By Aly De Angelus
Nearly 10 percent of Skagway’s population was stranded in Whitehorse or Juneau by the winter storm and avalanches that closed the Klondike Highway or because of no ferry service after the Matanuska went out of service for engine repairs.
“It was a perfect storm for shutting us down (the highway), but the one big important thing out of this is that when we only have one ferry a week and it breaks down, and suddenly you can’t drive or fly out of here, we are isolated,” Mayor Andrew Cremata said. “It’s a good reminder of how isolated we really are.”
Cremata estimated nearly 100 residents were trapped without a way into town, including Skagway’s drama, debate and forensics team, basketball team, Fire Chief Joe Rau and Borough Manager Brad Ryan and others as the weather limited air travel, too.
The highway reopened at 2 p.m. Jan. 31, after seven days and six nights of closure due to high risk of avalanche as well as a fuel spill about 11 miles south of the Canadian border.
Before the road closed Jan. 25, several vehicles had passed Canadian customs in Frasier, on their way to Skagway, and an ore truck and a fuel truck were heading north toward Canada. Around 5:40 p.m., Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) reported to Skagway police that two trucks that had spun out on the highway.
“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,” Police Sgt. Ken Cox said. The driver stopped at the 11 Mile, just below Moore Bridge, to put on his chains (after passing the fuel truck and spinning out and getting stuck in snow). The fuel truck then attempted to pass the ore truck, as the driver feared his heavy vehicle would get stuck in the snow too.
“He was afraid if he stopped he wouldn’t be able to get started again,” Cox said of the fuel truck driver. “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,” Cox said.
The spill was estimated at 400 to 450 gallons, with the accident near Mile 9. Tim Cochran, of Skagway’s Petro Marine terminal, said the fuel truck belonged to North 60, a Canadian company affiliated with Petro Marine that sends up to six fuel trucks to Skagway to pick up fuel for delivery to Whitehorse.
“We went up on Monday (Jan. 27) and (DOT) cleared the road,” Cochran said. DOT pumped out the fuel from the truck’s damaged tank, he said. “We had the help of Hamilton Construction to move the trucks away from each other and got the ore truck down to the pull-off, turn around and head back to town.”
The fuel truck was moved to a shed at Mile 12, where all of its compartments were emptied. Cochran had a conference call Jan. 27 with Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), DOT, Ryan and Cremata to discuss how the town should move forward with the transportation and environmental issues.
“They deemed there is really not a whole lot that we can do,” Cochran said. “It’s on the roadway, but it’s not spilling over the edge and they need to clear the road to open it. We are going to monitor the road accident site and if there is any mitigation that needs to be done … that will be forthcoming when it gets closer to spring.”
The fuel was ultra-low-sulfur diesel No. 1.
“That stuff isn’t crude oil. It doesn’t stick to animals. It doesn’t stick around,” Cochran said. “A lot of it evaporates, so we are hoping that it’s not going to be an issue.”
Even before the spill, DOT had closed the South Klondike Highway late afternoon Jan. 25 due to fear of an avalanche. Avalanche forecaster Hal Hartman, who works with DOT, said the avalanche risk wasn’t that severe late in the day but went from moderate to high hazard around 1:30 a.m. Jan. 26.
“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 Jan. 26, 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.”
Multiple avalanches occurred on the U.S. and Canadian sides during the six-day road closure. There was a brief opening 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 30, with DOT directing vehicles that had been on standby in Frasier, British Columbia, through the area.
During the highway and ferry disruption, Cremata posted an update in the public Facebook group Skagway Bulletin Board, alerting residents that Borough Manager Ryan was in Juneau, “spearhead(ing) efforts to make sure everyone is cared for as we figure out what happens next.” Ryan worked to help the basketball team and others stranded in Juneau after the ferry cancelled Jan. 25-26 due to engine trouble.
Though the Alaska Marine Highway System chartered a private vessel to take stranded travelers from Juneau to Haines and Skagway on Jan. 27, Skagway officials declined to put the basketball on the boat in the strong winds and rough seas.
“We made the decision based on real-time weather data; in the end it just wasn’t worth the risk in these kinds of decisions,” the school said in a press release that week. Most of the basketball team flew home on Jan. 28 and the remainder flew back Jan. 30.
“You had really horrible blizzard conditions, you had an accident, you had a ferry breaking down, a lot of things happened all at once,” Cremata said, recalling his nonstop phone calls and emails to track down state officials including Skagway’s legislators, DOT and Skagway residents stuck in Juneau.
“If parents have trouble getting their kids home from functions and they can’t go to these extracurricular activities, that are so important to their comprehensive development as children, they are going to move.” Cremata said. “That to me is the biggest risk of not having reliable ferry service, that we could unravel the fabric of what our communities are in Southeast Alaska.”
Cremata urges the community to step in and help look for a lasting solution, regardless whether the state restores more funding for the ferry system.