By Aly De Angelus

The Klondike Highway is closed until further notice due to high risk of avalanche as well as a fuel spill about 11 miles south of the Canadian border. A passerby on the highway Saturday evening reported that a Petro Marine fuel truck attempting to pass an ore truck had punctured the tank, causing the spill.

Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) closed the South Klondike Highway late Saturday afternoon due to fear of an avalanche.

Avalanche forecaster Hal Hartman, who works with DOT, said the avalanche risk wasn’t that severe late Saturday but went from moderate to high hazard around 1:30 a.m. Sunday.

“As far as 9-Mile area, that’s the first sequence of avalanche paths. Hopefully, we can look into the release zones and get a feel for recent avalanching, how much snow is in there and whether or not we think it is unstable from the highway,” Hartman said Sunday, as he prepared to head up the highway. “If we can’t see it, then we are turning around and coming back. We will have to wait for the storm to obey.”

A Petro Marine fuel truck had leaked approximately 500 to 600 gallons of fuel in the accident, Skagway Police Sgt. Ken Cox said Sunday morning. DOT has not yet provided a timeline for the cleanup to the police department, and DOT officials were unavailable for comment midday Sunday.

“Petro Marine will go out there so they can pump out the rest of that fuel and get the fuel cleaned up and hopefully get the road opened,” Cox said. “We have no idea what the timeline is for that. The police department is investigating the accident. I just think that the weather is going to be a big hindrance here.”

Mayor Andrew Cremata posted an update in the public Facebook group Skagway Bulletin Board, alerting residents that Borough Manager Brad Ryan is in Juneau, “spearhead(ing) efforts to make sure everyone is cared for as we figure out what happens next.” Ryan is working to help the basketball team and others stranded in Juneau after the state ferry Matanuska cancelled Sunday due to mechanical error. There will be no ferry service the rest of the week. 

“Things could be worse” with the winter storm, Cremata said. Haines Borough Manager Debra Schnabel has “shut down” the town because of heavy snowfall, Cremata said. “Snowplows can’t even put a dent in their snow as it’s accumulating faster than they can clear it,” he said in his post.

Due to weather conditions, Fairway Market is closed. Duff’s Mountain Shop is open until 4 p.m. to allow residents to purchase snow gear for the storm. The Station has also announced reduced dinner hours, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Before the road closed Saturday afternoon, there were a few vehicles on their way to Skagway that had passed Canadian customs in Frasier, and an ore truck and a fuel truck heading north toward Canada. Around 5:40 p.m. DOT reported to Skagway police that a couple of trucks that had spun out on the highway.

At 6:40 p.m. Skagway police received another call about three overdue drivers that had passed Frasier, and were expected in Skagway but hadn’t made it back on time due to the road closure. Cox sent one of his police officers to the border station to wait for information from DOT. At 7 p.m., the police officer was notified that there had been a fuel truck accident and that there was fuel leaking. 

“What we found out was that the ore truck was trying to get back to Whitehorse as quickly as possible and it ended up stalling up and not being able to make the hill,” Cox said. The driver stopped at the 11 Mile, just below Moore Bridge, to put on his chains. The fuel truck attempted to pass the ore truck because he feared that his heavy vehicle would get stuck in the snow.

“He was afraid if he stopped he wouldn’t be able to get started again,” Cox said. “He attempted to go around that vehicle (and) as he was getting right up alongside the vehicle, he has a rear pup trailer that is also full of fuel, it hit the side dump of that ore truck trailer and punctured the tank.”

DOT responded and helped people get out of the area. “They completely blocked the road so we evacuated people that queued up on the other end of those vehicles down to Skagway that happened to be four residents and one traveler,” Hartman said, who moved the drivers off the hill and brought them back into town.

Highway maintenance crews from Fraser swept the road and the operation ended at 8 p.m.

Hartman cautions Skagway residents to be prepared for winter driving. “Have all of the proper gear in your car to hang out for the night, he said, like warm clothing food, water and plenty of fuel in your gas tank.

“Most often people discover that there are avalanches across the road and then they can’t reach their destination and oftentimes they can’t go back because there might be an avalanche behind them, so I guess rule number one is to be prepared to spend the night out.” 

Rule number two is to always back out of an avalanche, he said. “Don’t just stop and look at the debris on the highway or try to drive through it. That would be the wrong thing to do because if you become stuck you are in the middle of an avalanche path it puts those rescuers in harm’s way.” 

Officials late Saturday did not have further details about the accident and spill. No injuries have been reported.

Skagway Fire Chief Joe Rau said responders are planning to return to the site Sunday with equipment to clean up the spill.

Though there were reports of a small avalanche in the area of the accident, Rau said that had not been confirmed.

After the trucking company clears the spill and the truck, DOT should be able to reopen the road, Rau said. “If there could be a possibility of an avalanche, recovery would be best during daylight hours.”

Rau is in Whitehorse this weekend but has been communicating with Police Sgt. Ken Cox. Neither Cox nor Fire Lt. Paul Myers, who responded to the accident, were available for comment late Saturday evening.

Skagway resident Jenna Crampton was heading home from Whitehorse and came across the accident at 6:15 p.m. “We were heading home from Whitehorse and the weather conditions were pretty bad, Carcross back to Skagway,” she said. “There were three cars all headed back to town and we all followed each other with our hazards on.”

“There was no way for us to drive past the trucks,” she said. It took about an hour for responders to answer the drivers’ radio calls.

After the spill and road closure, “one of the cars in our group decided to turn back to Whitehorse while the rest of us debated what to do. We were about to turn back when a man named Hal (Hartman) from DOT ran up and informed us that he could fit us all in his vehicle.”

Hartman is a natural hazards analyst who works with DOT and has been controlling avalanches on the Klondike Highway since 2012. “They were banks slides, just sluff off of the steep cliffs along the road banks, sluffs but not slab avalanche adjusts,” he said. The highway has been closed numerous times in his eight-year tenure due to avalanche hazard.

Crampton made it back into Skagway around 8 p.m., managing to make a new friend along the way.

A German hitchhiker was found trudging through his 10th mile of snow when Crampton decided to set him up with some of her friends for the night. 

“He was hoping to get to the ferry tonight. The car that Jasper was traveling in decided to go back to Whitehorse and he wanted to get to Skagway,” she said. 

“We had an empty seat. We were just happy to help him get to Skagway safe and make sure he had somewhere warm to stay.”