Fire crews respond in force to Loon Lake fire outside of Sterling

Fire crews are working to contain a lightning-caused wildfire that started a half mile from Swan Lake outside Sterling this weekend.

An aerial photo of a lake
There was little smoke coming up from the Loon Lake Fire at 11:30 a.m. Monday, after crews attacked it from the air Sunday night. (Division of Forestry photo)

The Division of Forestry said it intends to fully suppress the fire and is attacking it with water drops and fire retardant. As of Monday afternoon, it had built 15% of a containment line around the fire’s perimeter.

Officials got reports of the fire Saturday night and immediately sent in crews, said division spokesperson Tim Mowry. The fire grew to less than a quarter square mile amid wind and dry conditions Sunday but has since been reduced to just over a tenth of a square mile.

The fire’s burning 10 miles from Sterling and isn’t threatening any lives or property. Mowry said the division is not evacuating anyone and is not closing any trails. 

Officials are calling it the Loon Lake Fire.

“It’s actually burning closer to Swan Lake than it is to Loon Lake,” Mowry said. “But we did not want to name it the Swan Lake Fire again. For obvious reasons.”

The Swan Lake Fire burned 266 square miles in 2019. But Mowry said the division’s not worried about history repeating itself.

Last time, he said, fire crews were attacking other fires in more high-trafficked areas before attacking the Swan Lake Fire.

“It was a week before we put any resources on that fire,” Mowry said. “By that time, it had grown to several thousand acres. The big difference with the Loon Lake Fire is we coordinated with the refuge. They instructed us to take suppression action on this fire almost immediately.”

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manages the area. It also gave Forestry permission to use fire retardant — something crews usually don’t do. 

“It’s very much a nonstandard response for the refuge, but one that wasn’t taken lightly,” said Leah Eskelin, a ranger for the refuge.

She said there were a few factors that went into the decision, like the dryness and heat.

“And just the location,” she added. “That was a decision our managers made that gave some tools to Division of Forestry to be quickly responsive.”

Fuel type is also a concern. The area’s filled with dense black spruce, one of the most flammable forests in the state.

Typically, the refuge encourages natural burns. But the division got the green light to use fire retardant in the area.

Mowry said it’s proven effective so far. He said crews are careful to not get any retardant in water ways.

Crews are also scooping and dumping water from Swan Lake. A crew from Fairbanks is arriving today, bringing personnel at the scene to 80. 

Mowry said the fire is burning four to six inches deep, meaning it’s not too deep in the forest floor. The deeper a fire burns, the harder it is to put out.

“And that is another difference between the Swan Lake Fire and the Loon Lake Fire,” he said. “We have a few days of hot, dry weather coming up that will probably dry things out a little bit. But conditions aren’t nearly as dry right now.”

Mowry said it’s not the biggest wildfire of the season statewide. But it is the biggest the Kenai Peninsula has seen so far.

The Division of Forestry instituted a burn suspension on the Kenai Peninsula and in Fairbanks because of dry conditions and short staffing.

“This fire and some others we’ve had up in the Fairbanks area have stretched our resources pretty thin on a statewide level,” he said. “And we’re now into the lightning season. So we’re trying to do everything we can to reduce the human-caused element in this.”

Mowry also said he’s not worried about the fire impacting air quality at this time. But there is a temporary flight restriction in the area, since there are aircraft there fighting the fire.