Wildfire in Northern Canada: Railway bridge burns, road link between Alberta and Northwest Territories closed

A truck turns off at a barricade set up near the community of Enterprise, N.W.T. Highway 1, connecting the N.W.T. to Alberta, has been closed due to a wildfire near Steen Lake, Alta. (Alex Brockman/CBC)
The CN Rail railway bridge at Steen River, in northern Alberta, has burned down.

Jonathan Abecassis, a spokesperson for CN Rail, confirmed the news to CBC Wednesday evening. He was unable to provide details at the time of how this would impact CN’s operations, but he said the railway has alternative routes to ship goods to its destination.

The railway connects Hay River, Northwest Territories to the south. CN Rail is co-operating with local officials to ensure that the company maintains the safety of its operations, he said. Rail traffic had already been suspended for the past week because of wildfires in the area.

The same wildfire that has burned the bridge continues to force the closure of the highway between High Level, Alta., and Enterprise, N.W.T.

N.W.T.’s Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Wally Schumann said if the highway and rail line remain closed it will affect food and fuel supplies.

“We know this is going to significantly impact the presence of the Northwest Territories if this is ongoing for a considerably long time,” Schumann said.

For now, one of Yellowknife’s major grocers and retail fuel suppliers reported in a recent Facebook post that fuel and grocery trucks had made it through and the outlet was in no danger of a shortage of either.

Schumann was responding to a question by Hay River North MLA RJ Simpson in the N.W.T Legislature on Wednesday. Schumann said the government had been in contact with CN Rail regarding the rail line to Hay River.

“They’re inspecting it and doing a weight test on the rail tracks and bridges to make sure everything is copacetic once they are able to open back up,” said Schumann. He added that as of the time of his speaking, CN had told them none of their infrastructure had been affected by the fire.

A barricade has been set up at Enterprise, N.W.T. Highway 1 is closed between Enterprise and the Alberta border due to a wildfire at Steen River, Alta. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

The wildfire near Steen River, is still active and the highway between High Level, Alta., and Enterprise, N.W.T., remains closed.

Alberta wildfire information officer Derek Gagnon said the Steen River wildfire increased rapidly and raced across the highway Tuesday afternoon.

And it continues to grow.

“We are seeing wildfires grow at night, which is very unusual,” Gagnon said. “It means that the conditions out there are so extreme that we are not getting that overnight recovery, so we are seeing very extreme wildfire danger conditions in the area right now.”

Canada Post trucks on hold

Highway 1 is closed between Enterprise and the Alberta border. Highway 1 becomes Highway 35 in Alberta.

It is the only highway that links the N.W.T. with Alberta and is a vital route for residents and goods going to and from the north.

Canada Post said there are two trucks carrying mail for Yellowknife that cannot get through because of the road closures.

“At this time, there is no alternate route available. Once authorities give the all-clear, the mail will be transported to Yellowknife,” said a Canada Post spokesperson.

Simpson asked Schumann if there is a plan to escort traffic through the highway to get supplies into the North.

“The short answer is no,” Schumann said.

“This fire is not under control at the present time. It’s not safe to be able to escort people through there.

“All I know today is we have north winds down there again and the fire is right along the side of the highway and it’s plus 30 [degrees Celsius] in the region. And [the highway is] going to remain closed for the short time.”

Schumann said washroom facilities have been put at the barricade for motorists and the Department of Infrastructure is seeking to use infrastructure in Enterprise, like the senior centre, as a rallying point for anyone stranded or displaced by the wildfires.

Several trucks are lined up at the side of the road near Enterprise, N.W.T. It is unclear when Highway 1 between the Northwest Territories hamlet and the Alberta border will reopen. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Steen River, a settlement located along the highway, is approximately 120 kilometres north of High Level, which is under an evacuation order due to the Chuckegg Creek wildfire, and approximately 120 kilometres south of Enterprise.

Gagnon said the fire is not threatening any communities at the moment, though evacuation orders have been given to some residents who live near the highway. A fire base was also evacuated.

Along with the wildfire at Steen River, the Chuckegg fire just outside of High Level continues to burn. The last measurement of that fire was about 150,000 hectares.

“We are still working on containment efforts during the day when it is safe for our crews to do so,” Gagnon said. “But at night it is a significant challenge because it is so dangerous.”

Gagnon said it is hard to say when the highway will be reopened.

A couple of weather systems moving into the area will make for windier conditions.

“So we are not really sure how exactly the fires are going to react,” Gagnon said.

“If the fire is still very active near the highway, that highway will unfortunately have to remain closed,” he said. “We aren’t going to put anybody at risk by going through an active wildfire zone.”

The N.W.T. government said updates will be tweeted as they become available.

With files from Loren McGinnis

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Wildfire in Yukon, northwestern Canada quickly spreading, CBC News

Finland: Brush fire warnings in most of Finland this week, Yle News

Russia: Forest fires rage across Barents region (July 2018), The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Is Sweden better prepared after last year’s historic wildfire season?, Radio Sweden

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