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Warm, windy weather stokes Kenai Peninsula wildfire, leading to traffic delays and campground closures

Heavy smoke from the 20,000 acre Swan Lake fire on the western Kenai Peninsula shut down a 7-mile portion of the Sterling Highway on June 21, 2019. (Photo courtesy Alaska Division of Forestry.)

Windy, warm, dry weather stoked the Swan Lake wildfire burning on the Kenai Peninsula on Sunday, causing traffic delays and campground closures.

“Hot and dry weather coupled with persistent winds from the northwest are pushing both smoke and the east flank of the fire towards the highway corridor” and energy transmission lines, the Alaska Incident Management Team said in a statement Sunday afternoon. “Smoke impacts will reduce visibility and will cause delays for all traffic between milepost 58 and 75.5.”

Drivers should expect traffic delays for the Sterling Highway and roads leading to the highway “for the next 24 hours” in that area, fire and Department of Transportation officials warned in a travel advisory Sunday night.

"Please avoid the area if possible,” the statement said.

The Swan Lake fire was sparked by a June 5 lightning strike. The latest update put its size at 23,530 acres burning in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Some 361 firefighters are working the blaze, according to an Alaska Interagency Coordination Center situation report.

The fire has caused traffic snarls on the Sterling Highway, south of where the fire is burning on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land.

On Friday, smoke from the Swan Lake Fire led to closures along the Sterling Highway, but the road was reopened later that day. Alaska fire officials warned of continued delays on the busy highway Sunday due to smoke.

As of 5:40 p.m., officials warned that the Sterling Highway was “temporarily delayed in both directions for public and firefighter safety, due to active fire conditions and smoke.”

“Travelers are advised to be prepared for long delays and should consider bringing extra water and food, as well as extra ice and coolers to keep fish cold,” the Incident Management Team statement said.

The Alaska Department of Transportation used flaggers and pilot cars during the busy weekend, made busier by heavy fishing on the Russian River and Upper Kenai River, according to the fire officials.

Officials discouraged motorists from using the narrow, gravel Skilak Lake Road as a highway alternative.

The road “should not be considered as an option for recreation vehicles, fifth-wheel trailers and semi tractors with trailers.”

Fire officials also warned people recreating on Skilak Lake and Hidden Lake to be aware of “large water scooping aircraft” in the center of the lakes.

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday announced closure of eight campgrounds, trails and recreation sites: Bottenintnin Lake, Watson Lake Campground, Egumen Lake Trail, Petersen Lake Campground, Kelly Campground, Seven Lakes Trail, Skyline Trail and Jean Lake Campground.

High temperatures are forecast for Southcentral Alaska, including on the Kenai Peninsula, this week.