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Communications still down in many NWT communities

A Hay River resident installs sprinklers on their roof in August 2023. Photo: April Broekaert-Glaicar

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Northwestel has confirmed infrastructure providing communications services to communities in the South Slave region has been damaged by wildfire, and service will not be restored anytime soon.

In an email, spokesperson Andrew Anderson said the company confirmed a wildfire that burned through Enterprise had damaged its infrastructure. He said Northwestel does not expect service to the area to be restored within the next 24 hours at a minimum.

Some communications systems went dark on Sunday in a dozen Northwest Territories communities with thousands of people fleeing oncoming wildfires.

By Monday morning, Hay River, Fort Smith, Enterprise, Fort Providence and Jean Marie River – the scenes of a frantic race to safety on Sunday – were all still without internet, phone or cell service, provider Northwestel stated.

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An internal email from Northwestel, seen by Cabin Radio, had stated early on Sunday evening that “all services in the Mackenzie (cellular) are down.”

Fibre line damage caused by wildfires is suspected, a company staff member wrote to colleagues. The full extent of the outage was not clear – for example, whether internet and landline services were completely cut off in some communities.

Northwestel said in a statement at 10pm: “Telecommunications in multiple NWT communities are severely disrupted due to wildfire activity in the southern NWT.

“Technicians are unable to travel to the location of damaged infrastructure due to the wildfire activity and do not expect to be able to restore service quickly. We are coordinating with NWT Fire and emergency services and will provide updates regularly.”

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In internal emails, Northwestel staff said Hay River had lost long-distance and 911 service just as thousands of evacuees from both Hay River and Fort Smith were heading south to Alberta, out of harm’s way.

By 7:30pm, a new wildfire had cut off Highway 2 south of Hay River and remaining people were being urged to head to the airport and await an airlift to safety. If necessary, people will shelter at the airport from any wildfire that reaches the town.

Northwestel staff reported cell service had also been lost in Fort Smith, where remaining people were sheltering in place with a wildfire expected to come within five kilometres of the town by midnight.

The company believed cell service was also down in Fort Good Hope, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Inuvik, Kakisa, Norman Wells, Tsiigehtchic, Tulita and Wrigley.

At 4:30am on Monday, Northwestel stated: “Phone and cellular services have been restored in Tulita, Délįnę, Fort Good Hope, Norman Wells, Wrigley and Fort Resolution. Work to restore internet services is ongoing. Services remain available but limited in Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, Tsiigehtchic, Aklavik and Fort McPherson.”

“Please be advised that due to ongoing fire activity, we can expect an extended outage,” a staff member earlier wrote in an internal email.

“Technicians are investigating possible temporary re-routes, but any viable solutions will require new physical connections be put in place.”

Safety concerns were making large stretches of the fibre line “difficult, if not impossible” to access, the same staff member added.