Alberta wildfire cuts rail link between N.W.T. and southern Canada

Wildfires in northern Alberta are cutting vital pieces of infrastructure that link the Northwest Territories with southern Canada. The main highway to Alberta has been closed and the rail line has been damaged.

Burned bridge in Steen River, Alta., is a key link in rail connection between N.W.T and Alberta

CN Rail has confirmed that a rail bridge along the way to the Hay River rail yard from Alberta has burned in a wildfire, causing difficulties for the fuel resupply of Northern communities. Fuel is typically brought to Hay River by train before being placed on barges headed north. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

A key bridge on the railroad used for shipping diesel fuel to the Northwest Territories is damaged, threatening a vital resupply route for the territory's remote communities.

CN Rail confirmed that one of the bridges on the rail line to Hay River, N.W.T., has burned, cutting the rail link between the Northwest Territories and southern Canada.  

The same fire has also partially closed Highway 1, which is the N.W.T.'s main road connection to the South, between High Level, Alta., and Enterprise, N.W.T.

As of Thursday morning, only commercial trucks were allowed on the highway, though officials warned conditions can change quickly and the highway can close again without warning.  

A barricade has been set up at Enterprise, N.W.T., blocking traffic due to a wildfire at Steen River, Alta. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Jonathan Abecassis, a spokesman for CN Rail, said he was unable to provide details about how the burned bridge would impact operations, as the company is still in early planning for alternative transportation plans.

This year, 54.8 million litres of fuel is expected to be shipped to the Northwest Territories for barge resupply, explained Delia Chestworth, an acting assistant deputy minister with the Infrastructure Department. 

She was unable to say what percentage of that fuel had already been delivered up to this point, but said the territory is working on getting the fuel shipped so there are no delays to the barge shipping season. As of right now, the shipping schedule is expected to start on time, she said. 

Rail traffic on the line had already been suspended for the past week because of two out-of-control wildfires burning near High Level, Alta. The Chuckegg Creek fire is approximately 230,000 hectares, while Wildfire HWF066, near Steen River, is about 17,400 hectares, as of Thursday morning.

Diesel a lifeline

Diesel fuel is a lifeline for many communities that rely on diesel generators for electricity in the Northwest Territories. It's shipped up from Alberta and is barged north each year on resupply barges to communities that do not have road access. 

The damage to CN Rail's track appears to be serious, with sections of the bridge destroyed by fire, Infrastructure Minister Wally Schumann said in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly Thursday.

"I got a picture sent to me today of a trestle burning to the ground," he said. "The fire was so hot that it actually warped the railroad. There's going to be some significant work that has to go into [repairing] this."

Officials with the territory have already been in touch with Imperial Oil about using trucks to ship in the rest of the fuel load. Trucks are expected to begin rolling in as soon as Friday, Schumann said.

He was unable to say how much extra that shipping method would cost or whether that would be paid for by taxpayers or the supplier.

Last year, at least 78 rail cars full of fuel were shipped in from Alberta to the Northwest Territories, then barged north. That fuel wasn't up to standard and had to be shipped back to Imperial Oil's refinery in Edmonton, Schumann said.

Fuel tanks sit on tracks at the Hay River railyard. Last year, at least 78 cars full of fuel were shipped to Hay River by rail. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

That delay meant that three communities were not resupplied last year.

Schumann told the Legislative Assembly last spring that Imperial Oil has a three-year contract worth $54 million to provide the fuel for the barge resupply.

Fears of a cost-of-living hike

Hay River North MLA RJ Simpson says a prolonged closure of Highway 1 could raise the price of goods shipped to the Northwest Territories.

"The vast majority of goods in the Northwest Territories come right up that stretch of highway," he said. "The alternate route through B.C. basically doubles the driving time, which means doubling the price of shipping, which means higher prices on nearly everything."

For the second straight day he asked Schumann whether there could be convoys or other ways of getting vehicles through the closed highway. In response, Schumann said that the Alberta government is escorting trucks with essential goods as long as it's safe to do so.

But ultimately, how the fire is handled is up to officials in Alberta, Schumann said.

"It's [Alberta's] fire, it's their jurisdiction, they're in charge of everything," he said.

Starting Monday, four firefighting crews from the Northwest Territories will travel to Alberta to assist with the firefighting operations. The territory is also sending an information officer as well as air tankers and crews.


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