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Telecom restored to the Yukon but fires still threaten highways

Phone and internet restored for now. Emergency crews still reckoning with highway closures and fires

While the widespread telecommunications outages that swept the Yukon on Saturday, May 11 have largely been resolved, emergency crews are still reckoning with highway closures and fires that damaged communications lines. 

Fires flared up leading to the closure of the Alaska Highway just north of Fort Nelson as well as Highway 77, the road link from B.C. to the northwest territories. At a May 12 media briefing, territorial government emergency measures organization representative Julia Duchesne said there is no estimated time of reopening available. 

Highway 37, the Stewart-Cassiar route through the northern B.C. interior remains open. Duchesne said some shipping delays are to be expected as companies reroute shipments via the open highway but goods will still be able to move to the Yukon. 

Fires damaged both of the fibre-optic lines that supply the Yukon with connectivity to the rest of the country. One line runs parallel to the Alaska Highway and the other comes out of the Northwest Territories. Duchesne noted that some connectivity can usually be maintained if one line is damaged but the loss of both completely cut the Yukon off. 

At the May 12 briefing, she described the quick response of Northwestel crews from Whitehorse who travelled to the site of the outage to fix the cable, having to stop at times as conditions changed and the fire became too dangerous. 

The fire that closed the Alaska Highway is the Parker Lake wildfire burning an area of 2,483 hectares immediately west of Fort Nelson, British Columbia. There has been an evacuation order due to the blaze affecting the town of Fort Nelson and the surrounding area.

Duchesne called the fire “active and extreme.”  She said there is no timeline for when it will cease to be a threat to the highway and the telecoms line. 

The B.C. Wildfire Service reports a full response to the Parker Lake blaze with 70 firefighters, 16 helicopters and 17 pieces of heavy equipment in action. 

A Northwestel representative confirmed that it is Fire FS004-24, burning about 70 km southeast of the community of Jean Marie River, that impacted their N.W.T infrastructure. Per an update from the N.W.T. government, the fire is threatening numerous values along N.W.T. Highway 1. The highway is presently open but may close on short notice.

The telecom outage resulting from the fires began with cell phone and internet services in the Yukon out of operation starting the evening of Friday, May 10. 

By the afternoon of May 11 home internet service in the Whitehorse area had been restored and cellular service was back by that evening. 

Long-distance landline calling was also not functional May 11 but local landline calls could be made. 

9-1-1 service was down, leading emergency services to post ambulances at prominent locations around Whitehorse, step up patrols and advise residents to use the RCMP non-emergency number from a landline or visit the detachment if they had issues.

Duchesne did not rule out future interruptions to connectivity and advised residents experiencing and emergency during an outage to first attempt calling 9-1-1 and then taking additional steps if they can’t get through. She noted that residents of communities outside Whitehorse can use the phones on the outside of the community health centres to get emergency assistance and those in Whitehorse can go to the RCMP detachment or one of the fire halls. 

While the telecom and transportation disruptions might have halted hopes of a quiet start to the wildfire season in the north, Duchesne notes that the wildfire risk in the Yukon remains low to moderate. She also emphasized the importance of putting together a 72-hour kit with essentials for Yukoners and their families to cope with an emergency such as wildfire evacuation or another telecom disruption. 

Contact Jim Elliot at 

Jim Elliot

About the Author: Jim Elliot

I’m a B.C. transplant here in Whitehorse at The News telling stories about the Yukon's people, environment, and culture.
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