she’s still undecided on the proposed 11-mile gravel road that would link the Southwest Alaska village of King Cove with the nearby community of Cold Bay.
Haaland took a tour of the village Wednesday during her first visit to the state. At a news conference Thursday in Anchorage, Haaland said the trip was an opportunity to hear first-hand from the community.
“I know it’s been a decision that’s been in the atmosphere for the last three decades,” Haaland said. “I wanted to go to hear, to visit with the community, to see the geography and understand the challenges they face.”
The King Cove road has been discussed for decades. The predominately Aleut residents of King Cove, as well as Alaska state and federal lawmakers, have long pushed for the road. They say it’s a safety issue. The road would connect the village to Cold Bay’s all-weather airport and emergency flight services for evacuating patients. But the road would go through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which environmentalists oppose due to the potential impact on birds on those federal lands.
Haaland was in King Cove with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowksi and Gov. Mike Dunleavy. During her trip, she said, she heard from residents about the importance of the road due to various transportation and medical challenges. As of now, she said, she’s made no decision on the road project.
“I can say that I’m still in a learning process at the moment and I don’t have anything else to announce today about that decision,” Haaland said.
In a statement from the Aleutians East Borough, which includes King Cove, village health care provider Bonita Babcock described the medical necessity of the road to Haaland.
“We’re not asking for a lot,” Babcock said. “We’re just asking for the federal government to care about our people enough to permit a dirt road across our ancestral land so that we can get our patients over to a medevac plane.”
Haaland has long championed environmental protection for federal lands. During her confirmation process last year, she committed to meeting with residents of King Cove to talk about the road project.
Last month, a federal court ruled in favor of a Trump-era decision to approve a land exchange between the federal government and King Cove’s village corporation that would allow for the road to proceed. The ruling reverses a 2020 federal court decision banning the exchange. President Biden’s administration defended the land exchange agreement last March.
The final decision on approving the exchange now rests with Haaland. She said the land agreement is pending legal review and a decision could come in the near future.