Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club members kept a close watch on the Thomas Fire after it broke out in early December. Using a variety of the club’s analog and digital Amateur Radio assets, radio operators were able to observe fire-fighting efforts first hand and pass along immediate information, often before it was reported by official sources or by local news media. SBARC operates five communication sites in Santa Barbara County, including sites on Diablo Peak on the mostly uninhabited Santa Cruz Island, and on Santa Ynez Peak.
“These two sites host [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] ADS-B receivers that are connected via a combination of amateur microwave IP links and mesh networking and were used to track and monitor airborne firefighting activities,” Levi Maaia, K6LCM, co-chair of SBARC’s Telecommunications Services Committee, told ARRL.
Starting in mid-December, a round-the-clock emergency net convened on 2-meters, as commercial power for much of Santa Barbara County was cut and the fire descended on residential communities in Santa Barbara County, prompting multiple evacuation orders. With repeaters on generator power and many operators running on battery power, net traffic consisted of official information, including evacuation orders, live reports on the rapidly approaching fire line from operators who remained inside the mandatory evacuation area, related traffic about firefighting efforts, and wind and weather conditions. SBARC volunteers set up an ad hoc remote receiving station to stream live fire ground and air communications audio over the Internet and mesh network.
As fire crews came off duty, one firefighter and Amateur Radio operator joined the net to offer a firsthand account of operations from an insider’s perspective. SBARC members also assisted visiting fire crew members with mobile radio antenna repairs in the field.
Maaia said social media proved to be a valuable communication asset, as most official organizations such as incident command and emergency management agencies were disseminating official information via Twitter immediately upon release. “Amateur stations without power, cell phone or Internet access could be kept informed of important information including evacuation orders, via the Amateur Radio net,” Maaia explained. “SBARC also served as an aggregator for Thomas Fire-related information by featuring tweets on the club website.”
The still-burning Thomas Fire, the largest in modern California history, caused devastating losses in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. “Although the Santa Barbara ARES group never activated, Amateur Radio proved to be a valuable mode of communication, especially when coupled with social media, amateur mesh networking, IRC chat (over mesh and Internet) and live audio streaming,” Maaia said.
In Ventura County, the Thomas Fire damaged or destroyed some Amateur Radio resources normally available to provide emergency communication. It was an Amateur Radio TV camera that caught the first images of the Thomas Fire on December 4. A fund-raising effort now is under way to help a repeater system operator to replace gear and to bolster the rest of the system for future such emergencies. Fund-raising sparkplug Ben Kuo, KI6YR, said the fire demonstrated the difficulty of keeping equipment running in remote locations during fire emergencies.
“We also discovered other sites faced serious limitations after utility power was cut and solar panels were obscured by vast clouds of smoke,” Kuo recounted in his solicitation. “This GoFundMe [campaign] will go toward enhancing the existing ham radio repeater network, to make it more reliable in emergencies.” High-quality video cameras for those repeater sites is another possibility.
During the Thomas Fire, Kuo helped bridge the divide between Amateur Radio and social media, and even firefighters would check his feed to see what was going on in other areas of the fire, he said. “It’s a very powerful combination,” Kuo told VC Star. An ARRL member, Kuo, of Newbury Park, founded the socaltech news site. He’s been licensed for 3 years and serves as an ARRL Technical Specialist for the ARRL Santa Barbara Section.