A fire that burned just over four acres off the Sterling Highway on Tuesday was the second wildfire in Cooper Landing this week.
Both fires are now under control, and Tuesday’s was expected to be completely contained by Wednesday evening. But the fires are a reminder to residents of the risks that fire season pose to the community, especially on the heels of the large 2019 Swan Lake Fire.
Jen Harpe is president of Cooper Landing Emergency Services, the volunteer-run fire department and emergency medical services for Cooper Landing. She said between the dry weather and ongoing beetle kill problem, fire risk — and anxiety about that risk — are high.
“We definitely understand that we’re kind of a tinderbox right now,” she said. “I don’t think that anyone in this town is necessarily fully healed from the Swan Lake Fire.”
She said that’s what inspires her to work on the front lines of fire response. Harpe was one of a dozen local volunteers that immediately responded to the fire Tuesday after the Cooper Landing department was dispatched around 5:19 p.m.
Fire Chief Riley Shurtleff said the department’s not equipped for extended fire response. But as they waited for the U.S. Forest Service — which manages the land that was on fire — volunteers got to work suppressing flames as they burned through woody construction debris.
The fire was near Sterling Highway Mile 46.5, where construction crews had been clearing land for the highway bypass project.
“Given this is a tree-cutting area, this is not a readily accessible area,” Shurtleff said. “So we used an all-terrain vehicle to send a crew in, and they arrived at approximately 5:45 and confirmed that we had about a quarter-acre of vegetation burning.”
There are no fire hydrants on site, so tankers brought in water from the nearby Kenai Lake.
Sam Harrell, an information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry, said the department sent a helicopter down to suppress the fire as well as a crew that was already en-route from Fairbanks down to Soldotna at the time. Crews laid a hose line around the fire and were able to stop it from progressing Tuesday night.
They worked until midnight and then picked up where they left off Wednesday morning.
“They’re making good progress about finishing up containment on that,” Harrell said Wednesday afternoon. “They’re just busy mopping that up and getting everything secure so that it doesn’t spread out of its original footprint from last night.”
Officials said they don’t know how or where Tuesday’s fire started.
Darin Watschke with the Chugach National Forest said his department is investigating. He said what they do know is the fire started low, later moving up to the beetle kill timber and wood chips along the bypass cut in the forest.
On Sunday, crews responded to a separate, half-acre burn near the east entrance of Skilak Lake Road, which Watschke said was human-caused. That same day, crews squelched a fire in Nikiski.
The state has since put a burn ban in place for the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak.
“With the extreme drought conditions that we’re experiencing now, especially down on the peninsula, and the strong winds that have been occurring the past several days, there’s a very high risk for a fire to get away from somebody,” Harrell said.
Shurtleff, the Cooper Landing fire chief, said an important takeaway of the recent fires is that burn bans go in place for good reason. And he said people who live and work in Cooper Landing are on edge, given how the tourism-dependent community’s been impacted the last three summers — by COVID-19 and the 2019 fire.
“Over 174,000 acres burned during the Swan Lake Fire,” Shurtleff said. “And this community — its residents, its businesses — were devastated as a result. It’s definitely a thought at the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
He said that underscores the need for everyone in the area — from local responders to incoming tourists — to be fire safe this season.
Harpe agrees. She has kids and runs a small farm in Cooper Landing. And she has an evacuation plan ready in case a fire like the one in 2019 hits again.
“I just really wish that people would proceed with caution,” Harpe said. “And even though they feel like they’re out in the middle of nowhere, they’re not. They’re in our backyard. And we have families and we have houses that we’ve worked really hard for. And we don’t want to lose them.”
You can read more about what is and isn’t allowed under the burn suspension at dnr.alaska.gov/burn.