UPDATED: Alaska Highway reopens as firefighters battle blaze

UPDATE 11 a.m. July 9: Motorists travelling north from Fort St. John on the Alaska Highway towards Fort Nelson this weekend are being asked to keep a close eye on road conditions as the Big Beaver Creek fire could once again close portions of the road.

“We’re not in the clear,” Prince George Fire Centre Information Officer Jill Kelsh said. “If fire activity picks up, the highway could potentially be closed [again] if smoke moves in and makes visibility next to impossible.”

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The Big Beaver Creek forest fire jumped the Alaska Highway near mile 250 (kilometre 386) Wednesday afternoon, forcing the road to close until about 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

Motorists are being warned to use caution and expect delays on the highway. Smoke will continue to be visible in the area.

The fire poses no risk to the community of Fort Nelson.

The fire increased in size from 300 hectares to an estimated 8,000 hectares over the course of the day July 8, but officials say they can’t confirm its current size.

“We have an estimated size of about 8,000 hectares, but it’s hard to get a good size estimate based on all the smoke that is in the air,” Kelsh said. “That [estimate] could shrink once the smoke clears and we see the actual size of the fire.”

 

Prophet fire

Posted by Melissa Sutherland on Wednesday, July 8, 2015

 

Gusty winds in the area Wednesday are being blamed for fanning the flames and blowing the fire eastward, in the direction of the highway.

Prior to crossing the road, 52 firefighters were battling the blaze, laying hose and breaking through unharmed forest areas to forge access points. They were being supported from the air by helicopters and one water bomber.

As the fire activity increased and the smoke and flames grew Wednesday, all firefighters were forced to retreat.

Cooler evening temperatures and rain, which began overnight and into Thursday, allowed about 35 firefighters to reengage the blaze, assisted again with air support from a helicopter, on its northeastern flank in the early morning hours of July 9.

About 30 firefighters from Ontario flew into Fort St. John on July 9 and made their way to Fort Nelson, the BC Wildfire Service confirmed. However, officials noted it is unclear at this time which fire they will be assigned to.

BC Wildfire Service says water bombers cannot be used to fight the fire because there is too much smoke in the area.

NRRM Mayor Bill Streeper says the smoke was the main concern for drivers on the highway.

“The main threat really [wasn’t] from the fire, as much as it was from the smoke,” he said. “You've got people going both directions on a major highway and if they can’t see where they are going there’s going to be problems.”

Although some Fort Nelson residents were alarmed at being cut off from the south by the fire, Streeper said the vast majority realized it would be for only one or two days at the most.

“There were some people who had premature concerns about being cut off,” Streeper said. “I think people are just a little paranoid all of a sudden when you say you can't go somewhere, they get a little scared. But most of the people were saying it’s fine.”

Environment Canada has forecasted varying amounts of rain for the Fort Nelson area until Wednesday, which should calm the fire activity.

“It looks like things are getting better,” Streeper added. “This rain is going to dampen things and I think [before long] we’ll be back to normal.”

 

ORIGINAL 4:30 p.m. July 8: The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM) and the provincial government issued the notice Wednesday afternoon.

The road is closed 30 kilometres north of Prophet River at Mile 250 of the Alaska Highway.

All 52 firefighters tending to the blaze were pulled off earlier in the day as increased winds in the area fanned the flames to the point where it unsafe to continue fighting the fire.

“As of today just with the winds that were in the area, it picked up some aggressive fire behaviour,” wildfire spokesperson Jill Kelsh said. “Crews were pulled off it due to safety concerns and it reached the highway. Now it’s crossed the highway.”

Traffic controls are in place and the RCMP is on scene, Kelsh added.

NRRM mayor Bill Streeper said drivers on the highway cannot see where they are going.

“All we are doing is monitoring the fire, and as soon as the safety concern changes, which could happen instantly if the wind changes — we’ll be opening the road back up,” he said.

There is no estimate as to when the road could be reopened.

Drive BC will provide an update at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

“We realize the importance of the highway and the transportation of goods back and forth and so the minute we can confirm it’s safe, we’ll open it,” Streeper added.

The Big River Creek fire was discovered Sunday. It was caused by lightning.

Since then, one helicopter, an air tanker and 52 firefighters have been combating the blaze.

The air tankers have been establishing protection lines for ground crews, prioritizing the highway as the main area of concern.

Before being pulled off the fire, crews were establishing access points and laying hose.

Scattered showers are expected in the Fort Nelson area beginning this evening and into Thursday.

“We’re hoping that the rains will come sooner rather than later,” Kelsh said. 

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