Now clocking in at more than 32,000 acres, the Swan Lake fire continues to burn about five miles east of Sterling in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Almost 400 personnel are currently assigned to the fire, the fourth major event on this part of the Peninsula in the past six years. That frequency has given Refuge managers almost real time feedback on what their policies and practices mean on the landscape.
Friday night, more than 200 people turned out at the Sterling Community Center to get a rundown on the fire operations from the Incident Command team that’s been in town for more than two weeks.
Continuing the trends established by the Funny River fire in 2014 and the Card Street fire the following year, this one is burning through black spruce. Sometimes referred to as gasoline on a stick. But fire is an integral part of keeping a stand of black spruce healthy, and a burn like this clears the way for the next generation of forest. And that’s all well and good, so long as the fire isn’t threatening anything. But over the weekend, crews had to put in overtime on the state’s number two fire to keep it off the Sterling highway and away from town. Northerly winds didn’t help much, and the fire has pushed to within a couple miles of the highway corridor, forcing delays and occasional shutdowns from heavy smoke and firefighting traffic and also closing popular trails and campsites north of Skilak lake.
But the defenses put in place the last few years closer to Sterling are working as intended, says Mike Hill, the assistant fire management officer for the Refuge. I caught up with him after the meeting Friday.
“It took the fire managers 15, almost 20 years to implement the Funny River fuel break and then in 2014 it burned, and it was validated. So that was the catalyst to the work we’re doing in other places on the Kenai; these strategic fuels treatments work, they’re effective, they’re cost effective and after Funny River, we had a big workload ahead of us, but we also had a spike in interest.”
The community wanted to know what was being done to try and mitigate future fires, and it’s been supportive. The fuels treatment Hill talked about can mean a variety of things. The fire burning now in a limited control area is, in a way, a fuels treatment. Just letting older growth forest burn naturally. Other times, small burns are done intentionally to try and keep ahead of Mother Nature and in rare instances, trees and other fuels are mechanically cleared and cut down. That tends to be the more expensive option, but overall, the ratio of what’s being spent over what’s being protected is a wide one. As of Friday, the overall bill for operations on the Swan Lake fire was a little more than $2 million.
But the work being done was protecting more than $140 million in assets, both public and private. All of that factors in to the risk management strategies Hill and others put together to address these events.
“Which is why Sterling got the attention it got after the Funny River fire. We have all these scientific models where we can run mock fires through the country and tell us where our greatest risk is and if a fire occurred there, our greatest loss; infrastructure, homes, stuff like that. It comes out with a matrix and says ‘you should really prioritize your work here’, which is what we did because at the end of the day, I think we all kind of knew Sterling was at risk, but (now) we have the science to back it up and now we have a fire on the landscape which even further validates the need," Hill said.
That fire continues to pose a risk to infrastructure along the highway corridor, namely a Homer Electric Association transmission line from Bradley Lake that’s been de-energized. That line is just a few hundred feet away from the Sterling Highway, which continues to be the main focus for both aerial and ground crews on the fire’s southern edge. The Kenai Mountains are to the east, and countless lakes and wetlands are keeping things in check to the west and north.
Hot and dry conditions with variable winds are anticipated for most of the week, and officials urge travelers to build in plenty of time for potential delays between Cooper Landing and Sterling.