Yukon’s North Klondike Highway near Stewart Crossing was reopened to traffic on Monday, with emergency officials saying a change in the weather has helped them get a better handle on the wildfires in the region.
“Really, the main thing is that fire conditions are subdued because of all the rain,” said Haley Ritchie, an information officer with Yukon Wildland Fire Management.
“So it means less smoke, no risk of flames by the side of the highway — that’s really what it comes down to.”
Ritchie said Monday morning that motorists may still have to follow a pilot car through parts of the re-opened stretch of highway, depending on conditions. She warns that things could change again at any time, though.
“If it dries up, if the fire behaviour changes, then we’ll have to re-evaluate again, unfortunately.”
As of Sunday afternoon, there were 166 wildfires across Yukon, from the Old Crow Flats in the north to the B.C. border in the south. Dozens of firefighters from B.C. are in the territory to help out, and a 150-person camp in Pelly Crossing has been set up to house them.
Evacuation alerts are still in place for communities in the area, including Stewart Crossing, Mayo, Elsa and Keno City.
But Ritchie says things were looking a little better on Monday, because of the changing weather.
“[Recent rain] doesn’t necessarily mean it puts the fires out, but it does give us more time to confirm that those fires are under control and to action them,” she said.
“But compared to last week, we’re in much better shape when it comes to the fires around here.”
Ritchie said officials are hoping for more “sustained rain” to help calm the fires, because right now it wouldn’t take long for things to become dangerously dry again.
Rain over the weekend has especially helped quiet fire activity in the Watson Lake and Beaver Creek areas, officials said.
Meantime, a new 130-hectare fire on the east side of Tagish Lake at Taku Arm was keeping crews from Yukon and B.C. busy on Sunday. Smoke from the fire was visible in the Southern Lakes region and the Alaska Highway.
A B.C. incident management team had also taken over fighting fires in areas of central Yukon, including the Crystal Lake and Willow Creek fires.
Firefighter Cody Wolfe was busy on the weekend, working to put in a control line to contain the Crystal Lake fire — the territory’s largest one so far this season. He said crews were highly motivated and morale was high.
“On average, we’re probably working 12-, kind of 13-hour days. It’s long days, but our crew is pretty well equipped and we kind of train for this type of work and these long days,” Wolfe said.
He said the terrain is a little bit different than what he’s used to back home in B.C.
“Running into some of the frozen ground was a new one for us,” he said.
Andre Chalabi is coordinating the response at the Crystal Lake fire. He said the goal was to keep it from spreading further north to the community of Stewart Crossing. Crews were putting in a control line while also dousing the fire with water, and then following the flames to put out lingering hotspots.
“The way the fire came through here, it dug deep in some areas so the crew is actively mopping up or putting out edge that is dug beyond the surface so, some roots are burning and some deeper stuff that could flare up later on,” he said.
He said they’d made “good progress” on slowing the northward spread, but it would be a while yet before the fire was extinguished.
“This fire is of significant size and the terrain and timber type is fairly difficult to basically get around,” he said.
“It won’t go out until wintertime, or until we get significant rain.”