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November 2023

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IBEW Workers Reconnect Remote Communities After Devastating Wildfires

This year's wildfires were the worst in Canadian history. They killed four people, left nearly 70,000 square miles little more than ash and destroyed thousands of homes, including the entire town of Enterprise, Northwest Territories.

By the end of the summer, at least 200,000 Canadians had been forced out of their homes by more than 6,000 wildfires. The communities themselves teetered, not just the physical places but the connections between people that make a place a home.

In emergencies, those connections can become extraordinarily thin and vulnerable, like Highway 3, the only way out for Yellowknife's 20,000 residents. The 2,000-kilometre road to the nearest city — Edmonton, Alberta — was just a thin ribbon shrouded in smoke Aug. 16 when territorial authorities ordered a general evacuation.

For the people who could not leave, the people in the small towns that weren't evacuated, many reachable only by plane or boat, the connection to community, to help, to the outside world, was even thinner: the communications network maintained by the members of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Local 1574.

The fibre and satellite telecommunications infrastructure they maintain is in one of the harshest, most sparsely populated regions of the world, the near-Arctic Canadian north. Northwestel's territory is one-third of the land area of Canada but includes only 1/300 of the population.

"Telecommunications is critical infrastructure. It weaves Canada together as much as any road," said First District International Vice President Russ Shewchuk.

But climate change is hitting especially hard in the Canadian north, and wildfires are more frequent, larger, hotter and more destructive.

The worst-hit part this year was south of the Great Slave Lake, not far from Yellowknife.

The fires did significant damage to the fibre network and laid waste to Enterprise, a hamlet (population 75) at the confluence of Highways 1 and 3.

With smoke and ash still thick in the air, Local 1574 members including Bryan Mahe, Mike Dwyer, Isaiah Martin, Samuel Turpin-Samson, Kyle Kent and Louigi Manalo deployed into the field, laying and splicing new fibre and restoring service to the vast majority of communities.

They were just a few of the 130 members based in Yellowknife who worked under the dim and orange sun while their families evacuated. While thousands boarded planes or joined the 20-hour convoy south, they re-knit the communications infrastructure that would make returning home possible when the danger finally passed.

Far to the north, a smaller community faced a similar danger. On Aug. 7 a remote fibre line serving Inuvik, population 3,300, was destroyed, threatening to seal them off beyond the simplest, most basic communication.

Broadband traffic was diverted to a backup microwave network, and technicians including Jim Karhut, James McDonald and Calvin McDonald built a communications network that connected to Low Earth Orbit satellites. It was an extraordinary solution, said Local 1574 Business Manager Tracey DuPont: The satellites orbit around the equator, and Inuvik is less than 100 kilometres from the arctic circle.

In all, more than 18 million hectares burned, shattering the previous record of 7.6 million hectares in 1989 and the 10-year average of 2.5 million hectares. The lost trees and the peat ground cover that used to serve as a thick layer of insulation are replaced by a thin, sun-absorbing layer of blackened ash. Underneath is the permafrost, huge carbon sinks that have been locked away for thousands of years. The melting permafrost releases tons of carbon dioxide, leading to a deepening and worsening spiral of warming and fires.


Dozens of members of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Local 1574, including Calvin McDonald, shown setting up a satellite dish, kept their far northern communities in contact with the rest of Canada.