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New Mexico Hams Provide Communications Support During Wildfires

07/26/2011

One month after it began, the Las Conchas Fire -- New Mexico’s largest fire on record -- has burned almost 157,000 acres and is 90 percent contained. The fire, which began on June 26, is believed to have been human set. The next day, the fire threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, forcing the evacuation of the entire town of Los Alamos. The American Red Cross established two shelters, one in Pojoaque and another in Espanola, both north of Santa Fe. During the evacuation, the Santa Fe ARES® (SFARES) Group placed itself on alert.

On June 28, the American Red Cross requested communication support at the two shelters due to a lack of landline telephones in the shelters, as well as poor cell phone coverage and quality. The New Mexico State Emergency Operations Center activated the Santa Fe and Los Alamos ARES® Groups that morning. It requested the SFARES® Group to establish a communication post at the shelter in Pojoaque, while the Los Alamos ARES® (LAARES) Group was asked to establish a similar capability at the Espanola shelter. Both communication posts were directed to utilize the VHF 2 meter repeater (146.82 MHz) on Tesuque Peak. This repeater allowed both Shelter communication posts to communicate with each other, as well as with the State EOC, south of Santa Fe.

SFARES members responded to the activation and established a communication post within 45 minutes of the activation. SFARES members developed a continuing watch that was manned from 7 AM until 10 PM. Although the start and stop times varied a little based on Red Cross requirements, SFARES members maintained the communication post until July 2 when it was placed in a standby status by the State EOC. The LAARES Group maintained the same continuing watch at the Espanola shelter. During the activation, LAARES members were also displaced from their homes, due to the mandatory evacuation from Los Alamos.

“While message traffic normally concerned health and welfare and originated by the Red Cross, there were requests from the State EOC and from the Incident Commanders staff,” said SFARES Emergency Coordinator Don Hinsman, N4VIP. “All traffic was logged according to normal ARES® procedures and responses to all requests were obtained. Due to external demands on LAARES members, SFARES Group members augmented the Espanola shelter.”

Hinsman, along with ARRL State Assistant Section Manager Bill Boedecker, NM5BB, and ARRL Santa Fe and San Miguel County District Emergency Coordinator William Beardsley, KE5ZAV, found they needed digital transfer capability between the Pojoaque shelter and the State EOC.

“On June 30, Alex Kent, NM5AK, utilized the VHF 2 meter repeater on Pajarito Peak to transfer test messages to and from the shelter to the State EOC using MT-63 mode in FLDIGI and FLMSG,” Hinsman told the ARRL. “All test messages were received with 100 percent copy. The Pajarito Peak repeater is located within the active fire boundary of the Las Conchas Fire. This repeater functioned continuously during the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000. It is powered by solar panels and is not susceptible to landline power losses. Pajarito Peak is one of five repeaters maintained by the Santa Fe Amateur Radio Club (SFARC); the Tesuque Peak repeater is another. SFARC members noticed a less than optimum performance on Tesuque Repeater, so Alan Hill, N5BGC, and John Spiess, KB5ZQE, went to Tesuque Peak on July 2 to repair the SFARC repeater system. The repeater had 20 W forward and 10 W reflected, which is not acceptable. They replaced a 50 foot section of coax, resulting in a new reading of 20 W forward and 0 W reflected. This repair was coordinated through the State EOC during the communication support. No loss of communications was experienced during the repair and a better repeater was available after the repair.”

As of July 26, the Las Conchas fire had destroyed 63 homes and 49 outbuildings. On July 23, a National Incident Management Team (NIMO) took over management of the Las Conchas fire suppression efforts from the Northern Rockies National Incident Management Team. “The NIMO Team will continue management of the Las Conchas fire and assigned resources until the fire is declared contained,” the US Forest Service declared on its Las Conchas Fire website. “The fire has been divided into four branches and local fire suppression resources from the ranger districts, Bandelier National Monument, and Valles Caldera National Preserve will form Task Forces of firefighters, engines and water tenders. Each Branch will continue to mop-up hot spots, patrol the fire perimeter, and complete remaining fireline suppression rehabilitation.” More than 130 people have been involved in fighting the fire. According to the USFS, four helicopters, 18 fire engines, two water tankers and three bulldozers are assisting in fighting the fire.

“The response by LAARES and SFARES Groups is another excellent example of how Amateur Radio operators provide support in times of emergency,” Hinsman said. The following hams helped provide communications support: K5RVR, K5SDC, K5YDX, KB5ZQE, KD5IRG, KD8QAQ, KE5ZAV, KJ5KU, KM5HH, N4VIP, N5BGC, N5EYS, N5UJT, N5XDF, N6ZZT, NM5AK, NM5BB, NM5RW, W4KYM and W5UO.



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