Fort Chipewyan Winter Road closes next week

Chief Allan Adam of the ACFN has said wildfires and warming winters shows the community needs a permanent road to Fort Chipewyan.

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The winter road to Fort Chipewyan is closing on March 26 at 10 a.m. after a season that lasted just more than three months.

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As an unseasonably warm winter ends, the winter road is in rough shape. There are deep potholes along the route and light vehicles using the road before it closes need to be high-clearance. All rig mats will be removed the next day, making the road impassable until next winter.

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“Travelling on the winter road when it is closed is strictly prohibited and extremely dangerous. Barricades and signage will be in place and there is no detour,” reads a Thursday statement from the municipality. “Any motorist using the winter road while it’s closed is putting themself and others at risk of a serious incident.”

A winter that was warmer than usual caused complications for the winter road. The 2023-24 winter road season lasted 94 days after opening on Dec. 20. The road closed briefly on Jan. 30 and reopened on Feb. 3.

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The winter road opened to light traffic on Dec. 20, increased to loads of 27,500 kgs. on Jan. 19 and opened to 45,000 kg cargo loads on Feb. 5. Since early February, much of the road was considered “rough” and “spring-like” by the municipality.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said in an interview in December that warm temperatures and a chaotic wildfire season last summer has made a permanent road to Fort Chipewyan even more important to the community. Adam has met with the mayors of the RMWB and Fort Smith, NWT. and says there is agreement that an all-weather road is needed.

Fort Chipewyan’s evacuation during last summer’s wildfire season shows a permanent route is needed for emergencies, he said, as well as resupplying the community. The winter road needs to support 45,000 kgs for the heaviest cargo trucks to journey north.

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Food is flown into the community all year, but trucks can make large shipments more frequent. Fort Chipewyan has enough fuel to last though winter. Large cargo shipments can arrive on barges, but Lake Athabasca’s water levels have shrank in recent years.

In 1998, ice crossings were too weak to support any traffic. Adjusted for inflation, the Alberta government spent more than $1.5 million flying in food, oil and gasoline. Another airlift was considered in 2020 if workers failed to strengthen an ice road crossing at the Des Rochers River.

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