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Wildfire emergency sparks renewed calls for better cell service
WINNIPEG -- A wildfire emergency in Manitoba’s Parkland region has sparked renewed calls to address a burning issue.
Local leaders and residents living in communities affected by the fires worry the lack of cell phone coverage is putting people at risk.
The wildfire situation has improved around Camperville, Man. and Pine Creek First Nation but connectivity during a crisis remains a concern.
“We don’t have cell phone service out here,” said R.M. of Mountain cattle rancher Steven Winters. “Without a cell phone to get help as quick as possible, (it) could be life and death.”
He and his neighbours fought the flames on their own last week, using makeshift equipment. While away from their homes, they had no way of staying in contact with each other or to call for outside help.
“If you can’t reach someone because you can’t use your cell phone, then you have to drive all the way back to your house to use your phone,” said Winters’ neighbor Kati Blouin, who has a grain farm in the area. “That’s definitely a big factor.”
The network coverage map for Rogers shows no service for Pine Creek First Nation, Camperville, and an area southwest of those communities in the R.M. of Mountain.
Same goes for Bell MTS - a division of Bell Canada, which is the parent company of CTV News. Its coverage map shows no cell service in a similar area.
Pine Creek First Nation Chief Karen Batson said the wildfire emergency highlights the need for that to change.
“Not having cell phone service in this community is putting our community at risk,” said Batson during an interview in Pine Creek last Wednesday.
Homes in the First Nation community were threatened by the inferno, which now spans 26,000 hectares, but is reported by the province as ‘being held’ by fire crews.
Batson said in some cases, band members had to find internet or a landline to relay messages about fires spreading close to their homes.
“It’s been very difficult to stay in communication, even with the emergency services people here,” she said.
Robert Hanson, Reeve for the R.M. of Mountain which has also been affected by the fires, said at one point cell service was a luxury. He sees it now as a safety issue and is calling on the province to do more.
“So it really creates one very, very large problem and exactly this when we’ve got a major forest fire on,” he said.
The provincial government recently announced it wants the private sector to improve broadband and cellular service in communities that don’t have it, by harnessing a network of unused fibre-optic cable owned by Manitoba Hydro.
A request for proposals is expected to be issued late this spring or in early summer.
Bell MTS, which has cell towers in nearby communities, said in a statement there are no immediate coverage announcements for the region.
CTV News also contacted Rogers, who said the company is "always looking for opportunities to expand its coverage and improve service for customers in the province."
One home, a shed, and farmland has been damaged in the fire but residents are just thankful no one has been hurt.