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Amateurs Assist with Florida Fires

05/29/2008

Amateur Radio operators in Brevard County, Florida responded in a support role during a recent spate of wildfires that ravaged the towns of Palm Bay and Malabar. The fires, all of which were deemed "suspicious" by fire authorities, began on Sunday, May 11. Dubbed the "Mother's Day Fires," they burned close to 13,000 acres in southern Brevard County. Located about 25 miles east of Orlando, Brevard County is home to Kennedy Space Center, site of NASA's space shuttle launch area.

John Weatherly, AB4ET, and Clayton Bennett, KA4NHW, manned a 2 meter station in a shelter set up by the American Red Cross. Additionally, the Brevard Emergency Amateur Radio Services (BEARS) donated the use of their mobile command center to public safety agencies. The command vehicle, dubbed BEARS-I, was obtained through a $100,000 grant from the State of Florida. The interior was designed and built by a group of Amateur Radio operators from local Brevard County clubs that are members of BEARS. BEARS-I is outfitted with Brevard County 800 MHz public safety radios and amateur equipment.

BEARS-I was used as a command post in the weeklong operation. The Palm Bay Fire Department, the Palm Bay Police Department, ARES and Florida Power and Light manned the four operating positions. The unit was put in place at Bayside High School when the fires started; it was relocated the next day to the US Air Force tracking station that became the new command center, as well as the staging area for trucks and teams from other counties. BEARS-I was used as a self-contained command center around the clock for over five days

According to official sources, the Mother's Day fires destroyed more than 30 homes with an estimated value of $5.6 million, and damaged almost 250 residences. A man is in custody on three counts of intentional burning of lands after witnesses reported seeing him light several small fires one night that were quickly extinguished. According to authorities, the investigation continues into whether the suspect set all the fires, or if others were involved. -- Some information provided by Jan Heise, K4QD, and Dan Fisher, AI4GK



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