04/02/2015 09:06 EDT | Updated 06/02/2015 05:59 EDT

Pangnirtung in state of emergency as power outage continues

The N.W.T. Power Corporation is airlifting two mobile generators to Pangnirtung, Nunavut, after an overnight fire at the local power plant knocked out power to the entire community of about 1,400. 

"Loss of power in the community, in the North, in the winter time is a very serious situation," says Ed Zebedee, the territory's director of protection services in Iqaluit. The community relies entirely on a local power plant that generates electricity from diesel fuel. 

Environment Canada has called for a high of -15 C today with a low of -19 C expected tonight.

An emergency warming shelter has been opened at Attagoyuk Ilisavik School, where there is back-up power. A few other buildings in the community also have back-up power, but the rest are cold and dark. 

"We opened the warming shelters very early this morning and people are starting to go there," Zebedee says. "We talked to the hamlet and they are getting food from the local stores so they can start feeding people."

The Nunavut government is now working towards getting charter flights sent to the community to bring people with high-risk health issues, such as those who may be on oxygen generators, to Iqaluit. The first flight was scheduled to head in at 1:30 p.m. local time. 

The government is also working with the Public Health agency in Ottawa to locate cots, blankets and pillows, which will be flown into Pangnirtung in case residents have to sleep in the school.

The Northwest Territories Power Corporation also said in a news release that two generators will be flown in from Yellowknife and Fort Simpson, N.W.T. 

"We understand the impacts of being without power in Canada's North and are pleased to be able to assist our neighbouring utility," said Emanuel DaRosa, President and CEO of NTPC. "It's the least we can do in this crisis situation."

Phone services degrading

Zebedee also says he spoke with NorthwesTel this morning, and their cell phone system "looks like it has completely failed right now."

A media advisory from NorthwesTel says that long distance and data services in Pangnirtung are expected to continue to degrade as their back-up batteries deplete, but that their central office in the community currently has a stable power supply, which should allow local calling to continue to function. 

"We have a bunch of satellite phones in the community with various government agencies and then we also have a couple with the hamlet," Zebedee says. "We have a response kit ready to go in with hand held radios so that people can communicate between hamlet staff, bylaw officers, water truck people."

Members of the Canadian Rangers met this morning to discuss the situation and are going door-to-door to check on households, as well as warning them about potential dangers in their home, such as carbon monoxide poisoning from using camping stoves or outdoor heating appliances indoors.

Fire began at 1:30 a.m.

The fire began at about 1:30 a.m. ET and crews were able to extinguish it.

Ezra Arnakaq lives in the community and says the damage to the power plant appears to be extensive: "One of the exhaust vents has fallen in part way and there is extensive damage in there."

Natalie Chafe-Yuan, a spokesperson with the Qulliq Energy Corp., says maintenance staff are in the community assessing damage at the site. More people are on their way to help.

There is an emergency generator at the site that's separate from the power plant. Crews are working to establish partial power, and to bring other generators to the hamlet.

Residents of Pangnirtung are being asked to run their taps regularly to ensure that their pipes don't freeze while their homes aren't heated, but to otherwise conserve water.