[Updated 2018 November 13 @ 1024 UTC] Amateur Radio volunteers have been active or are standing by on several fronts as wildfires continue to rage in large sections of California.
In Butte County, in Northern California, the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire, triggered a call up of ARES members for communication support. A small wildfire that started in a mountainous area of Butte County quickly grew to some 20,000 acres, due to high winds and gusts of more than 50 MPH. Evacuations were ordered by the county, and eventually more than 25,000 people were evacuated. As multiple shelters opened to assist the evacuees, five Sacramento Valley ARES groups were called out to support communication between the Red Cross Disaster Operations Center (DOC) and the shelters.
The uncontrolled wildfire eventually consumed the town of Paradise, and the town of 27,000 residents has been devastated. As of November 13, the Camp Fire covered some 125,000 acres, and more than 40 people had died, many while escaping the fires or trapped in their homes. More than 7,600 structures have been destroyed. An additional 15,500 residences are in danger.
Utilizing mutual assistance, more than 20 ARES members from five ARES groups are supporting the shelters. ARES members have also been tasked by Red Cross to shadow Red Cross delivery vehicles to provide communication in the mountain areas to the shelters.
ARES communication at the shelters has been carried out using voice, Winlink, and email to pass shelter counts, and tactical messages between the shelter and the Red Cross Disaster Operations Center and Cal Office of Emergency Services.
The Red Cross is supporting ARES at the shelters with hot spots and backup radios.
Working 12-hour shifts, Sacramento Valley Section District Emergency Coordinator 3 Michael Joseph, KK6GZB, has been staffing the Red Cross radio station as net control for the DOC, passing messages and tracking ARES personnel. Sacramento ARES members have been pitching in as needed. Joseph also has been coordinating ARES deployments as needed.
The Woolsey Fire that swept through the westernmost portion of Los Angeles County, including Malibu, and the easternmost area of Ventura County in the ARRL Santa Barbara Section, requiring the evacuation of more than 200,000 Los Angeles County residents — an unprecedented amount in recent decades. Evacuees included several celebrities, several of whom lost homes in the fire. Nearly 50 people have died in all fires.
“Nevertheless, governmental radio systems used by fire and sheriff held up well, even though cell phone and internet service went out in many fire areas because of burned utility poles,” Los Angeles Section Manager Diana Feinberg, AI6DF. “Evacuees went to areas where cell phone service was generally available.”
Feinberg said Los Angeles ARES (ARES LAX) has not been activated because no county hospitals are in the affected area and no hospital outside the fire zone was in danger of losing communication. She added, though, that a sizable team of ARES LAX operators organized by LAX-Northwest District Emergency Coordinator Roozy Moabery, W1EH, did extensive logistics work over the November 10 – 11 weekend at a major drop-off site in the San Fernando Valley for evacuee supplies. ARES team members worked with other volunteers to accept nearly 10 tons of pet food, plus thousands of boxes of items such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, conditioner, razors, lotion, feminine products, and sunscreen, as well as baby food, formula, diapers, and wipes, towels and bedding, snacks, and non-perishable food items, Feinberg said.
On the air for the Woolsey Fire, both the Los Angeles County Disaster Communications Service (DCS) — Amateur Radio volunteers overseen by the Sheriff’s Department — and the City of Los Angeles Fire Department Auxiliary Communication Service (ACS) operated nets and monitored their respective frequencies. “The DCS group at Lost Hills Sheriff Station covers most of the Los Angeles County areas affected by the Woolsey Fire and communicated with organized amateurs in the cities of Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Hidden Hills, Malibu, Westlake Village, and unincorporated mountain areas when not affected by respective mandatory evacuation orders,” Feinberg said. “The City of Los Angeles’ ACS group was involved when the city’s West Hills neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley became the fire’s northeastern front, forcing about half the West Hills community to evacuate.”
Feinberg said ACS members have also been involved with delivering food and water supplies to LAFD firefighters and performing fire patrols. American Red Cross volunteers are reported to be using Amateur Radio in connection with some of their fire response activities, Feinberg reported. The Woolsey Fire covers nearly 100,000 acres and was reported 36% contained as of November 13.
ARES members in the Los Angeles and other ARRL California Sections will be heavily involved on Thursday, November 15, during the 2018 California Statewide Healthcare and Medical Exercise. ARES LAX plans to operate from most of the 73 hospitals in Los Angeles County that have emergency rooms, as well as at the county’s Medical Alert Center that coordinates hospital bed availability. — Thanks to Diana Feinberg, AI6DF