A burn area within Wood Buffalo National Park. Photo: Parks Canada
The highway leading to and from Fort Smith has reopened west of the town after closing on Sunday afternoon as crews tackled an “active wildfire in the area.”
In a 2:30pm statement, Parks Canada said Highway 5 was “temporarily closed” from Preble Creek Bridge to the Salt Plains access road.
The NWT’s Department of Infrastructure said the highway had reopened shortly after 4pm.
“There is no threat to Fort Smith from the wildfire at this time – the fire is 25 km west of town. Fire personnel yesterday and today have been maintaining structure protection on values in the area,” Parks Canada stated.
Fire 7 inside Wood Buffalo National Park has been creeping toward the highway for days at its northwestern edge. The fire was last estimated to be within six kilometres of the highway.
There has been “continued growth” of Fire 7 toward the highway, Fort Smith fire chief Adam McNab told Cabin Radio on Sunday morning, following a briefing with Alberta, NWT and Parks Canada fire crews.
That isn’t the only fire of concern. To the north, fire SS022 has been observed steadily moving south toward Fort Smith.
The NWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change has established various trigger points between SS022 and the town that would set off an evacuation alert and, eventually if the fire’s progress continued, an evacuation order.
McNab said SS022 crossing the first such trigger point was what led to Saturday’s evacuation notice, an initial stage that warns residents to be prepared in case the situation worsens.
“There’s another line that is the next easily defendable line, and that would be our evacuation order line,” McNab said.
“It will largely depend on how fast the fire is moving, what the weather forecasts are, and how suppression efforts are going. So there are a lot of different variables that would play into our decision to go from a notice to an alert, but we’re watching the fires there and taking cues from the experts on the ground.”
The town has reassured residents that even with fires like Fire 7 menacing the highway, the municipality expects the highway to only close for short periods when absolutely necessary.
Residents are being told to make sure they have fuel in their vehicles, provisions for 72 hours, an emergency kit they can bring in case of an evacuation and supplies in case they are told to shelter in place.
Officials have continued to stress that Fort Smith is not currently in danger, but McNab acknowledged that there is “definitely concern in the community about smoke falling in and ash falling from the sky.”
He said an Alberta wildfire team has now taken over management of SS022 and was using a large helicopter to bucket the fire.
Fire crews expect extreme fire conditions to continue for at least the next 48 hours. On Sunday, south winds were expected to push fire SS022 back on itself but, at the same time, were helping Fire 7 move north toward the highway.
“Tomorrow and into the next couple of days we will see a shift in the winds pushing out of the north, which could potentially move that northern fire towards Fort Smith, or at least move more smoke into the area,” said McNab.
“So again, that was a consideration when we went to [an evacuation] notice – that there’s a potential for a wind shift. However, with that wind shift, we will see some moisture and higher relative humidity, which is a very good thing.”