Expect long delays on the Sterling Highway for Labor Day weekend as Swan Lake Fire grows
As the Swan Lake fire continues to grow larger than the size of Chicago it could affect you and your Labor Day weekend plans as it changes the conditions of the Sterling Highway.
Alaska State Troopers and fire officials say if you don't have to drive on the Sterling Highway this weekend, make other plans because the Swan Lake Fire has been unpredictable and you could be waiting in traffic for hours.
One of the examples of how fast the conditions of the fire can change along the highway was from Sunday night when drivers drove into flames on both sides, with trees torching and embers falling from the sky.
One of the people who saw this first-hand says she couldn't believe what she saw.
"Like, this is so scary," said Christina Johnstone, from Soldotna who was driving home alone. "Trees were dropping by the road, I didn't know what to do, it was getting smoky."
"I couldn't see, I was just hoping I would make it out," Johnstone said. "I started getting really shaky and sweaty because it was so hot, the steering wheel was hot and I just started going faster because I was getting nervous. I really didn't think I was going to make it through that."
A condition many wondered why cars were allowed to travel on.
Officials say it can happen in just minutes.
"On the 25th we had the road open and then quickly closed it down once we started getting a shift in wind and big gusts that pushed it on the road," said Marty Adell, incident commander. "The fire was coming towards it wit was impending on the roadway going to that unsafe potential but by the time we shut it down we had to clear the road of the traffic that passed already."
To help make the road safer for everyone and get people where they need to go a traffic plan has been put in place.
There are checkpoints at mile 40, mile 53 and mile 71. Those vehicles coming from the east Anchorage or Seward will be stopped at mile 40 to wait for a pilot car. That wait time will depend on the line when you arrive. It could be 40 minutes or it could be for several hours.
KPB Alerts has also advised since the start of the weekend that the wait time can be anywhere between 15 to 50 minutes, according to reports from motorists.
Westbound traffic will encounter another checkpoint at mile 53 which may not be passed without a pilot car. For those already in Cooper Landing and traveling west toward Soldotna, proceed to the mile 53 checkpoint and wait until the next pilot car comes by leading vehicles west and join the line.
Motorists eastbound from Soldotna will stop at the mile 70 checkpoint and wait for a pilot car to lead them through to the east side of the restricted area.
Dan Nelson, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Management Manager says he understands the wait is difficult, but he says its worth people's safety.
"We realize that this is a long line of pilot cars," said Nelson. "We appreciate your patience. This is the safest action to take to make sure people can go where they need to go and keep the road open the best we can moving the pilot cars."
Friday afternoon some people saw delays from one to five hours with hundreds of people commuting to and from the area.
If you must go on the road it is recommended that you have a full tank of gas, extra water and food and something to do while you wait.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include information from KPB Alerts.
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