When the Incident Command team running operations on the Swan Lake fire met with community members last week, it was the number two priority fire in the state. Since then, total personnel working just outside Sterling has almost doubled.
Tom Kurth is the Incident Commander, and provided an update at another meeting at the Sterling Community Center last night.
“We’re looking at over 40,000 acres now...we have almost 550 people on this. That’s 15 crews, five dozers, five helicopters, access to retardant out of Palmer and Kenai...and we certainly have gotten a feel for this incident and now we’ll see how we approach this and there’s going to be some changes that you’ll recognize from the last time we talked. There’s been a fairly large amount of growth over the last five days.”
Most of that growth has been away from the community of Sterling, but also toward the Sterling highway and a major transmission line for Homer Electric Association. Ed Sanford, the Deputy Incident Commander on the scene, said fire breaks and other defenses closer to town are providing crews the opportunity to basically throw everything they can at keeping the fire off the highway. And this time around, that also includes the use of drone aircraft. They’ve been using drones for monitoring and to help set off the back burns, in an attempt to remove the dry fuels that remain between the fires leading edge and the highway.
“And they drop little, they look like ping pong balls, and they ignite and they hit the ground and they start a fire. So as the hand crews are coming through, the (fire) engines are on the road to support that and the fire starts pulling away, the aircraft will come out and start building some heat…so it’s all one fire now," Sanford said.
Burnout operations along the highway will continue for the next couple days. Crews are up to milepost 68, close to Watson Lake. The traffic delays are expected to continue, with fire operations taking up the full northbound lane. Operations are now going around the clock. Hot and dry conditions and a northwesterly wind will keep crews busy alongside the highway again Thursday.