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Sacramento Valley Area Hams Respond when Fires Sweep across Northern California

07/09/2008

With the California fires show little signs of lightening up, ARRL Sacramento Valley Section Manager Ron Murdock, W6KJ, says that ARES members in his Section are actively involved in supporting the agencies they serve. According to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), more than 330 fires covering almost 200,000 acres are active in the Sacramento Valley Section. While most fires are at least 50 percent contained, some are less than 30 percent under control.

According to Murdock, too little rainfall over the winter and hot, dry winds contributed to the fires' fast spread. Due to the weather conditions, ARRL Sacramento Valley Section Emergency Coordinator Richard Cloyd, WO6P, put ARES leadership on a standby alert in early June. "On June 11, a fire started that eventually consumed 24,000 acres," said Murdock. This fire, called the Humboldt Fire, burned for almost one week. "At mid-June, our wildlands -- so full of tinder dry fuel -- began to burn. Fire threatened the City of Paradise in Butte County for several days. Paradise doesn't have many evacuation routes, so when people returned to their homes, they had a new appreciation for evacuation plans." According to CAL FIRE Public Information Officer Mary Ann Aldrich, no cause has been determined for this fire which destroyed 74 residences and damaged 20.

The high winds soon dissipated, but then dry thunderstorms -- storms with very little rain but lots of lightning strikes -- made their way to the area. "First we heard of over 400, then 800, then over 1000 wildland fires. People in other mountain communities were advised, and then directed, to evacuate their homes and seek shelters set up by Red Cross," Murdock said.

With activation requests from both the Paradise Emergency Operations Center and the American Red Cross, Butte County Emergency Coordinator Steve Kaps, N6NPN, opened the ARES net on the Golden Empire ARS W6RHC Repeater. Murdock said that it was opened first as a precautionary measure, but as the shelters opened, help was needed. Paradise residents Chuck Orgovan, KF6YKQ, and Anna Horn, KG6ZOA, manned the shelter at a local school. "The W6RHC repeater did not have good coverage in the shelter area, so we relayed communications between the shelter and Kaps (who was running the Net Control Station) via the Sutter County WD6AXM repeater and we were able to make things work. Placing a better antenna at the shelter seemed to help for a while, but eventually operations shifted entirely to the WD6AXM repeater," Murdock said.

Cloyd relayed information to Murdock that shelters in other parts of the area were being opened: "I told Red Cross in Yuba City. They realized they did not know where and when these other shelters were opening. We then opened KG6WGQ -- the club station at the Three Rivers Chapter of the American Red Cross in Yuba City -- so that we had a better chance of communicating with the multiple outlying shelters. Since the station was to be open when the ARC response group was operating, we had to work in shifts, so we went to three 5 hour shifts per day for a week. At one point, Ken Miller, KF6JRE, volunteered to take a shift in Yuba City from his home in West Sacramento."

A radio and power supply at KG6WGQ had to be replaced; luckily, Herb Puckett, W6HBU, had an extra one in his go-kit. Paul Johnson, N6XVL, developed a list of volunteers to staff all the shifts for the Red Cross operation. "We were in the process of scheduling relief for Butte County operators on the evening of June 27, when the Red Cross decided to move from Yuba City to Chico to better use the resources they had in place," Murdock said. "At that point, further Net operation by ARES was not needed and so it was suspended for the weekend." On Monday morning June 30, fire suppression efforts were making headway and most of the sheltered population was allowed to return home.

On Sunday, June 29, Yuba/Sutter Emergency Coordinator Art Craigmill, K6ALC, heard a fire call on his scanner. "The location was nearby so he gathered his equipment and went to check on the situation," Murdock said. "On his way there, he saw another fire -- this one at a home construction site -- and notified the incident commander." Craigmill took action to stop the spread of this new fire. "Thankfully, the home had water pressure, and this aided Art in his firefighting efforts until the engine company arrived to put it out."

Throughout the Sacramento Valley Section and beyond, smoke from wild fires dangerously contaminated the air with particulate matter. "The air stank of smoke and things burned. With air quality values as bad as we have seen them in 25 years, many clubs in the section had to cancel their Field Day operations," Murdock said. "First to do so was the Nevada County Amateur Radio Club. Not only did they not get to do Field Day, but their site -- the Nevada County Fairgrounds -- was used as a fire fighting staging area." The Golden Empire Amateur Radio Society in Chico and the Yuba-Sutter Amateur Radio Club also cancelled their respective Field Day operations, due to poor air quality. Murdock said that both clubs had many members who manned ARES shifts during this emergency.

The Oroville Amateur Radio Society had many operators involved in the shelter operation. Bill Cross, K6DYT, volunteered as an animal shelter worker. Virginia Paschke, KI6COL, deployed to Butte County from her home in Sutter County, also helped out at the animal shelter. According to Murdock, Paschke got her Amateur Radio license last year for this very reason: The domestic animal rescue group provides assurance for people who need to evacuate that they can do so without leaving their pets behind. It speeds the evacuation process and keeps people from getting into more dangerous situations.

CAL FIRE's Aldrich said that this fire complex originally had many fires: "We started with 38, but 15 of the fires merged together so now we are down to 11 fires covering 27,600 acres." She said that lightning caused these fires. Two residences have been destroyed so far by fires in this cluster.

Murdock said that many of the clubs that held a Field Day event could see a slight clearing of the thick smoke that plagued more northern locations: "It serves as a reminder that fires remain burning and that we should all remain ready for the next phase of this emergency."



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