Whitehorse Daily Star

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July 2, 1982 - A living wall of flame, four kilometres wide, is advancing upon the town of Watson Lake. Whitehorse Star photo

Fire burning out of control

The Alaska Highway is open again after being closed for much of the weekend, but firefighters continue to battle a 160,000-hectare blaze that has already engulfed one small community and threatens another.

By Whitehorse Star on August 2, 1982

Fire burning out of control

The Alaska Highway is open again after being closed for much of the weekend, but firefighters continue to battle a 160,000-hectare blaze that has already engulfed one small community and threatens another.

Composed of three smaller fires that joined each other early in the weekend, the fire swept over the tiny roadside hamlet of Fireside, destroying a lodge, gas station and several residences. About 30 people were evacuated Friday from the community, at Kilometre 874 of the highway. Coal River, at Kilometre 858, was also evacuated.

The fire burned telephone lines and cut communications to the village.

Vern Barge, a forest protection officer with the British Columbia Forestry Service, said today the Alaska Highway was reopened last night. "A convoy ran from both ends and moved all the traffic there that was waiting.”

RCMP closed the road at Watson Lake and Fort Nelson Thursday night, stranding about 300 motorists.

One tourist, who came through the road just before it was closed, said visibility was down to about 10 metres. She said smoke hung like a heavy fog over the highway.

Barge said the fire is burning along the highway from Kilometre 856 north to Kilometre 944, about 35 kilometres from Lower Post.

An RCMP spokesman in Watson Lake said the fire, which appeared to threaten Lower Post on Friday, has burned past the community and now poses no danger.

The highway will remain open "until conditions worsen” Barge said, adding 64 B.C. firefighters are working on the blaze, along with two bulldozers, two tank trucks and a helicopter.

"We're only doing firefighting where it comes out to the highway,” Barge said. The fire is "much too large” to extinguish.

During the weekend, firefighters managed to put in fire lines around Coal River, assisted by some local residents who worked, Barge said, "kind of with a suitcase in one hand.”

He said crews burnt off an area to the north and east of the community to act as a fire guard.

The fire is about eight kilometres south of Coal River, separated from the village by the Liard River and an unburned expanse of spruce and pine.

The fire hasn't moved for a day now, he said, due to light rain yesterday and cold temperatures this morning.

Barge said the fire, which is costing the B.C. government about $12,000 a day to fight, could burn until winter.

The firefighters are members of the British Columbia public service union, scheduled to go on strike today. But Barge said a mediator was called in to continue contract talks.

Firefighters are considered an essential service, he said, and there is an arrangement with the union that, "under the present situation, emergency services such as firefighting are maintained.”

The Alaska Highway is the main transportation corridor into the Yukon, but its closing did not have much effect on goods coming in. Jim Eby, Yukon manager of wholesaler Kelly Douglas Ltd., which supplies most of the territory's foodstuffs, said most perishable goods come either by boat to Skagway, Alaska, or up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway from Prince George.

The Cassiar route was closed due to smoke and a bridge being burned out at the end of last week, but reopened Saturday. "Our trucks all got through on the weekend,” Eby said.

The fire is threatening several NorthwesTel microwave relay stations, which follow the Alaska Highway. NorthwesTel general manager Bill Dunbar said this morning that "the fire is very close to us” at Kilometre 963, the Highland River.

Company crews have done fire prevention work at four stations, Dunbar said. The stations, part of a network which carries the bulk of the Yukon's telephone communications, are located at Geddes Creek, Oregon Lake, Watson Lake and Highland.

On Friday, fire burned around the Oregon installation, which served the ruined community of Fireside. Dunbar said there was some heat damage to buildings and the tower, but as far as he knows, that was all.

The microwave relays are separated from the surrounding trees by a cleared radius of 150 metres. He said bulldozers were used to remove brush and a water bomber dropped fire retardant on the areas.

If one of the stations was burned, he said, it would all but sever telephone communications. Dunbar said if the fire destroyed one of the relays, communications would have to be routed via Inuvik, NWT, and down the MacKenzie Valley.

Only about 60 channels could be kept open this way, he said, compared to the 600 transmitted along the Alaska Highway route.

Depending on the extent of the damage, he explained, it could take up to a week to restore communications.

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