Be ready ‘for anything’ after wildfires hit telecom lines, official warns


Wildfires continue to rage across parts of western Canada and this past weekend, some communities were left without a way to communicate through internet or phone after fibre optic lines were damaged by the flames.

Telecommunications provider Northwestel, which provides service to Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and parts of northern B.C., reported telephone, internet and long-distance services had been disrupted.

The Yukon, northern B.C. and Beaufort Delta and Mackenzie Valley regions of Northwest Territories saw themselves with internet, long distance and mobility issues, with long distance impacted in Nunavut, and intermittent internet in Yellowknife and the South Slave region.

Service has since been restored, but Northwestel says it was the first time they’ve seen this impact in its history.

“This really was a bit of a perfect storm,” Northwestel’s vice-president of customer experience Tammy April told Global News.

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“We had two fires that really went from no fire to incredible blaze within a matter of hours of each other. So we had our east-west (fibre) route fail late afternoon on Friday, and it was within about five hours that we had our north-south route fail.”

April said the company has geographically diverse routes to ensure protections of its services, but in this case both were impacted.

The interruptions left questions about the reliability of telecoms during disasters like wildfires.

Click to play video: 'Thousands forced from their homes due to wildfire burning near Fort Nelson'

Thousands forced from their homes due to wildfire burning near Fort Nelson

Julia Duchesne, Yukon’s emergency coordination centre information officer, told Global News when the outages occurred they had to resort to other backups — radio in this case, and working with local radio stations to get communication out.

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This was, in part, due to other backups like satellite phones and internet also having issues, which she suggested may have been a result of the recent geomagnetic storm that hit the Earth this weekend.

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While the Yukon is dealing with just one active wildfire as of Monday, having communication disrupted is a concern whether in an emergency situation or not so that people can still access services, like 911, when needed.

“With wildfires burning sooner, and hotter and more unpredictably, with floods sometime impacting our communications infrastructure as well, it’s so important to be prepared for anything,” Duchesne said.

Northwestel, its parent company Bell, and other telecoms like Telus and Rogers say they work to assess their networks and potential risks they have often to prevent incidents like this weekend from happening.

For Bell, vice-president of core network and managed services Wes Vurma said that includes ensuring power is available for key sites should a disaster impact them, such as with generators or even batteries on site.

They also ensure teams are at the ready to respond when an outage occurs, including having trucks with proper fuel and crews able to dispatch as quickly as possible.

Click to play video: 'Preparing for the upcoming wildfire season'

Preparing for the upcoming wildfire season

“Our teams are preparing for what could happen,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re able to stop it, sometimes these are forces beyond our control, but we’re prepping for that.”

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In a statement to Global News, Telus also noted it has spent $110 million in planning to mitigate impacts, including participating in-person in provincial emergency meetings and working with network partners to “deploy critical equipment to maintain wireless service.”

Rogers said in a statement they also have “alternate routes” for service to divert to if other paths are damaged.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission which oversees telecoms told Global News it is working with all levels of government to “lessen the disruptive impact of service outages” amid various extreme weather conditions.

This includes promoting network reliability through ongoing and upcoming public proceedings by listening to impacted Canadians and telecoms. It also notes since 2023, telecoms have to notify the CRTC within two hours of becoming aware of a major outage, and file a report no later than 14 days. It notes five of 31 major outages in the past year were wildfire-related.

When communication does drop out and Canadians face wildfires, or other disasters, emergency officials say it points to why it’s important to be prepared including by having an emergency kit so you’re prepared for even up to 72 hours without electricity.

Duchesne adds having that kit equipped with a crank radio can also help in getting communication delivered when other communication methods are unavailable.

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