Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Fire crews battle Swan Lake Fire after weekend of expansion

Crews are working to create new control lines and keep the fire away from the highway

Fire crews battling the Swan Lake Fire prioritized protecting the Sterling Highway Tuesday in an attempt to keep the roadway open to traffic.

The highway was closed on Sunday night after the Swan Lake Fire exhibited intense growth and crossed the road in several places. By noon on Monday the highway was reopened, but within a few hours the fire began backing toward the highway from the south, prompting another closure at 6:30 p.m. that lasted through the night. At 10 a.m. on Tuesday the highway was opened again to one-lane traffic and pilot car operations. By that time, however, the closures had already impacted hundreds of travelers.

As of mid-afternoon Tuesday, traffic was flowing steadily through Cooper Landing, Nikiski resident Byron Grenier said. Grenier tried to make it through Cooper Landing on Sunday, but was prevented by the road closure. He tried again Monday, but had to turn back after traffic stopped in the evening.

“I got there around 6:20. The road closed at 6:15 so I ended up turning back,” Grenier said.

Grenier was able to make it through Tuesday afternoon. He said he didn’t spot any flames immediately along the highway, but described seeing scorched hillsides and “big, healthy birch trees” that had been toppled by the fire.

Katherine O’Leary-Cole is the head chef at Kingfisher Roadhouse, and she described the scene as Alaskans and tourists alike took refuge at the Cooper Landing restaurant during the highway closures.

“There’s a lot of tourists coming in that are still just completely confused,” O’Leary-Cole said. “And all the locals like the guides and hotel owners — all their trips were canceled so they don’t really have anything to do except come here.”

O’Leary Cole, who moved to Alaska at the start of the summer, has spent most of her life in southern states like Arkansas and South Carolina, so wildfires of this magnitude are a new experience for her.

“It kinda reminds me of the East Coast when a hurricane would come through … but with a hurricane you know roughly when it’s going to hit and at what level, and here it’s just like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on’,” O’Leary-Cole said.

Since the Swan Lake Fire started on June 5, Cooper Landing has been dealing with moderate to unhealthy smoke conditions. With the recent flare-ups, air quality conditions have transitioned to “hazardous,” leading to the delay of the first day of school for Cooper Landing.

“When we came down in the kitchen (this morning), it was like someone had burnt something on the stovetop because it was so smoky in here,” O’Leary-Cole said. “We’ve all been wearing our bandanas as masks but I don’t know how much that helps.”

Management of the fire is transitioning to the Type 1 Great Basin incident management team. Type 1 teams handle the most complex fire situations.

Brentwood Reid, incident commander for the Type 3 management team, said that as the Type 1 team takes control of the fire, the containment strategy will involve creating new control lines in the areas that experienced growth over the weekend. On the western perimeter, a control line is being established south of the Sterling Highway where the fire burned out to Skilak Lake. On the eastern side of the fire, hotshot crews are looking at establishing control lines north of the highway in the area just south of Fuller Lake and along the southern portion of the Resurrection Pass Trail to prevent further spread toward Cooper Landing.

Reid said that this late into the fire season, establishing these control lines is the most effective strategy for containment because it creates a barrier without fuels that stops the fire in its tracks. Suppression efforts have been hindered by drought conditions on the peninsula, and deep layers of dry duff make water drops relatively ineffective. The latest measurement puts the fire at 138,479 acres, and fire crews have it about 20% contained.

Reid said that fire season in Alaska typically ends with a large high-pressure system that brings rainfall consistent enough to moderate fire behavior. Once such system started in the eastern interior of Alaska near Fairbanks a couple weeks ago and traveled southwest through the peninsula. Fairbanks saw about 4 inches of rain — which was enough to effectively end their fire season. The Kenai Peninsula only got about 2 inches of rain as part of that weather system, which merely slowed the Swan Lake Fire’s growth until a weekend of high and dry winds breathed new life into the blaze.

Reid said that at least 4 inches of continuous rain is needed to end the drought and the fire season on the peninsula. So while the Interior is now receiving snow advisories and Tok experienced temperatures of 20 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday morning, fire crews on the Kenai Peninsula are holding the line and holding out hope for more rain. Forecasts on the National Weather Service Website show the potential for light showers later this week, but as of now there is no high-pressure system on the horizon that would bring sufficient rainfall.

There was a community meeting regarding the Swan Lake Fire on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 6 p.m. at the Cooper Landing School at 19030 Bean Creek Road in Cooper Landing. A community meeting on the fire will also be held on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Sterling Community Center at 35085 Sterling Highway (Mile 83.5) in Sterling. For more information visit the Office of Emergency Management Joint Virtual Information Center at kpboem.blogspot.com.

Victoria Petersen and Erin Thompson contributed to this story.

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Victoria Petersen / Peninsula Clarion
                                A truck on the Sterling Highway plows through ash produced by the Swan Lake Fire on Tuesday.

Victoria Petersen / Peninsula Clarion A truck on the Sterling Highway plows through ash produced by the Swan Lake Fire on Tuesday.

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

More in News

A man rides a fat bike on the Homer Spit beach as the M/V Kennicott leaves on Sept. 1, 2019, out of Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer New)
Ferry system to stop winter service to Kodiak Island

KODIAK — An Alaska ferry system has released a new schedule that… Continue reading

Group submits signatures in early phase of recall effort

The Recall Dunleavy group said it collected 49,006 signatures since launching Aug. 1.

Kenai peninsula Borough School District administration, members from the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association meet at a collective bargaining session to continue contract negotiations for employees who have been without contracts for a year, on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Educators set to strike Tuesday

Educators and staff will strike, starting Tuesday, a Friday night press release… Continue reading

A sign advertising the annual Homer Documentary Film Festival hangs on the side of the Homer Theatre Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018 in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
A conversation with Doc Fest co-founder Jamie Sutton

The 16th annual Homer Documentary Film Festival begins today, marking the 16th… Continue reading

Erickson wants to build on accomplishments and be re-elected

Incumbent Homer City Council member Shelly Erickson seeks to build on her… Continue reading

Operators of an Alaska Crane Liebherr LTM 1500 mobile hydraulic crane move the Goldbelt Seawolf at its launch on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, at the Northern Enterprises Boatyard in Homer, Alaska. The crane held the Seawolf over the water until the tide had come in. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
Largest Bay Weld boat ever built is launched in Homer

On Tuesday, Bay Weld broke its own record with the launch of… Continue reading

Evensen represents emerging political demographic of parents with young children

Homer City Council candidate Joey Evensen falls into a demographic emerging as… Continue reading

Homer Farmers Market: Alaska farming boom is a mini revolution

Every farmer digs into the soil, the skin of the earth. Every… Continue reading

Storm Hansen-Cavasos, pictured here on Aug. 30, 2019 at the Homer News in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Hansen-Cavasos hopes to serve community on city council

While Storm Hansen-Cavasos would be a newcomer to the Homer City Council… Continue reading

Most Read