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Amateur Radio Volunteers Face Fire Threat While Supporting Emergency Communication

08/26/2015

[UPDATED 2015-08-27 1620 UTC] The North-Central Washington town of Republic touts “air you can’t see” on its website. That’s not the case today. Wildfires in the US Northwest have not only hampered the air quality and visibility, but led to a Level 2 evacuation order in the Ferry County community of about 1000 residents. That could rise to Level 3. Amateur Radio volunteers in Ferry County have been on the front lines of the wildfire emergency there. In Republic, a combination of Ferry County Search and Rescue (SAR), Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), and ARES/RACES volunteers have been supporting communication for a shelter housing some 4 dozen evacuees — with more to come, according to Ferry County ARES Emergency Coordinator and RACES Radio Officer Sam Jenkins, WA7EC.

“We are now close to our maximum support level for local volunteers,” Jenkins told State RACES Officer Monte Simpson, AF7PQ, who also is ARRL Western Washington Section Manager. “We are now expecting to operate for several weeks at the Republic High School. The firefighters say they are going to attempt to defend our emergency operations center/emergency shelter at all costs,” Jenkins added. “We are standing our ground.”

In addition to being the Ferry County ARES EC and RACES RO, Jenkins explained, he also heads the SAR component of the dual Ferry County SAR-CERT contingent. “I have networked these three units together over time to increase the effectiveness of our small, poor, but valiant teams,” he told ARRL.

Firefighters from several states and British Columbia, Canada, have been working the Kettle Complex of three fires in Ferry County, which covered nearly 60,000 acres as of August 26. No injuries have occurred and no homes have been lost. Support teams from the Washington National Guard are assisting fire managers to ensure safety. West of Republic near Omak, the Okanogan Complex at more than 280,000 acres is now the largest fire complex in the state’s history.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), wildfires continue to burn actively across the West. The NIFC reports that 66 large fires — or complexes — have burned nearly 1.6 million acres in 11 states. Twelve fires are burning in Washington alone.

Jenkins said his team of volunteers would like to have additional support, but, he told Simpson, “I would expect that it is asking a lot for anyone to leave the comfort of their home to travel to a place where the smoke is so thick you can cut it with a knife, and not know if they would escape.”

Radio amateurs responding to the wildfire emergencies have been using VHF repeaters as well as HF on 75 and 40 meters, including SSB and digital modes, and IRLP.

“We are doing our best at doing our thing,” Jenkins said. “I am concerned about what is happening in our sister counties.”



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