Lightning ignited the fire on June 5, 2019 in a remote area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness. The area was classified as a Limited Protection Zone in accordance with The Interagency Fire Management Plans for Alaska. That classification indicates low values at risk and difficult or costly suppression efforts. Consequently, it was initially put in a monitor only status. Over the next week the fire grew from an estimated 4 to 5 acres to over 12,700 acres. Active suppression efforts were implemented and the first of several incident management teams was assigned. Important infrastructure was protected, but the spread continued, reaching 15,600 acres on June 19. Heavy smoke became an issue triggering a temporary closure on the Sterling Highway and contributing to an air quality advisory for southcentral Alaska.
During the last week of June, the perimeter grew from 32,300 acres to over 62,000 acres under unseasonably hot, dry conditions. In early July, spread to the south and west was largely arrested; however, it began moving east and northeast. Dense smoke was sent into Cooper Landing and Seward. The fire reached 79,000 acres. In response, the Chugach National Forest and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge issued closures for trails affected by the fire. Structures in Cooper Landing were assessed for fire readiness. Most of the fire was patrolled by aircraft. Interior pockets of fuel continued to burn, but most of the perimeter stayed quiet.
On July 15, the fire was over 100,000 acres and staffed by 440 personnel. A warming and drying trend kindled scattered hot spots near control lines, but all lines held. A series of rain events with amounts ranging from one quarter inch on July19 up to two inches on July 28, greatly diminished fire activity, arrested growth and prompted staffing reductions.
The work focus shifted to repairing suppression damage. The return of warm, dry conditions increased activity within the interior of the burn. Latent embers lingering deep in the decaying vegetation under the forest floor flared up and began to consume previously unburned fuels—especially on the eastern perimeter. Helicopter water drops were used to reduce further spread. Meanwhile, mechanical suppression repair was completed and fire personnel began reseeding operations to prevent erosion and prevent invasive weed introduction.
An August 17 wind event, with velocities exceeding 35 mph, re-ignited an apparently cool area of the fire and spread it south of the Sterling Highway into the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area. Over the next week the fire grew an additional 50-thousand acres and created fire, smoke and travel impacts to adjacent communities.
September 29, 2019 Update:
Firefighters working on the 167,164 acre Swan Lake Fire have completed the majority of suppression repair work including chipping brush piles and repairing containment lines built by dozers and crews. The Swan Lake Fire remains 90% percent contained and smoke may be visible from within the interior of the fire perimeter until there is significant precipitation. The estimated containment date has been advanced to December 31, 2019 due to the deep pockets of duff and heavy fuels that will continue to smolder and produce visible smoke in some locations for several weeks and possibly months.
Access routes to reopened facilities on the Kenai NWR pass through areas burned by the Swan Lake Fire, and some of these facilities lie immediately adjacent to burned habitats. Hazards within the burn include fire-weakened standing trees which can fall without warning and deep ash pits holding residual heat capable of causing severe burns. All lands burned by the fire within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge remain closed, and the public is urged to exercise caution in these areas.
Both the USDA Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service both deployed Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Teams to assess the potential post-wildfire hazards. Following a fire, the first priority is emergency stabilization in order to prevent further damage to life, property or natural resources on public lands. Rehabilitation focuses on the lands unlikely to recover naturally from wildland fire damage. Implementation of the assessments will begin this week.
Restrictions/Closures: An area closure remains in effect for all refuge and national forest lands that have been burned. Skilak Lake Road is open to provide access to Lower Skilak, Upper Skilak, and Jim’s Landing boat launches and Bottenintnin Lake. Some recreation facilities in this area including campgrounds, trails, and day-use areas remain closed. Conditions will be re-evaluated for safety, but extensive repair may be needed before reopening trails. Contact the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge visitor center by calling 907-260-2820 or visiting https://www.fws.gov/refuge/kenai/ for more information.
Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR): The TFR for the Swan Lake Fire (9/9687 NOTAM) was lifted at 9 p.m. on Friday, September 27, 2019.
Cooperating Agencies: US Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Alaska Division of Forestry, USDA Forest Service, Alaska State Parks, Kenai Peninsula Borough, Central Emergency Services, Cooper Landing Volunteer Fire Department, Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Department of Transportation, Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
This will be the last update for the Swan Lake Fire unless significant activity occurs. Additional information can be found on the links listed below or call Alaska Division of Forestry, Public Information Officer Tim Mowry at (907)-356 -5511.