Fort Nelson, British Columbia

Fort Nelson is a community in northeast British Columbia, Canada, within the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM).[3] It held town status prior to February 6, 2009, when it amalgamated with the former Northern Rockies Regional District to form the NRRM,[3][4] becoming its administrative centre. The NRRM is the first regional municipality in the province.[5]

Fort Nelson
Mile 300, Fort Nelly
Location of Fort Nelson within the Northern Rockies District in British Columbia, Canada
Fort Nelson, British Columbia (Canada)
Coordinates: 58°48′21.3″N 122°41′47.3″W
ProvinceBritish Columbia
Regional MunicipalityNorthern Rockies Regional Municipality
  Governing bodyNorthern Rockies Regional Council
  Total4.68 km2 (1.81 sq mi)
410 m (1,350 ft)
  Density719.1/km2 (1,862/sq mi)
Time zoneUTC−07:00 (MST[2])
Postal code span
Area code(s)250 / 778 / 236
Highways Hwy 97
WebsiteFort Nelson
Northern Rockies Regional Municipality

The community lies east of the northern Rocky Mountains in the Peace River region along the Alaska Highway at Mile 300.[6] The town is approximately four hours drive, in the summer, from the nearest urban centre, Fort St. John, and potentially six hours under winter driving conditions.[7]

According to the 2016 Canadian Census, the population was 3,366, a drop of 5.5% from the 2011 Census.[1]


Fort Nelson, named in honour of the British naval hero Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, was established by the North West Trading Company in 1805 as a fur-trading post.[8] Due to fires, floods and feuds, Fort Nelson is in its fifth location.

World War II

Fort Nelson Airport was a valuable asset for allied military forces in World War II, as it served as an airbase for the United States Air Force and for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Contrary to popular belief that the construction of the Alaska Highway commenced in Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson was the original Mile 0 on the Alaska Highway because of the existence of a previously constructed road from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson.[9] The United States Army built perhaps the most notable historical artifact in the area, the Alaska Highway. Construction began in 1942 out of a firm belief that Alaska faced a significant threat of Japanese invasion. Initial highway construction was performed by over 11,000 U.S. soldiers. After approximately nine months, the highway was finally completed, making Fort Nelson a bustling service-centre along the road. After the Japanese surrender of 1945, the U.S. Army ceded the Canadian portion of the highway to the Canadian government, which it made accessible to the public in 1948.[10]

Post-World War II

In the early 1950s the first five acres were sold to locals, which marked the start of the community as a separate entity from the military. Oil and gas exploration in the early 1950s provided Fort Nelson with the industrial sector that it required to jump-start expansion of the community into what would eventually become the village of Fort Nelson in 1971. However, due to collapse in oil price in 2014, most gas fields and associated rigs have been shut down and put out of operation on an indefinite basis.[11] After the completion of BC Hydro's natural gas power plant to provide electricity to the region, Fort Nelson experienced true growth. A railway was built by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (BC Rail) up to Fort Nelson in 1971 which allowed efficient transportation of the local industry's major products (lumber, and gas) to larger markets in the south. Unfortunately, the railway was left in abandoned state due to lack of use in the 2010s and was subsequently closed down. No facility has since been built to replace the railway to ship commodity to markets.

Post millenium

The closure of both forestry mills officially ended the major economic pillar in 2008, mainly due to the collapse in US housing prices and subprime mortgage crisis.[12] The 2014 collapse in oil prices decimated the natural gas industry. Without oil production in the Horn River Basin and lack of pipeline access. Many major oil companies, including Apache, Nexxen and Encana, decided to shut down their local production. With the bankruptcy of Endurance energy, many local workers were laid off.[13] The Community Forest or boreal protection initiative, with support of local First Nations and Mayor Gary Foster has impacted the potential logging quota and possible areas for new gas well development. [14] The Community Forest would be 193,262 ha (477,560 acres) out of a total of 1,465,000 ha (3,620,000 acres).[15]

Since 2012, lack of access to maternal care has deterred many young professionals from relocating to Fort Nelson for work.[7] In 2019, outages in electrical power,[16] telephone service[17] and internet access in 2017[18] have disrupted the municipality. Lack of basic infrastructure, including user-friendly facilities, have deterred many tourists from enjoying local attractions.[19] The triple homicide in the summer of 2019 has attracted international media attention from as far as Australia and had caused the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to issue a warning about travel in the area.[20] Local First Nations people from the area told the national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), that they were feeling unsafe living in the region.[21] In 2018, three incidences of shooting threats disrupted the education system.[22]


Fort Nelson lies near the confluence of Fort Nelson River (which took the name from the community), Muskwa River and Prophet River. The entire region of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, of which Fort Nelson is the largest community, constitutes 10% of the province’s total landmass. Fort Nelson is well known to be surrounded by mountainous beauty pertaining to the northern portion of the Rocky Mountains.[23]


The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality is home to an extensive variety of wildlife which attracts many tourists and hunters to the region. Wildlife found in the area include animals such as moose, black bear, grizzly bear, caribou, deer (white-tail and mule), elk, bison, stone sheep, mountain goat, wolves, and several more. The region, especially the area around the Liard Hot Springs, is home to several bird species such as the golden eagle, the bald eagle, and the great horned owl.[23]


Fort Nelson has a climate right on the boundary between a subarctic climate (Köppen Dfc) and a humid continental climate (Dfb). Winters, except when dry chinook winds blow from the Pacific Ocean tend to be severely cold and generally dry with an average monthly snow depth of only 18 cm (7.1 in) owing to the dryness of the annual 190 cm (75 in) snowfall, while summers are warm and occasionally rainy, though spells of hot weather are rare.[24]

Fort Nelson is colder than anywhere else in British Columbia from November through February, but the mean average temperature during the summer is warmer than coastal areas even far south such as Victoria and comparable to Vancouver.

Climate data for Fort Nelson Airport (Canadian Climate Normals 1981-2010 Station Data)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high humidex 9.0 13.3 16.1 26.7 33.9 36.4 41.2 36.6 32.3 26.7 17.8 10.4 41.2
Record high °C (°F) 10.7
Average high °C (°F) −16.1
Daily mean °C (°F) −20.3
Average low °C (°F) −24.6
Record low °C (°F) −51.7
Record low wind chill −55.0 −55.6 −51.5 −37.6 −19.9 −3.3 0.0 −3.8 −19.7 −39.2 −51.6 −54.6 −55.6
Average precipitation mm (inches) 21.5
Average rainfall mm (inches) 0.3
Average snowfall cm (inches) 28.6
Average precipitation days (≥ 0.2 mm) 10.5 8.7 8.9 6.4 10.3 12.9 14.6 12.7 10.7 10.3 11.1 9.8 126.9
Average rainy days (≥ 0.2 mm) 0.3 0.1 0.4 2.8 9.5 12.9 14.6 12.7 10.1 5.0 0.5 0.3 69.2
Average snowy days (≥ 0.2 cm) 11.2 9.5 9.3 4.4 1.9 0.0 0.0 0.2 1.2 6.8 11.8 10.6 66.7
Average relative humidity (%) 71.3 63.6 50.8 41.3 42.0 45.2 50.5 51.6 53.8 66.3 77.9 75.2 57.5
Mean monthly sunshine hours 64.3 99.4 166.3 236.4 267.3 285.2 273.7 258.2 170.6 97.6 60.4 48.3 2,027.7
Percent possible sunshine 29.3 38.1 45.5 54.7 51.2 51.9 50.0 53.9 44.1 30.6 25.7 24.4 41.6
Source: [24]


In the 2016 Canadian Census, Fort Nelson had a population of 3,336 living in 1,424 of its 1,682 total dwellings, a -5.5% change from its 2011 population of 3,561. With a land area of 4.68 km2 (1.81 sq mi), it had a population density of 712.8/km2 (1,846.2/sq mi) in 2016.[1]

As of the 2016 Canadian Census Fort Nelson had 760 Indigenous peoples made up of 415 First Nations, 300 Métis and 25 Inuit.[1] Fort Nelson is a fairly young community in comparison to the rest of the province, with 26.68% of the population being under the age of 19.[1] Approximately 31.92% of Fort Nelson residents over the age of 25 have attained an education beyond a high school certificate or equivalent in the forms of trades, colleges, or universities.[1]

Historical populations

Fort Nelson is home to 3,336 residents, representing 69.05% of the NRRM's total population of 4,831 in 2016.

In a 2017 report the vacancy rate was 49% and rental was $1,000.[25]

According to the 2016 census, only 225 people are aged 65 or over, representing only fewer than 7% of the overall town population.[1]


Due to major decrease in oil price in 2014[26] and lack of pipeline access to the lucrative Asian market, the abundant natural gas in the Horn River Basin remains untapped.[27][28] Fort Nelson has experienced substantial contraction in economy, noted by significant reduction in business licenses, long term decline in school enrolment and increase in mortgage foreclosures.[28][29] Before 2014, natural gas, forestry, tourism and agriculture made up the majority of local industry. Nowadays, the town heavily relies upon the government sector and tourism.

The majority of Fort Nelson's economic activity is currently concentrated in the tourism industry and government sector, and until recently, natural gas extraction and forestry.[27][30][31] The forests surrounding Fort Nelson are part of Canada's boreal forest. Fort Nelson is on the southwest edge of the Greater Sierra oil and gas field.

Natural gas

Unconventional gas exploration was the premier industry in Fort Nelson, employing a large percentage of Fort Nelson's community members. The region's natural gas industry centres around the Horn River Basin, Liard basin, and the Cordova basin which all contain vast amounts of gas in shale rock formations. Many of the world's most recognizable oil and gas companies have actively divested their capital and sold their operations in the region,including Encana, Nexen, Apache, Imperial Oil.[32] The most common form of gas extraction is the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, in which a drill bit is first vertically, then horizontally inserted deep into the ground in an attempt to reach poorly accessible shale gas formations. As with any gas operation in North America, there are significant concerns to the environmental pollution, First Nations rights, market access and social effects of the industry on the surrounding area. Water is withdrawn from nearby lakes and rivers, which continues to be a hot topic in the region and within the oil and gas industry. The boreal woodland caribou protection initiative also significantly curtailed the area allowed for gas extraction, further dampening investor interest.[33]


Fort Nelson is surrounded by vast plains and mountains of boreal forest. The relatively untouched timber supply was the contributing factor to companies such as Canfor constructing large factories that employed hundreds of people. In recent years, both the Canfor mill and the Tackama mill have completely ceased operations based on high costs and a struggling US housing market. The closure of the mills proved to be devastating for locals, displacing several hundreds of local employees and their families. At present, the municipal government is the largest employer in the region, based on its need for service roads, grant administration, and deforested operational land.


Although very seasonal in Fort Nelson, tourism continues to be an important economic sector in Fort Nelson’s economy. Approximately 300,000 tourists, most of whom are retired RV travellers heading to or from Alaska, visit Fort Nelson on an annual basis.[34] The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality is also home to several world-renowned tourist attractions such as the Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, Muncho Lake Provincial Park, and the Alaska Highway. Hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, birdwatching and hiking are all popular outdoor recreational activities that draw thousands of tourists to the region every year.


On June 18, 2005, people in Fort Nelson held a water balloon fight with over 40,000 water balloons being tossed in less than three minutes. At the time, it was a world record.[42]


Fort Nelson was originally incorporated as a village in 1971, but established itself as an unregistered community shortly before that. In 1960, based on significant growth in the oil and gas industry of the region, the Fort Nelson Improvement District was formed in order to provide community members with essential infrastructural needs such as water and sewer services. Harry Clarke was elected the first mayor of Fort Nelson in 1971 and since then, Fort Nelson has consistently elected one regional representative, although not always historically referred to as a mayor. In February 2009, citizens of the region voted heavily in favour of officially amalgamating the region’s governing bodies into The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality. The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality is the first of its kind in British Columbia.



As of 2012, citing a lack of a qualified physician, Northern Health advised all pregnant patients that they must travel to other regions (Fort St. John, Grande Prairie, Kelowna) to give birth. All expecting mothers are asked to sign a waiver of understanding. The travel fee and accommodation expenses are not reimbursed.[7]

Despite its small population, there are currently two operating pharmacies.[43]


Fort Nelson is located along Highway 97 (Alaska Highway), south of the intersection with the Liard Highway (British Columbia Highway 77).

Sierra Yoyo Desan Road was the main oilfield road in the area starting in Fort Nelson and ending 188 km (117 mi) east north east. With numerous resource roads and winter ice roads entering Alberta through [[Rainbow Lake, Alberta|Rainbow Lake or Zama City.

In 2017, national broadcaster CBC said the highway was "one of the deadliest stretches of highway in the province." based on a 2015 Global News report.[7][44]

Greyhound Canada ceased to operate a bus depot in the community in 2018.[45][46] Since the departure of Greyhound, residents have found it increasingly difficult to gain access to medical appointments because BC Bus North only has once-weekly scheduled service to serve the community.[47]


The Fort Nelson Airport or Northern Rockies Regional Airport[48] is located 3.8 nautical miles (7.0 km; 4.4 mi) east northeast[49] of Fort Nelson. The airport is a Tier-2 regional airport facility in Canada. The only scheduled airline company serving the airport is Central Mountain Air, which has since reduced its service from seven days a week to six days a week and from five daily flights to only one daily trip. Passengers are only able to connect to the outside world via Prince George Airport. The Northern Rockies Regional Airport is designated as a non-secure airport and does not offer passenger screening.[50] A business case was proposed in 2015, but unfortunately, due to the lack of demand, the federal government did not approve the provision of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) agents.[51] Charter flights are available to other Canadian destinations.


CN Rail previously operated a former BC Rail line that had its northern terminus in Fort Nelson, but it had ceased service since the closure of the Canfor mill.


Fort Nelson is home to three public elementary schools (G.W. Carlson, and J.S. Clark, both grades K - 4, and R.L. Angus, grades 5 - 7) and one public high school (Fort Nelson Secondary School, grades 8 - 12), as well as an independent school owned and operated by the Fort Nelson First Nation (Chalo School). The Northern Lights College has a small campus situated in Fort Nelson that awards several trades certificates and diplomas to students.

School District 81 Fort Nelson registered the second highest decrease in overall enrolment in British Columbia. The total number of students has decreased by 12.5% since the 2015/16 school year, making the district a significant outlier in reduced enrolment, due to the collapse in population.[52]


  1. "Census Profile, 2016 Census Fort Nelson [Population centre], British Columbia and Northern Rockies, Regional municipality [Census subdivision], British Columbia". Statistics Canada. November 29, 2019. Retrieved November 9, 2016.
  2. Reaburn, Adam (February 21, 2015). "Fort Nelson to change time one last time this March". Fort St. John. Retrieved September 25, 2015.
  3. "Fort Nelson". Northern Rockies Regional Municipality. Archived from the original on August 14, 2012. Retrieved December 6, 2012.
  4. "Statistics Relating to Regional and Municipal Governments in BC 2011" (PDF). Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. p. 21 of 30. Retrieved December 6, 2012.
  5. "Fort Nelson becomes B.C.'s first Regional Municipality". Brent Hodson. February 10, 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-27.
  6. "Northern Rockies". Northern Rockies. Archived from the original on 2012-07-17. Retrieved 2012-06-12.
  7. No maternity ward, unreliable medevac, dangerous roads: why doctors tell pregnant women to leave Fort Nelson
  8. "Northern Rockies & Alaska Highway". Destination British Columbia. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  9. "Fort Nelson History". Fort Nelson Museum. Retrieved 11 June 2012.
  10. "History of Northeastern British Columbia". Fort Nelson Public Library. Archived from the original on 2012-11-20. Retrieved 2012-06-11.
  11. Northeast B.C. Rig Report - October 17
  12. As forestry dies, a lumber town starts drilling
  13. Gas industry downturn devastating Fort Nelson B.C.
  15. Fort Nelson Community Forest Community Forest Agreement Application and Management Plan No. 1 (v4)
  16. Large power outage in Fort Nelson
  17. Northwestel reporting major network outage for landline customers in Northern BC
  18. Northwestel internet service restored for affected businesses and Whitehorse airport
  19. 'Frustrated' wheelchair user calls for ramp at hot springs after he can no longer access pools
  20. RCMP are urging caution while travelling in northern B.C. area
  21. 'Living in fear': Killings drive home vulnerability for Northern B.C. residents
  22. Nelson students allowed to write exams elsewhere after 3rd shooting threat
  23. "Official Community Plan Bylaw". Northern Rockies Regional Municipality. Retrieved 11 June 2012.
  24. "Canadian Climate Normals 1981-2010 Station Data". Environment Canada. Retrieved November 10, 2019.
  25. Northern Rockies Report Card on the shape of the community from census figures
  26. LNG in an era of lower oil prices
  27. As LNG promise fades, property assessments decline in B.C.'s north
  28. Oil & gas crash makes enrolment projection difficult for Fort Nelson schools
  29. Fort Nelson struggles to rebuild ‘devastated’ forestry sector
  30. "Fort Nelson mayor on gas plant scale back: "We're at wit's end with jobs here"". 2017-05-31.
  31. "Canfor closes Tackama plywood plant indefinitely". October 8, 2008. Archived from the original on December 12, 2008. Retrieved June 27, 2009.
  32. Endurance will use more manpower than Encana
  33. Caribou conservation, LNG development lock horns
  34. "Tourism". Northern Rockies Regional Municipality. Retrieved 15 June 2012.
  35. "Fort Nelson Heritage Museum". 2009-01-17. Retrieved 2012-06-12.
  36. Poplar Hills Golf & Country Club Club
  37. Phoenix Theatre
  38. Recreation Services
  39. Events
  40. Northern Lights Festival
  41. Trade Show
  42. "40,000 water balloons tossed in B.C. fight". CBC News. June 20, 2005. Retrieved 2015-10-07.
  43. Find a Pharmacy or Registrant
  44. British Columbia’s 12 deadliest highways
  45. Greyhound is leaving northern British Columbia: Here's what you need to know
  46. Greyhound to cancel multiple northern B.C. routes
  47. Greyhound's departure leaves 'gaping wound' in northern B.C. one year on
  48. Fly Northern Rockies
  49. Canada Flight Supplement. Effective 0901Z 10 October 2019 to 0901Z 5 December 2019.
  50. Know Before You Go
  51. From the “Bear Pit”
  52. British Columbia School District Revenue and Expenditure Information 2019/2020
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