IT pros cope with B.C. fires

For some companies, data protection means backing up files to guard against disk corruption. For Tolko Industries Ltd., it means hoisting servers into a truck while a forest fire licks your heels.

On an early August night, Tolko’s IT staffers were doing just that, trying to save precious information from the flames that would eventually decimate the company’s sawmill in Louis Creek, B.C.

“It’s had a huge impact,” said Sheila Catlin, Tolko’s spokesperson, referring to the sawmill’s demise. “It’s put about 200 people out of work.”

While Ontarians were left in the dark for a few hours after a blackout last month, people in central B.C. faced prodigious fires. According to the B.C. Ministry of Forests Web site, 818 fires burned in late August, creating a disaster that would test the mettle of any data protection plan.

Catlin said the Tolko crew was prepared. Employees at this Vernon-headquartered forestry products firm had already disconnected the computer equipment at the Louis Creek sawmill the day before the evacuation order came.

“Once they got the evacuation order, they just took the servers out in the back of a pickup.…They had two (servers) up there.”

Tolko took protection matters beyond the status quo.

“We do daily backups, so we could have restored anyway,” Catlin said. But given a choice between leaving the hardware to melt and taking it out of the fire’s path, “it was just easier this way.”

Little else about the fire has been easy for Tolko. According to a company press release, the Louis Creek mill employed 200 people directly and 150 others as outside contractors. By mid-August, the firm was looking for ways to replace the lost cutting capacity. Affected employees were given the opportunity to relocate and work at another Tolko operation.

In Kamloops, employees at Lafarge Cement Ltd. were having a tough time discerning the forest from the trees; but that didn’t mean they lacked foresight. Don Olson, the firm’s electrical systems supervisor, said he can’t make out the hills on the opposite side of the valley. “Even though there’s no immediate threat to our plant or the town, there’s still a lot of smoke around.”

Olson said Lafarge employs protective measures to mitigate disasters: UPSes attached to the main servers; RAID arrays with hot-swappable bays; remote access; daily tape backups, with tapes shipped off-site weekly for safe keeping.

“I think the primary thing we’re concerned with is the information,” he said, explaining that Lafarge aims to safeguard data pertaining to maintenance, finance, and quality control. “Certainly that’s the thing we’ve taken measures to protect.”

Meanwhile, B.C.’s incumbent telco, Telus Corp., is taking measures to repair its infrastructure. In Kelowna, flames gobbled a cell site on Telus’s mobile network. The firm had to reinstall some cables in Barriere. That fire also ate hydro lines, but Telus had backup power running.

“Our people in those areas were evacuated like everyone else, but the way our network is configured, we’re able to monitor those sites remotely,” said Denise Wood, Telus’s vice-president of client solutions and customer care. “We had full visibility into how those sites were performing.”

The telco turned on its emergency operations centre to help keep people connected. “This is a virtual centre that we activate, which has representatives from all of the key areas within Telus, so that we can deal with the situation in real time, make appropriate decisions and deploy resources,” Wood said.

At press time, B.C.’s Ministry of Forests reported that the Okanagan Mountain Park fire was estimated at 20,100 hectares. More than 600 firefighters, as well as 18 helicopters and 250 pieces of heavy machinery, were battling the flames. At least 200 homes were destroyed in Kelowna. Persistent winds caused the 8,035-hectare Lamb Creek blaze to grow.

IT professionals working and living B.C.’s interior may yet require advanced data protection plans. After all, “the fire’s still burning,” said Lafarge’s Olson.