Highway closures due to wildfires and accompanying smoke have introduced chaos into summer travel.
Both the North Klondike Highway and the Robert Campbell Highway are closed at least intermittently due to smoke or fire. The Nahanni Range Road and the Canol Road are also closed. The Alaska Highway remains reduced to a single-lane detour just south of the British Columbia/Yukon border due to a road washout.
Among those affected by the closure of the North Klondike Highway between Pelly Crossing and Stewart Crossing was Joella Hogan, the owner of The Yukon Soaps Company in Mayo.
Hogan said she was passing through Carmacks on her way back from a camping trip when she found out that the highway was closed between her and her home community, which was also on evacuation alert due to another fire.
She said she was able to get back to Mayo in the first group of vehicles taken by pilot car through the closed area. She recounted feeling very emotional while driving through, feeling aware of the immediate impact wildfires can have on people’s lives and of the importance of highway links as she saw hundreds of cars lined up.
The disrupted highway travel is also leading to some disarray for Hogan’s business as necessary materials had trouble getting to Mayo and orders had similar problems getting out. She noted that the halted orders come at an ironic moment, as the soap company was recently featured in a major magazine article leading to a spike in business.
Hogan is taking this in stride, saying that one of her business’s main missions is to educate southerners about the challenges and other unique features of life in a remote northern community — delayed orders unfortunately included.
“At this time my community is on evacuation alert due to many surrounding wildfires and extreme smoke. Until this subsides, our first priority is our families and our community,” a post to the soap company’s Facebook page reads.
Hogan said that with Mayo subject to an evacuation alert that also encompasses Moose Creek Lodge, Elsa, Keno and the Victoria Gold Mine, there is a lot of fear in the community. However, she added that there are also some residents offering a more grounded view of things and trying to reassure their neighbours that the worst won’t happen.
Hogan said that she felt some panic herself upon returning home through the closed highway but it lifted when she saw the support that was being offered. She said government representatives have been going door to door assembling a head count of those still in Mayo, offering advice on packing for possible evacuation on short notice and giving instructions for where to go if they do have to evacuate. She said people are still going about their lives as usual, but some elderly residents have been taken to Dawson or Whitehorse where they will benefit from the cleaner air.
Several hundred Yukoners have also been delayed travelling the North Klondike Highway. Pilot cars are guiding people between Stewart Crossing and Pelly Crossing when safe — with the stretches between safe periods sometimes lasting several hours.
Natalia Baranova was delayed overnight on July 5. She was on her way home to Whitehorse after a four-day paddling trip on the McQuesten River.
That day, the Crystal Lake fire reached the North Klondike Highway and several power poles reportedly caught fire. Baranova said she reached Stewart Crossing around 3:30 p.m. and waited three hours before a highway official informed them that travel would be impossible. They were instructed to return the next morning at 10 a.m.
Baranova’s group stayed overnight at the Moose Creek campground. They returned the next morning at 8:30 a.m., but weren’t picked up by a pilot car until around noon.
By that time, there were about 100 cars in line.
Baranova said she and her crew set up camping chairs, read books and chatted with other people in the line over the combined seven hours of waiting.
“People were walking their dogs, walking their kids, stretching their legs … I think everyone was kind of taking it in stride,” Baranova said. “I think most people knew that there could be delays and nobody was like, really, really upset.”
All 100 cars travelled together on July 6. The closed stretch of 71 kilometres took about an hour, but enough smoke had cleared that visibility was reasonable.
“We could see … one of the poles burned down, so when we were driving through, we could see a crane holding up one end of it,” Baranova said.
“And then we could see the truck with the replacement pole coming up the other direction.”
The drive was much easier than she expected.
“I thought it would be really terrible, but you could always see several vehicles in front of you, no big deal,” she said. “But by the time we got to the south end, there was already a new lineup forming.”
A member of Baranova’s group missed a flight because of the overnight delay, but Baranova said she herself wasn’t extremely inconvenienced.
“I was like, ‘Oh well, that happens. This is the Yukon.’”
—With files from Jim Elliot and Gabrielle Plonka
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