Swan Lake fire grows, moving closer to Sterling Highway

Smoke from the Swan Lake fire lingers in the air over the Kenai River on Saturday, June 22. (Photo by Abbey Collins, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The Swan Lake fire has grown to 32,300 acres. The fire has been burning since early June in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. This weekend, winds spread the fire within two miles of the Sterling Highway.

Fire crews have stopped the progression of the fire toward the town of Sterling. But, on the Sterling Highway, travelers should prepare for continued delays.

Smoke from the wildfire sparked by lightning in early June is making its way around Southcentral.

“That smoke has been shifting from impacting Seward and Cooper Landing, all the way to shifting up to Girdwood and Anchorage and even Talkeetna,” said Kale Casey, a public information officer with the Alaska Interagency Incident Management team.

Casey said wind is determining how fast and in which direction the fire grows.

He says the first priority for firefighting crews was to stop the progression of the fire toward Sterling. And, Casey said, that has been accomplished.

He said the wildfire is impacting black spruce forests. The trees burn every 60 to 100 years, and haven’t done so since 1947.

“On the one hand, nobody wants the smoke,” Casey said. “But this forest, once burned, will protect Sterling for quite a long time. And that’s a benefit to the community and it’s a benefit to the moose and the habitat in the refuge, because this is like a loaded gun sitting on a landscape to the east of Sterling.”

Casey said efforts are now focused on the area North of the Homer Electric Powerline along the Sterling Highway.

Homer Electric has de-engergized that powerline, but that won’t impact resident’s day-to-day power.

As the fire continues to burn, and winds shift, the situation is dynamic. Casey said travelers should be prepared for delays.

“It’s going to become the new normal on the Kenai until we have this fire under control, that there will be delays,” Casey said. “Motorists and tourists and commuters can just simply expect delays.”

Within the refuge, all Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area trails, campgrounds and day use areas are closed until further notice. A number of other trails and campgrounds are closed as well. There’s a list of closures on the Refuge’s Facebook page.

Certain access routes within the refuge were closed earlier this month.

While crews are fighting this blaze, Casey said it’s important for residents and visitors to be careful not to start any new fires.

Especially as hot, dry weather is expected to continue in Southcentral. National Weather Service Meteorologist Sean Baines says there’s no significant precipitation in the forecast, but temperatures in the mid 70s are expected.

Anchorage set a daily high temperature record Sunday of 78 degrees.

Baines says southerly winds are expected Monday afternoon through Tuesday, bringing more smoke to the Anchorage area.

On Monday, the state Division of Forestry announced a burn suspension for the Kenai Peninsula. That means no open burning, or burning in barrels, until further notice. Small campfires are permitted, but must be properly extinguished.

Open fires are also prohibited in Anchorage right now, due to high fire danger.