Fort Chipewyan’s connection with the rest of the world is in danger of being cut off as the massive Richardson backcountry wildfire burns ever closer to the Birch Mountain communications tower.
A Telus spokesperson told The Journal on June 2 that if the wildfire continues on its path to the west, the radio tower could be engulfed in flames.
Cold temperatures over the weekend kept the fire from expanding toward the tower, but the cold weather did not bring any precipitation so as of press time fire fighters remained on high alert.
Telus does have redundant equipment within the community, so residents will be able to make local calls even if the Birch Mountain tower is destroyed.
But internet, cell phones and long-distance phone calls on land lines would be cut off. The only outside phone connections would be through emergency personnel who have been equipped with satellite phones.
“We are monitoring the situation very closely,” said Shawn Hall of Telus. “The radio tower on top of Birch Mountain is threatened. Should the site burn, service will be lost. We’re doing everything we can to avoid that, but this fire is beyond our control.”
Hall said Telus is working with the Municipality of Wood Buffalo to protect the site. Sprinkler systems have been set up around the tower in an attempt to minimize the damage, should fire reach the tower.
All 911 phone service within Fort Chipewyan would be cut off if the tower is destroyed. In the event of that happening, residents in need of assistance are asked to call local RCMP at 780 697 3665.
Leonard Allen, Nurse-in-Charge at Nunee Health in Fort Chipewyan, said the nursing station has satellite phones on standby in case of emergency.
While Hall said that Telus’s first priority is to prevent a loss of service, if the tower does burn he assured residents that the company has a “full service restoration plan” in place to get the service up and running as soon as possible after the fire is put out.
The Richardson Backcountry fire surpassed 300,000 hectares on June 2, with fire walls spreading on a number of fronts. Several hundred Alberta firefighters are working to fight the fire on its eastern and southern flanks, according to a Alberta Sustainable Resource Development spokesperson.
The NWT has sent 44 firefighters to help with the blaze. They are camped out north of Fort McMurray.