The contingent battling the Swan Lake Fire is now at its highest level — even more than in July when over 500 firefighters were assigned to the blaze. Today, there are 671, with a half-dozen helicopters. Before flaring up a week and a half ago, about 20 firefighters remained.
Residents of Cooper Landing remain in the Level-2-Ready alert level for evacuation for a third day.
As the fire edges closer to Cooper Landing, the incident command has added a swing shift to the current day and night shifts currently being run. Jeff Surber is the current operations chief. He explained the need for the added shift.
“They'll come on at 10 a.m., they'll go off at midnight and they will focus on the Cooper Landing area where they will be working on a contingency fire line — basically trying to prevent fire from coming into the community of Cooper Landing in the event this fire wants to come down Juneau Creek to the south,” he said.
Surber said another crew has been dedicated to helping Cooper Landing residents prepare their homes and property for the fire.
“That structure group's been in there for the duration of the time this team's been here," he said. "They continue to work on houses for measures to protect those houses when and if fire gets into the community. That includes sprinklers, hose lays, all that manual labor pretty much that has to go into making sure there's water and other line-building, contingency line-building.”
He said there are crews attacking the fire where it crested the mountains and crossed the Resurrection Trail above Cooper Landing.
“We still have folks from the highway going north up the Fuller Lake Trail kind of trying to deal a deal with this part of the fire and prevent that fire from moving down towards Cooper Landing. At the same time in the Trout Lake area where this fire breached the trail a couple of nights ago, they are working crews into the south end of that, that slop over the trail and they'll continue to work in there today," he said. "They were able to use helicopter support — before that it was too smoky to use aircraft. After 2 p.m. until evening last night, four to six helicopters, depending on the time period, were in use up there dropping a lot of water.”
And though they use it a lot, Surber gave the first detailed explanation of what the term “mopping up” means in the parlance of firefighters.
“Mop up can consist of what's called dry mop — you just dig down in the dirt and you mix any heat, embers and that kind of thing with dirt only, if we don't have water availability and we continue to monitor to make sure it cools down on its own or we preferably use water when we have it," Surber said. "So in desert fires a lot of the time are areas where you don't have water you have to dry mop. In areas like Alaska where water's pretty readily available we will put in pumps, hose lays in that and mix the embers, mix anything that has any heat in it left, we will mix it with water, dirt — native soil or whatever we can to cool it down.
"And then we'll come back hours or days later and recheck those spots to make sure that we got it all. In Alaska, especially, it goes deep into the ground so you can't see it smoke again, and then several hours or days later you'll go by and it'll be smoking again and you realize you've missed something.”
The incident command and borough Office of Emergency Management are holding another community meeting at the Cooper Landing School tonight (Wednesday). Due to the heavy smoke, folks are advised to attend the meeting online on the Division of Forestry’s Facebook page.