Sterling Highway closed as Swan Lake Fire grows

UPDATE, 7:30 p.m.

The Swan Lake Fire was 5 miles to the west and northwest of Cooper Landing, according to the latest update provided by the Office of Emergency Management.

The fire had reached 127,709 acres of as 12:20 p.m. Sunday, according to a map provided by the Alaska Division of Forestry.

During a Facebook Live update, Emergency Manager Dan Nelson said Cooper Landing is on Level 1 — or Ready — level of preparedness.

Part of OEM’s “Ready, Set, Go” action plan, “Ready” indicates that residents should be prepared to take action and evacuate homes if needed. Nelson said “Ready” status usually comes about 24 hours before an action may need to be taken.

The “Set” action point typically comes about 12 hours before an potential evacuation, and indicates that residents should be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

A “Go” alert means residents should evacuate immediately, and is issued about six hours before an expected impact.

As of Sunday evening, the Sterling Highway was closed to traffic. Nelson said he was unsure when the highway would be opened again, but said it would be tomorrow at earliest.

“If we can make it safe and get people through, we are going to do that,” Nelson said.

During the Facebook Live update, Incident Commander Brentwood Reid said what seemed like a “benign” fire a week ago had turned into a very complex incident over the weekend. Reid said record drought conditions have made accurately predicting the growth of the fire challenging.

In the last three days, a cold front bringing strong northwest winds, sometimes ranging up to 30 miles per hour, helped push the fire through several drainages toward Cooper Landing, he said.

“For this particular fire, northwest winds are very bad,” Reid said.

Sunday afternoon, the wind shifted toward the northeast and stopped the fire’s rapid progress to Cooper Landing, moving the progress of the fire more south and southwest.

On another front Sunday, Reid said the fire made a run toward the Sterling Highway by Watson Lake, jumped the highway and ran all the way to Skilak Lake. People recreating in the refuge near Skilak Lake and cars waiting to travel east to Cooper Landing were both evacuated Sunday.

As far people traveling west through Cooper Landing, Reid said that Sunday traffic was backed up approximately 15 miles, with an estimate of 1,500 cars waiting to get through.

Reid also said power lines near Jean Lake and Upper Jean Lake caught fire. HEA had de-energized the lines at 5 a.m. Sunday morning, but they were still “somewhat live,” according to Reid. He said HEA must get to each end of the lines to disconnect them, which will be difficult because of the fire in the area.

Another area of concern is the northwest border of the fire, where the Kenai Moose Research Center sits.

The Swan Lake Fire is the No. 1 priority fire in the state, Reid said, but the incident management team will still be competing for resources with other areas, such as Mat-su, which are also battling fires.

Reid said he expected “a couple jet loads” of hotshot crews would be arriving tonight and tomorrow. Water-scooping air tankers from Canada and amphibious air tankers are already on scene, but the high winds prevented them from operating over the weekend.

A Type 1 Incident Management Team, designed for large and complex incidents, would be arriving tomorrow night and taking over management sometime early in the next week.

When asked about the risk to Soldotna, Reid said Sterling is protected by the Card Street Fire, which burned out black spruce in the area, as well as by fuel reduction projects done on the east side of Sterling.

“We have these large areas where we plan to stop the fire if it progresses that way,” he said, adding bulldozers and equipment are already in the area.

As for Cooper Landing, Reid said crews are on order and bulldozers are in the area, but that winds are too strong for aircraft. The area was being scouted Sunday for containment strategies.

“We have plans for what we’re going to do tomorrow to get in and look for opportunities to put in control lines, but at the moment the weather is preventing us from doing that,” he said.

ORIGINAL POST:

The Borough of Emergency Management in collaboration with the Swan Lake Fire Incident Management Team will host a Facebook Live event at 7 p.m. to discuss the Swan Lake Fire.

The fire, which had grown to 112,490 acres as of Saturday evening, pushed across the Sterling Highway over the weekend, causing a closure of the roadway until at least tomorrow, according to an afternoon update from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management.

Red Cross Alaska has set up a shelter at the Soldotna Sports Complex. The rodeo grounds adjacent to the property are open for livestock and free camping is available at the Centennial and Swiftwater campgrounds in Soldotna, according to OEM.

Closures have been issued by the Refuge Manager to close Fuller Lake Trail, Skyline Trail, the Russian River Ferry, Hidden Lake Campground, Jim’s Landing, Sportsman’s Landing, Hideout Trail, and the Kenai River Trail. The Chugach National Forest has implemented closures of the Russian River Campground, The K’Beq historical site, Barber Cabin, and the Russian Lakes Trail to Russian River Falls. Closures remain in place on Resurrection Pass trail from the junction of Devil’s Pass south to the Sterling Highway. This closure includes the public use cabins at East and West Swan Lake, Trout, Romig and Juneau cabins, according to a 10 a.m. update from Alaska Wildland Fire Information.

Go to the joint information system website at www.kpboem.com for fire updates, the interactive map and smoke impact links. The borough’s call center volunteers are taking answering calls from 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Call 907-262-INFO (4636) for current information. Questions or requests for copies of the closure order or maps should be directed to the Refuge at (907)262-7021. People with recreational-related questions should contact the Refuge visitor center at 907-260-2820.

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