Wildfires Are Burning Up Cell Towers and Leaving Responders in the Dark

More than an inconvenience, these lost connections can be life-threatening

Photo: Vibro1/Getty Images

On August 20, environmental photographer Stuart Palley set out for Guerneville, a small town in Northern California’s Sonoma County that was facing an existential threat: The Walbridge Fire, sparked by lightning, had exploded across the rugged hills to the north. For Palley, it was a standard assignment. He was to spend several days shadowing a team of firefighters in order to document the inferno up close.

There was just one problem. As soon as Palley arrived in Guerneville, his cellphone lost service. It would remain out for the next two days while he was in town, making what was already a tough job even tougher. Palley wasn’t able to send updates to his editor during the day or tweet information on the fire. On his first day there, he had no way of getting in touch with the fire battalion chief he was supposed to meet up with.

“I literally had to drive around and ask people where he was, and go hunt him down,” Palley told Future Human. “I was completely in the dark.”

Being in the dark, communications-wise, is something of an occupational hazard for Palley, who has been photographing wildfires professionally for nearly a decade. Once or twice a year, he finds himself working in an area where mobile networks have gone dead due to a power outage or fire-damaged infrastructure. With more wildfires spreading into urban areas packed with cell towers, power lines, and cables transmitting data, the outages, he says, have gotten worse in recent years. Unfortunately, the fires causing them are expected to become even more frequent and severe in the future.

Palley’s not the only one who has noticed. With millions of Americans now relying exclusively on their cellphones to make 911 calls, receive emergency alerts, and stay connected during disasters wireless carriers and emergency managers on the front lines of the West’s burgeoning fire crisis are discovering that cellular infrastructure is alarmingly vulnerable. This vulnerability is most visible in California, where the state estimates that wildfires and the “public safety power shutoff” (PSPS) events intended to prevent them impacted nearly 2 million wireless customers during the 2017, 2018, and 2019 fire seasons, resulting in 15 million blocked calls. But while California has begun drafting new regulations to fortify its wireless infrastructure, there’s much more that needs to be done, both in the Golden State and other parts of the country that are starting to experience similar communications outages.

More than an inconvenience, these lost connections can be life-threatening.

“Obviously, you can’t send out alerts and warnings to everybody if the infrastructure is down,” said Budge Currier, the 911 emergency communications branch manager at California’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES). “So you don’t have a way to notify everybody. And that’s a huge problem.”

Chris van Löben Sels, a software manager in Oakland, is one of more than a million wireless customers whose service was likely impacted by a series of statewide PSPS events last fall. The blackout killed his Verizon data connection, and because he didn’t have a backup landline, he had no way of receiving evacuation notices if they came.

“Going to bed was almost scary,” van Löben Sels said. “There was a hot wind blowing, just the situation where you want your country alert app to be on, but I had to just hope I would hear sirens if trouble came. It’s unnerving to feel so unsafe in your own home.”

Journalist Jeffrey St. Clair, who edits the left-leaning magazine CounterPunch, had a similar experience last month. On September 8, the Riverside Fire flared up to the southeast of his home in Oregon City. As a burst of easterly winds caused the fire to explode in size, the county began to issue evacuation orders. With the power out, the internet down, and AT&T cellular reception reduced to “one flickering bar” St. Clair and his family initially had no idea whether they were supposed to leave town. Eventually, St. Clair was able to get enough of a signal by holding the phone above his head on the back porch to learn that their neighborhood was at “evacuation level two,” meaning they had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Uncertain whether they’d receive another order if it came, the family headed to the coast for a week.

“That sense of a) imminent peril and b) uncertainty about just how imminent it was, was terrific motivation for hauling ass,” St. Clair said.

Mobile networks can go down during fires for a number of reasons. Sometimes a PSPS is to blame; in other instances, the telephone poles and power lines that keep the cell towers up and running might be damaged by a blaze. Fires can sometimes disrupt the fiber cables, or “backhaul,” that transmit cellular data from towers to data centers, especially if that backhaul infrastructure is above ground, according to Currier. In rare instances, the cell towers themselves might burn to the ground.

Mobile network outages are a serious problem for first responders, too, who rely on cellular data to respond to 911 calls and to formulate and execute emergency evacuation plans. “When we set up command posts, or evacuation centers, or disaster recovery centers, or local area assistance centers, all of those resource-providing centers… rely on data,” Currier says. “When the data infrastructure is damaged, the ability to provide services is impacted as well.”

Even firefighters feel the effects of cell outages. In California, firefighters use a “land mobile radio” network — comprising sites that generally have about two weeks’ worth of backup power, says Currier — to communicate with each other and other emergency responders via voice. But they also rely on internet data to organize and deploy resources, especially during large fires. When Verizon infamously throttled, or reduced the data speeds, available to the Santa Clara Fire Department during the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018, it “had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” fire chief Anthony Bowden wrote at the time.

“The cell is another communication tool that they can use tactically in the heat of the moment, and when the cell coverage is down they lose that tool in their toolbox,” Palley says. “It’s not like they’re dead in the water, but it does have a deleterious impact.”

Since cellular outages started to become a very visible problem in 2017, California has taken some steps to improve network resiliency. Last year, it passed a bill that requires carriers to report to CalOES any outages that would affect their customers’ abilities to make 911 calls or receive emergency alerts, and another that prevents data throttling to first responders during emergencies. In July, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a wireless resilience plan that requires cellular providers to install at least 72 hours of backup power at cell towers, which would allow them to receive and transmit calls during that time. (Most major wireless providers, with the exception of Verizon, are opposing that requirement, calling it too prescriptive.) The plan further calls for cellular providers to develop “comprehensive resilience strategies to prepare for catastrophic disasters and power outages.” This could include hardening physical infrastructure, building additional network redundancy, and maintaining mobile cell sites — satellite or microwave radio backup systems that can be deployed during any outages.

Paul Barford, PhD, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, thinks other states would be wise to follow California’s lead. In October, he co-authored a first-of-its-kind study examining the vulnerability of U.S. cellular infrastructure to wildfires. Combining data from OpenCelliD, a crowdsourced database showing the location of 5 million cellular transceivers nationwide, and a “Wildfire Hazard Potential” dataset maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, the researchers identified more than 430,800 cell transceivers located in areas that face “moderate to very high risk” of wildfires today. Concentrated in California, Florida, and Texas and owned mainly by AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon, those transceivers serve over 85 million people.

“We’re always looking out West” when considering wildfire risk, Barford said. “But if I were a service provider, I would certainly be thinking about risk to infrastructure in the other places that were implicated in our paper.”

Some companies are starting to consider that risk. In 2019, AT&T launched a “climate change analysis tool” to anticipate climate impacts on the company’s infrastructure, from extreme weather to sea-level rise. As far as wildfires go, these climate projections are helping the company decide where to deploy backup generators, stage temporary equipment, and how to “build extra resilience into the network in the future,” said Marachel Knight, senior vice president of engineering and operations at AT&T.

“This isn’t a one and done proposition,” Knight said. “It’s an ongoing evolution of how we use the data… to allow us to harden the network.”

While regulators and companies work on hardening the infrastructure, individuals who have experienced gaps in cell coverage and who have the resources to do so are devising their own contingency plans. Van Löben Sels, the Oakland-based software manager, is in the process of getting a backup landline installed. “Lucky to be able to afford that,” he said.

Palley, the environmental photographer, purchased a Verizon hotspot that he can connect his laptop to when his AT&T cellphone loses signal. He also recently bought a portable satellite unit so that if all the major networks are down, he can still get photos out to clients without leaving the fire area to hunt for service.

“I’m trying to broaden my bases,” Palley says. “I’ve got Verizon, I’ve got AT&T, and I’ve got a satellite connected to the iridium network. I’ve seen enough societal impacts that I’m just like, I need to be in touch.”

scientist-turned-writer

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