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How the Deh Cho Bridge played a vital role in Yellowknife's evacuation

The Deh Cho Bridge is a key piece of N.W.T. infrastructure, spanning the Mackenzie River near Fort Providence. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC - image credit)
The Deh Cho Bridge is a key piece of N.W.T. infrastructure, spanning the Mackenzie River near Fort Providence. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC - image credit)

Believe it or not, wildfires weren't a concern when the government of the Northwest Territories signed an agreement in 2007 to build the Deh Cho Bridge.

Reflecting on rapidly changing environmental concerns in the North, David Ramsay, who served as transportation minister during the bridge's opening in 2012, told CBC News how things have changed.

Priorities were understandably different almost 20 years ago, during the planning stages.

"In the last few years, infrastructure has become much more important in communities for obvious reasons," he said. "I don't recall [wildfires] ever being brought up — we never talked about wildfires when it came to the bridge."

Located southeast of Fort Providence, N.W.T., almost 2,900 vehicles crossed the Deh Cho Bridge northbound on the weekend of Sept. 8 alone, when Yellowknifers were allowed to return home after the city's evacuation last month. By last Thursday, that number had soared to 6,587 vehicles.

Prior to the bridge, the Merv Hardie Ferry carried vehicles across the river from 1972 until 2012.

Dave Ramsay sits in the Yellowknife multiplex, a building that, with O'Reilly, he helped usher to completion as a Yellowknife city councillor.
Dave Ramsay sits in the Yellowknife multiplex, a building that, with O'Reilly, he helped usher to completion as a Yellowknife city councillor.

Dave Ramsay, the former N.W.T. minister of transportation, sits in the Yellowknife multiplex in 2019. (John Last/CBC)

With sudden and unpredictable weather events becoming more common across the North, Ramsay acknowledged luck may have played a role in the bridge being constructed when it was.

"The government really needs to pay more attention to infrastructure needs. What happened to Enterprise was a shame, but that could easily happen down the Central Mackenzie Valley as well," he said.

Former N.W.T. premier Joe Handley, whose government oversaw the opening of the bridge, told CBC News he always felt a wildfire was unlikely to consume Yellowknife. Nonetheless, he emphasized the importance of having the Deh Cho Bridge to accommodate a continuous flow of traffic over the river, especially in the case of a sudden evacuation.

"Likely, if we were depending on the ferry, rather than the bridge, we probably wouldn't have been able to get people across fast enough," he said. "The snow would be falling before everyone was across."

He agreed with Ramsay that wildfire risk was not a focus during the planning stages.

Although a fixed bridge has eliminated uncertain disruptions during the ice breakup and freezing periods, Handley said the main reason for its construction was to avoid problems associated with low water levels on the Mackenzie River.

'They were both good from a little different perspective,' said former N.W.T. premier Joe Handley of the two candidates.
'They were both good from a little different perspective,' said former N.W.T. premier Joe Handley of the two candidates.

Former N.W.T. premier Joe Handley, pictured here in 2015. (CBC)

This year has been an exceptional one not only with wildfires — the Mackenzie River is also experiencing historically low water.

Joachim Bonnetrouge, who has lived in Fort Providence for almost 70 years, said boat rides to collect fish have now turned treacherous due to the water levels.

"You really have to watch. I took a ride just yesterday and there's big rocks popping up in the river," he said.

Joachim Bonnetrouge, chief of Deh Gáh Got'îê First Nation, says there's still a lot of work to do for his people to live a life more free from the restrictions of Treaty 11.
Joachim Bonnetrouge, chief of Deh Gáh Got'îê First Nation, says there's still a lot of work to do for his people to live a life more free from the restrictions of Treaty 11.

Joachim Bonnetrouge, who has lived in Fort Providence for almost 70 years, says water levels on the Mackenzie River are incredibly low this year. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Bonnetrouge and other community members say the water is the lowest they've seen in their lifetime. It's part of a pattern of extremely low water levels across much of the territory this year.

Handley said if the Merv Hardie Ferry was still in operation today, those water levels could be causing problems for it — and could have jeopardized any plans of evacuating the capital.

"With no bridge, we likely wouldn't have evacuated Yellowknife. The only alternative would've been air — you'd be looking at 150 to 300 flights … [an] evacuation would not have been on the list of possibilities," Handley said.

Handley credits the efforts of first responders during the crisis, saying the firebreaks created around Yellowknife will be a significant deterrent for future fires.