Fort Chipewyan may be increasingly isolated as winter roads face challenges

·3 min read

As construction of winter roads to Fort Chipewyan begins, this upcoming winter could be an increasingly isolated one for the hamlet.

In a Thursday media release, the municipality announced the winter road from Fort McMurray is expected to be open on Dec. 15.

This year’s route adds 22 kilometres to avoid the Doghead Rivère des Rochers river crossing. Last February, a work crew had to be brought in to strengthen the river ice so the crossing could handle fuel and cargo trucks.

The road connects to the all-season road near the Fort Chipewyan Airport, keeping much of the heavy traffic and potentially dangerous cargo, such as diesel, away from the community.

Despite the new route, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) said the community is taking emergency precautions in case the road is not finished.

There are concerns that water levels are too high in some areas, which could make construction difficult. If the winter road is not built or if the ice is too weak to support heavy cargo, an airlift might be the only way to supply the community.

In January 1998, the municipality closed the road and declared a state of emergency for Fort Chipewyan when ice crossings could not support more than 3,000 kilograms. Cargo planes from Yellowknife flew fuel into the community, while a heavy transport plane delivered food from Fort Smith, NWT.

With memories of that winter weighing heavy on local leaders, Adam said preparing for all potential scenarios is a community priority this year.

To the north, Fort Chipewyan residents might have no access to the Northwest Territories this winter, as Parks Canada is considering closing the northern winter road to Fort Smith, NWT.

An Oct. 30 email sent from Cam Zimmer, superintendent of Wood Buffalo National Park, to leaders in both communities said Parks Canada is proposing the winter road to Fort Smith not be built this year. The Northwest Territories requires a 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering the territory.

“We have been advised by the Government of the Northwest Territories that they intend to maintain the Public Health Orders through the winter and that construction of a winter road link to Alberta communities could jeopardize the special provisions put in place,” said Zimmer.

Parks Canada spokesperson Kevin Gedling said in a Thursday email the future of the road to Fort Smith is being discussed with community leaders. This was confirmed by Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the territorial government’s COVID-19 response, who said the Fort Smith winter road is still being discussed.

A decision will be made once Parks Canada completes community consultations. However, initial preparations for the road north from Fort Chipewyan are ongoing.

The Northwest Territories has allowed limited entry for some Albertans in border communities, such as the residents of Fort Fitzgerald, a Wood Buffalo hamlet 20 kilometres south of Alberta’s border with the territory. They are allowed to enter Fort Smith for groceries and vital services.

While the southern winter road is important for bringing fuel and heavy cargo into Fort Chipewyan, the northern road is just as important for residents. Rubi-Helen Shirley, a Fort Chipewyan resident, said it is easier to drive to Fort Smith than Fort McMurray for shopping.

“We’re limited for food here so we shop for a lot of food,” she said.

For Shirley, the isolation caused by the territorial COVID-19 restrictions began this past summer, when she was no longer allowed to travel to Fort Smith by boat.

“It was understood because I wanted to respect the Fort Smith COVID rules,” she said. “But now I’m dependent on the winter road to Fort McMurray to do my shopping.”

swilliscraft@postmedia.com

Sarah Williscraft, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today