Swan Lake fire growing slowly but will benefit wildlife

Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2007

Folks on the Kenai Peninsula may have noticed or smelled smoke south of the Sterling Highway near Skilak Lake. This fire, known as the Swan Lake fire, is on the south shore of Skilak Lake about one mile south of Caribou Island. The fire was ignited by a lightning strike on July 29.

A typical question is "How big is the fire?" Since the time of the original lightning strike, the fire has slowly grown to about 1,950 acres. The fire growth has been limited to days with warmer, drier weather. A smoke column may have been evident from the Sterling Highway on those warmer days. This has led to additional questions about what has been happening to this fire near Skilak Lake. Fish and Wildlife Service fire staff have noted that fire growth, however, has recently been very slow during periods of cooler, wetter weather. The fire received rain again Wednesday evening.

Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management staff are monitoring the fire on a daily basis from helicopters and refuge planes. The helicopter crew reported that most recent fire behavior has been smoldering and creeping, with isolated torching of individual trees. One isolated pocket of active fire behavior was observed during windy conditions on a helicopter survey, burning toward the 2005 King County Creek Fire scar. Smoke was moving northwest toward the Sterling area, but dissipating before reaching most inhabited areas or the highway. There were no active fire fronts observed during the time of the most recent helicopter reconnaissance, though there was one island of unburned fuels on the interior on the northeast side of the fire.

The observers noted many smoldering pockets and "fingers" where the fire has burned out small areas of more flammable fuels. The fire has consumed both black and white spruce stands and limited areas of beetle-killed spruce, but has not burned in wetlands or hardwood stands. This pattern of fire behavior has produced a mosaic of burned and unburned vegetation which is beneficial for wildlife.

How is the fire being managed? First of all, the fire is located in a designated wilderness area (Limited Fire Management Option area) within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is actively managing the Swan Lake fire under what is known as a Wildland Fire Use (WFU) strategy. This might be a new term to many people, but the plan is to allow the fire to burn naturally to benefit wildlife and habitat, conserve wilderness values, and reduce hazardous fuels, while closely monitoring the fire. One benefit of this fire in particular is that moose need burned areas growing back with younger vegetation types to provide browse.

The fire area south of Skilak Lake has burned before, but it was long ago. Judging from the age of the mature trees, this may have been a hundred years ago or more. This new fire south of Skilak Lake should help regenerate "patchy" areas of young willows, birch and aspen within what had become mature stands of spruce. Young willows are a favorite moose browse.

Refuge staff have developed a plan which identifies the area within the refuge where naturally occurring fire (lightning) will be allowed to burn. Evaluation points and structure protection are provided for in this wildland fire use plan.

The fire will be allowed to spread naturally where land and resource management objectives can be achieved. Fire behavior and weather conditions are being monitored daily by refuge fire personnel. The fire is not expected to escape natural barriers on the refuge before seasonal cool, wet weather puts it out.

Refuge fire management staff have completed cabin protection assessments on all private property on the south shore of Skilak Lake. Additional clearing and thinning work continues at selected sites.

Backcountry recreational users planning to use the area around the fire should be aware of fire behavior, exercise caution, and avoid travel near the fire perimeter until it is out. Always tell someone where you are going, how you are planning to get there, and when you are coming out.

Folks should continue to expect occasional periods of intense fire behavior and heavy smoke in the vicinity of Skilak Lake from the Swan Lake Fire, especially on warmer and drier days. Nearby peninsula communities and Sterling Highway travelers may see and smell smoke from the fire, which will settle in valleys and other low-lying areas at night.

More background information and a fire perimeter map can be found on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management Web site at http://www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency.

Sam Patton is the USFWS Regional Fire Outreach Specialist from Fairbanks and is currently assigned to the Swan Lake fire in Soldotna as a public information officer.

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