The Day the Yukon Went Dark

Last Updated: June 17, 2024By

The Day the Yukon Went Dark

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Just before the sun dipped below the horizon on Friday, people living in Canada’s Yukon territory found themselves suddenly cut off from the rest of the world. No internet, no mobile phone signals, not even a working landline. Everything was down.

Panic spread fast. Without internet, you couldn’t pay for anything electronically. In Whitehorse, the capital, most ATMs stopped working, and the few that did were quickly emptied by worried locals. City officials warned everyone that calling the police, an ambulance, or the fire department wasn’t possible.

This same chaotic scene played out all across northwestern Canada after wildfires damaged two major fiber optic cables. The telecom company, Northwestel, blamed a “perfect storm” of events. Experts, however, described it as a “cascading disaster” that revealed how fragile the northern infrastructure really is.

Northwestel, which services the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and northern British Columbia, reported that a wildfire near Fort Nelson had damaged a crucial fiber optic cable. Another fire near Jean Marie River and Kakisa in the Northwest Territories had taken out a backup cable.

Tammy April, Northwestel’s vice-president, told CBC North it was unprecedented. “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said. “It’s incredibly worrying.”

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Wildfire seasons in Canada have been getting worse, especially in areas that used to be relatively safe. As temperatures rise and dry spells last longer, the north faces more frequent and severe wildfire seasons. Last summer was especially bad, with nearly three-quarters of the Northwest Territories’ residents having to flee their homes due to wildfires.

Experts in disaster mitigation say that infrastructure disruptions hit northern communities harder because they have fewer resources. Most of these areas are connected by a single road and a single, vulnerable fiber optic line.

“We need to understand our weak points better,” said Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. He compared it to the floods in southwestern BC in 2021 that wiped out highways and rail lines, cutting off Canada’s busiest port and forcing airlifts to deliver food and water to isolated communities. Fuel had to be rationed as well.

McGillivray emphasized the need for more backup systems in the north. Last year, Fort Simpson lost all connections with the outside world. During wildfire evacuations, Hay River and Fort Smith also lost communication for nearly a week.

“Last year showed us just how vulnerable we are,” said Ollie Williams, co-founder of Cabin Radio in Yellowknife. “People know the risks. They’re aware of the dangers. But the money or the tech to fix it isn’t always there.”

The rugged terrain means that fiber optic lines can’t be buried under rock or permafrost, leaving them exposed and easy to damage. Repairing them is tough because of the remote locations.

“In places like southern Canada, the US, and Europe, the communication infrastructure is like a web around everyone,” Williams said. “Here, it’s so isolated that having two fiber lines is a luxury – one that can be taken out by just two fires.”

Companies like Starlink, which provide internet and mobile access via satellites, have become crucial in these situations. Over the weekend, while traditional telecoms were down, Starlink’s services kept working.

“Can we rely on Starlink completely? Probably not. Starlink has its own outages and can’t handle the same capacity as fiber lines yet,” said Williams. “But communities are realizing they need every bit of connectivity they can get.”

By Sunday, most mobile and internet services were back. But this blackout was a stark reminder of the dangers ahead, especially with another tough fire season expected.

“Up here, we’re hanging by thin threads of road and fiber infrastructure,” said Williams. “When any of those threads get cut, we lose communication and transportation. And during a severe wildfire season, that leaves us incredibly exposed.”

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