Significant delays should be expected for the next few days on the Sterling Highway as smoke from the Swan Lake Fire has led to severely reduced visibility from Mile 58 to Mile 75.5 just east of Sterling.
Wednesday morning, traffic came to a standstill from approximately 5:30 to 8:45 a.m. because visibility had been reduced to zero, and normal flagging and pilot car operations were put on hold until visibility improved. Shannon McCarthy, administrative operations manager with the Department of Transportation, said to be prepared for delays of up to 90 minutes — especially between midnight and 8 a.m. — and recommended bringing extra food, water and fuel if planning to travel along this portion of the highway.
Fire crews have occupied the southbound lane of the highway as they perform back-burning operations to prevent the Swan Lake Fire from spreading closer to the highway. Crews are burning fuel from the northern side of the highway to create a fuel break that will meet the fire on its southern perimeter. The flaggers and pilot car operators directing traffic in the remaining lane have come from nearby road construction projects along the highway, which McCarthy said is both a positive and a negative.
“The good news is that the resources were close by for us to utilize, but the bad news is that construction will be delayed, and we were hoping to start paving this week,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said that if the fire manages to spread to the other side of the highway, DOT will have to close the road.
Following the back-burning operations, deputy incident commander Ed Sanford said that the ground crews will move west and work along the eastern side of Watson Lake to connect to the fire line already established on the southwest perimeter.
The Swan Lake Fire currently stands at 42,133 acres and is staffed by 550 people from a variety of local, state and federal agencies, including five crews from the Lower 48. Public information officer for the incident management team, Bud Sexton, said that the fire is expected to spread further south over the next couple of days, hence the need for back-burning operations along the highway. Sexton said that firefighting operations — especially with wildland fires — are heavily dependent upon the weather. Incident meteorologists have predicted warm, dry days coming up that will exacerbate the spread of the blaze. During a community meeting Wednesday night, incident meteorologist Ben Bartos said that there is a high-pressure system to the south that is causing warm weather on the peninsula. The system is expected to move into the peninsula and push the temperature into the upper 80s in some areas over the weekend.
While most of the fire continues to spread undeterred, Sexton said that the southwest perimeter closest to the community of Sterling has been contained, and the fire has not spread in that direction for several days, according to daily updates from the incident management team. In addition, several fuel breaks were created along the eastern and northern perimeters of Sterling over the past several years that will help prevent the fire from spreading into the community or near critical infrastructure.
Dan Nelson, emergency manager for the Borough’s Office of Emergency Management, said that the neighborhoods identified as being “at-risk” have been thoroughly assessed by the borough and the incident management team. The people living in those areas have been contacted by emergency personnel and the emergency responders know what will be needed in terms of equipment and resources for any given area that may require evacuation.
OEM operates on a three-phase strategy of emergency response, which Nelson referred to as “Ready, Set, Go.” As of now, OEM is working under the “ready” phase, which means information about evacuation has been distributed and people should have plans in place of where they can go and what they need to take with them in the event of an evacuation.
About 150 people attended the public meeting at the Sterling Community Center Wednesday night. Sterling resident Bonnie Smith said she has been very impressed with the regular updates from local media outlets and the agencies managing the fire.
“It seems like you can go on Facebook and get an update every few hours,” Smith said.
Smith compared the public outreach with how information about wildland fires was distributed in the past, and described the difference as “night and day.”
Judy Warren, also from Sterling, said that the turnout for the meeting was slightly smaller than the first one. The Alaska Division of Forestry has broadcast both of the meetings on its Facebook page, and Warren guessed that some people opted to watch from home this time.