Firefighters from Alberta and Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) are struggling to keep a massive wildfire raging along the Athabasca River from reaching Fort Chipewyan.
While cooler temperatures over the weekend slowed the fire, concerns remain that extremely dry conditions expected for the next two weeks will set the stage for the fire to race further north.
The 110,000 hectare fire has already burnt most of the Richardson back country south of Lake Athabasca over the past two weeks as it spread northward in old growth timber along the east side of the Athabasca River.
At press time the fire wall was 38 kms south of Fort Chipewyan, still on the far side of the Athabasca River.
WBNP wildfire management officer Jean Morin told The Journal that the Athabasca River was firefighters’ “line in the sand.”
To that end Alberta firefighters in conjunction with Morin’s team have burned thousands of hectares of forest along the east side of the river, creating a fire break to the northwest of the fire wall they hope will slow the flames and prevent the fire from jumping the river.
Athabasca River marks firefighters’ ‘line in the sand’
“Our objective is to limit the spread towards Fort Chip and keep the fire south of the delta,” Morin said.
Firefighters believe the area directly north of the fire wall in a direct line to Fort Chipewyan has enough natural barriers to prevent the blaze jumping the Athabasca River in that direction.
But concerns remain that if the wind shifts to blow from the southeast, the fire could run northwest extremely quickly and target Fort Chipewyan on its western flank.
As a backup another fire break in that direction, just inside the park border on the west side of the Athabasca River, is in the works.
Morin said his crews plan to burn 3,000 hectares on May 23 and 24 while the winds are favourable.
The goal is to create a defensible zone in case the fire manages to get past the fire break on the east side of the river and then jump the Athabasca River itself, explained Morin.
Morin said the areas being control-burned by Alberta and WBNP are necessary and are the main front in the defense of Fort Chipewyan.
He said he is not confident the Peace Athabasca Delta alone would be able to hold back the fire, especially since water levels have dropped so significantly in the delta over time.
Meanwhile a different wing of the same fire has spread into the very southern reaches of WBNP. Morin said that fire is being left to burn for the time being, as the park’s main firefighting resources focus on protecting Fort Chipewyan.
He said that the community of Fort Chipewyan is being informed of the firefighters’ plans. The park is also focusing on protection of cabins and other facilities where possible, he added.