ARRL San Francisco Section Manager Bill Hillendahl, KH6GJV, says the message he stresses during the weekly Sonoma County Radio Amateurs (SCRA) ARES net is this: “When an incident occurs, take to the air and form a net. Anyone can act as net control.” Radio amateurs took that lesson to heart, he said, in the wake of the devastating, destructive, and deadly wildfires in Northern California this past week.
“They have performed admirably,” Hillendahl told ARRL. “I hung in at my home, providing Internet, commercial radio and TV, and NIXLE updates to the net until the fire came close enough to see the flames above the trees at about 5:30 Monday morning.”
“The Tubbs Fire came to within 2 blocks of my home, but stopped on its own with no fire equipment on it at the time,” Hillendahl said. “I bugged out with the two cats.”
Hillendahl said that while he has since returned home periodically over the past few days, there is no phone or internet. He’s been using a local Wi-Fi hotspot.
The County of Sonoma RACES/ACS (Auxiliary Communications Service) has been running a net, along with the SCRA FireWatch and ACS nets. Hillendahl said he’s hearing mostly informational traffic, as public safety and business radio systems are holding up.
Hillendahl said news media are reporting between 70 and 80 cell sites lost or down, and his own cell service is spotty at best. “Even text messages have been difficult to get through,” he said. “My text on Tuesday morning to fellow ARISS Telebridge operator Tim Bosma, W6MU, an evacuee too, wasn’t received for 8 hours. The cell companies are scrambling to get service more normal and have done a good job.”
“I’m proud of the Amateur Radio response in Sonoma County,” Hillendahl said. “They rose to the occasion, and are still operating. We are not out of this yet.”
Gary Gross, KE6QR, speaking for the North Bay Amateur Radio Association in Vallejo, California, and its role in the response, said the Office of Emergency Services (OES) put out a call for communication support on October 11. “An additional call for communications was requested from Napa CERT [Community Emergency Radio Team],” he told ARRL. “We were asked to provide communications between three shelters — one in American Canyon and two in Napa. There was no cell service in one, and very poor service in the other two.”
Gross said a communications link was established at a moment’s notice on the 442.425 repeater, with a cross-band link to VHF simplex. The three-way link connected Crossroads Church shelter in Napa, Napa Community College, and American Canyon High School.
Powell Helems, KK6YVV, and Mary Tabbert, KM6JCP — also working with American Canyon CERT — were instrumental in establishing the shelter with communications and logistics at American Canyon High School, Gross said, while Matthew Pearce, KA6ACE, established communications at the Crossroads Church in Napa. Pearce had been contacted directly by Napa CERT requesting assistance.
“Chris Jones, KD7TQO, trustee of the 442.425 and 145.310 K6LI repeaters, established cross-band repeater links in the field and kept communications going while he manned the shelter at Napa Community College,” Gross reported.
He said Vincent Bartning, KK6YRA, and Jennifer Gross, KI6ARW, assisted with communications at emergency shelters while he provided logistical help from home. “On the afternoon of October 12, cell service returned to normal, and our operations were curtailed until further needs arise,” Gross said. He noted that the Silverado Amateur Radio Society has been active on 441.800 for the duration of the fire.
According to Sacramento Valley Section Emergency Coordinator Greg Kruckewitt, KG6SJT, Butte County Emergency Coordinator Dale Anderson, KK6EVX, reported that radio amateurs deployed on October 9 to a Red Cross shelter in Oroville. They are set up for VHF, to monitor public service frequencies, and for Winlink. Shelter status reports are being sent to the California Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES), via Winlink. The Oroville shelter was opened for evacuees from the Cherokee, Lobo, Cascade, Bangor, and Loma Rica fires. As of Friday, October 13, Butte County ARES operators continue to provide support for the shelter.
Wowing the Red Cross
In Nevada County, radio amateurs deployed to a shelter that opened to accept evacuees from the McCourtney Fire. Nevada County Emergency Coordinator Richard Vizcarra, K6TM, said need for the shelter is winding down, but the Red Cross has invited those Amateur Radio volunteers to support its efforts. At one point the shelter had more than 80 evacuees.
Vizcarra said, “The Red Cross was very impressed with the communication abilities we demonstrated, and immediately had several ideas of how it could be used to eliminate unnecessary legwork for communication in emergency situations.” The shelter team was able to send and receive messages via Winlink on VHF. Jason Eaton, KJ6HNP, demonstrated Amateur Radio’s messaging capabilities. The radio amateurs handled health-and-welfare and other message requests.
In Amador County, ARES Emergency Coordinator Daniel Edwards, KJ6WYW, told Kruckewitt that the Red Cross requested ARES support at a shelter in Pioneer for Calaveras County residents. Edwards set up a temporary net control station using a 2-meter mobile radio, working through the K6ARC repeater. “Nancy Edwards, KK6CZG, provided additional relay support from our home as well as providing alternate net control when I needed to step away,” Edwards said.
Contact was made with the Calaveras County CERT Team, and the Red Cross opened a shelter in West Point. Communication was set up at the shelter by Guy Johnstone, KK6VQY, using an HT until a more permanent station could be set up with VHF and UHF capabilities. Several volunteers stepped up to staff the station until the need for the shelter ended.
Shelter status reports were relayed by voice to Kruckewitt, who sent them on via Winlink to Cal OES — Thanks to Bill Hillendahl, KH6GJV, Gary Gross, KE6QR, and Greg Kruckewitt, KG6SJT
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