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Alaska News

Sterling Highway open with pilot cars as wet, windy weather calms Swan Lake fire spread

Rain is dampening the Swan Lake fire, but pilot cars are still being used on the Sterling Highway because of a risk of charred trees toppling in gusty winds, fire managers and emergency managers said Sunday.

All lanes of the Sterling Highway are open at of early afternoon Sunday. Pilot cars are escorting drivers in both directions, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Motorists have been reporting waits of between 15 minutes and an hour, depending on their place in the line of cars, said Kris Ericksen, acting on Sunday as public information officer for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

“It is still possible if the wind kicks up and something happens we could have longer delays," Ericksen said.

The Department of Transportation said Sunday that motorists should be prepared for delays.

“The message is: The highway is open. Expect delays. Can be short and can be long. They are variable and just depend on where you get in that queue," said Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the DOT.

Drivers heading south will encounter a pilot car at mile 40 of the Sterling Highway, north of the Quartz Creek campground. Drivers heading north on the highway will run into the pilot car line at mile 70, near Watson Lake.

Motorists hesitating to drive to the Kenai Peninsula because of tales of long waits on the highway and videos from last week of flames licking at roadside forests shouldn’t encounter anything so dramatic Sunday, Ericksen said.

“There shouldn’t be anything scary happening on the road,” Ericksen said.

Ericksen said the borough is “certainly not discouraging” Labor Day weekend travelers from coming to the Kenai Peninsula.

It’s significantly less smoky near the road, she said. Some people have been asking why pilot cars are necessary.

The pilot cars are in use in part because of high winds toppling burned trees. Some have been falling close to the road and pilot cars ensure drivers avoid problem areas, said Ericksen.

Light rain has dampened fire activity on Sunday, said Brian Scott, a spokesman for Great Basin Incident Management Team 1, the current fire managers. The fire is now 29 percent contained.

Motorists seeking up-to-date information can visit the Facebook page KPB Alerts for the most recent information or the Department of Transportation’s 511 website.