Swan Lake Fire delays deliveries across peninsula

The Swan Lake Fire has been growing for over a week now, causing delays and closures on the Sterling Highway between Cooper Landing and Sterling. The traffic stops, some of which have been nearly 24 hours long, have delayed delivery trucks carrying grocery store necessities.

Dusty Steinbeck, the owner of Country Foods IGA, said the road closures have caused delays of delivery trucks on both sides of the highway. He said the longest delay the store had was Sunday, Aug. 18 when the road was closed for over 20 hours. The delivery was supposed to come in Sunday, but shelves didn’t get stocked until Monday night.

Last week, at Fred Meyer, five trucks were held up in the Sterling Highway Road closure, Jeffery Temple, director of corporate affairs for Fred Meyer, said.

He said the company is monitoring the road closures.

Road closures are continuing to impact deliveries into this week. The Kenai Peninsula College apologized to students over Facebook, Tuesday afternoon, because a delivery truck carrying required textbooks hadn’t made it to the college.

In Homer at Save-U-More grocery store, on Friday, manager Mark Hemstreet said the Sterling Highway road closures and delays affected deliveries from Anchorage, especially of perishable items like bread and eggs and soft drinks and alcohol.

“We received no delivery Monday (Aug. 19),” he said. “The Monday delivery showed up Tuesday night. We’re almost two days behind. We’re just getting caught up now.”

When news got out of road closures on Monday, sales spiked, Hemstreet said.

“We had a really good day Monday. We probably had about 10-15% higher sales. Some of it was back to school and some of it was panic buying, I think,” he said. “… That added to the problem. We didn’t get deliveries and then we sold out. It was like a hurricane.”

Save-U-More also gets a weekly delivery from the Lower 48 that arrives in Anchorage on Sunday and is delivered to Homer on Tuesday. That shipment didn’t arrive until Thursday morning, Aug. 22. The delayed shipments also threw a wrench into Save-U-More work schedules. Stockers did other tasks when shipments didn’t come in and then when shipments came they had to unload two trucks instead of one.

“They just had to work longer hours, a little bit of overtime,” Hemstreet said. “… It’s interesting for them. They pulled it off. … As of today we’re back on schedule until further notice.”

The Grog Shop in Homer also had similar delivery delays, said owner Mel Strydom. The business has three locations, the main store and warehouse on Pioneer Avenue, the Rum Locker in Old Town Homer and the Grog Shop East on East End Road. Strydom said one delivery was delayed about four or five hours and another was delayed a day, with a Thursday delivery pushed back to Friday.

“Those were big deliveries, both of those,” he said.

Strydom said that because he keeps a good stock at his warehouse, the road closures or delays didn’t cause shortages.

“We never ran out,” he said.

Like Save-U-More, the Grog Shop saw an increase in sales, Strydom said.

“The first day of the road closure (Aug. 19) … I had a lot of people here,” he said. “I won’t say panic buying. My sales were up 25% that day. They heard the road was closed. They had to get the important items — it was like a Friday on a Monday.”

The road closure and smoke also has affected hotels, restaurants and other tourism businesses. At Land’s End Resort at the end of the Homer Spit, the road closure worked both ways, said general manager Lea Miller.

“We’ve seen some plusses and minuses,” she said. “We’ve seen people who haven’t been able to leave and they’ve extended their stay.”

Others who couldn’t make it also canceled. Some called ahead and others just failed to show up. Miller said Land’s End has been working on a case-by-case basis to meet customer needs.

“I’m trying to be as optimistic for my team and customers as possible,” she said. “I’m expressing everything as ‘a glass half full.’”

The road closure meant some shortages in food at the restaurant as well as delays in supplies like linens. Some staff who had drive up to Anchorage last weekend for shopping also got stuck. A few called in sick or went home early because of health issues caused by days with heavy smoke, such as Wednesday. The air quality is better now on the Spit with the sea breezes.

“It’s a relief. It’s an oasis,” Miller said. “It’s quite comfortable out here. The deck is great.”

The road closures and smoke also have impacted other tourist businesses. At Ashore Water Taxi, which runs boat trips in Kachemak Bay to the popular Kachemak Bay State Park hiking trails and camping spots, business has dropped dramatically, said Louise Seguela, co-owner with her husband Dave Lyon.

“We’ve had probably 30% more cancellations since the road has been opening and shutting the last two or three weeks now,” she said.

Heavy smoke days also meant canceling water taxi trips to trail heads at higher elevations in the park.

“There were a few days ago it was super dense,” Seguela said. ” We did end up discouraging people from going. You’re not going to have the view and be breathing hard.”

People have canceled, been delayed or rebooked. Normally in the last weeks of August between the start of school and Labor Day, business picks ups slightly as transient summer workers take their own vacations before heading home. Homer also gets an influx of European travelers taking vacations during their traditional August holiday.

“Essentially we’ve just lost all of our business. It’s just died off,” she said. “I think that this is because of the announcement the road is open but don’t drive. They’re turning around or not just coming down.”

Business does slow down toward the Labor Day holiday, “but not this much,” Seguela said.

The Labor Day weekend usually brings one last burst of business from Anchorage and other travelers.

“It will be interesting to see if they actually make it,” she said.

Debbie Speakman, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, said she also has seen tourism slow down.

“It’s earlier than we like to see,” she said. “It’s taken a hit on our tourism and lodging especially.”

With the fires up north closing or delaying travel on the Parks Highway and then on the Sterling Highway, some people have canceled their entire Alaska trips, Speakman said. If their trip had a Denali visit along with a Kenai Peninsula visit, they canceled both.

“On the flip side we’ve had people having to stay over,” she said. “There’s been that mix on top of it all.”

Overall this summer, tourist numbers have been decent, Speakman said, “especially because a majority of our visitors come from around the state.”

At the end of the tourist season, that’s different.

“People aren’t coming down and spending that last weekend, that last hurrah down here,” Speakman said.

Miller said the wildfires and road closures are part of the challenges of running a business in Alaska.

“You kind of have to ad lib when situations like this come around,” Miller said. “We’re good at being creative with the resources we have and pulling together as a team.”

By Michael Armstrong, Homer News

and Victoria Petersen, Peninsula Clarion