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Colorado Hams Provide Disaster Communications During Wildfires

07/05/2012

Thanks to an extremely dry season, portions of Colorado have been ravaged by wildfires. As of July 5, only a handful of the fires are considered extinguished or fully contained, with the majority considered still active. According to InciWeb, almost 170,000 acres are affected by 11 active fires. Since June 9 -- when the High Park Fire, the first of the wildfires began -- hams in Colorado have been assisting with disaster communications, providing communications support to the State and served agencies.

Randy Long, K7AVV, of Masonville, told the Denver Post in an article published June 14, that beginning June 10, he “he has been managing operators staffing eight-hour shifts around the clock. [The hams have been] doing such things as setting up portable radio repeaters and relaying messages between the fire lines and command posts. About 40 operators have volunteered [to help provide communications support].”

Along with Long, Robert Wareham, N0ESQ and a handful of ARES volunteers reported to the National Guard Armory in Fort Collins as the High Park fire encircled the Buckhorn and Horsetooth mountains, the sites for some of the public safety communications towers for Larimer County. “These are the kind of things we train for day in and day out,” Wareham told the Denver Post. “We just want to keep the people in this county safe.” The paper reported that there are about 50 repeater sites located in the mountains.

Shortly after the High Park broke out, radio amateurs in Estes Park and Fort Collins were called upon to help provide communications support to the American Red Cross. Hams set up antennas and a crossband repeater to provide communications from Red Cross Headquarters in Estes Park to their facilities at the fire base, as well as to a Red Cross evacuation center that had been set up at a local high school.

ARRL Colorado Section Manager Jack Ciaccia, WM0G, and ARRL Boulder County Emergency Coordinator Allen Bishop, K0ARK, were returning from the High Park Fire on June 26 when they were notified that Boulder County Office of Emergency Management had activated ARES for another fire, the Flagstaff Fire. According to Ciaccia, a lightning strike had hit just west of Boulder, causing a 20 acre that had spread to 230 acres in only 30 minutes, due to high winds.

“The Boulder Office of Emergency Management wanted Boulder County ARES (BCARES) positions manned at the Emergency Operations Center,” Ciaccia told the ARRL. “They also wanted to send additional operators to video positions and set up packet and voice communications at a local school noted, as it would serve as the evacuation center. We set up a resource net on the local Boulder Amateur Radio Club repeater and assigned a Net Control Station to set up there.”

Ciaccia said that within one hour, ATV hams with BCARES had a video camera set up, while other hams at the evacuation center team had set up packet communications, providing data and video, as well as 2 meter FM voice communications. “Another net was up and running simultaneously on our operations repeater, with another Net Control Station working at the EOC,” he explained. “Other portable video positions were fully operational by the end of two hours. Our live video feeds were up on the huge video screens at the EOC, allowing the entire emergency staff to see helitankers and US Forest Service bomber aircraft making fire retardant drops. They could also see the fire live from the backside, which was not otherwise visible without our portable ATV teams live video feeds. When the Type I federal fire teams showed up to determine whether the fire would escalate to their level, they noticed the live video feeds at the EOC and made special trips to our field video sites. They were unaware that a TV resource was available that could be used for their purposes and were quite pleased at that capability and wanted us to continue operations if it escalated to a Type I.” The fire never grew beyond 300 acres and it remained at a Type II level.”

“The served agencies -- the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office and their Office of Emergency Management -- were extremely pleased that we responded so fast and so well,” Ciaccia told the ARRL. “Joe Pelle, the Boulder County Sheriff, made it a point to stop by and thank us, as did Mike Chard, the Director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.”



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