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Hams in Australia Assist with Massive Brushfires

02/18/2009

In the Australian state of Victoria, Amateur Radio operators have been activated to provide communications links into towns that have had their normal communications destroyed by the bushfires that have decimated the state. Members of the Wireless Institute Civil Emergency Network in Victoria (WICEN (Vic)) -- Australia's version of ARESĀ® -- were activated on February 8, with members being deployed to areas with loss of power and other facilities.

According to the Wireless Institute of Australia (WIA) -- that country's IARU Member-Society -- authorities and resources in Victoria have been "stretched to the limit." WICEN has been on high alert since the fires started on January 28. On February 11, WICEN (Vic) Secretary Mark Dods, VK3XMU, said, "It now appears that WICEN's role in this emergency is going to be a long hard marathon over an extended period."

The fires -- some of which are believed to have been deliberately set, while at least one fire began due to a lightning strike -- have so far claimed 201 lives, including one firefighter; local police say they do not expect the death toll to go much higher. Covering more than 1100 square miles, the fires have destroyed more than 1800 homes; officials estimate at least 7500 people are now homeless due to the fires. Victoria Premier John Brumby, in speaking about the brushfires, said, "Out there, it is hell on earth."

On February 12, Dods said that "WICEN was given the task of establishing a link between Narbethong and the Municipal Emergency Coordination Centre in Alexandra. Initially, the Narbethong-Alexandra link will be on HF. The two WICEN operators that were on standby for deployment to Buxton have been dispatched to Alexandra to join a column that will be moving down the Maroondah Highway to Narbethong this afternoon. An extra WICEN operator is being deployed to the Alexandra MECC to assist the operator already there with expected extra traffic from Narbethong Three WICEN operators are now working 8 hour shifts at the Alexandra Incident Command Centre (ICC), operating CFA/DSE radios. We will be providing operators for this task until further notice."

Dods said hams would make "temporary repairs" to VK3RTN, the 6 meter repeater on Mt Gordon, making it usable until they can get and install a new repeater. The Mt Gordon repeater is being used as a link between Alexandra and Narbethong. The WICEN station in Narbethong closed Saturday, February 14. "The Alexandra WICEN station will continue to operate after the closure of Narbethong," Dods said. "Their role includes guiding relief operators into the town, maintaining an HF link to Melbourne and a listening watch. Operators in the Alexandra ICC have reported increased radio traffic overnight and emphasised the need for concise, prompt and accurate handling of the traffic despite the sometimes tense environment."

Dods recounted that there was what he called a "flurry of activity" on the evening of February 14: "WICEN received a request from DSE [Department of Sustainability and Environment] to provide operators at Woori Yallock ICC. We were asked to cover the night shift last night and the next four nights. Being a Saturday night, it was difficult to contact operators with many being not at home, and others having their mobile phones diverted to voice mail. Two operators agreed to be deployed at short notice, however. They travelled to Woori Yallock only to find that there had been an administrative foul-up and that they were not required. Those operators have returned home with my thanks and apologies. This false start at Woori Yallock does give us a 'heads up' that DSE and CFA [Country Fire Authority] resources may be beginning to stretch thin, and lead to more ICC deployments."

On February 17, Dods said that two WICEN operators will be going to "McAdam's Hill, east of Lake Mountain, to provide health and welfare communications for the firefighters at a Base Camp being set up there. Initially, the primary operating frequency will be 3.6 MHz, so there may well be a need for stations monitoring that frequency to relay traffic. Deployment of a portable 2m repeater to support the McAdam's Hill station is under consideration."

The WICEN HF Net continues to operate on 3.6 MHz at 1000 and 2130 hours (UTC + 11) daily. "As well as keeping a check on the welfare of operators in the field, the Net is being used to pass updated activation information, and also for amateurs in remote areas of the state to check their communications," Dods said. "It is reassuring to hear stations from all over the state and interstate on the Net, demonstrating that we can if necessary establish communications independent of hilltop infrastructure. It has been very handy to have other amateurs monitoring 3.6 MHz when they can to relay when fading occurs. Many thanks to those operators who have relayed traffic so far."

Dennis Dura, K2DCD, ARRL Emergency Preparedness and Response Manager said: "The work the Australian hams have been doing and the issues WICEN have been facing are not unlike what ARES personnel encounter here. The long hours and duration of the disaster response and the dwindling availability of amateur volunteers take a toll. Yet Amateur Radio still is able to complete the mission. The flexibility we bring is key to meeting the emergency communications needs of those the amateur community serves. Our hearts go out to all those that have lost loved ones and whose lives have been forever changed by these fires. Our colleagues in WICEN make the Amateur Radio community proud in the work they are performing in these very difficult conditions."



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