Windshield Surveys – From Wildfire to Floods

Just a few weeks ago, we were training hard to conduct wildfire windshield surveys.  Now with much cooler temperatures and a few days of rain, the fire threat, while still there, is diminishing.  Time to switch gears as we move into October and the rains begin their regular pattern.  The flood season here in beautiful, historic Centralia runs from October through February.  With four “100 year flood events” in the past thirty years, we’ve learned to treat the storms that sweep in from the Pacific Ocean with care.  Each year, Centralia and Lewis County experience localized flooding without exception, but the bigger flooding events that can cause real damage can also visit regularly.

Windshield surveys for wildfires and floods have their similarities but they definitely have their differences as well.  The biggest difference is deployment warnings.  Wildfires occur without warning and need immediate attention while we generally know a flood event is coming our way a week or two in advance.  Centralia has four independent waterways that create localized flooding depending on where and how the water arrives.  At its worst, flooding can and sometimes does divide our city into four separate areas where it can be difficult or even impossible to travel from one area to another.  With that possibility in mind, Centralia ARES has created mobile communication vans which allow us to establish a command post wherever the need arises.  We can, for example, set up a mobile communications command post in all four separate divisions of the community if necessary.

This changes the way we conduct windshield surveys as well.  While the Emergency Operations Center ramps up for a community wide flood situation, ARES personnel can set up independent, local neighborhood command posts nearer to the flood problem.  These communication vans can use their own ARES simplex frequency to communicate with their flood survey people or everyone can use the K7CEM repeater to keep in touch within the area.

When it comes to flood windshield survey work, it is all about creating a “picture” of the community for those in charge of the Emergency Operations Center.  The Incident Commander, usually a police or fire staff member, knows his community well yet, confined to the EOC, needs ARES volunteers to “paint him a picture” of what each neighborhood looks like now – or two hours from now so he can effectively deal with issues.  For ARES team members this means monitoring water flow to determine if it is changing for the better or for worse.  It also means conducting a street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood evaluation to determine which streets are under water, which ones must be closed and always looking for local issues such as a sink hole or vehicle driven into deep water now needing rescue.

Generally while the survey teams are working in 2-3 hour shifts, the ARES staff in the EOC begin the deployment process and area assignments.  After a situation briefing, safety briefing and area/frequency assignments, survey teams are sent to their survey areas where they check in with the nearest communications van who then is responsible for the survey deployment.  For the most part, it is not dangerous work but often boring work.  Nevertheless, the information provided is important to the command structure in the Emergency Operations Center.  There are times when the EOC remains closed if the event is predicted to be small and of short duration.  In these cases ARES teams will often conduct windshield surveys just to stay ahead of the issue.  Sometimes an hour or two’s warning can make the difference.

The 1986 “100 year flood” event was somewhat of a surprise mostly because none of the police and fire personnel had experienced such an event.  Still, it was a madhouse scramble, often in the dark, as first responders evacuated nursing homes and families.  The 1996 “100 year flood” closed Interstate 5 for four days and flooded local businesses with up to 14 feet of water.  By far, the 2007 flood was the worst in recent memory.  Not because it was huge or even because it closed the freeway for four days once again.  This flood was an out and out surprise.  Weather forecasts predicted a heavy local rain that would pass to the east.  Instead the huge rain cell stalled over the local Willapa Hills (unknown to the weather service) and dumped nearly 20 inches of rain into the local Chehalis River system.  By the time the wall of water, which destroyed bridges, railroads and homes in its path, became known, it was to late to do anything but react, and we were slow to do that as well.

Flooding will always be a part of our area and I’m sure we will have yet more “100 year flood” events but we may have learned some lessons over the years.  Now, we watch and monitor large rain events carefully.  We have learned to ramp up the Emergency Operations Center sooner and prepare better.  Amateur Radio Emergency Service teams are and will be a part of that preparation into the future.  Yes, October means a change in the way we train for our ARES team of volunteers but that is just fine with us.

Willapa Hills Trail Ride Special Event

Amateur Radio Emergency Service teams from Thurston County and Centralia came together last evening deep in the rural farmlands of west Lewis County to help with the 2018 Willapa Hills Midnight Trail Ride, an event, as the name implies, to support two different horse rides along the Willapa Hills trail system.  The Willapa Hills Cheese Farm was the central start point for two different rides and held the net control station for the ARES teams.  The Endurance Ride, nearly 30 miles in length, ran from the Willapa Hills farm to the Adna trail head and back while the Trail Ride travelled west from the farm to the town of PeEll and back.  While both rides began in late evening,  darkness came before most riders were on the trails.

For the nearly sixty riders, this event tested horsemanship in many areas.  Horses prefer the light of day and being a single horse and rider working their way, alone, along miles of trail only four feet wide in total darkness with trees and bushes on either side using only a headlamp can be lonely and unnerving.  For example, horses that had walked miles in total darkness suddenly entered the small town of PeEll as they neared their turn around spot.  Faced with a normal sidewalk, which wouldn’t have been a problem in the daylight but which glowed an eerie white under the streetlights, many horses were frightened and simply refused to cross the barrier.

For hams, there were different challenges. Working the 30 mile course using a variety of mobile radios and HT’s was interesting.  Most of us worked locations where the trail crossed a road and our job was to be sure it was safe for the riders to cross the road.  We gathered their rider numbers and reported the information back to net control so no horse and rider team would be left stranded and alone on the trail.  For most of the ARES people, this meant sitting outside of our vehicles at a wide spot on a narrow country road in order to see the riders as they approached often lit only with a glow stick.  To protect the rider’s night vision, each ride monitor used only red headlamps for illumination.  Wind and a constant drizzle made it more difficult for everyone.  It was also interesting to note that “bear spray” was a suggested but optional carry along for our go-bags.

Without enough hams to cover every road crossing, several had to reposition to alternate locations and back during the night but the event was planned well and there were no real issues.  By 1 am in the morning, all riders were back at Willapa Hills Farm and the ARES teams were released to head home.

None of the Centralia ARES team had ever worked an event like this and it was interesting to work in total darkness in an area we were unfamiliar with under less than perfect conditions.  Most of us used our mobile radios plus one or two HT’s to keep in contact with each other and net control.  Preparations included food and snacks, a wide array of clothing for all conditions, a complete go-bag, red light headlamps and traffic wand as well as nearly 30 pages of instructions, frequency lists and maps.  The event went off without any problems, as well planned events tend to do.  The Thurston County ARES team did a great job coordinating all the hams and it was nice that just about every horse rider thanked us as they passed.  One rider mentioned that after riding alone in the dark for miles, just seeing that little read headlamp in the distance and knowing the hams were there made her feel safe.  Congratulations to everyone involved for a job well done.  Hams do good work!

National Night Out Against Crime In Centralia

National Night Out at Washington Park

Tuesday, August 7th was one of summer’s hotter days, but it was beautiful under the trees at Centralia’s downtown Washington Park.  The 2018 National Night Out Against Crime (NNO) already had the bounce houses, concession stands and dunk tank set up as our ARES communications van arrived and parked amid all the police cars, fire truck and other assorted display vehicles.  This is the team’s second year participating in the Community Policing public event.  Last year, our expectations were that we would just be part of the static display group, showing off our amateur radio communications equipment but that quickly changed when John, AD6KT asked one young man who was viewing the van if he wanted to talk on the radio.  Quickly setting up one of the team with an HT further back in the park that the young man could talk to, John put him on the air.  After that, the line formed and before the evening was over approximately 70 kids had talked to that ham on the HT.

This year we were ready for them, with a slight twist, when we stationed our newest ARES team member 11 year old Andrew, KI7ZFA on the HT in the park thereby allowing “kid to kid” conversations.  Over the evening, Andrew and the other team members working the event did a great job introducing everyone to amateur radio.

Chief Nielsen getting ready to be dunked

Paul, KE7PCB, who delivered the communications van, certainly picked a perfect spot to set up.  For the rest of the evening we were treated to some great entertainment since the dunk tank was placed right next to Comm III.  For hours, we watched many of the CPD officers, including Chief Carl Nielsen, Commander Stacy Denham and Officer Angie Humphrey bravely slide into the (cold) water, all with a smile on their faces.  We were recruited to help refill the dunk tank by Riverside Fire Chief Mike Kytta and helped with the available fire hose.  Sitting close enough to get splashed every time someone hit the mark on the dunk tank, many of the ARES team were more than a little “soaked” before the evening was over, but no one complained with temperatures in the 90’s.  It was great to be surrounded by our served agencies.

Comm III up and running

This year’s National Night Out event offered plenty of fun for all ages with free ice cold water, snow cones and hotdogs, as well as lots of games and activities.  The bounce houses were packed and a great (and loud) band worked the crowd from the Gazebo in the park.  Out on the static display on College Blvd, ten or more police cars from various departments, SWAT equipment, and a fire truck from Riverside Fire Authority were all on display.  What a great evening for this special event.

Thanks to all the amazing ARES volunteers who braved the summer heat to display what Amateur Radio Emergency Service does for the community.