As Fires Are Planned In Our Alphabet Hills This Summer, Let's Review The 2019 Swan Lake Fire

Dangerous Air Quality & Blackened Forests  As Rural Alaska Struck By Fires In  Long, Hot Smoky Summer Of 2019  Firefighters mop up in Wi...

Dangerous Air Quality & Blackened Forests As Rural Alaska Struck By Fires In Long, Hot Smoky Summer Of 2019 

Firefighters mop up in Willow, 2019. (Photo, Country Journal) 

In 2019 A Lightning Fire Near The Kenai River Was Left To Burn – With Devastating Effect  

The little roadside town of Cooper Landing skirts the gorgeous turquoise-blue Kenai River. Travelers arriving here are giddy with excitement as they hit the water to go fishing.  How is it possible to even find a town like this – only 100 miles from Anchorage – where you can catch the plumpest, most incredible fish in Alaska, all while drifting silently down a world class river? 

This is a classically pretty, historic, incredible place. But then, in June, 2019, lightning struck at Swan Lake, 60 miles away. At first it was just a small fire: 5 acres. 

It was left to burn by the Kenai Wildlife Refuge managers and the State of Alaska. 

After all (according to modern forest managers)  “moose browse” is very important.  The fresh-tipped willow that healthy moose gobble up with their huge discolored teeth emerge from the ashes of forest fires. In Alaska, fires have been kept at bay for decades, leading to perceived problems caused by  "old growth" and "lack of mosaic."  So letting forests burn is actually a recognized form of fire management in our state – where there were over 630 forest fires in 2019 alone, scorching over 2.5 million acres.

Not all fires, though, are in a place like Cooper Landing. The Swan Lake fire burned, and burned, and burned some more, taking out trees that shaded lovely campgrounds, river shores and lake sides. Then, finally, it roared in on Cooper Landing itself and almost took out the town. It was a terrible mistake to let this fire go, especially at the very start of one of the hottest, driest summers in Alaska's history. 

Jerry James, who owned Wildman's store in Cooper Landing, was upset about it from the start. But by mid-September, after people in Cooper Landing had packed up their belongings and were ready to evacuate, he was more than angry. At first, he said , "…it was very small." But, "instead of just extinguishing it on the spot they decided to let it burn. Let it burn!"

Wayne Mitchell, owner of Cooper Landing Grocery was angry too. "It's not repeatable" what he thought about the fire, he told us. "Long story short, they could have stopped it if they had wanted to… they just kept letting it grow. We were covered in smoke. This thing's been going on since June 4th, off and on. It's hard to pinpoint the basic authority that said, 'let it go,' but what they initially said was it wasn't near anything that could get damaged. Then it spread."

He added, "a couple of weeks ago, they gave the yellow alert to 'Get Set' and it got within about 3 or 4 miles from the Kenai River Princess. They issued the Get Set alert which means get everything ready, and leave as soon as you're notified. During that yellow alert I took my trailer into Anchorage, and left it. It's still in Anchorage."

The disruption to Cooper Landing and the rest of the Kenai went on for weeks. Cars were stopped. Motorists were stuck overnight and couldn't get through. People like Jerry James fretted that it would take up to 50 years, and more, for the forests to recover...

Huge numbers of people came to help. It was said that there were at least 600 firefighters; more than twice of the town's population of only 289 year-round residents.

Local restaurants all pitched in to feed fire crews, according to Shirley Wilmoth, who runs the Hutch B&B. "They had Gwins, Sunrise, Sacketts and Princess were all feeding the firefighters."

Tourists noticed. Two Massachusetts visitors, who had driven down the Sterling Highway past fires flaming on both sides of the road were still talking about it a week later. They told us that Alaskans were incredibly community oriented and generous to their neighbors. 

The Fires Of  Willow

Meanwhile,  the stretch of Parks Highway between Wasilla and Talkeetna was being hit by fire, too: "The McKinley Fire."

As in the Kenai, cars were stopped, and Alaskans watched in horror on TV and YouTube as huge lines of cars, buses and trucks clogged the Parks Highway like a bad version of waiting in line for the Alaska State Fair. The fiery gloom of massive clouds billowed behind them through the trees.  

Motorists were diverted north to Fairbanks and down the Richardson and Glenn – or barreled across the slippery, potholed Denali Highway because they couldn't get through at Willow. One Princess bus driver told us she was idled on the Parks Highway with a bus full of squirming passengers for five hours.  Fifty structures were burned down in the Willow fire, and local residents were on high alert. 

But that year's Willow fire wasn't the first. It was the second major blaze there in four years. The 2015 Sockeye Fire in Willow destroyed up to 45 structures, and was notable because of the many Iditarod mushers affected, including DeeDee Jonrowe, who lost her home and kennels. 

Hazardous To Your Health
Smoke from forest fires is not healthy. The Swan Lake Fire damaged the lungs of the people who lived near it. A September 15th story in the Anchorage Daily News pointed out that people in Cooper Landing were not yet recovered from smoke-related illness. "Air quality" is a very real problem for your health, and 2019's Swan Lake Fire didn't just affect the Kenai. It brought bad air quality to over half the state – by flooding Anchorage with smoke for weeks. The city has a  population of almost 300,000 people – 84,000 of whom are children, and 48,000 of whom are 60 years or older. Both of these groups, the young and the old, are the most "at-risk" when exposed to contaminated air. In August, Anchorage had the worst air quality in the entire nation, with an Air Quality Index reading of 175.

That summer, though, Fairbanks may have have won the prize for poor air quality, with air pollution running twice as bad as in Anchorage. As early as July 9th, 2019 lightning fires near Fairbanks were causing serious damage to the health of local people, rivaling air quality of countries such as China and India. 

A Fairbanks hospital set up a "clean air shelter" to help those with serious respiratory distress. Deb Mathews, of Expressions in Glass, a gift shop on Peger Road in Fairbanks, was so alarmed she took a photo of her cell phone one particularly bad day. It showed the Fairbanks air quality at  a "Hazardous" rating of an incredibly dangerous Air Quality Index of 348. 

For most of us, understanding how dangerous smoke can be is difficult. One way to get a handle on it is by analyzing the risks that professional firefighters take. A firefighter can easily suffer from formaldehyde irritation, coming into the body and inflaming eyes, nose, throat and lungs – causing shortness of breath, coughing and chest pain. Then there's sulfur dioxide, which hurts airways, and irritates mucous membranes, your lungs and eyes. Carbon monoxide, which causes dizziness, nausea, and confusion, is also present in smoke. There are also other irritations possible, some caused by sheer bits (or "particles") of "stuff" that go deep into your lungs. 

Many Alaskans intuitively understand this danger, and Alaska's firefighters are among the most honored people in the state.  In 2019 in fire areas, grateful residents all up and down the roads propped up cardboard signs and painted boards at the end of their driveways with the words: "Thank You, Firefighters!" 

It was a small sign of appreciation for a group of people who are putting their very lives and health at risk for us.

And a reminder that fire can't be taken lightly. 

Threatening Rural Alaska 
Alaska's rural communities are made of small clusters of residents scattered here and there along the roads. Each tiny town, or roadhouse, or bend in the road is – literally – what tourists have come here to see. Our rural people, culture and businesses are the beating heart of our state. Alaska is nothing without our small towns. Over the past 30-some years, well-known forest fires have seriously threatened many of our major tourist  communities, including Tok, Chicken, Nenana, Delta Junction, Willow, Big Lake, most of the towns and Native villages of the Copper River Valley… and Cooper Landing.

(See story about planned Alphabet Hills fire in the Copper Valley in this Journal. Final comments to BLM are due by the end of May.) 


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