Swan Lake Fire takes a toll on Homer businesses

The Swan Lake Fire on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Kale Casey/Alaska Division of Forestry)

The Swan Lake Fire is causing major delays and closures on the Sterling Highway. And that’s having a big impact on local businesses in Homer, from a loss of tourist dollars to delays in goods.

Mark Hemstreet, the manager of Save-U-More in Homer, said the grocery store did not have a good week last week.

“Deliveries were definitely at least one day and sometimes two days behind, so we ran short on some of the perishable items like bread, milk and eggs,” Hemstreet said.

He said the store began ordering more key items and is now in pretty good shape in terms of inventory. But shipments are still behind.

“This week, so far, our truck for Monday night delivery didn’t arrive till this morning Tuesday,” Hemstreet said. “So we’re about a day behind on our stocking for our major shipment this week so far.”

Road closures and delays on the Sterling Highway are impacting companies across the Kenai Peninsula. Gary Stroh is the general manager for Country Foods IGA in Kenai. It’s a grocery store that supplies food and freight all the way down to the Homer area.

A sign posted at Homer’s Safeway. (Photo by Renee Gross/KBBI)

“To date, we have not missed a load,” Stroh said. “We have been late with several.”

He said the company has three drivers that go back and forth between Anchorage and Kenai every night.

“Last week, we did have one evening where the driver spent the entire night alongside the road, probably 7-or-8-hour period before they were able to get through, and that’s been the worst one so far,” Stroh said.

For now, he said the biggest impact has been on overtime. He adds that the company has been rushing freight through the warehouse to avoid delivery delays.

Carri Thurman said the food delivery hasn’t been that bad. She’s a co-owner of Two Sisters Bakery in Homer. But she said there’s been another problem.

“We have seen, in the last five days to a week, probably 35% lower business, you know, people coming through. And it’s much less tourism — much more local traffic,” she said.

Debbie Speakman is the executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce. She said the tourism season was already slow this year due to the fires. But over the past week, it’s been dead.

“The news reports that folks up north are seeing are big walls of fire, and they’re thinking that Homer is full of smoke,” Speakman said. “So really, our lodging folks are really seeing an impact with lots of cancellations.”

She’s hearing reports of people canceling their trips to Alaska altogether.

“We’re hoping that things will calm down and we can see the numbers come back up. But it is a big concern that we’ve got hotel rooms empty and people are still trying to keep their employees busy as they get through the end of the season,” Speakman said.

Speakman said it’s unclear how the lodging industry will be able to recoup its losses.

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