‘This town is just exhausted’: Cooper Landing wrestles with aftermath of a summer lost to wildfire

The Swan Lake fire choked the tiny Kenai Peninsula town with smoke, blanketed it with ash and kept tourists away during the typically bustling summer.

COOPER LANDING — Jen Harpe looked over her 5-acre property on a recent weekday afternoon. The Swan Lake fire hadn’t torn into this Kenai Peninsula town this summer, as she worried it might, but it left scars.

Stumps dotted Harpe’s land. Friends had cut down spruce trees, fearing they could ignite. Inside, a stack of family photographs sat on the floor. She had packed them in haste when the fire flared last month.

Harpe still needed to retrieve 40 chickens, three geese and a goat that she had moved north out of harm’s way. Her husband was gone too. He left for Juneau to take a construction job after the fire led to weeks of slow to no business at the fishing company they manage.

“It’s been a devastating summer, absolutely devastating,” said Harpe, still sick from the smoke, her sentences occasionally punctuated with coughs.

While recent rain and cooler weather have tempered the chaos of the flames, Cooper Landing residents, including Harpe, are still dealing with the aftermath of a monthslong wildfire that choked the community with smoke, blanketed it with ash and kept tourists away during the typically bustling summer season.

As a fiery summer turns to fall, residents said they’re scrambling to pay bills and collect belongings they had quickly driven out of town when the fire crept close. Some also described wrestling with gnawing emotions — simultaneously anxious, angry and grateful.

“This town is just exhausted,” Harpe said.

A hot, dry, fiery summer

Lightning sparked the Swan Lake fire on June 5 in a remote area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

First reported at 4 to 5 acres, it burned in a limited protection zone. Fire managers said they’d monitor its spread and wouldn’t intervene unless the flames threatened homes or other infrastructure.

The fire would help moose habitat and reduce future fire risk, they said.

[A summer of weather extremes set up Alaska for devastating August wildfires. Scientists say it’s likely to happen again.]

So the fire burned through Alaska’s unusually hot and dry summer, eating up black spruce and brush. Depending on the wind, smoke would strangle Cooper Landing or flow up to Anchorage, blurring the mountain views in the state’s largest city. It triggered air-quality alerts and closed some forest lands on the Peninsula.

But by the end of July, aided by wet weather, officials reported the fire dormant and not expected to grow again.

Then came the wind.

The fire roared back to life in mid-August, crossed the Sterling Highway, and suddenly the tiny community of Cooper Landing was in its crosshairs.

With fire burning about 2 miles away, residents were told last month to be ready to evacuate. Some left on their own.

At the peak of the fire’s fury, businesses shut down. The community registered some of the country’s worst air quality ratings. The highway — the only road into town — closed sporadically, and videos circulated online of flames licking the roadside. The local school canceled classes five days in a row, and a stretch of the Kenai River was closed for weeks during a peak for trout and silver salmon fishing.

At times, more than 700 firefighters battled the flames, more than double Cooper Landing’s year-round population.

By Saturday, the fire had scorched more than 163,000 acres and was 42% contained.

‘I’m still hacking and coughing’

In early September, on a welcome clear day, Stacy Corbin walked across his property to the edge of turquoise Kenai Lake. He pointed out where planes last month had scooped up water to douse the fire.

“The sounds of fall in Cooper Landing — usually loons on the lake and people whooping and bragging about all the fish they caught — have gone to just hearing helicopters and planes and pumps and chain saws,” said Corbin, owner of Mystic Waters Fly Fishing, a guiding and lodge business.

The town is trying to recover as the fire still burns. Seasonal tourism is a linchpin of the local economy, and the fire hit businesses hard, Corbin said.

“Our little window, when we make the bulk of our income, is wiped out,” he said. “It devastated the bulk of this community.”

Cooper Landing, straddling the Sterling Highway along Kenai Lake and the Kenai River, is a mecca for fishing, rafting and other outdoor activities. Between 250 and 300 people live in town year-round, and the population doubles in the summer, according to the local community club.

Corbin said his business lost at least $80,000 this summer due to canceled reservations. Many people are repeat customers and book a year in advance. But the smoke and fire kept them away. Corbin said he sent his employee back to California early, and “he left with almost nothing."

Even when they could get out on the water in June and July, during the strong salmon runs, the smoke was so thick and pungent some days that clients wore masks, he said.

“It was unbelievably caustic and dangerous and unhealthy,” he said. “Sometimes you couldn’t see the sides of the Kenai.”

Corbin pulled out his cellphone to show photos of the dense smoke and videos of planes scooping water from Kenai Lake. It felt like the whole town had lined the lake that day to cheer them on, he said.

A lot of people in Cooper Landing had cellphone footage to tell the story of their summer: Thick smoke blocking out the sun. Fire trucks clustered in parking lots. Haze outside their windows.

“You couldn’t see the mountains, couldn’t see the lake. You couldn’t see anything,” said Skye High between games of pinochle at the Snug Harbor Senior Haven community center.

“The smoke has been pretty bad. There’s been times I couldn’t see across the street, hardly,” said Wayne Mitchell, who owns Cooper Landing Grocery and Hardware with his wife. They’ve sold a lot of eye drops this summer, he said.

“I’m still hacking and coughing,” Cheryle James said as she sat with her husband, Jerry, on their back porch. A thin layer of ash covered the nearby table.

Others left town because it got so bad.

Harpe’s 5-year-old son went to Anchorage to stay with her parents, she said. The Jameses own Wildman’s convenience store and had a few employees out sick.

Tyler Gottfredson, operations manager for Alaska River Adventures, said the smoke sent one of his rafting guides to the emergency room. The smoke prompted his wife, who is pregnant, and their young son to leave town early.

Gottfredson, like others, said he can’t help but feel frustrated with the summer of fire.

“Hopefully this fire was a learning experience for our changing weather patterns,” he said.

Corbin said he and others are asking: “How could it possibly have been allowed to get to this point?”

‘Is this the new normal?’

At the tiny K-12 Cooper Landing School, a stench of smoke still lingered in classrooms this month.

The teacher, Tommy Gossard, and parents had brought in air purifiers. Signs for the fire crews decorated the gym. The school’s 14 students wrote cards for firefighters. It was their third day back at school.

Gossard said it’s nice for everyone to return to routine. They had a counselor and school psychologist in the classroom on the first day. He used the fire crews’ maps as teaching tools.

“It’s like the first day of school again,” he said. “Everyone is happy and chatty with each other.”

Gossard and his family were also still unpacking what they had prepared for a possible evacuation. That morning, Gossard said, he had struggled to find his new school shirt for Spirit Day, later realizing it was still boxed up in their camper.

Gossard’s wife, Virginia Morgan, is working as the temporary school secretary after the fire led to canceled interviews for the job. Their two children are students.

“What’s devastating for this community has been the loss of business,” Morgan said. “We have a lot of families here who are struggling. I know some parents are getting ready to leave to go somewhere else for a job.”

Later that day, at a bend in the Kenai River, guide Carl Coulliette rowed a boat to shore on a clear evening.

He had taken two men from Texas out fishing, after a few weeks without work and without a paycheck. It was a better day compared to others. The mountains were visible this time, he said.

“It had gotten pretty bad,” he said of prior smoky trips. “And then having it for weeks on end? That was horrible.”

Still, when he turns on the air conditioning in his car, he’s blasted with smoke, he said.

Corbin said he’s not sure if people really understand the gravity of the Swan Lake fire’s impact on Cooper Landing.

On Friday, he took clients fishing for trout and silver salmon on the Kenai River. They drifted by charred land and smoke, he said.

“It’s still active on both sides of the river,” he said of the fire. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Corbin said he worries the fire could flare up again. Others shared a similar, lingering anxiety about the flames and questions about whether the tinderbox conditions would continue next summer. If so, how would business survive?

“I think we’re all concerned that this is the new normal,” Morgan said. “It’s been a really, really tough summer.”

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.