More than a dozen wildfires in Northern California have damaged or destroyed cellular telephone and Internet infrastructure in some areas, and Amateur Radio has been filling helping to fill the communication gap. Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman told news media on October 10 that damage to cell towers and fiber optic telephone phone and computer lines had left officials relying on Amateur Radio operators to communicate with area hospitals.
ARRL contacted a resident of the Willits area in Mendocino County, who confirmed to ARRL that ham radio operators are stationed at all North County hospitals and large nursing homes and are supplementing the county’s emergency communication system. She said cell and landline telephone service was out at her home, along with the fiber optic Internet connection, although the family has satellite Internet. Her husband, a radio amateur and Mendocino County emergency communications volunteer, has been staffing a station at Howard Memorial Hospital in Willits for 12 hours a day, and she has been able to monitor some fire-related traffic on her husband’s radio.
Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo issued a statement this week indicating that cell and Internet connections were down because of the Redwood Complex Fire, the northernmost of the fires. The Atlas Fire in Solano and Napa counties is the largest and most disastrous wildfire. It covers more than 42,300 acres and was only 3% contained as of October 11.
In Sonoma County, Sonoma County Radio Amateurs (SCRA) has been conducting an ARES Fire Watch Net to relay fire and emergency information on its repeater. Auxiliary Communication Service (ACS) Radio Officer Dan Ethen, WA6CRB, said a controlled Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services RACES/ACS net is also active. In Solano County, radio amateurs are reported to be supporting shelter operations.
The fast-moving, wind-driven blazes — 18 large fires in all, according to FEMA — have driven thousands from their homes, killed at least 2 dozen people, and destroyed more than 1,300 homes. FEMA said the fires cover some 150,000 acres in all. Some towns have been virtually leveled. Most of the wildfires are clustered around Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. According to FEMA, some 106,000 residents are under mandatory evacuation orders, more than 36,500 homes are threatened, and 59 Red Cross and independent shelters are open with 5,117 evacuees.
A state of emergency exists in Napa, Sonoma, Butte, Lake, Solano, Mendocino, Nevada, Orange, and Yuba counties. The California Emergency Operations Center is partially activated.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection mobile communications centers (MCCs) are equipped with Amateur Radio stations, but it’s not known if any hams have been deployed on any MCCs in the field for the current spate of wildfires.
ARRL East Bay Section Manager John Rabold, KS6M, said their thoughts are with the victims of the wildfire disaster to the north. “Many of us Amateur Radio licensees find ourselves wanting to help,” he said, advising that no one should self-deploy to the disaster area.
“Members of the public, including hams, should respond to the area only as recognized members of agencies who are active in the response or at the explicit request of those agencies,” he said. “At this point, the Red Cross has not made a request for support from the [East Bay and San Francisco] sections. However, disaster response continues.”
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