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Vandals picked remote spot to cut Mendocino telephone line

Two miles from the nearest paved road, alongside a derelict railroad track as it runs through rugged oak woodlands, is the scene of a crime that inflicted the largest communications system breakdown in recent Mendocino County history.

Internet and phone service - including both landlines and cellphones - in much of Mendocino County and portions of four other North Coast counties was knocked out last week when vandals sliced a section of AT&T fiber optic cable south of Ukiah. Investigators believe the would-be thieves were seeking copper wire and abandoned the severed, partially unstrung cable - an estimated 700 feet - after realizing it wasn’t copper.

The full extent of the network meltdown is unclear, but Mendocino County Sheriff’s Capt. Gregory Van Patten said it’s the most extensive he’s witnessed during his 20 years with the department.

AT&T declined to provide an estimate of the number of people affected by the vandalism.

“We don’t provide specific customer numbers,” AT&T spokesman Steven Ramirez said Thursday.

“There’s really no way to determine the number of customers who weren’t able to use their service,” said Heidi Flato, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, whose customers were among those unable to use their cellphones during the nearly ?18-hour outage. Verizon also does not provide customer numbers, she said.

The Mendocino Broadband Alliance and county of Humboldt have launched online surveys to assess the repercussions of last week’s havoc.

The communications crash is a reminder of the U.S. telephone network’s vulnerability, a problem that emergency services providers and legislators have been trying to ameliorate through regulations that would require backup circuitry routes.

“This massive outage demonstrates the extreme vulnerability of our telecommunications and 911 system, especially here in rural Northern California,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

“Many urban regions throughout this state are served by secondary fiber lines. We deserve that same redundancy here on the North Coast,” McGuire said. “We’ll be fighting in the Senate to ensure our communities aren’t left behind and that we receive equitable service, just like many urban cities enjoy.”

The problem is particularly acute in rural areas, where there are fewer backup communications cables over which traffic from broken lines can be shunted, officials said.

“This is a perfect demonstration that there’s not enough network diversity,” said Randy MacDonald, an assistant chief with the Comptche Volunteer Fire Department in rural Mendocino County and chairman of the Mendocino County Fire Chief Officers Association communications committee.

MacDonald said there need to be alternate lines so that service can more easily be rerouted when cables are damaged or destroyed. As fiber optic cable has become more efficient in carrying information, there has been a tendency by communications companies to consolidate the lines, making them more vulnerable than ever to mishaps and vandalism, he said.

The lines also need to be placed in secure locations, MacDonald said. Fiber optic cables in cities generally are not exposed, like they often are in rural areas, he said.

Most of the fiber optic line along the railroad tracks south of Ukiah is buried about 2 feet deep, but the breached section was elevated above ground and carried for about 100 yards between two power poles to avoid a section of unstable ground. The line running up the poles was at least partially housed in metal casings, but that apparently failed to keep out the vandals.

Last year, another fiber optic cable was severed near the Mendocino Coast when a truck hit the overhead line.

“You would never see this kind of vulnerability in any populated areas of California,” MacDonald said.

But determined vandals are tough to deter. The FBI is investigating some dozen cuts to communications cables, most of them underground, in the Bay Area this year.

It’s unclear how copper thieves spotted the cable south of Ukiah because it’s in a fairly remote area and not visible from public roads. But area residents say people - including teens and transients - walk the tracks between Ukiah and Hopland. On Sunday, there were plastic water bottles and food wrappers scattered along the tracks, attesting to human visits.

Acts of vandalism to fiber cables demonstrate that multiple emergency communications systems need to be maintained, Van Patten said.

Police and fire officials last week scrambled to communicate with one another and maintain 911 services, which were largely functional. But it didn’t help the residents between Cloverdale and Del Norte County who had no phone service with which to contact 911 or simply find out what was going on.

Emergency responders found themselves utilizing old-time methods to communicate - things like vehicle and ham radios, along with deploying teams into the field - in the absence of working phone lines. Fire and law enforcement officials manned remote police and fire outposts to ensure assistance would be available if residents showed up seeking help, Van Patten said.

Officials relied largely on local radio stations to inform the sometimes panicked public about the situation. Van Patten said there may be a need to educate residents about tuning in their radios for information during emergencies rather than just checking Facebook or Twitter.

Van Patten agreed that backup fiber optic lines are needed but said he also believes emergency officials and residents need to be creative in their responses and to expect the unexpected.

“I don’t think you’re going to be 100 percent when it comes to communications,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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