Planes violating airspace restrictions raise safety, operations concerns at Swan Lake Fire

Air operations over the Swan Lake Fire, burning on the Kenai Peninsula. (Photo courtesy Eastern Area Incident Management Team)

Fire crews are working to contain the Swan Lake Fire burning on the Kenai Peninsula — both on the ground and in the air.

But officials say some area pilots aren’t abiding by the temporary flight restriction over the fire, and that could have major consequences. Airspace closures include the western portion of the Chugach National Forest and the Sterling Highway corridor.

“If there is a private aircraft that invades that space, they can easily become distracted and either crash themselves or hit somebody else,” said Steve Bekkerus, a public information officer for fire operations. “There could be severe, life-threatening consequences.”

The flight restrictions were put in place July 13. Since then, Bekkerus said unauthorized planes flying into the area have become a daily issue.

“Anytime an aircraft comes through your temporary flight-restricted zone, we consider that a close call, because we’ve got aircraft all over the ground,” Bekkerus said. “Our folks are not in communication with those aircraft. They’re randomly coming through. So we have to halt position where we’re at for a moment while we figure out what’s going on.”

Fire activity is expected to pick up in coming days, accompanying warm, dry weather. Bekkerus said that makes it particularly critical for firefighting efforts in the air. Those efforts might have to be suspended, he said, if pilots continue to violate the temporary flight restriction.

The airspace limits on the Kenai Peninsula are expected to remain in place until the end of August.

The Swan Lake Fire was sparked by lightning in early June. Since then it’s grown to more than 100,000 acres as of Thursday afternoon.

Containment efforts keep Swan Lake Fire away from communities

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