Fire management officials at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge are telling Cooper Landing residents not to be alarmed after a 60-acre wildland fire just west of Swan Lake sent smoke through the area Tuesday morning.
High winds kicked up the flames of a smoldering lightning-strike fire around 6 p.m. Monday. The fire started July 29 and already burned roughly 10 acres of black spruce forest at the south end of Skilak Lake.
Doug Newbould, fire management officer with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said Monday's flare-up increased the fire to 60 acres, but the natural barriers surrounding the flames should keep it away from property and homes.
"We're allowing the fire to burn unchecked at this time," he said. "A lot of people on the lake and residents of Caribou Island can see what the fire's doing. People have been smelling smoke in Sterling and Cooper Landing and have been calling it in. (There's) extremely low risk of the fire getting out of its natural confines."
The scar from the 2005 King County Creek fire should stop flames from spreading to the west, while Skilak Lake itself acts as a barrier to the north, Newbould said.
Alpine vegetation to the south and a series of wetlands, creeks and damp fuel, as well as the 2003 Pipe Creek fire scar to the east, prevent the fire from moving in those directions.
In the case of a naturally caused fire, such as a lightning-strike, Newbould said the wildlife refuge considers the worst case scenario as well as trying to determine whether the fire will meet land and fire management objectives, which includes taking wilderness area into consideration.
"We don't want to be intrusive with suppression activities or mechanical equipment or anything that might change wilderness character," he said. "(We) weigh that against other values like private property and lives."
Two pieces of private property in the area, at Douglas Point and Cottonwood Creek, on Skilak Lake's south shore, aren't being threatened right now, Newbould said.
"Within the wildland fire use strategy, which is a national fire management strategy for lightning fires, we can do structure protection if necessary," he said.
"Both of those places are right down to the lake shore and are in riparian areas. Work might need to be done to remove hazardous fuels to develop defensible space. If it becomes necessary to protect structures on the south shore, we will."
Newbould said the wildlife refuge expects the fire to smolder and flare up periodically until the fire season ends sometime this month or next.
August is one of the wetter months of the year and the wettest of the summer, he said.
Usually a significant period of rain brings the fire season to an end.
Since Monday's flare-up, the wildlife refuge has flown planes and helicopters over the area and observed fire activity from upper and lower Skilak Lake campgrounds.
One major benefit to keeping this fire going is the reduction of black spruce and bark beetle-killed white spruce stands, Newbould said. This reduces the amount of hazardous fuel and creates habitat for moose.
"The black spruce in many areas may be converted to hardwood stands, (reducing) the fire danger for the next 50 or more years," he said.
Newbould said the smoke is probably more noticeable at night when cooler temperatures and higher humidity decrease fire activity.
"People will smell it," he said. "There's more potential for people to smell smoke at night because smoke lies close to the ground."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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