“Perfect storm”: Wildfires knock out services in the Yukon


The wildfires damaged communication infrastructure on May 10, disrupting access to emergency services

Last week, ongoing wildfires in Canada’s Yukon territory severed critical fibre lines, leaving customers in parts of the Yukon, British Columbia, and the Northwestern Territories leaving customers unable to communicate or access emergency services.

Two separate fires damaged cables operated by local telco Northwestel simultaneously, leaving customers without access to mobile, internet, or telephony services.

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

“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.”

To make matters worse, satellite phones – usually a reliable backup to terrestrial networks fail – were also experiencing disruption. April ascribed this disruption to electromagnetic interference resulting from the recent solar storm.

Repairs to the infrastructure have been underway since the weekend, with services already restored in most affected regions.

“We are closely monitoring the active wildfires near critical infrastructure and want to advise the public that conditions can change quickly and services could become impacted,” said Northwestel in a statement.

Natural disasters knocking communications infrastructure offline is a relatively commonplace occurrence worldwide, with telcos adopting various strategies to quickly reestablish communications in the region, from erecting temporary mobile towers to shifting traffic to satellites.

Wildfires of the scale seen in Canada, however, represent a unique challenge, since telcos and their engineers often cannot access the critical locations for days at a time. As a result, telcos are largely reliant on building resiliency into their networks by adding multiple routes for traffic, making it unlikely that areas will be entirely cut off from the network.

As this weekend shows, however, sometimes these measures alone are not enough.

“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,” said Julia Duchesne, the Yukon’s emergency coordination centre information officer.

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