Car fire on Cabot Trail raises concerns about lack of phone service

·3 min read

A car that burned on the Cabot Trail while its driver and passenger watched helplessly nearby is raising concerns about cell service in the area.

Cotter Oliver, who lives in Pleasant Bay on the western coast of Cape Breton, was driving with his family on the afternoon of Oct. 16 when they came across a frightening scene — a vehicle engulfed in flames with no emergency vehicles on the scene.

"We came to the crest of the North Mountain and we noticed big black billows of smoke on the horizon," Oliver told CBC's Maritime Noon on Tuesday.

Oliver said he and his family pulled over when they saw a couple standing nearby, just watching their car burn.

Submitted by Cotter Oliver
Submitted by Cotter Oliver

"They were about 20 feet away when the car was engulfed in flames. It just took place that quick, so it was pretty scary," Oliver said, adding that no one was injured in the fire.

He said the couple was lucky to get out of the car when they did, but without cell service in the area, there wasn't much they could do.

"Some people were calling 911 on their cell phones, but there's no cell phone service there," he said.

Oliver said someone tried a phone in a nearby emergency shelter, but he was told it didn't work.

By the time they got there, the car was totally engulfed — just one big ball of fire. - Cotter Oliver

Another witness offered to drive to the Pleasant Bay volunteer fire department about 15 minutes away to report the fire.

Firefighters and RCMP officers from the Cheticamp detachment arrived on the scene another 15 minutes later.

"By the time they got there, the car was totally engulfed — just one big ball of fire," Oliver said.

Fire chief Murray Pattingale said it's not the first time something like this has happened in the area.

Submitted by Cotter Oliver
Submitted by Cotter Oliver

Pattingale said there have been quite a few car accidents and motorcycle crashes on the mountain and it can take up to 30 minutes to respond.

He said the lack of cell service, emergency phones and mile markers hinder the fire department's ability to respond to emergencies on the mountain.

Pattingale said he would like there to be at least working emergency phones and better cell service.

"It would make a big difference on our part," he said. "Our response time would be quicker and we would know exactly where we're going."

Communication improvement on the way

In a statement Wednesday, Rob Howey, acting superintendent of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, said "the realities of connectivity and telecommunications in this remote area of [the park] are challenging."

"While there used to be phone service in that area over two decades ago, the challenge on North Mountain today is that there are no phone landlines between Pleasant Bay and Big Intervale as well as unreliable cell service," he said in an email.

Howey said Parks Canada has been working to improve emergency communications in this area for the past six months, and have recently purchased a specialized satellite phone that will be installed in the coming weeks.

He also said the addition of more mile markers could help with initial response time.

"Parks Canada is open to discussions with the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal to explore the possibility of installing mile markers on the Cabot Trail within Cape Breton Highlands National Park," he said.

Howey said Parks Canada is relieved that nobody was harmed in the incident and thanked the fire department for their response.