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Ham Radio Bridging the Gap in Wildfire-Stricken California

10/12/2017

UPDATED: 2017-10-12 @ 1840 UTC] More than a dozen wildfires in Northern California have damaged or destroyed cellular telephone and Internet infrastructure in some areas, and Amateur Radio has helped to fill the communication gap. Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman told news media on October 10 that damage to cell towers and fiber optic telephone phone and computer lines had left officials relying on Amateur Radio operators to communicate with area hospitals.

ARRL contacted Robin Carter, a resident of the Willits area in Mendocino County, who confirmed to ARRL that ham radio operators until midweek were stationed at all North County hospitals and large nursing homes, supplementing the county’s emergency communication system. She said cell and landline telephone service was knocked out at her home, along with the fiber optic Internet connection, although the family has satellite Internet, and conventional Internet service was at least temporarily restored on Wednesday.

Her husband Mike Carter, KC6MGM, a Mendocino County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteer, had until Wednesday been staffing a station at Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits for 12 hours a day.

Radio amateurs also assisted with communication at Ukiah Valley Medical Center in Ukiah; Northbrook nursing home in Willits; the Mendocino Coast Hospital in Fort Bragg, and Red Cross shelters at Ukiah High School and Willits High School, Robin Carter said.

The Redwood Complex Fire, the northernmost of the fires, was responsible for the Mendocino County outages. The Atlas Fire in Solano and Napa counties is the largest and most disastrous wildfire. It covers more than 42,300 acres and was only 3% contained as of October 11.

In Sonoma County, Sonoma County Radio Amateurs (SCRA) has been conducting an ARES Fire Watch Net to relay fire and emergency information on its repeater. Auxiliary Communication Service (ACS) Radio Officer Dan Ethen, WA6CRB, said a controlled Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services RACES/ACS net is also active.

Steve Fischer, K6ETA, told ARRL that the Sonoma County ACS has been continuously supporting shelters in Petaluma since Monday morning, and an operator is at the area Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “I have personally worked 32 hours in the EOC since Monday, and expect to continue through Friday,” Fischer told ARRL. “Our efforts helped coordinate the delivery of over 500 cots, breakfasts from the Redwood Empire Food Bank, and many donation and volunteer offers.”

Radio amateurs are reported to be supporting shelter operations in Solano County as well.

The fast-moving, wind-driven blazes — 18 large fires in all, according to FEMA — have driven thousands from their homes, killed at least 2 dozen people, and destroyed more than 1,300 homes. FEMA said the fires cover some 150,000 acres in all. Some towns have been virtually leveled. Most of the wildfires are clustered around Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. According to FEMA, some 106,000 residents are under mandatory evacuation orders, more than 36,500 homes are threatened, and 59 Red Cross and independent shelters are open with 5,117 evacuees. 

A state of emergency exists in Napa, Sonoma, Butte, Lake, Solano, Mendocino, Nevada, Orange, and Yuba counties. The California Emergency Operations Center is partially activated.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection mobile communications centers (MCCs) are equipped with Amateur Radio stations, but it’s not known if any hams have been deployed on any MCCs in the field for the current spate of wildfires.

ARRL East Bay Section Manager John Rabold, KS6M, said their thoughts are with the victims of the wildfire disaster to the north. “Many of us Amateur Radio licensees find ourselves wanting to help,” he said, advising that no one should self-deploy to the disaster area.

“Members of the public, including hams, should respond to the area only as recognized members of agencies who are active in the response or at the explicit request of those agencies,” he said. “At this point, the Red Cross has not made a request for support from the [East Bay and San Francisco] sections. However, disaster response continues.”

  



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