ISP defends decision to pull service during fire advance

·4 min read

The main internet service provider in the Slocan Valley says they pulled their service from the area affected by the Trozzo Creek fire last week in order to avoid an even longer service interruption.

Ben Leslie of Columbia Wireless says they cut service to the area between Winlaw and Slocan City quickly last Wednesday after the wildfire threated the Sky Castle (also known as the Lemon Creek Lookout) Tower.

“Wednesday morning, I got a call from some fire crews alerting me that I should either evacuate the site or stand back and let it burn, as the fire could be there by the end of the day!” Leslie told the Valley Voice.

While initially he thought he would leave the equipment in service in order to keep communication up as long as possible, he quickly realized that might lead to a much longer service interruption.

“However, there are two major components on this tower that are a kind of special order and during this COVID time, ordering time would have been one to two months,” he said. “…These components are also extremely expensive and no insurance company will sell us fire insurance for any of our towers because they are installed out in the middle of nowhere and they are therefore too high of a risk to insure.

“So we decided to fly in and uninstall these special components and take them off site until the fire danger had gone. If we had left the equipment on site and it burned down, we could have lost our service for a large chunk of the valley for well over a month due to re-ordering time due to COVID.”

The equipment was removed by Wednesday afternoon, and didn’t give the company much time to warn the public, he says.

“It was a last-minute decision and we didn't have a lot of time to warn clients about it since this whole scenario happened so fast,” he says. “However as soon as I decided this was the plan, we sent a broadcast email out to all clients affected by the outage, telling them that if they are receiving this email, their internet service would be cut in about an hour and to continue to look for updates about this outage by calling our office line, where we had updated recordings telling people what was going on, and when they could be expecting service back.”

Anger at move

The decision prompted much anger among residents in the area. At a community meeting on Saturday, July 24, one evacuee said she was outraged by the decision.

“If that [service] had been up, I would have had that many more hours to prepare to go,” she said, noting she had to leave with just the clothes on her back. “Is anyone going to hold Columbia Wireless responsible… but when we needed them the most… shouldn’t that be a mandate to not cut off communication for people who don’t have that?”

“I’m more mad about that than the evacuation. Why would they do that to us?”

Leslie says he hopes residents understand the decision.

“I would tell this customer that we had very little time to react to try and prevent an outage from possibly lasting over a month,” he said, noting the company also reached out to its customers in the area after service was restored. “It was a very similar experience as most public had when they were alerted to evacuate their houses. We had very little time to decide what to do and we had never dealt with a forest fire threat to any of our towers before.“

Leslie says the winds on the fire changed the next day, and they were able to restore internet service within 24 hours. He says it’s been working perfectly since.

Columbia Wireless is now working with fire officials to look at ways to FireSmart the tower site.

“They assured me that they now recognize how important our service is for the valley and they are very interested in protecting it as an essential service to the valley,” he said. “We are working on a plan to help prevent wildfire danger in the future, such as talking to Forestry to get a wood clearing permit to create fire breaks around our main towers that are located on the tops of mountains.

“We will be looking at some sort of fire extinguishing system for our towers, too.”

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

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