Volunteer firefighters racing to reach fire-threatened Vita last week passed hundreds of vehicles headed the other direction and wondered what they were headed into, said veteran firefighter Alain Nadeau.
“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and this was the scariest I’ve seen,” said the weary La Broquerie fire chief on Friday after an exhausting week.
The air was so smoke filled around the southeastern village “we could barely breathe,” he said.
They could also barely communicate. Virtually non-existent cell service combined with a breakdown in emergency communications made their job not only more difficult but more dangerous, said Nadeau.
La Broquerie’s fire department ran the command centre set up near Vita’s Shevchenko school to co-ordinate the multiple crews fighting the grass fires which ignited early last week. They had only spotty cell service and no two-way radios to communicate, said Nadeau.
“If you stayed by the school and stood on one leg and touched your truck it (cell service) worked,” said Nadeau. But the FleetNet service, which RCMP, fire crews and other emergency service providers depend on did not work at all.
“The FleetNet service (a wireless MTS network for two-way radios) was completely down that day,” he said. “Two miles outside of La Broquerie, close to Zhoda, it stopped working.”
That put all the volunteer firefighters at risk, he said. At the peak of the fire five departments including those at La Broquerie, Emerson, Piney, Vita and Dominion City were on the scene.
Nadeau feared for the worst as the day wore on and crews fanned out to fight the vast rolling fire. Communications technology is critical because at any moment firefighters may need to signal for help, he said.
“As soon as you’re out of range by a mile and you have no more communication with your firefighters, it’s very dangerous,” he said. “At any second a person may be calling a mayday. You won’t hear it.”
A state of emergency was declared shortly after noon Tuesday and the town was evacuated, with patients in the town hospital sent to Steinbach and students evacuated from the school to a nearby church.
Firefighters and town officials went door to door in fire trucks, SUVs and all-terrain vehicles to make sure nobody stayed behind.
This is a second consecutive year rural volunteer firefighters and emergency responders in the southeast were dispatched to fight potentially deadly fires, but with little capacity to communicate.
Other media reports cited heightened anxiety when parents without cellphone reception could not contact their children sent to the Stuartburn Gospel Church for safety. The church has only a single land line.
Meanwhile, in Steinbach at the emergency reception centre enacted to house about 100 people who fled their homes at Vita, anxiety was high as people waited for word of what was happening back in Vita.
Municipal emergency planning co-ordinator Denis Vassart said while things otherwise went well at the reception centre they weren’t able to give people communication updates as quickly as they wished.
“Getting that kind of communication through the emergency team to the reception centre is key. It takes away a lot of the stress,” he said.
The breakdown in FleetNet service was due to a technical problem with one of the MTS towers, an MTS spokesperson said in an interview with CBC Radio Noon last week.
MTS does not extend cellular service into this part of Manitoba because it can’t make a business case for doing so in a region with such low population density, said Chelsea Ross, manager of corporate communications for MTS.
The matter of cell service is bound to come up at municipal meetings again this fall. The Association of Manitoba Municipalities has resolutions dating back about a decade calling for improvement to cell service in underserviced areas of rural Manitoba.
Their organization has met with both the provincial and federal levels of government and with MTS on the matter, said AMM president Doug Dobrowolski.
They’ve raised it with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), the national body representing municipal government too. Underserviced rural areas “is a Canada-wide problem, not just a Manitoba problem,” he added.
The solution lies in opening up the communications sector to more competition, he said, adding that could happen beginning next year when Industry Canada holds an anticipated bandwidth auction.
Last year during AMM’s lead-up campaign to the provincial election RMs in the Parklands region also cited lack of cellular service as a key infrastructure need.