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Summer fire impact felt in tourism industry

Since June 5, the Swan Lake Fire has been hanging over the tourism industry on the Kenai Peninsula.

From cancelled trips to missed walk-ins, lodging and guide companies are reporting losses this season. 

Stacy Corbin, owner of Mystic Waters Fly Fishing in Cooper Landing, lives off of the summer season but the talk this summer hasn’t been fishing, it’s been the Swan Lake Fire.

“When you talk about a community like Cooper Landing, the seasonal tourism is the bulk of the business we thrive on,” Corbin said. “The bulk of that was taken away.”

The Swan Lake Fire has been burning in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge between Cooper Landing and Sterling for three months right in the middle of a barely five month tourism season in the state.

The fire closed roads and often covered the peninsula in smoke. On Aug. 18, the Upper Kenai River closed to boat traffic, further shuttering Corbin’s business. It has since reopened from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but Corbin is already counting the losses.

“It’s going to be really close to $80,000 on paper that’s booked and now lost,” he said. “What it doesn’t take into account are the (tips). You can’t factor that element in.”

Kayce James, owner of Kenai River Dog, has also seen an impact on her rafting business run out of Cooper Landing.

“I was trying to keep my guide busy and happy financially and line up as many trips as I could, but the smoke made the very challenging,” James said. “We both took a hit financially. She wasn’t able to get nearly as many hours as she would have liked.”

Her guide, Hannah, worked in the smoke some days, but had the option to cancel if she felt unsafe. The customers also had the option to cancel and receive a full refund. 

“I think it was generally a mutual decision made by both parties to cancel. Hannah would talk to them, give them the rundown about the conditions and how it was affecting people, and most of the time people would want to cancel,” James said. “There were a handful of times when we just didn’t give people the option because it was just so bad.”

Recent rain and cloud cover in Cooper Landing has dampened fire activity and an emergency burn closure for the Kenai Peninsula has been lifted, but firefighters continue to patrol, monitor for hot spots, and work to protect structures in the area. 

Corbin said, though, that he is expecting to feel the impact long after the fire goes out — and not just financially.

“This fire has devastated a very special place. The Kenai is charred on both sides,” he said. “There’s burn and dead trees covering a lot of Skilak Loop, so when it’s all said and done, we don’t even know if we’re going to be able to fire up and start fishing next season. It’s devastating.”