Travellers and cargo heading in and out of Yukon faced unexpected delays and detours over the Canada Day long weekend, when a washout closed a section of the Alaska Highway in both directions on Friday evening.
The washout occurred at 6 p.m. local time, some 50 kilometres south of the Yukon-British Columbia border, on the B.C. side between Liard Hotsprings, a popular tourist campground, and Watson Lake, Yukon. The rushing water so severely damaged the highway that a section of the roadbed was washed away, leaving only a crumbling, totally unpassable gap.
As of Monday, a three-kilometre detour around the damage has allowed traffic to resume, albeit down to a single lane led by a pilot car.
Public Service and Procurement Canada, the federal-run department responsible for that stretch of the highway, did not respond to requests for comment by The Globe and Mail regarding how long repairs are expected to take or how much they will cost by press time.
In an interview with CBC North, a spokesperson from that department said the washout had been caused by a broken beaver dam, the cascade from which plugged up a culvert and then flooded out the road, washing it away.
The Alaska Highway, which starts at Dawson Creek, B.C., runs through northern British Columbia, through southern Yukon to Beaver Creek, and terminates in Fairbanks, Alaska. Both transport trucks and travellers were told to reroute to Highway 37, also known as the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, which begins near Kitwanga, B.C., and enters Yukon some 25 kilometres southwest of Watson Lake. This is a significant detour, as the start of the two highways are approximately 900 kilometres apart.
The Alaska Highway is the main shipping road into the territory, and the closing caused noticeable shortages over the weekend on Whitehorse grocery store shelves, particularly fresh meat and produce. On Saturday, Real Canadian Superstore – one of the largest grocery stores in Whitehorse – was placing limits of two per customer on essential items, such as flour, toilet paper and sugar.
Rob Eskens, vice-president of western sales for Manitoulin Transport, a major trucking service provider to the territory, confirmed on Monday that trucks had been diverted to the Stewart-Cassiar on the weekend, noting that it caused “fairly lengthy” delays.
Whitehorse’s Real Canadian Superstore said Monday evening that a few trucks had started to arrive and more were on the way.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Manitoulin Transport is back to using the now-detoured Alaska Highway route, Mr. Eskens said, although the situation is “dynamic.”
The Stewart-Cassiar is a rougher, more remote highway and has fewer gas stations and services than the Alaska Highway, and lacks cell phone service until vehicles reach Teslin, Yukon, some 950 kilometres away.
Yukoner Sophia Marnik, who had been travelling to see her son off to university, said she was in Grand Prairie, Alta., when she got the message from a friend that the Alaska Highway was closed, and detoured about eight hours to the Stewart-Cassiar. She said this made for long driving days, as there were many other vehicles on the road doing the same thing, and that there were long lineups at the lone gas station in the small community of Dease Lake, B.C.
“It just really brings home how isolated we can be up here – when you realize that one highway with all the stops is shut down, and you can go on this long 700-kilometre stretch [on the Stewart-Cassiar] and there’s nowhere to stop,” Ms. Marnik said.
The damage to the Alaska Highway, however, is just one of several natural disaster-related problems the beleaguered Yukon is currently facing.
An active wildfire has closed the Klondike Highway near Stewart Crossing, a junction that connects the small communities of Keno and Mayo, as well as Dawson City, to Pelly Crossing and eventually to Whitehorse. As of Monday afternoon, that fire had grown to 1,500 hectares, and was “out of control” and “belching smoke” onto the road, affecting visibility, said Mike Fancie, a spokesperson with Yukon Wildland Fire Management.
An evacuation alert has been issued for Stewart Crossing and the surrounding area. Mr. Fancie said it’s important people take advantage of the alert and prepare.
Kara Johancsik, an information officer with Yukon’s emergency operations centre, confirmed that if an evacuation order is issued, affected residents will be moved to Whitehorse, by air if necessary.
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