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Nation in brief

Alaska's wildfires abate, but thick smoke prevails

By wire services
Published July 4, 2004

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - Cooler weather provided relief Saturday for crews battling two wildfires near Fairbanks in Alaska's Interior, but extremely dense smoke grounded firefighting aircraft and prevented hundreds of people from returning to their homes.

Towering smoke clouds from the biggest fire were visible in Fairbanks, 30 miles to the south, where the sky was beige and the air smelled of soot.

"The good news today is that both the Boundary and Wolf Creek fires have spread much less in the last 24 hours than they have in previous days," said Sarah Gallup, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

The Boundary fire was 15 percent contained Saturday and had blackened 280,000 acres, authorities estimated.

The dense smoke hampered efforts to reopen areas that had been evacuated Tuesday when the Boundary fire tripled in size. Hundreds of people sought refuge in Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest metropolitan area with about 82,000 residents. An evacuation order remained in effect for 277 homes and 12 businesses close to the fire.

The Wolf Creek fire, 50 miles northeast of Fairbanks, had charred 174,000 acres in a popular recreation area. Several people living in the area had voluntarily left their homes. Five cabins were reported burned Saturday.

Initial images of Titan fall short of expectations

PASADENA, Calif. - The first pictures of Saturn's moon Titan returned by NASA's Cassini spacecraft after its initial fly-by were not nearly as good as researchers had hoped, but they were good enough to overturn several theories about the moon, scientists said Saturday.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory team's efforts to peer through the dense, smoggy haze that surrounds Saturn's largest moon revealed only fuzzy details of the surface, but those details left team members puzzled and confused.

The images, surprisingly, did not show the large bodies of liquid on the surface that astronomers had expected to find. The oceans of liquid methane or ethane that had been predicted would have shown up very brightly in the images obtained so far, said imaging team member Bob West of JPL. "If there are oceans, we should have seen them by now," he said.

"That's a little disappointing," added team member Kevin Baines.

Researchers previously had thought, moreover, that the lighter areas on the surface of Titan were water ice and that the darker areas were other materials. But spectroscopic data from Cassini's infrared spectrometer "has turned those theories on their heads," said deputy project scientist Elizabeth Turtle of the University of Arizona.

Lucky liquor store owner sells Mega Millions ticket

LOWELL, Mass. - Whoever bought the winning ticket in the $290-million Mega Millions lottery drawing couldn't have been much happier Saturday than the person who sold it.

Jay Patel, owner of Powers Liquors, was elated as he waited along with everyone else to find out which one of his customers won the huge jackpot in Friday's drawing with the numbers 10-25-38-39-50 and Mega Ball 12.

A hand-lettered sign that read, "We sold $290-million's jackpot here" hung in the window of the store Patel called "the luckiest Powers Liquors in the world right now."

Patel will receive $50,000 for selling the ticket.

[Last modified July 4, 2004, 01:00:39]

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