Traffic on the Sterling Highway has been temporarily stopped due to the Swan Lake Fire.
The fire is currently backing north of Skilak Lake Road toward the Sterling Highway, according to a 6:15 p.m. update from the Office of Emergency Management.
A backing fire means that the fire is slowly moving into the wind or down a slope. Normally, fires move with the wind and prefer to run upslope, according to OEM.
Both lanes of traffic are stopped at Mile 72. Firefighters expect smoke from the fire to affect the travel on the Sterling Highway for a limited time. Alaska State Troopers will sweep vehicle traffic along the affected area, and flaggers will be posted at the Adkins Road at Mile 77 to the east, and at the intersection of Resurrection Pass Trail and the Sterling Highway at Mile 53 to the west, according to OEM.
High winds and dry conditions led to a weekend of intense growth for the fire, which had grown to 138,479 acres by Monday evening. Crews spent most of Monday assessing the new growth of the fire and developing a new strategy for containment.
The growth over the weekend prompted a closure of the Sterling Highway Sunday evening. The highway was reopened at 12 p.m. on Monday.
The highway closure forced some travelers to seek shelter at campgrounds in Soldotna and Seward. Overnight emergency shelters were set up at Seward High School and the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex by Seward Parks and Recreation Department and the Red Cross, respectively. Red Cross volunteer Beth Odom said that six adults and one child used the Soldotna emergency shelter and about 50 people camped out at Centennial Park Sunday night. As of Monday evening both shelters have closed operations due to the Sterling Highway being reopened.
Jace Wohlrabe and Daren Brety had spent the weekend fishing in Soldotna and were planning to head back to Wasilla when the highway closure stranded them on the peninsula. Wohlrabe is from Wisconsin and said that he had not heard anything about the fire prior to arriving in Alaska on Friday.
Brety is set to get married next weekend at the Susitna Landing Campground on the Parks Highway, but the venue that he and his fiancé had picked out six months ago is now being threatened by the McKinley Fire north of Anchorage, which also experienced significant growth over the weekend and burned at least 50 structures on Sunday.
“We’ve got 170 people coming up and I rented out half the campground,” Brety said on Monday. “Now we’re scrambling to find a new location that will fit everybody.”
Wohlrabe and Brety spent Monday morning buying food, drinks and other supplies in anticipation of having to stay at Centennial Park another night, only to learn afterward that the Sterling Highway had been reopened. Since they already had the gear, the two decided they would stay another night in Soldotna anyway.
“Might as well stay and go fishing again,” Wohlrabe said.
Brooke Hahn and her family are up from Seattle and had planned to be in Homer on Monday, but the highway closure forced them to camp out at the Exit Glacier Campground in Seward Sunday night.
“We ended up just camping last night because it was tough to find a hotel or AirBnb. Now we’re just exploring Seward more and will just skip Homer this trip,” Hahn said.
According to the latest update from the incident management team, the southeast corner of the fire crossed the highway near Mile 70 and spread south to Skilak Lake Road. The fire has also jumped the Kenai River and spread into the Surprise Creek drainage. Near Mile 71 of the Sterling Highway, close to the Watson Lake Campground, the fire jumped the highway and ran south to Skilak Lake at the Lower Skilak Campground.
On Monday morning crews from the Homer Electric Association de-energized the 115,000-volt transmission line that runs parallel to the Sterling Highway and connects the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Facility to the northern rail belt utilities. Bruce Shelley, director of member relations for HEA, said that the line has been de-energized and disconnected at both ends so that fire crews could work safely in the area. Shelley said that the de-energized line will not affect HEA members, but the weekend’s windy conditions did lead to several power outages over the weekend that were unrelated to the fire.
Lighter winds yesterday allowed for aviation resources to be used again and helped the incident management team build an effective strategy to address the fire’s new growth. A Type 1 incident management team, the Great Basin Team, arrived Monday evening with approximately 100 additional personnel. Those crews will be sent to the areas of new fire growth that popped up over the weekend. According to the National Weather Service website, winds are expected to remain calm for the rest of the week, and there is a slight chance of precipitation starting Thursday night and continuing into the weekend.
Due to the proximity of the fire and the substantial growth over the weekend, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management has placed Cooper Landing and the Sterling neighborhoods east of Feuding Lane and east of Adkins Road in “Ready” status as of Sunday. “Ready” status is the first stage of the OEM’s “Ready, Set, Go” action plan and indicates that residents should be prepared to take action and evacuate homes if needed. Emergency Manager Dan Nelson said on Sunday that “Ready” status usually comes about 24 hours before an action may need to be taken.
A “Ready” alert is not a notice to leave, but the alert does mean that those affected must be ready for potential evacuation. OEM recommends taking this time to assist family members with special needs, arrange to move mobile property such as boats, trailers or ATVs and prepare pets and livestock. The latest information can be found on www.kpboem.com or by calling the Borough Call Center at 907-262-4636.
Cooper Landing School will be closed today due to the proximity of the Swan Lake Fire. According to an update from the Kenai Peninsula School district, a decision will be made this afternoon to determine if the school will open on Wednesday, and outdoor recess and physical activity may be modified based on the Air Quality Index.
Closures in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge have been extended to include the entire length of Skilak Lake Road and all adjacent recreational trails and day use areas. The Russian River Ferry was closed and cleared on Sunday.
Closures in the Chugach National Forest include the Russian River Campground, the K’Beq Day Use Area, Barber Cabin, Russian River Falls and the Russian Lakes Trail from the Russian River Campground south to Barber Cabin. Closures remain in place on Resurrection Pass Trail from the junction of Devil’s Pass south to the Sterling Highway. This closure includes the following public use cabins: West Swan Lake, Swan Lake, Trout, Romig and Juneau. The Bean Creek Trail and all of Slaughter Ridge Road are closed at this time as well.