When the Babb Road Fire destroyed Malden and Pine City last year, the firefighters were the first group of people on the scene.

Right behind them were Ziply Fiber employees, said Ryan Luckin, vice president of marketing for Ziply Fiber.

The internet service provider’s role in responding to wildfires was a point of discussion as Ziply Fiber officials toured northern Idaho and eastern Washington cities Thursday, including Moscow.

As the phone company and data provider for Malden, Ziply Fiber needed to be there to ensure there was connectivity for the residents and first responders, Luckin said.

In the following days, they also used their backup generators to make outlets available to the residents.

“They hadn’t charged their devices in days and in some cases that was their first chance to connect with the outside world,” he said. “Folks were watching the news and wondering, ‘I wonder if so-and-so is OK?’”

The employees also decided to make their central office in Malden a Wi-Fi hotspot to help people get messages to their families.

After going through that experience, Luckin said Ziply Fiber realized it should prepare to take the same action this year as the risk of wildfires continues to increase.

“It really becomes a central resource in those days, hours after something really tragic has happened,” he said.

Ziply Fiber, after acquiring Frontier Communications’ Northwest operations in 2020, has expanded its footprint across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, including into rural areas.

This week, Ziply Fiber officials have met with customers to discuss their broadband experience.

Harold Zeitz, CEO of Ziply Fiber, said they have built fiber optic lines in an additional 70,000 locations, including rural cities like Moscow, Potlatch and Orofino.

“We don’t think you need to live in a big city to have the best internet experience possible,” he said.

It has expanded fiber to 10 different markets in Idaho and is continuing to build more.

Over the next several months, they will finish building out fiber in Pullman, he said.

Zeitz said Ziply Fiber’s goal is to build fiber at a faster pace, and it is partnering with states and cities to do so.

The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, highlighted the need to make fiber more widely available.

“We think it reinforced what we were intending to do and maybe made it so that it seemed more obvious and more appropriate,” he said.

Luckin said the pandemic shined a light on the digital divide between rural and urban communities.

He said Ziply Fiber officials heard stories about parents in Orofino driving their children to the library to access the Wi-Fi so they could participate in their online learning.

“That’s that digital divide that we have to close,” he said.

Kuipers can be reached at akuipers@dnews.com.

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