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Sterling Highway reopens but long delays expected due to smoke from Kenai Peninsula wildfire

Pyrocumulus cloud over the Swan Lake Fire as seen from the Sterling Highway on the northern Kenai Peninsula on Monday, June 24, 2017. (Alaska Division of Forestry photo)

Update, 3:40 p.m. Wednesday:

Alaska State Troopers asked drivers not to stop on the highway unless fire crews or troopers tell them to.

Update, 10:30 a.m. Wednesday:

Traffic on the Sterling Highway is moving again, with pilot cars escorting traffic through low-visibility areas due to smoke from the Swan Lake Fire.

Check 511.alaska.gov or call 511 for more information.

The National Weather Service issued a dense smoke advisory for the Kenai Peninsula, warning low-visibility conditions could last through the weekend.

Update, 8:30 a.m. Wednesday:

Smoke and low visibility from the 40,000-acre Swan Lake fire on the Kenai Peninsula has closed the Sterling Highway at Mile 69, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation. Drivers were urged to prepare for long delays and bring extra food and water.

“Updates will be provided as conditions change, they may change with short notice to ensure safe travel for the public and responders,” transportation officials said.

Check 511.alaska.gov or call 511 for more information.

Heavy smoke was expected in Cooper Landing, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Drivers should have headlights on and drive cautiously.

The fire grew about to 40,383 acres by Wednesday morning, according to InciWeb. It’s 10 percent contained and more than 500 people are involved in suppression efforts.

Original Tuesday story:

A major wind shift on the Kenai Peninsula gave firefighters a shot at a “strategic burn” Tuesday to keep the still-growing Swan Lake wildfire off the Sterling Highway.

The fire generating enough smoke to reach the Susitna Valley 75 miles north grew by about 5,000 acres to 37,430 acres by Tuesday morning and generated a pyrocumulus cloud that towered 30,000 feet into the sky, according to fire officials.

But a wind shift -- blowing out of the south instead of out of the north -- was holding the blaze about two miles from the only road that runs from the north end of the Peninsula south to Homer.

“It’s gonna take the fire another day or so to progress toward the highway,” public information officer Kale Casey said in a video update Tuesday.

Fire managers hope to stop the fire north of a Homer Electric Association transmission line near the highway by burning a buffer that would give the flames less fuel to consume. The operation began before noon Tuesday near Mystery Creek Road along the transmission line.

Drivers should expect areas of smoke on the highway through the day and be prepared for delays between mileposts 58 and 75, officials said. The Kenai Peninsula Borough warned of 90-minute delays.

Motorists are encouraged to plan ahead, top off gas tanks, bring extra ice for fish, food and snacks. Pilot cars will escort northbound traffic and fire apparatus will be positioned in the southbound lane.

Smoke from the Swan Lake wildfire near Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula is visible as motorists drive on the Glenn Highway near Anchorage during the morning commute on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Hot and dry conditions were expected to continue with winds from the southwest. Residents from Anchorage to Willow on Tuesday reported hazy skies, the smell of smoke and sore throats from the particulates in the air.

A state air quality advisory continues through Friday for good to unhealthy conditions, depending on wind flow and proximity to fires. Areas immediately downwind will experience hazardous levels of smoke.

“Southwesterly winds will be transporting smoke into the Anchorage Bowl and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley through Wednesday,” the advisory said. “Winds are expected to shift to a more northerly component midweek. At that time, fire/smoke will move to the south over the Sterling Highway, daytime heating will cause westerly winds up the mountain valleys which will carry the smoke towards the communities of Cooper Landing and Moose Pass.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation advises people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children to avoid prolonged exertion in smoky areas. Everyone else should limit prolonged exertion.

Smoke from the Swan Lake fire was expected to reach north through the Susitna Valley toward Denali National Park and east to Cordova, according to a University of Alaska Fairbanks wildfire smoke prediction map that shows levels of particulate matter near the surface.

The fire was described as 9 percent contained Tuesday.

A Nikiski Fire brush truck works closely with a bulldozer putting in a contingency line near the Swan Lake Fire, June 23, 2019. (Photo by Kassidy Stock / Nikiski Fire)

A community meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Sterling Community Center. The meeting will also be streamed by the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Crews strengthened existing containment lines on the fire’s southwest edge, the side closest to the community of Sterling. Crews were repositioned to Watson Lake Campground along the East Fork Moose River to create a containment toehold for firefighters protecting Sterling.

The fire was very active along the north-northeast perimeter where it continued to burn within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, according to managers. Officials say they want to let the fire spread if structures aren’t threatened, because “natural fire can benefit the forest, create future fuel breaks that protect infrastructure and improve wildlife habitat.”

Portions of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area are closed to the public, officials say. Skilak Lake Road, along with Jim’s, Upper and Lower Skilak landings, remains open.

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