Out of the Office: Burnt out

The Swan Lake Fire can be seen from the East Fork Moose River bridge on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Photo courtesy Robert Kuiper)

The Swan Lake Fire can be seen from the East Fork Moose River bridge on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Photo courtesy Robert Kuiper)

The first time I reported on the Swan Lake Fire, I didn’t even mention it by name.

On June 6 – 84 days ago as of Thursday – I wrote an article titled “Wednesday thunderstorms spark 5 fires on the Peninsula.”

At that point, the biggest concern for the folks in charge was the Tustumena Lake Fire, which had reached 121 acres overnight. They got that one under control fairly quickly, and looking back now I don’t think anyone really knew what was around the corner. The last paragraph of the article bears repeating here, and personally I think it should be the new textbook example of “burying the lede.”

The paragraph reads like this:

“According to akfireinfo.com, the other four fires on the peninsula are burning in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Fire managers are currently assessing what actions to take, if any. These fires are no more than an acre in diameter each and are in remote areas.”

One of those tiny, remote fires would eventually be known as the Swan Lake Fire, which is now over 160,000 acres in size and is anything but remote.

Fast forward to today, and the notion of the Swan Lake Fire growing only 121 acres overnight would be cause for celebration. I come in to the office every morning with my fingers crossed, hoping and praying it hasn’t gotten any closer to Cooper Landing or Sterling. But it continues to grow every day, often by thousands of acres at a time, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that no one has lost their lives or their homes.

I, along with my co-workers and other Alaska journalists, have written dozens, if not hundreds, of stories documenting the fire’s journey. We’ve talked to people who have driven through the flames and people who have lived through fires their whole lives. We’ve interviewed Red Cross volunteers preparing emergency shelters and grocery store managers who have dealt with late deliveries. I’ve met seasoned firefighters from Colorado and stranded tourists from Minnesota. We’ve worked through the weekends and late into the evenings, because the fire doesn’t stop growing when we’re off the clock.

And on days when I get tired of the daily updates, or I start to complain about having to come in on a Sunday and report on the latest developments, I quickly remind myself that I have it easier than just about anybody.

My home is in Nikiski, so the worst impact I’ve felt out there is a couple of smoky mornings. I’ve had no reason to drive to Anchorage, so the highway closures haven’t ruined any of my plans. Most importantly, I get the luxury of writing about the fire and looking at the latest maps from the safety of my office.

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of firefighters right now camping out in the rugged Alaska wilderness. They work 10-, 12-, 14-hour days and don’t get to go home at the end of their shift. They’re literally on their hands and knees digging containment lines and mopping up areas of heat that you can only find by sticking your hand in the duff.

Most of those firefighters are not from Alaska. They left their families and friends in the Lower 48 on less than a moment’s notice to protect total strangers and communities they’d never heard of until their first morning briefing. The fact that they are actually risking their lives every day should inspire everyone to keep going.

After I think about the firefighters on the ground, I think about the people from Sterling and Cooper Landing who have to worry about whether their home is going to be there the next morning. There hasn’t been an order to evacuate Cooper Landing, but if I lived there I would have left a long time ago.

The smoke is so bad that the kids can’t go to school. Parents have to go about their daily lives while constantly checking the news for an evacuation notice. Hotel owners and professional guides have had bookings canceled and their livelihoods threatened.

And when they’re not dealing with hazardous smoke conditions, Cooper Landing residents have a line of hundreds of cars idling in their little highway hamlet as people try to navigate a road that’s seemingly on fire every other hour.

Finally, I think about what my responsibility in all this is as someone who writes for the local newspaper. While watching one of the many community meetings through a live stream on Facebook, I noticed that one woman had commented, “Why isn’t this national news?”

She’s right. I haven’t met any CNN or Fox News reporters at the incident command post, and my friends and family down in Florida only know what they hear from me. If national outlets have covered this fire, it’s probably gotten less coverage than the president’s latest tweet.

So if there’s one thing this fire has showed me, it’s how important the local news outlets are in situations like these. Without local radio, newspaper and television, the No. 1 fire in the nation would barely be a blip on the radar. The only people who would know about it would be the ones who could see the flames from their backyard.

People in the community rely on us to convey the latest fire activity in a way that’s easy to understand. People want to know if they should be worried about their property or what the smoke conditions will be like for the day, and not everybody has the time to dig through all the data posted on agency websites.

When this fire first started, no one knew what was on the horizon. Now that we’re three months in, I don’t think anyone knows how this is going to end. With a record drought on the peninsula, the “season-ending” precipitation that was supposed to put this fire out weeks ago never came. We got a couple inches of rain over a couple days, and we naively believed that would be enough.

But in the face of overwhelming uncertainty, what can any of us do but keep going?

As long as that fire is out there, I’ll be on the phone with incident commanders and emergency managers making sure that people know exactly what’s going on. But like I said, I’ve got the easy job in all of this. To the folks on the ground, whether you’re fighting the fire directly or you’re living in its shadow, you all are the heroes of this story. I’m just here to make sure that story gets told.

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