FEMA Balking at Montana Wildfire Aid

During a recent trip through Wyoming and Montana, I got a chance to hear first-hand about the damages caused by the wildfires that raged through large tracks of Montana this summer.

Local telecom companies that serve the areas affected by the multiple fires assisted customers as best they could while the fires literally burned around them.

I heard about outside plant technicians driving through fire lines to survey damages to company facilities and do whatever they could to restore service to homes in these remote areas so homeowners could call their neighbors up the road to warn them of the impending fire storm.

At times there was nothing that anyone could do but wait for the fire to move on. Personal stories of watching siding melt minutes before a structure became engulfed in flames brought home the fact that these wildfires not only burned hundreds of thousands of acres of national forests but also destroyed people’s homes and businesses along the way.

The intense heat of the fires melted outside plant facilities, fusing cables together within pedestals and remote terminals, and burning utility poles to a point that will require setting new poles.

Months later, companies are still working with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to receive payment for property damaged by the fires. Much of the delay is caused by confusion of what is damaged beyond repair and what can be salvaged.

To help support their reimbursement requests, providers have taken FEMA field representatives onsite to inspect poles and other outside plant facilities. Unfortunately, the agency has different standards for what is permanently damaged and what can be repaired. They may agree to replace a burned pole but not the melted ped sitting a few yards away housing a melted hodgepodge of copper and insulation.

I’m proud to know the men and women of the rural telecom industry that placed their personal lives on hold while doing whatever they could to help friends and neighbors affected by the fires. “It’s what we do out here,” said a local general manager. “We know how important it is for our customers to be able to keep in touch with their families, especially in times of crisis like we had this summer in Montana.”

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