“It’s that fear of not having a cell phone to communicate with in an emergency, like it happened at Camp Fire,” Sherry Hawk said.
EL DORADO COUNTY, Calif. — Compounding concern over explosive wildfires in rural California, modern communications infrastructure has proven vulnerable in the event of a natural disaster.
“It’s that fear of not having a cell phone to communicate in an emergency, like happened at the campfire,” said El Dorado County resident Sherry Hawk, who is also a manager. of the Gold Ridge Forest Fire Safe Council.
The El Dorado County Amateur Radio Club came up with a new idea for an old communication technology – a neighborhood radio watch.
“It’s not a replacement for 911 or CODE RED or any of the other emergency services. It’s a backup communications system when all other systems fail,” said Alan Thompson, head of the club public information.
85 people died when the campfire engulfed the town of Paradise on November 8, 2018. Many victims never received a warning and cellphone service was cut off as tens of thousands of residents tried to evacuate immediately.
“People who were stuck in their cars were trying to call their loved ones, and their loved ones were trying to call them, but no one could get through,” Thompson said.
Thompson came up with the idea after working as a satellite internet technician in the area shortly after the fire.
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He said he realized then that rural areas needed something more resilient, like the proven technology of general mobile radio service. Its use requires an FCC license, but no technical knowledge, such as amateur or amateur radio.
“We started last spring with meetings and people were getting their licenses, buying radios and starting to participate,” said Hawk, who is a member of Pollock Pines-Camino Neighborhood Radio Watch, one of several geographic organizations operating in El Dorado. County.
The group erected a large radio repeater antenna last year on a ridge in Camino, increasing the range to 15, 20 or even 30 miles, according to Thompson.
The Amateur Radio Club also refurbishes old portable commercial radios once used by police and fire departments, providing them at cost to residents. Certain features can also be disabled, allowing residents to use them as easily and simply as possible in an emergency.
When the Caldor Fire broke out in August 2021, Sherry Hawk’s Pollock Pines-Camino neighborhood watch received its first major test. The fire burned the nearby town of Grizzly Flats and continued to the Tahoe Basin.
Her home was spared, but she was among thousands of people evacuated. She credits the network for helping her decide when to start preparing to leave.
“For me, it was soothing to know what was going on,” Hawk said. “And I can choke when it comes to that because it was a huge help in our community.”
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