Swan Lake Fire History
On June 5, 2019, the Swan Lake Fire was ignited by lightning in a remote area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness. It was reported at 4 to 5 acres, one of 11 fires reported June 5 and 6. It was in the Limited Protection zone and put in monitor status.
By June 10, the fire had grown to over 2,500 acres. A local Type 3 Incident Management Team (IMT) assumed command of the fire. The community of Sterling and the Enstar Natural Gas pipeline were determined to be values at risk.
On June 12, the fire reached the identified MAPs and the strategic operations plan was implemented. Two crews were ordered and the Type 3 IMT was expanded. By June 16, the fire had grown to over 12,700 acres. Over 110 personnel were assigned to the fire. A Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was issued for the fire vicinity to protect aircraft working on the fire. A Type 2 IMT was ordered.
On June 17, crews began burnout operations along the indirect line east of the East Fork Moose River. Burnout was also completed around the Enstar Thermoelectric Generator (TEG).
On June 18, Alaska Type 2 IMT assumed command of the Swan Lake Fire. The fire was over 15,600 acres with nearly 170 personnel assigned to it. On June 19, the fire made a push to the south and east, crossing Mystery Creek Road. Heavy smoke from the fire obscured the Sterling Highway, resulting in a temporary closure from milepost 63 to milepost 70. The road reopened with pilot cars after smoke conditions improved. An air quality advisory was issued for southcentral Alaska due to smoke from multiple wildfires.
By June 23, the fire was 32,300 acres and within two miles of the Sterling Highway. The TFR was expanded due to the fire growth.
With hot, dry weather forecasted to continue, alternative control lines were evaluated further from the fire edge. Heavy equipment began constructing indirect lines to the north of the Homer Electric transmission lines north of the Sterling Highway. The Alaska Type 2 IMT held two public meetings at the Sterling Community Center.
By June 28, over 17 miles of line near the Sterling Highway and East Fork Moose River had been burned using controlled methods, and mop-up had begun to secure these lines. The fire was now over 62,000 acres and had crossed the Chickaloon River east of the Enstar pipeline.
On July 2, Northwest Team 13 Type 2 IMT assumed command of the Swan Lake Fire. The fire was now over 79,000 acres, with 28% of the objectives met. The south and west edges of the fire were contained or showing minimal growth. Spread was now toward the east and northeast in the Chickaloon River, Thurman Creek, and Mystery Creek drainages. The TFR was expanded to include the west edge of the Chugach National Forest.
A high-pressure system and north to northwest winds pushed dense smoke into Cooper Landing and Seward on July 3. An air resources advisor joined the IMT and air quality monitors were set up in Sterling, Cooper Landing, and Seward. Helicopters dropped water, up to 250,000 gallons a day, to slow the fire spread. Hotshots worked in the area of Upper Jean Lake directing water drops, cutting fire lines, and mopping up where safe to do so.
On July 6, the Chugach National Forest issued a closure for part of the Resurrection Pass Trail and areas of the Forest south and west of the Devil’s Pass Trail and the Resurrection Pass Trail. The Fuller Lakes Trail was closed by the Kenai NWR. Both trails were prepped by fire crews as contingency lines. Public use cabins along the Resurrection Pass Trail were evaluated and the southern ones were prepped. Northwest Team 13 held two public meetings July 5 and July 10 at the Cooper Landing School. Both were well attended.
Fire personnel continued to work on mop-up in the East Fork Fire scar and other areas along the south and southwest edges. The southeast corner near Upper Jean Lake continued to be a concern. 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 Eastern Area Incident Management Team Type 2 assumed command of the fire. The fire was over 100,000 acres with 440 personnel.
A warming and drying trend began July 17. Scattered hot spots became visible near control lines, but all lines held. July 19 brought thunderstorms, which dropped up to ¼” of rain on areas north of Thurman Creek. On July 20, the northwest edge of the fire that had burned into the wetlands were declared contained due to minimal fire activity over multiple days. The completion of objectives was raised to 72%.
On July 23, rain began to fall on the fire area. By the morning of July 24, rainfall totals reached ¼” to ½”. The Chugach National Forest, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and Kenai Fjords National Park lifted their campfire ban. With fewer aircraft assigned to the fire and less activity, the TFR was changed to 1000 to 2300 hours.
On Thursday, July 24, EAIMT held a community meeting at Cooper Landing Elementary School. Approximately 40 members of the public attended this meeting. The workload on the fire shifted to repair and backhaul. The majority of the fire perimeter was being monitored by aircraft.
By July 28, the Swan Lake Fire received an average of 2” of rainfall. Minimal fire behavior was observed and the fire had not grown in acreage since July 22. The Eastern Area IMT continued right sizing the organization with a gradual reduction of resources.
On July 29, a warming and drying trend began over the area. The TFR was lifted after 2300 hours.
On July 31, the Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT) transitioned to a Type 3 Alaska organization. This smaller organization will manage the fire and complete suppression repair work.
By August 10 surface fuels responded to the warming and drying trend and heat smoldering in the deep duff layer became active. Green islands of fuel in the fire's interior began to burnout and activity picked up along the eastern perimeter in Mystery Creek and Thurman Creek. Fire also began to back down the south facing slope of Mystery Hills above Upper Jean Lake. Incident managers used helicopters to cool the area to prevent it from backing down to the Sterling Highway.
On August 12, mechanical suppression repair was completed and fire personnel began reseeding operations to prevent erosion and mitigate invasive weed introduction on the disturbed soil of dozer lines constructed to keep the fire north of Sterling.
On August 13 cloud cover moderated fire behavior somewhat and reseeding of dozer lines continued.
The Swan Lake Fire in the Days Ahead
Warm temperatures are expected today with light westerly winds. Temperatures will cool tonight and into Friday as northwesterly winds bring in a cooler and drier air mass that will lower relative humidity values and diminish cloud cover. Strong northwest winds are possible this weekend and afternoon humidities could also drop into the 25-30% range with this pattern change. This change in wind direction could transport more smoke into Cooper Landing and the Kenai River corridor over the weekend.
While the rain put a damper on fire activity, this fire is still burning. Deep duff layers will continue to smolder and produce some smoke until they are fully extinguished by a season-ending event, most likely snow. Heat will continue to smolder in the deep duff and become active with clear skies and wind. This continued consumption of flammable materials is normal, and further reduces the fuel load and risk of future fires in these areas.
The residual heat is on the interior of the fire or toward the north end, away from values at risk such as homes, other improvements, and the Sterling Highway. There is a slight chance that the fire will spread beyond its current footprint. However it will continue to be monitored by aircraft until fire personnel are sure that it poses no danger to the public or the Sterling Highway.
If the fire moves east in the Chickaloon, Thurman, and Mystery drainages, fire managers have identified management action points where fire spread can be stopped before it poses danger to Cooper Landing and the Resurrection Pass Trail area. Fire activity in other areas will be assessed to determine whether it poses a risk to remote structures. If needed, firefighters will be on hand to take suppression actions on flare-ups.
Personnel and equipment repaired damage caused by suppression work. This includes re-establishing proper drainage on dozer lines, covering exposed soils with vegetation to reduce future erosion potential, and chipping piles of limbs and brush created during fireline construction. Land managers will continue to monitor, assess, and mitigate fire effects until a season ending event occurs.
The Swan Lake Fire also has ecological benefits. The fire burned with varying levels of intensity, creating a mosaic of burned and unburned areas. Some dense stands of black spruce were consumed, reducing the danger of large, high-intensity fires in these areas for many years. On some parts of the burned area, shrubs and trees such as willows and aspens are already sprouting new shoots, and fast-growing plants such as fireweed are germinating. This mosaic vegetation types creates a fire resilient landscape that will also provide excellent habitat for many wildlife species.