Fort Chipewyan winter road opens Dec. 20, ACFN calls for permanent road

It is not known when the winter road will be strong enough for heavy cargo trucks to reach Fort Chipewyan. A warm winter that followed a wildfire evacuation has made ACFN repeat calls for a permanent road.

Article content

An unseasonably warm winter and a chaotic wildfire season this year makes a permanent road to Fort Chipewyan even more important to the community, says Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN).

Advertisement 2

Article content

The winter road connecting Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray opens Dec. 20 at noon only to light vehicles weighing up to 5,000 kgs. It is not known when the road will be strong enough for trucks to crisscross hundreds of kilometres of frozen wetlands and boreal forest to deliver construction materials, fuel and other large cargo shipments.

Article content

“People are always asking when the winter road opens. I can never answer that, only Mother Nature can decide when,” said Adam.

Adam has met with the mayors of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) and Fort Smith, 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.

Advertisement 3

Article content

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.

The winter roads are also critical for morale. People in Fort Chipewyan use them to visit family and friends, and shop. Adam says people always hope the roads open before Christmas, which is also a goal for the RMWB.

winter road
A truck heads north on the Fort Chipewyan winter road on Friday, February 9, 2018. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network SunMedia

Strengthening ice river crossings progressing, but challenging: RMWB

“Crews have made considerable progress building the road this season despite delays due to warm weather, as nighttime temperature drops have been enough to allow ice thickness to increase,” said RMWB spokesperson Cullen Bird in an email.

Advertisement 4

Article content

The winter road has five major river crossings between Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan. These crossings are strengthened by flooding these sections to build thickness. Adam said work crews have fortunately not lost ice thickness, even if warm weather means progress is slow.

The RMWB and local First Nations have not yet arranged emergency airlifts into Fort Chipewyan, but Bird adds there are contingency plans to fly in fuel, food and other essential items if needed.

Airlifts have been organized during past winter road seasons. 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.

The last Fort Chipewyan winter road season lasted 110 days. This was the first winter road season to last more than 100 days since the 2016-17 season.

Get the news and events of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo in your inbox every Friday morning by signing up for our newsletter.

[email protected]

Article content