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Rural Alaskans Cope with High Fuel Costs

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Rural Alaskans Cope with High Fuel Costs

Economy

Rural Alaskans Cope with High Fuel Costs

Rural Alaskans Cope with High Fuel Costs

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Rising heating costs are taking a toll on the people of rural Alaska. As Johanna Eurich of member station KDLG reports, one village blames two deaths this winter on high fuel prices.

HOWARD BERKES, host:

Energy, of course, is on the minds of many Americans. In Alaska, the high cost of fuel can be a matter of life and death. Johanna Eurich of member station KDLG has this story about New Stuyahok, a small remote village in Southwestern Alaska, where the price of fuel has deadly consequences this winter.

JOHANNA EURICH reporting:

The space where the Gus(ph) family home stood is a chard square in the snow. New Stuyahok's Mayor Randy Hastings points out the spot right off the village's main street.

Mayor RANDY HASTINGS (New Stuyahok, Alaska): It was kind of kitty-cornered behind the red house and straight behind this yellow and black house.

EURICH: Homes in New Stuyahok are tiny, wooden one-story cabins, clustered close, almost rubbing shoulders with one another. Fish or moose meat dry under some eaves, testament to lives spent hunting and fishing. The Russian Orthodox church sits near the river. It's the only church in this Yupik village.

Unidentified Woman: Last (unintelligible) going back to (unintelligible).

EURICH: The ubiquitous VHF radio squawks in practically every building, with residents chattering, keeping tabs on each other. That's how many heard a fire had started in the Gus family's cabin just after midnight on March 14th. A neighbor noticed the flames and put out the call. Mayor Randy Hastings, like the rest of the town, came running, grabbing home fire extinguishers and buckets. That's all they had.

Mayor RANDY HASTINGS (New Stuyahok): We basically fought it with snow. One of the neighbors here, we started a bucket brigade using their water and were fighting it by hand.

EURICH: Two men, longtime residents, died in the fire. New Stuyahok's fire truck stood in a garage within sight of the flames with its tanks drained of water to keep them from cracking in winter's subzero temperatures. The community can't afford to heat the village garage. The price of gasoline here is $4.63 a gallon, heating fuel, $3.80.

Those high fuel prices also make it tough to get out of town. With no roads to New Stuyahok, residents use air taxis which have raised their fares 50 percent this winter to cover the higher cost of aviation gas. That's meant fewer trips to grocery stores in Dillingham, the hub community on this side of Bristol Bay.

(Soundbite of cash register)

Ms. BARBARA GUS (Village Store Manager): 11.69.

EURICH: The village store has seen more business, even though the increasing cost of shipping goods in has driven prices up. Store manager Barbara Gus says it's tough to get staples residents rely on to feed their families, but she's not talking about the products on her shelf.

Ms. GUS: It's hard for people to go hunting 'cause we have to go so far to get that, the moose or caribou or whatever we eat, 'cause you go so much gallons going out and you'll have to get more to come back, just to return back home to bring that meat.

EURICH: Look around these days. Most homes here have smoke coming out of their chimneys.

(Soundbite of woodstove)

Many people stoke woodstoves, including William Pavel(ph), manager of the village fuel business.

Mr. WILLIAM PAVEL (Manager, Village Fuel Business): Couldn't afford to buy heating fuel so I've been burning wood. The guy that sells it couldn't afford to buy it.

EURICH: New Stuyahok is not unique. It's story is repeated all over the state where village fuel prices have doubled the last two years. Some villages don't even have enough fuel to run their generators. For example, Venetie in the interior is rationing electricity, cranking up the generator for part of the weekday and going totally dark on weekends.

The region around New Stuyahok makes its money fishing for salmon, but fish prices collapsed a few years ago. This economic pressure, combined with climbing fuel prices, is forcing many to move away to look for work. Those remaining behind have dug deep to help their neighbors. Evelyn Yanez(ph) in the Bristol Bay community of Togiak routinely cooks for 20 to help feed those less fortunate, and when her brother couldn't pay to heat his home, she paid.

Ms. EVELYN YANEZ (Togiak Resident): He said they haven't had money to buy oil for a month so they didn't have heat in the kitchen, so I ended up giving him money to buy oil. It's hard to watch people suffering.

EURICH: Yanez says people are routinely choosing between food and heat. Residents all over rural Alaska worry about the latest wave of price increases in the lower 48. As long as the rivers remain frozen and the fuel purchased back in the fall holds out, they'll continue to pay last fall's fuel prices. But when the ice breaks loose and the spring barge heads upriver, it'll leave behind a wave of even higher fuel prices. Many wonder if they can afford to continue living in these places they call home. For NPR News, I'm Johanna Eurich.

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