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As Peninsula residents grow weary of the Swan Lake fire, officials say they’re not just ‘letting it burn’

A member of the Gannett Glacier Type 2 Initial Attack Crew uses a drip torch during a burnout operation on the Swan Lake fire on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. (Alaska Division of Forestry photo)

After more than a month of burning with no end in sight, the Swan Lake fire has surged to more than 90,000 acres, and some Kenai Peninsula residents are fed up with what they see as a too-passive response by fire managers.

At a community meeting in Cooper Landing on Friday, residents criticized what they called a “let it burn” policy, referring to managers’ decision to, largely, allow the fire to consume the forest’s black spruce.

“Let it burn doesn’t seem to be working too good for the community of Cooper Landing,” one man said. “Because you let it burn and it got away."

Fire managers argue there is no hard and fast “let it burn” policy, though an unusually dry month with record-breaking heat to boot caused the fire to spread in ways it normally wouldn’t, they said.

“It was never just left to do what it wanted to do,” said Leah Eskelin, a park ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge who has spent the last month working with fire managers.

The Swan Lake fire started in a “limited protection area” of the refuge, she said, meaning a place that’s relatively far away from people, where the danger of the fire wouldn’t justify the risk of sending firefighters to fight it.

That designation is re-evaluated year-round by a coalition of multiple agencies, Eskelin said. Unlike fires in “critical protection areas,” where the goal is to minimize the size of the fire as much as possible, fires in limited protection areas don’t see as aggressive a response.

Swan Lake fire progression

The nearby Tustumena Lake fire, one of several blazes ignited by the same lightning storm that started the Swan Lake fire, was one such “critical” fire. Fire managers decided it was better to send resources there than put firefighters in danger battling a blaze that wasn’t threatening anything, Eskelin said.

In this case, because some areas of forest the Swan Lake fire has consumed haven’t burned in hundreds of years, a fire there was actually beneficial, said Randall Rishe of the Bureau of Land Management.

Dense, flammable black spruce dominates the area, and fire managers argue the Swan Lake fire will allow the area to become more resilient to future wildfires by allowing hardwoods to grow, which aren’t as prone to catching fire. That will also open up the area to a greater diversity of wildlife, Eskelin said.

“Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem here, and the only way to reset the boreal forest here is through fire,” she said.

The Swan Lake Fire continues to burn on July 3, 2019. (Alaska Division of Forestry)

That doesn’t mean the Swan Lake fire was left to burn, though, according to Rishe. The whole perimeter of the fire is staffed, he said, though firefighting resources are focused most heavily in areas where lives and property might be threatened. That’s mostly in the southwest corner, nearest Sterling, and on the southern end along the Sterling Highway.

Elsewhere along the perimeter, firefighters are watching to see if the flames reach what’s known as “trigger points,” places close to human property. The strategy shifts on a day-to-day basis depending on how the fire behaves, Rishe said.

“There is not one area of the fire that is not being viewed or looked at without a plan,” Rishe said.

It doesn’t appear that the fire will abate soon, though. It will take multiple days of rain to extinguish the fire, and meteorologists are forecasting only continuing dry, hot weather, Rishe said.

That’s a concern for those who live nearby. One woman at the Cooper Landing meeting on Wednesday asked fire officials what will happen when dipnetting season starts on Wednesday, bringing thousands of people to the Kenai Peninsula.

Smoke from the fire has already reduced visibility on the Sterling Highway to near-zero several times, halting traffic at all together at its worst. Authorities say they’re aware of those concerns.

“That’s an important component for how we are managing the incident," Rishe said.