On Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, businesses hit hard during last summer’s wildfires are facing another season of uncertainty

Heavy smoke from the Swan Lake Fire contributes to traffic delays on the Sterling Highway on June 21, 2019.
(Photo credit Alaska Division of Forestry)

Last summer, a lightning strike set off a wildfire that tore through forests on the Kenai Peninsula for months. The Swan Lake fire burned nearly 170,000 acres. Smoke lingered in the region and surrounding communities throughout the summer and flames near the Sterling Highway made the road impassable at times.

For many in the region who depend on summer tourism for income, the fires couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Now, as business owners look to this season for some sort of normalcy and a chance to recoup financial losses, they’re facing a new challenge: a global pandemic.

For Stacy Corbin, this time of year is usually a busy one, as he prepares his Cooper Landing fly fishing business for the summer.

But today is different.

“I’m sitting out here looking at our property and looking at Kenai Lake…and wondering what’s going to happen next,” said Corbin.

Corbin owns Mystic Waters Fly Fishing and Mystic Lodge with his wife, Shannon. He started the fishing side of the business back in 2000. And, Corbin said, he’s seen solid seasons of growth since then.

And then last year happened.

As the Swan Lake fire burned, trails, campgrounds, and even a portion of the Kenai River closed. That’s a big deal for a fly fishing business.

“Last summer was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever been through in my life,” said Corbin. “There were weeks on end where I didn’t really even sleep because of the unknown…So the mental side of all of that, which is a big part of what’s going on right now, it’s devastating.”

From a financial standpoint, Corbin estimates the fires effectively shut his business down for two months during a critical time of year. He said it cost his company between $75,000 and $80,000. Corbin said that’s more than half of his overall revenue.

Luckily, Corbin said many clients who couldn’t fish last summer didn’t ask for refunds. Instead, they pushed their trips forward a year. But now, this summer is uncertain too. Because of the financial strain of last season, Corbin said refunds for canceled trips this summer might not be possible.

“Here we are now, on the second season in a row of possibly being hit even harder,” said Corbin. “And not knowing if we’re going to stay afloat or if we’re even going to be able to pay the bills to hang onto this property that we’ve worked almost 25 years for.”

Last month, efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus led to widespread closures of nonessential businesses throughout the state. Governor Mike Dunleavy is slowly starting to reopen the economy.

Corbin said even though he’s anxious to get back to work – to know that he can pay his bills and take people fishing again – he considers health and safety a top priority, and said the reopening shouldn’t be rushed.

There is still a lot of uncertainty over the tourism season – even if businesses like Corbin’s can operate and people can travel without restrictions, will they?

It’s still unclear if and when major cruise ships will come to the state.

Holland America has called off its Alaska sailings for five ships. Princess Cruises canceled its 2020 Gulf of Alaska sailings, and said it won’t operate any of the company’s lodges in Alaska this summer. That includes the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge in Cooper Landing.

The Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District conducted a survey of businesses from March 20-27. Tim Dillon is the organization’s executive director.

“I’ve had more people call me with ‘Tim, I don’t know what to do. I’ve been taking reservations and deposits since October. And now people want their money back and I’ve spent all the money. What do I do?’ That’s a tough one for anybody,” said Dillon.

More than 700 businesses responded and 91.1% said they’ve experienced a disruption in business due to COVID-19.

Nearly a quarter of businesses said they’re at risk of closing permanently because of the impact of COVID-19.

That’s not the case for Cheryl James, one of the owners of Wildman’s, a Cooper Landing store that offers wide range of services. It’s a liquor store, convenience store and deli. They also have showers and laundry, and run a shuttle service.

Wildman’s has stayed open during the pandemic, but James said business has been slow – around 50% of what it normally is this time of year.

Like Corbin, James does not look back on last summer fondly. It was so hot and smoky, James said while working in the store with no air conditioning, she often had to choose between breathing and overheating. 

“Horrible,” said James, reflecting on last summer.

Now, because of the coronavirus, James has had to cut employee hours, and she probably won’t hire as many workers this summer as she usually does.

Wildman’s is open year-round, but James said she makes the bulk of her money in the summer. She said she still managed to make money last year, but not much. And she did get money through the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help offset losses from the pandemic.

Through all of it, James is optimistic about the months ahead.

“Alaskans don’t like to be cooped up,” said James. “We’re outdoors people. We like to go for hikes and fishing and gardening…People are going to start moving around.”

Still, James said she’s preparing for what another hard summer could mean.

Jen Harpe is one of the owners of Kenai River Fly Fishing and is a partner in the soon-to-be Cooper Landing Brewing Company.

“I feel like I used up the extent of my anxiety and worry last summer,” said Harpe. “And then to be handed this on top of it, don’t get me wrong, I have my moments, but at the same point in time, I don’t know, I think I’m just kind of numb to it.”

Harpe said she’s already looking at diversifying her income this summer, and she has a small farm that is receiving a lot of community support.

Harpe said starting a new business right now is both exciting and terrifying – it’s unclear exactly when the brewery will be able to open and what they’ll need to do to find success right now.

Corbin, at Mystic Waters Fly Fishing, said amid all of the stress of the pandemic, there’s something else on his mind.

“There’s no guarantee that we aren’t going to be under threat again this summer from fires,” said Corbin.

For now, he’s applying for every kind of assistance out there, though nothing has come through yet, and hoping things will turn around enough to keep his business going.