This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire — which was ignited by lightning June 5 and has grown to over 100,000 acres — has had an effect on several communities in the Southcentral area, from Anchorage to Homer.
In the small town of Cooper Landing, winds have blown the fire’s smoke into its valley, affecting the community’s local tourism industry.
Yvette Galbraith, an administrator with the Cooper Landing Chamber of Commerce, said there has been a quite an impact on Cooper Landing because of the smoke. She said many businesses had cancellations and many patrons tried to reschedule for later dates. No businesses closed down, and everyone stayed open, she noted.
“From my understanding unless you had respiratory issues, many were able to still go out and do their activities, just at an adjusted level or time of day,” she said.
She said it was tough having the area be portrayed as constantly smoky.
“So when the weather broke or mornings or afternoons were clearer, folks missed out enjoying the Landing,” she said.
Galbraith said only heavy windstorms impact trips, but business still operate in rain or smoke.
“Skies are clear now, and it is absolutely beautiful in Cooper,” she said.
Katy Borchers is a Cooper Landing local and manager of Alaska Heavenly Lodge. She said the lodge has had to deal with only one cancellation, but said a smoky Cooper Landing was not the experience she wanted her guests to have. “… (Where) you can’t even see the mountains across the river,” Borchers said.
Borchers was raised in Interior Alaska, where wildfires are common. She’s been living on the peninsula for 10 years now, and said she’s never seen anything like this.
“Because of the geographic features, the smoke just rolls in and sits in the valley here with the river,” she said. “It’s going to have an economic impact for sure, especially in our little community.”
She said she understand wildfires are part of summer and is understanding in regard to local agencies allowing the Swan Lake Fire to burn, ensuring it’s safer in the future. “But, it’s difficult to swallow when it’s 100,000 acres,” she said. “This is where we all live and are raising our families. I have to monitor how much my 6-year-old plays outside.”
Despite the smoke, Borchers said guests have been fantastic and understanding. She said they’ve been forthcoming with guests and updating them on fire activity that may impact any excursions their guests may go on. Cooler weather and shifting winds have offered relief to the community this week, she said.
“We’ve all been getting out as much as possible, while the smoke is gone,” Borchers said. “We’re letting guests know when they should plan to be outside.”
The small community is a popular fishing spot, located at the headwaters of the Kenai River. The community experienced a banner opening for sockeye salmon on the Russian River this month. Erick Fish is an owner and guide of Fish and Sons Kenai Charters. He said despite the incredible fishing season the area is having, he has seen his business impacted by the smoke.
“(The smoke) got us a little bit,” he said. “We’ve had a few cancellations, not too much. There is so much salmon running, so people suffered through it.”
At the Kingfisher Roadhouse, a restaurant sitting near the shores of Kenai Lake, business is down by around a third, Chef Katherine O’Leary-Cole said.
“But, we’ve heard it’s much worse at other businesses,” O’Leary-Cole said. “Thank goodness smoke is clearing. Hopefully, we can salvage something from this season.”
Many independent travelers decide where they’ll visit when they get here. Borchers believes many of those travelers avoided the Kenai Peninsula because of the Swan Lake Fire.
“With the fire, we lost a lot of those independent travelers,” she said. “They chose to go somewhere else. There is going to be an impact, but we’ll weather the storm.”