POLITICS

Power outage in Yukon knocks out communication systems across territory

09/20/2012 01:14 EDT | Updated 11/20/2012 05:12 EST
WHITEHORSE - A power failure in the Yukon appeared to set off a chain reaction across the territory Thursday, knocking out communication services, including the 911 system.

Emergency officials were forced to adapt during the blackout, but officials with the Whitehorse Fire Department, the RCMP and Whitehorse General Hospital said there were no major emergencies or crimes during the outage that started at about 11 p.m. Wednesday.

Officials in Whitehorse said emergency preparedness plans for both the city and the territory were activated.

More police officers were sent to patrol the streets and Emergency Medical Services set up satellite stations where residents could go to get emergency care, said Michael McKeage, the agency's director.

The problem began when a tree fell over a major transmission line, cutting off power to most of the Yukon, said Guy Morgan, manager of operations at Yukon Energy.

"It was almost the ideal spot, right in the middle of our (high voltage) transmission line," he said. "We were trying to protect our equipment and all our breakers opened."

The power was out for about four hours, until 3 a.m. Thursday, but telephone, cellular service, Internet and the 911 system were out of commission for hours longer.

At the peak, Morgan said about 15,000 people were without power.

He said Yukon Energy has an isolated grid and the firm doesn't have access to power in neighbouring provinces or territories if its system goes down.

But what caused Northwestel Inc., the territory's communication provider, to lose its entire system following the power outage is still unknown, said company vice-president Curtis Shaw.

"I never remember a land line failure before," Shaw told reporters Thursday. "And I have been here 17 years."

Shaw said it was routine for Northwestel's automatic backup system to switch to batteries and diesel generation during a power outage, and then back again to regular power when it returns.

But as Yukon Energy was nearing the end of restoring power to the last sections on the grid, Northwestel's system shut down, Shaw said.

He said cellular and land-line service resumed shortly after 9 a.m. and the 911 emergency service was restored at 9:45 a.m. But Internet service still hadn't been restored by mid-afternoon Thursday.

Shaw said Northwestel technicians are not sure what tripped up their system, but they intend to find out

While power and communications were also out at the Whitehorse International Airport, Joe Sparling, president of Air North said his operation had few troubles getting flights out.

"We had to rely on satellite communication capability that we have on the aircraft to get weather information and that sort of thing, but we got it all done."

Sparling said the fact they couldn't communicate was a bit disconcerting.

"No cell phone service, no telephone service, everybody really was in the dark. The backup stuff seemed to get rolling fairly quickly."

Yukon Community Services Minister Elaine Taylor said she was pleased with the way the situation was handled.

"This reminds us of the importance of emergency preparedness," she said. "I think, given the circumstances, everyone did their very best." (The Whitehorse Star)