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Forest Fire Story

Just a quick note to let you know that the 145.19 repeater that we purchased from you in February has been running continuously for about 9 days in support of the command net at this [big forest] fire [at Los Alamos, NM].  Nary a whimper out of it even in the deep of the night. We have it powered by a 75 Watt solar panel into a deep cycle marine battery. More on this later. ... BobSkaggs, KB5RX

[We asked Bob if we could share his amazing story.  Here's his reply.]

Yep, but I have written an article for WORLDRADIO and maybe you could review it and extract some of the text for your bragging rights. Give credit to all of the amateurs who used it so effectively during the fire.

I am proud as a parent that it ran so well, but I think that credit is due to you and your low current draw design which helped us operate 24 x 7 through the crisis. The Northern NM Amateur Radio Club is the one that contributed to its purchase. We put it up on April 27th and the fire started on May 4.

The Controlled Burn that got Away-The Cerro Grande Fire near Los Alamos, NM started May 4 and continuing as this is written

I am writing this in the middle (time wise) of the fire from one of the Red Cross Shelters for evacuees here in Northern New Mexico. What is overwhelming is the outpouring of offerings of food, shelter, assistance, and personal time that has come from the people who are the neighbors in the towns near Los Alamos. The many people who live in the valleys just below Los Alamos in the towns of Pojoaque (po-wok-ee), Española, and Santa Fe have poured out their heart warming help and assistance to the 20,000 plus people who were forced to evacuate in front of the fire.

The fire was started as a controlled burn in the forest on the side of Cerro Grande on May 4th about 7PM. This is just a few miles south of the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area located just outside of the town of Los Alamos, NM. The US National Park Service person who gave the okay looked at the conditions then and made a judgment call (albeit very poor judgment in the midst of the worst winter following the driest summer in recorded history) to start the controlled burn. Spring winds in New Mexico are capricious and the next day, the fire got out of control. On Saturday the fire crews thought they had it under control. On Sunday it got out of control again due to high winds, and as of this writing more than 20,000 acres have burned along a front that is north south on the Pajarito Plateau. Note that the US Park Service policy is normally not to burn but to let nature take its course. They did not consult with the US Forest Service about initiating this fire, although the USFS has the most experience in performing controlled burns.

Pushed by winds in excess of 30 mph on Wednesday the fire spread from 4500 acres to more than 18000 acres in a matter of 5 hours on Sunday, May 7. Monday and Tuesday were relatively calm days, but the wind came up Tuesday afternoon and continued through Wednesday. The wind died down Wednesday evening, but came up again early on Thursday with a vengeance to speeds in excess of 50 mph and pushed the fire north to the vicinity of  the west side of the town of Espanola which was threatened and put on evacuation alert. Alerts were issued to the residents living on the west side of Española and to residents of the Abiquiu Mesa area to be prepared to evacuate at a moments notice. Eventually as the winds were carrying flaming embers far ahead of the main fire, the few residents on Abiquiu Mesa above the town of Abiquiu were ordered to evacuate.

Los Alamos residents were given the order to evacuate the town on Wednesday afternoon, May 10th at 1:30 PM. The evacuation plan called for people in the north part of town to drive the dirt road down past the rifle range in Rendija canyon, thence to the junction with Guaje Canyon, and on out to State Route 502 where they could either go back to the town of White Rock which was not threatened or they could proceed to go eastward to the towns of Santa Fe, Española, or Pojoaque. Shelters were set up by the Red Cross at the Cities of Gold Casino and the Ben Lujan Middle School gymnasium in Pojoaque, at the Santa Fe High School gymnasium, at the Glorieta Baptist Assembly, and at the Española High School gymnasium.

Over the night of Wednesday, May 10, the population of White Rock doubled due to friends making accommodations for their evacuated friends from Los Alamos. At 1:30 AM Thursday, the order was given to evacuate White Rock and all of those people who were “safely cared for” in White Rock and their hosts had to uproot again, make their way along State Route 4 and State Road 502 down the hill to the same shelters that their predecessors had taken. So by Thursday morning there were close to 15,000 people scattered among the various shelters, hotels, and open homes in the north central part of NM.

The residents of Los Alamos County are highly educated, and they are also very resourceful. Most of the people who left the county called ahead to friends, relatives, or motels and had a destination in mind when they left. This was evident in that there were not very many people who stayed in the Red Cross shelters overnight. But these shelters served as gathering places for the displaced persons to register on the data base, meet their friends, get a wholesome meal, and collect their mail. Getting the people to enter their temporary location in the data base was probably the most important function at the shelters because relatives, friends, and family from as far away as Europe and Oceania were calling the shelter numbers which had been published on the world wide web to find out about their loved ones. Eventually about 8000 registered records appeared on the data base which accounted for most of the people who were displaced.

As I write some of this I can look out the west window of the Ben Lujan Middle School Gymnasium that is serving as one of the four Red Cross shelters for people who were driven out of Los Alamos by the smoke and the threat of fire and see large Ponderosa pines going up in flames like Roman candles. The forest is tinder dry and the crown fire that is progressing through it now may burn for several weeks more like a similar fire of several years ago on the other side of the Rio Grande Valley.

As the fire began to build up on Sunday, several concerned hams activated the Civil Defense headquarters building where the Los Alamos Amateur Radio Club has its operations room. They began to follow the fire and to shadow the personnel of the Los Alamos Emergency Operations Center. Sunday and Monday the fire continued to spread and build in intensity. By Tuesday the Los Alamos EOC and the Civil Defense HQ’s were becoming the focal point of the operations. The Red Cross began preparations for evacuation shelters at some of the local schools. Radio traffic got pretty intense on the 145.19 repeater on Pajarito Mountain at the top of the Ski Hill.

Over the past winter, the Northern NM Amateur Radio Club gathered donations and in January ordered a new Hamtronics repeater to replace the aging Spectrum Communications repeater that had lost its sensitivity. Normally, the only way to the top of Pajarito Mountain in winter is on the ski lifts, but this winter was so dry that the lifts never ran, it was not possible to exchange the new repeater for the old one. Finally in mid-April the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area operations crew plowed what snow there was on the road and made it accessible to vehicles. On April 27, KB5RX took the repeater up to the top of the mountain and replaced the old one with the new one. People noted almost instantly the new machine because of the quadruple tone BLEEP that followed the dropping of PTT. And they also noted the increased sensitivity.

For more than 20 years, a small group of amateurs has created and maintained a set of four or five solar powered repeaters on mountain tops here in north central NM. The repeaters are placed in a barrel whose lid is flush with the surface of the earth. The cavities are placed in the barrel first on top of a thin layer of desiccant. Then the repeater which is mounted on a board is then placed on top of the plunger handles. The lid for the barrel just fits over all of this. Power is brought in through the side of the barrel with a moisture tight fitting from a battery box located adjacent to the repeater barrel and mounted similarly with its lid flush with the surface. The solar panel feeds the battery in parallel with the repeater. By matching the panel to the repeater load, we have been able to get by without using a voltage controller for more than 20 years. The antenna feed is brought by hardline coax cable in the side of the barrel in the same way, routed to a PolyPhaser for lightning protection, and thence to the cavities.

The 145.19 repeater was installed at this site on the very top of Pajarito Mountain in 1986 following a period of it being located at the east end of the mountain with the antenna on one of the ski lift towers. The installation is done with enough forethought that the repeater should survive most natural catastrophes. Forest fire was not one of these considered, but apparently the repeater has survived thus far. For the last many days (maybe 10 as of the time of writing the conclusion to this article) the repeater has “taken a licking and kept on ticking!”. It may still meet its comeuppance, but to survive 90 percent transmit, 100  percent receive on battery power (yep this is correct and is just the reverse of normal operations) for more than five days, when I first began to write this article, says that the installation was probably done with sufficient planning to deal with some threat like this. WB5REA, KA5FRB and KB5RX had more than 20 years of operating these repeaters in this manner and it seemed to be the right way to do it.

Over the course of the fire buildup, the NM State EOC, the Los Alamos County EOC, the State RED CROSS, the Santa Fe County Red Cross, the Los Alamos County Red Cross, the evacuation shelters at White Rock Baptist Church and the White Rock LDS Church all came on line. On Wednesday afternoon at 1:15 PM the order to evacuate the town of Los Alamos was given by the LA County EOC. The Evacuation Plan consisted of sending the people from the middle of town down the front hill road to White Rock, the people from the Western Area down Pajarito Road to White Rock, and the people from the North Mesa-Barranca Mesa evacuated down a dirt road through Rendija and Guaje Canyons.

Since White Rock was not threatened at that time, most of the residents of Los Alamos turned toward White Rock, a town of about 7000 people. More than half of the residents of Los Alamos evacuated to White Rock doubling the size in a period of about three hours. THEN, the real problem came. The evacuation from Los Alamos was planned and was executed in a very orderly fashion. There was NO PLAN to evacuate White Rock so at about 1:30 AM Thursday morning when the residents of White Rock were told to evacuate, it turned into total surprise. There is only one road out of town. This quickly turned into gridlock requiring about three hours just to move the seven miles down off the hill toward the evacuation shelters in the valley and in Santa Fe.

The citizens of Los Alamos are very resourceful. Most of them had made advance reservations in motels or with friends all over the northern part of NM and as far south as Albuquerque. The evacuation shelters were not well occupied the first night, but during the day on Thursday as word got out that there were temporary beds and the food would be provided through the American Red Cross Disaster Relief program, people started streaming in. The nearest and principle shelters to Los Alamos were located at the Cities of Gold Casino and the Ben Lujan Middle School Gymnasium in Pojoaque. The two others were located at the Santa Fe High School Gymnasium and the Española High School Gymnasium. By midday Friday, the two principle shelters were entertaining approximately 500 people for meals, support services, and US Mail. Another shelter at the Glorieta Baptist Assembly in Glorieta, NM housed some people who were willing to drive farther from their homes.

All the while, the 145.19 net operated in an orderly fashion without a Net Control Station passing health and welfare traffic, logistics support traffic, finding lost persons, coordinating personnel among the various stations that were on the air, and keeping the flow of information at a high level so that people felt that their life was not totally disrupted. As briefings were given at different locations, one station would take traffic for the station that was temporarily off the air. Then the responsibility would be reversed.

Early into the crisis, the telephone systems became totally saturated. There were three cell phone systems and the US West hardline system in the area. All of them failed. No dial tones, constant busy signals, trunk busy signals, incoming calls getting turned away, outgoing calls unable to be completed, i.e. Total Saturation. At one point one of the EOC’s lost all hardline communications and called for staffing from amateurs with three on duty for each shift. Because of the “party line” operation of the 145.19 command net, all sites on line were able to keep up with what was transpiring and thus avoided the repetitive passing of messages on the telephone, thus tying up the telephone lines up even more. The phone lines did keep on working, but were frustrating to many because of the delays and non-completion signals they got.

Early on into the crisis, the amateurs were pretty much ignored and did their shadowing of the Operations Centers. As time went on and the Op Centers realized that the traffic that got through was carried by amateur radio, the amateurs got more and more involved. By the time of this writing every amateur regardless of age or gender had a chance to contribute some time to the effort. While we thought we might run out of resources, the amateurs seemed to extract energy from their responsibilities, go away and rejuvenate themselves and come back for more assignments.

At one point someone suggested to the TV media that they look at how the underlying glue that was holding this whole operation together was being provided by the amateur radio operators and their equipment and ingenuity. When the TV contacted the radio operators, they found that it was not a glamorous or a heart rending story so they passed us by. Nobody seemed to mind as the job of being a communicator at one of the many locations kept a person so busy that there was little time to worry about anything but the job at hand. In fact, it was hard to eat a decent meal because the food got cold while the amateur was helping out with some task.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were very heavy days on the repeater. In looking back over the logs of each of the stations, we can make a well qualified estimate of the voice message traffic to be about 7200 messages passed per day over a 24 hour period. The 145.19 repeater handled most of this traffic because it was the wide area coverage repeater. Some local traffic was placed on the 146.88 repeater in Los Alamos because it covers the townsite quite well. The animal control people who were picking up dogs, cats, ferrets, iguanas, birds, and other strange pets were placed on this net. When the Red Cross Disaster Evaluation Team arrived their traffic was handled on this net. Some traffic was directed over to the 146.82 repeater on Tesuque Peak on the east side of the Rio Grande valley, but the reciever was not working well and the people nearest it in downtown Santa Fe could not access it well. Glorieta Baptist Assembly is behind some hills which denied access to the 145.19 repeater, so their traffic came in to the Santa Fe area via 147.30 on Elk Mountain which was linked to a 442.825 repeater in Santa Fe.

The generosity of the citizens of NM and the surrounding areas seems unbounded. In the kitchen and the hallways of the Ben Lujan gymnasium, at one time, there were probably about 100 tons of food and supplies including clothes and toys. This situation was duplicated at the other shelters as well. As time went on the Red Cross had to ask that no more food or soft goods be sent to the area. They had no place to store it. Much of the durable goods were placed in storage in a warehouse for use in disasters in the near future.

Sometime during the latter part of the week of May 7-13, someone suggested that Mothers Day should be made a special day for all of the displaced people. The cooks at Ben Lujan shelter called for donations of turkeys and received about 24. They began preparing the turkey with dressing and the trimmings for people on Saturday morning and started cooking in the middle of the night Saturday night. At about 11:30 they began to serve on Mothers Day and continued to serve these fine meals until about 9PM that night. They estimated that they served at least 3500 meals that day. One thing that contributed to the number of meals was that the USPS set up a temporary facility to dispense mail to the residents of Los Alamos and White Rock at the Ben Lujan gymnasium. On the first day they gave out 63,000 pieces of mail.

By Sunday afternoon, Mothers Day, the fire had split into two components. The north part was burning furiously out of control, but the south tongue near the town of White Rock was well enough under control that the residents were allowed to reenter their town. At this time residents of Los Alamos whose homes were damaged or destroyed were given bus tours of the burned out area by the NM Air National Guard unit at Kirtland AFB. They were placed on buses, driven around the burned out neighborhoods slowly so they could view the damage, served a lunch prepared by the cooks at Ben Lujan Red Cross shelter, and then returned to their respective Red Cross shelters. Social workers and other crisis management personnel accompanied each bus to minister to those who were emotionally overwhelmed by the damage they viewed, and the loss of their homes. Most people got out of their homes with the clothes on their back and the pictures and other mementos that they could put in their cars. Some were able to bring along pets, but many pets remained behind and were retrieved later. Many people even forgot their medications. And for many, all of their valuable records went up in smoke, and they are now enduring the difficult problem of trying to reconstruct their fiscal situations. Fortunately, most have identification and the banks and other entities that require positive identification have been bending over backwards to cooperate.

While many of the displaced people are hourly wage earners, the small businesses were urged to do the best they could to pay these people while they were kept out of work. In a Town Hall meeting called by Governor Gary Johnson and Channel 13 (KRQE) several of the federal officials expressed concern about the “little guy” and their efforts to keep their businesses going when they are not able to be open. The Congressional delegation and the other federal agency representatives accepted responsibility for initiating this fire and have promised the displaced citizens that they will do their best to “make them whole” again. This means that they expect some sort of emergency legislation in the Congress to provide additional coverage beyond the home insurance that will bring the loss up to the full value of the residence, and to compensate the merchants in some way for their loss of business.

Beginning on Sunday evening, Mothers Day, as the residents of White Rock were allowed to return to their homes and bring along with them some of their guests from Los Alamos, the Red Cross began to shut down the shelters. First to be closed was the Cities of Gold casino which had been the hub of activity for so many days. The Red Cross had set up its field headquarters there in the counter that served as the bingo callers station during regular operations. Española residents who had been evacuated earlier in the week due to the possibility that the fire would migrate north into the western reaches of the town were also allowed to return home.

Roadblocks were established at the Totavi gasoline station at the bottom of the hill to prevent citizens from returning to their homes and to control entry of people who were bringing supplies to the firefighters in the Los Alamos area. This roadblock was one of the many stations that was manned by amateur radio operators. On Sunday this roadblock was moved closer to Los Alamos and split into two components requiring additional hams to be on station. One was maintained on the front hill road, SR 501, and the other was set up on the truck route into the Los Alamos area. Permission was obtained through the Los Alamos EOC and passed via amateur radio to these roadblocks to admit entry to the town site. As the perimeter was drawn closer to the town of Los Alamos these roadblocks moved with them and served as the link to maintain orderly reentry.

By Tuesday, a service center called the Public Information Center, was set up near the eastern most fire station (FS 6) at the entry into the town of Los Alamos. All residents were required initially to stop here before continuing on to their homes. Then by midday Tuesday this requirement was dropped. However, a radio amateur was placed at this station to shadow the Center director at all times to pass traffic. The telephone system remained overloaded and it was often very difficult to get through to anyone at the Center, thus hams were required to shadow the key personnel in order to get vital traffic to them.

As of this writing the perimeter of the controlled area around Los Alamos is set at the edge of the damaged housing area with no one who is a resident being allowed in this area unless they have an escort. The escort service is provided by the National Guard. People are required to sign up and obtain an appointment time to go back to their home. They are then escorted to thier home to retreive what they need and view the damage to their home-most of the ones that are standing had very little damage- and then they are escorted out.

The power poles in this area are burned completely. The electric utility company is having to check out each individual circuit and repair it as they go along. More than 200 workers from surrounding electric utility companies are working on this problem. When all of the poles are repaired and the circuits are restored, probably about two weeks, then people will be able to move back into the homes that are standing. During the evacuation, utility personnel went around and turned off all gas meters and spray painted them with yellow paint. Beginning on Sunday, they began to retuen to homes to ignite pilot lights and check for leaks. The expected number of meters returned to service was in the neighborhood of 2000 which required an individual visit, a turn-on of the meter, an entry into the home to light the pilots, and a tour around to see that there were no leaks.

Because the electricity was off in most of the community for several hours to several days, people are having to clean out their refrigerators and freezers and dispose of the contents. This is one of the tasks that is taking place during the escorted reentry. It is a very difficult for the people to face this task because some of the food is quite spoiled and is strong enough that people gag when removing it to plastic bags. The grocery stores experienced the same trouble and one comment from one of the managers is that he had a case full of chicken which he disposed of first because of the potential for both odor and disease.

During the crisis, we kept records of the number of involved amateurs and the locations of the radio stations. Eighty four licensed radio amateurs volunteered to serve at one station or another. Ultimately we had more than 14 stations operating simultaneously on the 145.19 frequency. We even had one person who had just passed his examination but had not received an FCC license who served. Two unlicensed people helped with communications. The amateur radio net served to tie together the State EOC, the LosAlamos County EOC, W5PDO which is the Civil Defense Amateur Radio station, the temporary evacuation shelters in White Rock, the more permanent Red Cross evacuation shelters in four locations along with the State Red Cross HQ’s in Albuquerque, and later the roadblocks, and the Public Information Center, the ARC Disaster Assessment Teams, and the Los Alamos Service Center together. Since the three cellular networks and the one wireline telephone network very quickly became overloaded and were not able to accept calls, the amateur radio network on 145.19 was able to “provide the glue” that kept the entire operation together and running smoothly for the last two weeks. As we write this during the winding down of the operations, the 145.19 repeater is still on the air serving the command network.

At one time, the repeater trustee considered going to a command net with a net control station. This was on Tuesday when the fire was way out of control and there were about 8 major stations operating on it. But to the credit of all those amateurs who were on the network, everything remained orderly and it was not necessary to set up a net control station. While people occasionally stepped on each others transmissions, most of the traffic was conducted with a great deal of courtesy, and in the long run, eliminating the net control actually cut down on the amount of traffic that would have been on the net. Every once in a while a station in the excitement would call several times for another station, but a word from one of the more experienced operators would encourage them to call once, give their own call sign, and wait. FM is quite clear and if the called station was monitoring, it would answer immediately. As we wind down and the traffic is spread out over longer periods of time, the net becomes more orderly and we can drop the tactical call signs and go back to normal radio call signs. But during the heat of the fire and the high levels of traffic, everyone was encouraged to eliminate radio station call signs use and just use tactical call signs.  

AAs of this writing the northern tongue of the fire continues to burn out of control with about 46,250 acres now scorched. This has been the biggest fire ever to burn in NM since the USFS began keeping records of fires. IN addition, there have been three other major fires that burned at the same time leading the the phrase used by most of the TV stations, “New Mexico Burning”. Amateur has served one of its charter tasks well in this event by providing emergency communications to a wide variety of entities and will be remembered by those who were displaced as helping to keep things together in a time of major crisis here in northern New Mexico.