Forest Fires in Alaska

Char 4 Million Acres

The scale of the forest fires in Alaska is difficult to comprehend. Nearly 4 million acres of timber and scrub have burned so far in the interior, charring more than five times as much land as last fall's record-setting, headline-grabbing fires in Southern California.

Huge clouds of smoke have drifted hundreds of miles south and east, burning eyes and obscuring normally crystal-clear vistas in Anchorage, as well as in southeast Alaska and British Columbia. More than 2,700 firefighters, many of them flown in from the Lower 48, have fought 489 fires, which together have created Alaska's third-worst fire season on record.

Nearly all the damage, though, has occurred outside of populous areas in this vast state. No one has been killed or seriously injured, and just 33 structures -- half of them outback cabins -- have been destroyed. Several hundred homes are still at risk, most of them in small communities surrounding the central Alaskan city of Fairbanks.

Late July is normally the end of the fire season, as winds off the Bering Sea bring clouds and rain. Fire officials said last week that this much-needed relief has been slow in coming.

-- Blaine Harden

Four Flee Tennessee Jail

On Beer Run -- Then Return

The jail in Rogersville, a little east Tennessee mountain town, must not be that bad a place.

Four inmates escaped recently, but they did not stay away long. They came back on the very same night. And they were ready to party.

A guard spotted two of the ricochet inmates slipping back into the jail. Naturally curious, he stopped the inmates to see what the heck was going on. The guard discovered that the inmates were carrying refreshments: a sack of beer.

His interest sufficiently piqued, the guard decided to do some sleuthing in the cells. The evidence was all around him: empty beer cans on the jailhouse floor.

By the time they finished sorting out the mess, the jailers had accused four inmates of what will surely go down as one of the loonier beer runs imaginable. The inmates were able to buy the beer without much trouble because they were in street clothes: There are not enough jail uniforms to go around.

The caper has investigators scratching their heads.

"I have never heard of them going out and coming back in with beer on them," said Hawkins County Sheriff's Detective Alan Kidd.

The beer will probably end up leaving a nasty taste in the inmates' mouths. If convicted of escape, they're looking at another year on each of their sentences.

-- Manuel Roig-Franzia

Oil Company and New Jersey

Both Vie For Petty's Island

The oil company Citgo owns an ecologically sensitive 300-acre island off the coast of southern New Jersey and offered to turn it into a wildlife preserve. But the Democratic-controlled state government has something less bucolic in mind: a convention-housing-golf course combo.

The state picked a developer, who hired an ornithologist who set up a tent to prove that birds could coexist with a human jungle.

But the ornithologist was just 30 feet from a bald eagle nest. The eaglet sensed him, got scared and plunged to its death. This led to a spate of newspaper articles last week and much outrage.

Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey's Sierra Club chapter says the whole fight over at Petty's Island is a role reversal.

"It's bizarre," Tittel said. "We have an oil company, a Fortune 500 company on our side. It's like Superman in the opposite universe. South Jersey is the opposite universe, where Republicans are pro-environment and the Democrats are pro-development."

-- Michelle Garcia

Some Iowa Prison Farms

Will Switch to Organic

As a growing number of small farmers around the country and the state have, some of Iowa's prison inmates will make the switch from raising corn and soybeans to specialty organic fruits and veggies.

One of the farms run by the Iowa Department of Corrections, in Montrose, is already being converted with organic soybeans for this year, organic wheat and alfalfa slated for next year and special types of organic blue corn, cabbage, tomatoes and other vegetables planned for later.

The department is discussing switching about 1,000 of its 7,000-plus acres of farmland to organic in the coming years to take advantage of the popularity of organic produce, which draws higher prices, and to employ more inmates. About 150 to 180 nonviolent offenders work 40-hour weeks on the farms.

Many farmers around the country have found organic yields draw increased profits. But Iowa farmer George Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, said the state isn't necessarily conducive to these crops. Although he isn't familiar with the prison farms, he thinks they might find the move tough.

"The soil isn't the best for it," he said. "You need more irrigation. But there is a lot of interest in organic products, and I guess they have a lot of cheap labor."

-- Kari Lydersen

More than 2,700 firefighters from across the nation have fought 489 fires, which have created Alaska's third-worst fire season on record.