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Hams Provide Communications Support During West Texas Wildfires

04/14/2011

On April 9 at 4:15 PM (CDT), ARRL West Texas District 5 Emergency Coordinator Bob Ward, WA5ROE, received a call from Jeff Davis County (Texas) Fire Marshal Stewart Billingsley, N5HXZ. Billingsley informed Ward that a fire had begun in the West Texas town of Marfa and was rapidly approaching Fort Davis, 22 miles to the northeast.

“Stewart asked me to call the National Weather Service to get it on the alert system, as well as the AM and FM radio stations in Alpine,” Ward told the ARRL. “He wanted it broadcast over the radio stations that he needed the Mano Prieto and Fort Davis Estates sub-divisions evacuated. People in the area know that when an emergency happens, they need to tune into these stations for the latest information. This was the Rock House Fire. At the same time, another fire, the Roper Fire, had started on the eastern edge of Alpine.”

Ward contacted the NWS and the radio stations and then put out a call on 2 meters, asking for Alpine amateurs to report to the Emergency Operations Center in Brewster County. “When I arrived, ARRL Brewster County Emergency Coordinator David Cockrum, N5DO, and Brewster County Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Santry were there. Tom asked us to activate a net on the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club repeater system.”

Ward said that a ham was dispatched to Jeff Davis County -- 26 miles to the northwest -- to assist ARRL Jeff Davis County Emergency Coordinator Jim Fowler, KD5KBU: “Jim, in addition to being the EC for Jeff Davis County, is also with their fire department, so he was dealing with a lot of things. We also sent hams to assist at the Alpine Police Department and the dispatch in Brewster County, as well as at the radio stations. Due to the fire, there was no electricity or phone service, so hams at the police department and dispatch handled traffic. The ham at the radio station received messages from the Emergency Operations Center in Brewster County concerning public safety, highway closures and evacuations to be broadcast over the air.”

Ward explained that later that day, the repeater system was linked to the West Texas repeater system to handle traffic for the American Red Cross. “We also provided phone patches for American Electric Power, the local electric company, as they came in to install a large generator to supply power to the Fort Davis area,” he said. “We finally secured our net at noon on April 11.”

As of April 13, the 30,000 acre Roper Fire is completely contained, but the 108,000 acre Rock House Fire is only 60 percent contained. According to Terry Allison, K5TDA, a firefighter in Alpine, about 30 houses and two businesses in Fort Davis were destroyed by the fire, while two houses in Marfa were destroyed. County, State and Federal firefighters are in control of the operation and no further Amateur Radio involvement has been requested.



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