Cooper Landing remained in “SET” status Tuesday night, a day after the Swan Lake Fire’s movement across Resurrection Trail spurred highway closures and an alert that residents should be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The Sterling Highway was open as of 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, but travel was not advised from Watson Lake at Mile 71 to Seward Highway at Mile 36. Cooper Landing School was closed on Tuesday. Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Director of Communications Pegge Erkeneff said that the school will remain closed until Cooper Landing is no longer in “SET” status.
Erkeneff said that the school district is working with the state on a waiver so that the missed days will not have to be made up later in the year.
Emergency shelters have been reestablished at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex and Seward High School. Red Cross volunteer Brenda Chamness said that no one used the Soldotna shelter Monday night, but the shelter was visited by Emergency Manager Dan Nelson from the borough, Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski.
Chamness said that Nelson briefed her and the other volunteers on what to expect going into Tuesday and told her to prepare for about 100 people coming from Cooper Landing to use the shelter. Bud Sexton, public information officer for the Office of Emergency Management, said on Tuesday that in the event of an evacuation from Cooper Landing, residents are likely to leave town in both directions, so both shelters were told to be prepared for a large influx of people.
The Red Cross had about 10 cots set up at the Sports Complex on Tuesday, and Chamness said that about 200 more cots are in storage and readily available if needed. The shelter also had a supply of water, ramen, cookies and coffee, as well as full use of the kitchen, although Chamness said that without a volunteer to prepare meals they have to rely on prepackaged food. Much of the supplies were left over from when the shelter originally opened on the night of Aug. 17.
“We’re trying to prepare for just about anything,” Chamness said.
Cash donations can be made at Redcross.org, and the Red Cross of the Kenai Peninsula are currently accepting donations of pre-packaged food items, water and coffee at the shelter.
Chamness said that people can also come to the shelter and speak with her if they wish to volunteer.
Centennial and Swiftwater Parks are available for free camping for anyone affected by the fire, and those with livestock can leave their animals at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds.
Mike, Robin and Laura Haight have been keeping their two horses at the rodeo grounds since last week. The Haights are from Kodiak, but they’ve been on the road all summer because Laura is participating in the high school rodeo circuit as she does every year.
Normally, the Haights are able to take their horses everywhere they go, but this weekend they had to leave them in Soldotna while they drove up to Palmer for the Alaska State Fair.
“This has been a really big help, being able to stay here,” Mike said. Mike said that people from the Soldotna Equestrian Association checked on their horses while they were gone to make sure they had food and water, and they have been able to exercise the horses on the rodeo grounds.
The Haights drove back from Palmer Sunday night and described the flames that they saw while driving along the highway.
“It was scary,” Robin Haight said. “We drove through it right as the inferno started going up. The truck was hot, sparks looked like they were coming from the sky … It was really scary.”
“I can’t believe folks were actually making it through there,” Mike Haight said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to have the horses with us for that.”
According to the latest update from the Great Basin Incident Management Team, firefighters assigned to structure protection spent Monday night at the community center in Cooper Landing to be available for rapid response after the Swan Lake Fire reached the Bean Creek and Slaughter Ridge area just a few miles north of Cooper Landing.
On Tuesday morning, firefighters in the area determined that the fire had advanced a few hundred yards into the Resurrection Trail area. According to reports from Swan Lake Air Operations, the fire had not made any significant advances south between Slaughter and Shaft Creeks. The Trout Lake Cabins remain unaffected.
Smoke is still heavy in the area, but three helicopters were able to perform water drops Tuesday afternoon using water from Trout Lake and Juneau Lake. As smoke conditions clear, fixed wing aircraft will come in to reinforce the aerial operations.
Firefighters remained in the area Tuesday to complete their assessment of structures in the community and to complete the contingency line in the Slaughter Ridge area. Planned contingencies and resources are in position if the fire moves toward Cooper Landing. A fire line is also being constructed toward Surprise Creek in order to limit the fire’s growth toward the Russian River.
Larry Bickle, incident management team public information officer, said Tuesday morning that the fire is currently at 158,042 acres. Bickle said that a flyby of the fire’s perimeter near Cooper Landing Tuesday morning showed minimal activity.
Because Cooper Landing remains in “SET” status today, all residents should be prepared to evacuate if the situation warrants. The “SET” status is not a notice to evacuate, but anyone who is uncomfortable staying in their home or anyone who needs additional time should consider leaving before an evacuation notice.
The north winds on Monday allowed firefighters to successfully conduct burnout operations along the highway. During these operations, hotshot crews used drip torches to methodically light unburned fuel on the south side of the highway between mile markers 63.5 and 66.5.
This operation helped to secure the highway and further protect the Hidden Lake Campground. The fire perimeter in this area was assessed Tuesday, and night operations patrolling the Sterling Highway and Skilak Road will continue.
The Sterling neighborhoods east of Feuding Lane and east of Adkins Road remain in a “READY” status. This status is not a notice to leave, but it does mean that residents in the area should be ready for potential evacuation.
In a Tuesday afternoon update, Operations Section Chief Rocky Gilbert explained that the western perimeter of the fire is staffed by 160 personnel who will spend the next 10 to 14 days reinforcing and strengthening the containment line along the perimeter. The western perimeter has not seen any growth since the initial flare-up two weekends ago that saw the fire cross the Sterling Highway at several points.
At the fire’s southwest corner, crews will be mopping up within 30 to 50 feet of the fire line in order to prevent reignition. Structure protection crews at Kelly Lake, Engineer Lake, Upper Ohmer cabins, the Skilak Guard Station and the Hidden Lake Pavilion remain in place.
Dry weather conditions with above-average temperatures continued Tuesday. Winds from the north to northwest will continue to transport smoke to the south and southeast.
The weather forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with no precipitation expected. A high-pressure system will enter the area over the weekend, bringing an increase in winds as well as an increased chance of precipitation.
The latest information about the fire can be found at kpboem.com or on Facebook at KPB alerts, and a call center is available at 907-262-INFO (4636).
A community meeting for Cooper Landing was scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Cooper Landing School.