Wood Stove Installation Adventures…

What has become a regular occurrence – if two years can produce a ‘regular’ anything – my college friend Sarge flew into Anchorage the last day of September to spend 17 days. He was a regular partner on my many trips to ‘The Great Land’ from 1996 through 2005 and drove the 26’ U-Haul van from SE Michigan to Talkeetna when I relocated in August of 2013. As such he has seen most of what I’ve seen in this majestic state so his visits since I moved up here have centered upon project work. Each year I assemble a list of projects which either require another’s assistance or are beyond my skill set; as Sarge is extremely handy when it comes to so many things he can usually handle my requests. Being a self-employed design engineer he is well suited to taking my requests and developing a ‘fix’ as well as implementing said ‘fix’. Thus when I began making noise about wanting a wood stove in my humble abode he figured it wouldn’t be too major an undertaking.

In a perfect world such a project would most likely be a fairly straightforward proposal but as we all know this is anything but a perfect world and many aspects of this plan were under-rated simply out of ‘regional ignorance’. I had already picked out a compact wood burning stove at Moores’; the unit was ready such that the day after his arrival we drove to the store and picked up the stove. Initially things went well as we utilized the invaluable assistance of Shane at Moores’ along with Sarge’s skills to get the stove positioned and to get the hearth pieces cut and placed after which we did a more precise positioning of the stove. Then we went after the ancillary parts to pipe the exhaust from the stove through the exterior wall to the outside and run the piping to the second story roof. It was at this point things began to get ‘tense’.

Interior Stove Install Almost Complete!

Interior Stove Install Almost Complete!

I budgeted this effort at around $1400. Hah; I quickly learned I was virtually clueless regarding the requirements of installing a wood stove in Alaska. Because of the potential for cold temps the piping not just inside but all the way to the cap just above the second story roof line needed to be insulated double walled piping. Ouch, the price differential between just single wall piping and double wall insulated is huge! This blew my pricing guess-timates right out of the water as while six inch diameter single wall piping is maybe $30/3 feet the double wall insulated variety runs around $90/3 foot section. Then I discovered the costs of all the additional pieces like the thimble, exterior support and the ‘T’ were far more than I had anticipated. Within a matter of days I saw this project pushing $2,000 and then Murphy decided to lend his five cents.

We had hoped to buy a kit for all this ancillary stuff at Moores’; sadly they were out of stock and didn’t even have all the parts required in stock. We went on-line and found cheaper alternatives at Lowe’s but when we checked they showed out of stock at the Wasilla location and both Anchorage stores. We finally found a good deal through Amazon.com and placed the order on Sunday, October 4th. All week I monitored the order but there were no updates. In addition I sent two emails to the third party vendor inquiring as to shipping methods. As of Monday, October 12th Amazon.com sent me an email informing me they couldn’t verify anything about the order. I uttered a few choice words, emailed Amazon.com, canceled the order and sent in a blistering review regarding the customer service of the third party vendor.

Sarge and I then visited Moores’ and picked up most of the parts in the kit; the operand word here is ‘most’. They were short two critical pieces and wouldn’t have them until Friday at the earliest. This was far too late so we purchased the items they had, beat feet home and went on-line. Mr. Murphy must have been chortling because only the Lowe’s on the south side of Anchorage had what we needed! We loaded up and left around 11:30 in thick freezing fog which thankfully dispersed just north of Willow as the air temp climbed to 40°F. The long trip was uneventful and we found the Lowe’s and then discovered they had the complete kit at a substantial savings over purchasing the separate parts. We purchased the kit and the other part we needed, jumped in the Escape, stopped at Fred Meyer and Costco and eventually pulled into the driveway at 17:55. A long day but we were feeling good given we had all the parts.

Tuesday rolled around and so did the rain; initially just drizzle but strengthening to showers by daylight. Given most of the remaining work involved putting up the exhaust pipe from maybe five feet above the first floor all the way to just above the second story roof and a cut into said metal roof was required to allow the exhaust ‘stack’ to remain close to the exterior wall and thus supported we spent most of Tuesday awaiting a decrease in the rain. I took time off to fill in at KTNA for the noon newscast; when I returned Sarge had installed the exterior ‘T’, the stack support and one length of double wall insulated pipe as well. Only the increasing rain had stopped him from continuing on the exterior work. But the weather refused to cooperate and we had to be content working other projects indoors for the remainder of the day.

Exterior Assembly Underway!

Exterior Assembly Underway!

Wednesday dawned mostly clear but some definite rain had occurred around 05:30 and everything was wet. As we awaited daylight the skies began to cloud up and weather radar showed showers moving in. I checked the NWS forecast and determined we’d be seeing rain by 11:00 which would probably last into the mid-afternoon. But the same forecast called for clearing overnight with continued clearing into Thursday morning yielding mostly sunny conditions with a high around 50°F. Given this we agreed to continue the outdoor work while it remained dry and managed to get three 36” lengths of the exhaust pipe mated, stabilized and sealed. This left us just two more pieces along with the cap but also still needing to cut the hole in the roof. We decided to switch off and finish some remaining projects while we awaited the forecast better conditions on Thursday. I was more than a bit concerned about doing so as I know how wrong weather forecasts can be up here but I also felt the safety factor was paramount and no one wants to work at the end of a 20’ ladder in rain while sporting an electrically driven ‘Saws-All’.

Thursday dawned partly cloudy and continued to improve with the sunshine slowly warming the air but also encouraging a light breeze. Not to be put off we visited Moores’ around noon and rented a 24’ fiberglass ladder which we hauled back to my place and set up. It took Sarge two and a half hours to extend the exhaust pipe, cut a clean hole through the wood and metal roof, add the final piece of exhaust pipe, place the stabilizing ‘apron’ over the pipe and add the cap. Then it was time to return the ladder and finish up some final sealing and cosmetic work in the house. By this point we were tired and agreed to wait until Friday morning to install the fire bricks inside the stove and test the whole thing.

Sarge working on slightly enlarging the hole through the roof

Sarge working on slightly enlarging the hole through the roof

Friday was damp and drizzling so we definitely guessed right regarding the day to do the exterior work! The jigsaw puzzle that was installing the fire brick required a bit of thought but we soon had it ready to go. I assembled a small fire and attempted to draft the unit. Because it has ‘heat-a-lator’ piping in place there is no single large opening to the exhaust piping; this made trying to draft the set up difficult. I thought I had it and lit the fire; within a minute the main floor was awash in smoke! Thankfully I found my heat gun, cranked it up to ‘high’ and started heating the top interior of the stove. Within four or five minutes I had an upward flowing draft and could re-light the fire which this time drafted properly. It was a fitting end to see smoke slowly curling out of the chimney above the second floor roof line!

The finished product ready for use!

The finished product ready for use!

So now I have something I’ve wanted since I first moved in; a full functional wood stove! This will cut down on fuel oil costs and also draw out the place in winter; in addition I will have reliable back up heating system should the power fail and the generator run out of gas. My next chore is to locate a local source of seasoned firewood and get it delivered…

Rain and Responsibility

The past couple of evenings I’ve been able to lie awake in my bed and listen to the sound of rain tapping on the metal roof. I’ve always loved this sound but I really enjoy it now because of the metal roof; it truly brings out the sometimes steady and other times not so steady drum of the rain drops. Given the dearth of precipitation this past year the soothing sound of rain drops striking the roof are truly appreciated. But there is even more to love about this sound as it signals an easing of the drought conditions in this area and is assisting the firefighters in their heroic efforts to control the wildfires of Alaska. Although it truly took a while Mother Nature has finally seen fit to bathe this area in some much needed moisture!

Across the past two days I’ve reported 0.94” of rain to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network) and while July is the third wettest month of the year in Talkeetna we now have 2.41” of precipitation. Given we’re just 18 days into the month and showing 2.41” we’re 67% of the way to the normal rainfall total with 13 days remaining so with a bit of luck we might make the average rainfall total for July. If this happens it will be the first month in 2015 that we’ve reached or exceeded the monthly rainfall amount.

Sadly this is a bit late for the victims of the fires in June and early July and comes on the heels of more information released about the inexcusable stupidity and utter disregard for safety displayed by the perpetrator of the Sockeye Fire, one Greg Imig, along with Amy Dewitt whom both live in Anchorage. No, they have yet to be arraigned but Imig reportedly confessed to burning trash on that fateful Sunday morning which quickly escaped his control and began what would become the Sockeye Fire. The couple claimed they called 911 when the fire was already out of containment but they gave no location or their names. In addition, they apparently left in huge hurry leaving a chainsaw, gas cans and jack pads for a motorhome behind. Spent fireworks were found at the scene but they are not believed to be the primary source of the fire.

But there is more to this story that provides damning evidence regarding the utter negligence of this duo. Imig was apparently an on-air meteorologist at one time; given the conditions that Sunday morning any rational person would have recognized the utter stupidity of having open fires but a meteorologist should most definitely have known better. There were Red Flag warnings all over the state and any sensible person would have realized the immediate danger of any open flames. Yet this individual decided to ignore common sense and all the warning and burn open brush piles..?!?! Because of this pair’s rank idiocy 55 dwellings were destroyed, many more damaged, an uncounted number of animals threatened and some apparently killed, hundreds of acres of boreal forest incinerated, multiple forced evacuations were implemented and hundreds of firefighters risked their lives spending days fighting a completely unnecessary fire.

Because we are a country of laws, or were before the recent administrations decided they know better than our founders, this must be allowed to play out in our court system. Somehow I have a feeling the real pain for these incomprehensibly stupid people will come in the form of the soon to be filed civil actions. This is how our system works and we need to allow it to take over and proceed. Assuming this pair is to blame, and with Imig’s confession of guilt it seems a given, they should feel the full weight of the legal judgments against them.

All of us wonder why someone would undertake such dangerous actions in the wake of so many warnings; it just seems incomprehensible. Sadly, I fear this is yet another example of the PC driven solipsism that seems to be sweeping the world. So many people are so powerfully inculcated to just live within their own heads and serve only their own interests and needs; we’re becoming a culture that almost refuses to look outside ourselves. In such a scenario if one wanted to ‘enjoy’ burning trash and debris then just do it; such individuals never even consider the potential consequences of their actions except as it might affect themselves. Perhaps if our numbers were just tiny fractions of what they are currently we could get by with such a mindset but this is not the case. Human beings tend to live in groups and as such it becomes necessary to not just think about one’s own needs but to think also about the good of the group. Yes, this does require more effort, at least until one trains one’s self to automatically figure the group’s needs and safety into one’s mental calculus, but it is necessary for people to exist in close proximity and especially in large numbers. Yet paradoxically, as we continue to increase our numbers, a large portion of us put ourselves ahead of all others and continue to be focused upon just our own wants and desires. This trend is not something that is wise yet somehow we have generations of folks who follow its path; often to the detriment of their fellow human beings.

Perhaps we are reaching a tipping point of sorts when we must all sit back, take a deep breath and look into ourselves with as much objectivity as possible and ask; “Am I really concerned about the needs and safety of my fellow human beings?” After all, in the end we are all the same and in this together. Personally I’ve found I have no choice but to accept assistance from others and this only increases as we age. Maybe it is time to really evaluate just how much empathy we have for our fellow human beings? Living in Alaska one of the things I truly admire is what I call ‘the fierce sense of freedom and independence’ so pre-eminent in so many of the people. But along with this comes the undeniable acceptance that at times we all need a hand. Alaskans in general manage to balance this so very well; we cherish our independence and freedoms but we are also among the first to offer assistance to those truly in need. In this sense the lower48 and, indeed, the rest of the world could learn a bit from those of us who call ‘The Great Land’ our home.

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

My First Look At The Willow Area

My final OT session was yesterday (Thursday, June 25th) and so I had reason to make the 64 mile drive south down the Parks Highway to Wasilla; in so doing I drove through the Willow area. It occurred to me I’ve never actually seen an area recently burned by a wildfire and so I was basically clueless as to what I would see. Much to my surprise it was actually rather limited in scope but then this was only what  I could view from the highway as I had no intention of wandering around the area. I began to see burned areas perhaps four miles north of Willow and recognized the destruction was extremely haphazard in nature; in some areas wide swaths of forest were burned but in others just pockets of forest and grassy areas were blackened with other areas immediately adjacent untouched. I also witnessed a couple of apparently intact dwellings surrounded by blackened forest; this bore testimony to the valor and skill of the hero firefighters and possibly some die-hard locals.The air was just a bit hazy but I believe this was due to the slowly breaking down temperature inversion we’ve experienced across this week but the instantly recognizable smell of ‘wildfire’ was everywhere. Along with the smell were numerous signs thanking the firefighters; in addition there were official signs designating command centers, a heli-pad, and marshaling points. I also did see a few fire vehicles off the road in burned areas. The main town of Willow appeared to be untouched by the fire but was mostly surrounded by burned areas especially to the north and east. While driving through Willow I tried to imagine how it would have appeared with smoke and active fire all around the outskirts; it would have been very frightening!

I must admit that I had expected to see more damage given all the reports and aerial coverage but was very pleased to see a relative dearth of destroyed buildings. This is not to minimize the destruction wrought by the Sockeye Fire; it was very costly and only because of the heroic actions of the firefighters and immediate action on the part of the Mat-Su Borough in getting evacuation plans functioning were no lives lost. Even so it was a debilitating fire and something no one would want to experience if given a choice. It is up to we Alaskans to insure our sisters and brothers receive all the assistance they require to put their lives back together. While heartbreaking to lose one’s home and possessions to such an event in the end it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been especially as Mother Nature did not cooperate. In the final analysis possessions are just ‘things’ but life is special and also irreplaceable.

Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow

Concentration of firefighting vehicles just north of Willow

Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow

Burned areas on both sides of the Parks north of Willow

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Close up of burned Boreal Forest

Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway

Fire truck heading north on the Parks Highway

 

Just When We Don’t Need Hot, Windy and Dry Conditions…

Alaska has an amazing way of demonstrating just how little real ‘control’ we humans can exert upon this awesome state and yesterday we saw another humbling example of this truism. My friend Mark stopped in around 14:30 and told me a wildfire was burning to the south around Mile 78 of the Parks Highway. We immediately turned on the television but had to wait until 17:00 to get an Anchorage newscast; from it we learned a wildfire was burning out of control along the western side of the Parks at Mile 76 and had jumped the Parks Highway and was now burning along the east side as well. The state troopers had closed the Parks at Mile 78 to any traffic south bound; they were also diverting folks trying to drive north. At that time the fire was believed to be about 30 acres in size. Around 17:20 we decided to make the 7 mile trip to Cubby’s – a small grocery store – at the intersection of the Spur and the Parks Highway. As we approached the entrance to Cubby’s from the Parks we could see a huge cloud to the south along with the upwelling of ash brown smoke. This was our first glimpse of what was to become the Sockeye Wildfire.

The parking lot of Cubby’s was filled and inside it was a mess; many locals and tourists didn’t even know there was a fire and those that did were scrambling. The RVer’s were buying anything they could grab and many tourists in cars were panicking because they needed to get south. Few people had even the scant information we possessed so we disseminated what little we knew to the crowds. Upon finishing our shopping we headed back to the Spur; in so doing we saw a trooper parked on the side of the road stopping folks southbound on the Parks. They were allowing anyone access who lived at Mile 80 or further north; all others were being diverted to Talkeetna or asked to head north. Driving north on the Spur I saw three large Princess Cruise Lines buses pulled off on the side of the road; I’m sure they were trying to figure out what to do. As tourist season is in full bloom most of the rooms in Talkeetna were occupied and I’m sure by Sunday evening there was no lodging to be had in the village or outlying areas.

Our weather was about the worst it could be with blazing sunshine, an air temp of 84 F along with 30+ mph northerly winds and a relative humidity of just 22%. Sadly today is the same but as of 13:12 AKDT the outdoor temp is already 84.2 F with just 26% RH and 25+ mph northerly winds. Given our maximum temps are now occurring around 20:00 we will most likely set a record with temps near if not exceeding 90 F. Because of the northerly winds this area is safe; in this sense we are extremely lucky. But the fire continues to burn out of control and within a bit over 12 hours it has grown from just 30 acres to more than 6,200 acres; that’s an increase in size of almost 207 times!!  The Parks is currently open but is just one lane through the Willow area and vehicles can only drive this area when led by a pilot car.  Given the usual amount of summer traffic on the Parks coupled with a very busy tourist season there are a lot of rightly worried people.  Sadly many tourists are getting a taste of what it is like to live in Alaska!

Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward

Out of control due to high winds and hot temps with low humidity the Sockeye Fire burns ever onward

The tenuous hold we humans have in ‘The Great Land’ is highlighted by this fire; in just 24 hours the blaze has cut the only road from Anchorage and the Palmer/Wasilla area to the interior and is destroying homes and properties. Normally the state allows wildfires to burn uncontrolled unless lives or property are in danger; in this case they are working feverishly to contain the fire.  Six ‘hot shot’ teams were flown in from the lower 48 last night and are on the fire lines along with every available firefighting team from the state. As of this writing it has spread to the outskirts of the Nancy Lake area which is large and densely populated – at least by Alaskan terms – with expensive homes, summer cabins and lots of docks with lake access.  Just to the SE is Houston; it really lies at the northernmost reaches of the Wasilla area. These folks are being evacuated as are those in the Nancy Lake area.

Iditarod contestant Jan Steve's Willow home

Iditarod contestant Jan Steve’s Willow home

Alaskans know Mother Nature will largely do as she will and there’s little we can do about it but go with the flow. But we can support our neighbors and do all we can to help them not just survive this disaster but also rebuild. For the near term just trying to organize to assist them is a huge chore; no one knows just how much work will be required in the future to help them re-establish their lives.  Not that most of us needed the reminder but we humans exist in this majestic state at the benevolence of Mother Nature; as such we must always remember she can be a fickle landlord.  Please say a prayer for all our neighbors to the immediate south and for all the brave firefighters!

Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow

Water tanker aircraft makes a run on the Sockeye Wildfire around Willow

Mother Nature’s Christmas Present for the Upper Susitna Valley

As those of you who follow this blog are aware the winter in south central Alaska this year has once again been mild in terms of air temps but extremely dry in terms of precipitation.  Sadly this is paralleling last winter although to this point there’s been much less precipitation and the temperatures have been much more mild.  To illustrate this I give you the following synopsis:

11/13: monthly average temp 15.5 F / days below 0 F – 8 / days below -10 F – 6 / days below -15 F – 4 / days below -20 F – 2

12/13: monthly average temp 9.1 F / days below 0 F – 12 / days below -10 F – 7 / days below -15 F – 6 / days below -20 F – 3

11/14:  monthly average temp 23.8 F / no days below 0 F

12/14: monthly average temp 21.0 F / no days below 0 F (NOTE: good through 12/25/14)

By the end of December in 2013 we had 29″ of snow pack; as of this morning we are less than half that amount with just 14.0″ on the ground.  For someone who moved to Alaska in part to experience brutal cold and feet of snow to say these first two winters have been ‘underwhelming’ is a bit like calling Denali a ‘big hill’.

But Mother Nature did bestow a gift upon the Upper Susitna Valley across Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the form of an unexpected snow event which dropped a total of 7.7″ of snow which boosted our snow pack to the aforementioned 14″.  The snow was continuous on Wednesday but rather light; on Christmas Day it was very much a ‘wave’ event with pulses of moderate snow falling briefly followed by longer periods of no snow at all.  This event was just the second snowfall we’ve seen this year dropping more than 2″.  The snow was much heavier north of Talkeetna towards the Alaska Range and dropped off  dramatically just a bit south of here.  Willow, which is 30 miles south down the Parks Highway collected just a couple inches of snow total during this same period while Wasilla which is 60 miles south of Talkeetna saw only an inch or so of new snow.

Still and all we desperately need the moisture so any snow is welcome!  We sure hope we see a lot more across the next few months; otherwise this area will be indeed dry for the second straight spring and break up.  While it makes the latter much more bearable overall it does not bode well for the local wildlife or the boreal forest.  In trying to keep up my ‘always find that silver lining’ philosophy if the drought continues at least the mosquito hordes should be somewhat less come spring.

If I’ve learned anything in Alaska it is that Mother nature will do as she will regardless of what we humans might desire; at best we need to just get sanguine with her ways and appreciate what we do receive.  I know many folks in the lower 48 are mighty happy they’ve seen a winter much more mild than the cold and snow of last year’s winter season.  As it is I’m still waiting to see a real Alaskan winter.  With that I’ll leave you with some images from the past couple of days; Happy New Year to one and all!

'The Kidz' - my Alaskan Malamute Anana and my GSD Qanuk - really do love the snow and cannot get enough of frolicking in the white stuff

‘The Kidz’ – my Alaskan Malamute Anana and my GSD Qanuk – really do love the snow and cannot get enough of frolicking in the white stuff

Anana checking out the Christmas Eve snow while I'm prepping to move the Escape and then knock the snow off the tarp

Anana checking out the Christmas Eve snow while I’m prepping to move the Escape and then knock the snow off the tarp

Christmas morning with 'the Kidz'; we're south of the ole homestead clearing the new snow from the sat dish

Christmas morning with ‘the Kidz’; we’re south of the ole homestead clearing the new snow from the sat dish

Christmas afternoon looking west towards my home and the Escape's 'garage' seen on the left side of the image.  We saw repeated snow bursts which were pulses of moderate snow followed by a period of no snow.

Christmas afternoon looking west towards my home and the Escape’s ‘garage’ seen on the left side of the image. We saw repeated snow bursts which were pulses of moderate snow followed by a period of no snow.