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Swan Lake fire chokes Southcentral Alaska with smoky air as fire encroaches on national forest land

Midtown is obscured by smoke from the 92,657 acres, or about 144 square mile Swan Lake wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula has settled in Anchorage reducing the visibly and lowering the air quality to an "unhealthy" level on Sunday, July 7, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Officials took the unusual step of closing some forest lands on the Kenai Peninsula to all uses as more hot, dry weather pushed the growing Swan Lake wildfire to the edge of the Chugach National Forest over the weekend.

Smoke from the fire pushed into Anchorage on Sunday, where air quality was at an “unhealthy” level as of 11 a.m. on Sunday.

The Swan Lake fire, ignited by a lightning strike on June 5, has been burning in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land but is now on the border of the national forest land.

The fire is now 92,657 acres, or about 144 square miles. That’s the size of about six-and-a-half Manhattans.

The Chugach National Forest released a notice of “special closures” of forest lands on Saturday night.

All national forest lands west of the Resurrection Pass Trail are closed from the Resurrection Creek Gold Panning Area to Devil’s Pass Trail, according to Alicia King, a spokeswoman for the Chugach National Forest. Lands are also closed south of Devil’s Pass Trail, west of the Seward Highway and north of the Sterling Highway.

The Resurrection Pass trail itself remains open, as does the popular Porcupine Campground and Gull Rock Trail in Hope.

“This fire is unusual. These weather conditions are unusual, to be so dry and warm for such a consistent period of time,” King said. “We’re closing these areas because we want to make sure we’re keeping public safety in mind.”

Smoke from the Swan Lake wildfire seen from Resurrection Pass Trail Friday, July 5, 2019 (Photo by Tegan Hanlon)

The closures include the Swan Lake, Romig, Juneau Lake and Trout Lake public use cabins. King said people with reservations in the next two weeks for the cabins have been contacted individually about the closure.

Dry, nearly record-setting hot temperatures are challenging firefighters’ attempts to manage the fire, which is now burning on high elevations of mountain ridges, said Jonathan Ashford, a spokesman for the NorthWest Interagency Incident Management Team 13.

The fire burning through high-elevation alpine vegetation could mean less fire intensity and slower burning, he said.

It also means fire managers are relying on helicopter drops of water because firefighters can’t safely work on the mountainous terrain, he said.

Pedestrians cross C Street as smoke from the 92,657 acres, or about 144 square mile Swan Lake wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula has settled in Anchorage reducing the visibly and lowering the air quality to an ’unhealthy ’ level on Sunday, July 7, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Meanwhile, smoke from the fire has been funneled toward Anchorage, where on Sunday morning the air quality was rated “unhealthy” on Sunday morning.

A new air quality monitoring station has been installed near Cooper Landing, where smoke from the wildfire has settled into valleys for weeks, obscuring mountains and hanging like a blanket over Kenai Lake. On Sunday morning the air quality reading was “very unhealthy,” there, according to data from the U.S. Forest Service which can be accessed online at tools.airfire.org.

Cooper Landing residents attend a public meeting to receive updates about the Swan Lake Fire on July 6, 2019. (BLM Alaska Fire Service)

More than 220 people attended or watched a live stream of a community meeting in Cooper Landing Saturday, where some residents confronted fire officials about smoky air and missed business and recreational opportunities during the short summer season.

Fire officials scheduled a second community meeting for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 10, at the Cooper Landing Elementary School at 19030 Bean Creek Road in Cooper Landing.

A Boeing 747 takes off from the airport as smoke from the 92,657 acres, or about 144 square mile Swan Lake wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula has settled in Anchorage reducing the visibly and lowering the air quality to an ’unhealthy ’ level on Sunday, July 7, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)


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