Wildfire Training Exercise

Perhaps a new mission for Centralia ARES, perhaps just a good training exercise, only time will tell.  In recent years, localized wildfires have plagued the regions around Centralia but thankfully, the larger fires have missed our area.  When Riverside Fire Chief Mike Kytta asked how the Centralia ARES team could help during a large wildfire, the list included nine areas including windshield surveys around the outside of the fire area looking for hotspots, help with evacuations and, of course, communications.

The dynamics of helping with a wildfire response are complicated.  When the call for help occurs, there isn’t time to do long term training to be ready.  The training has to come before the call as the response time must be immediate.  With the training comes the responsibility to keep everyone on the team safe, often in an area of heavy smoke.  Add the panic of an evacuation into the mix and confusion reigns supreme,

Will all this in mind, the ARES team conducted its first wildfire training exercise last evening.  The pretend wildfire was located just outside the Centralia industrial park.  Between the fire and the small town of Galvin is the Chehalis River.  While this might seem a good fire break, high winds and plenty of fuel in the dry hayfields, could easily allow a floating ember to cross the river starting a new fire area, thereby threatening Galvin.  The area also contained a storage area for empty oil railroad tank cars, an electrical substation and a propane distribution center.

Gathering at a staging area for a situation briefing, a safety briefing and assignments, team members deployed to the area.  We placed one communications vehicle, Comm II, on one side of the river nearest the wildfire and the other van, Comm III, across the river in Galvin.  Team leaders in the vans had to choose a safe location to set up, establish windshield survey patrol areas and assign someone to determine all possible evacuation routes.  Windshield survey teams were to fan out looking for smoke in areas where it shouldn’t be and watching for small spot fires.  Additionally, they were to identify potential dangers such as the railroad tank cars and notify their respective comm vans of their location.  The evacuation team’s job, besides determining evacuation routes, was to gather an estimate of homes within the danger area should the wildfire move to the west.  Team leaders and radio personnel in the communications vans were responsible for keeping track of the windshield survey teams and knowing where they were at all times.

After a little over 90 minutes, we shut down the exercise and met for a debriefing.  Most of our training exercises follow a simple system which involves planning the exercise, testing our plan in the field, figuring out what went right and what went wrong, and finally, fixing the problems.  As exercises go, the wildfire exercise went smoothly, which is a credit to our team as even the new team members did well.  As always, it is often the little things that need fixing.  Many of the team forgot to bring water even though the temperatures have been in the 90’s for days.  No one spotted or reported the railroad tank cars and we discovered we couldn’t depend on the HT’s being used in the field as not being heard is a safety problem.  On the plus side, evacuation routes were established quickly, dangerous areas and choke points were identified and communications was tight and done professionally.  We all learned something from this exercise.  The team will need to get better at its mapwork and will learn to deploy the field team quicker.  We realize now that windshield surveys shouldn’t be difficult as long as we keep safety in mind but if called upon to help with or perform evacuations, it will be quite a different story, but that training will need to wait until August.

While the ARES team doesn’t yet know if we will be called upon to respond to help our served agency with a wildfire, we fully understand that training for the event ahead of time is the only way to keep everyone safe and prepared.  We’re already planning several more wildfire training exercises to increase our proficiency in a few areas.  Now, we’ll see how the summer goes.

DNR And LifeFlight Helicopter Air Operations Training

One of the many DNR fire trucks on site

It was in the high 80’s and hot today as we participated in helicopter air operations training with both Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the LifeFlight medical helicopter response team.  During a busy four hours, both organizations demonstrated their equipment and procedures.  DNR ground crews and their bright red trucks were staged at the landing zone first and before long the DNR chopper set down on the landing zone amid flying debris and dust.  Once shut down, we were able to check out the helicopter and all their equipment.  Since some of the DNR ground units hadn’t seen a water drop before, the helicopter (one of eight in the state) hooked up a bright orange water bag to a

Water drop procedures with the DNR Helicopter

long tether and loading from the Chehalis River, treated everyone to five or six pinpoint water drops.  We gained a whole new respect for these young DNR crews, all in long sleeve shirts, heavy boots and hardhats in the intense heat.  Even in mid day when the rest of us sought out any shade we could find, the DNR crews sat down in the sun, broke out their lunches and discussed plans to attend a rock concert.

LifeFlight medical helicopter

In the early afternoon, the LifeFlight medical helicopter response team, presented an hour long classroom training piece on helicopter landing zone operations.  Before long, we could hear the helicopter approaching and as we went outside to another high intensity dust shower, their bright blue helicopter landed and shut down.  After a tour of the aircraft and a chance to ask questions, the flight crew offered to allow patient loading practice.  While some of us were only interested in the landing and take off procedures that we train for in our ARES group, the DNR crews, who don’t generally get to load patients into helicopters, were all over this opportunity taking turns being the patient and then helping with the loading and unloading.

All in all, it was fun and interesting day with the opportunity to learn new procedures and have a close up look at the DNR water drop systems.  Thanks to both DNR and LifeFlight for your training.

Celebrating July 4th

Paul, KE7PCB

Centralia’s Summerfest Celebration is always a very busy day for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service team.  The day begins early as we deliver one of our communications vans, Comm II, and the CPD Command van to beautiful Fort Borst Park where we will be a part of the law enforcement vehicle display throughout the morning.  Our team of volunteers will spend the morning walking through the park with an eye out for lost children and possible medical emergencies all monitored by those in Comm II.  While the crowds are usually large, everyone is happy.  Kids line up to walk through our communications van so they can talk on the radio and see all the equipment.  For others, it is having their picture taken on the police motorcycle or in the SWAT armored vehicle.  The kid’s fishing pond and the huge display of World War II military vehicles are always popular events.  Even so, the line at the free pancake breakfast is long and a large amount of people will simply spend their day chatting around the food tables.  CPD has participated in Summerfest in Fort Borst Park for nearly 30 years and Centralia ARES has been there as well since our team’s inception.

At noon, it is time to switch gears.  The next big event on the 4th of July is the downtown parade.  While most people won’t start lining the streets for hours, the behind the scenes work must begin early.  Centralia ARES transfers its communications van and the CPD command van from Fort Borst Park to near the parade start point.  It is time to get equipment in its proper location and all set up. If you’re lucky, there will be a few minutes for a quick lunch, then it is briefing time by the CPD officer in charge followed by our own ARES briefing just before deploying our volunteers along the parade route.


Parades attract adults and children like no other event.  Floats in the parade have, of course, become know for throwing out candy

Marvin, N6XML

to the crowds and kids have learned to be close to parade vehicles as they pass if they want the candy.  Between those kids  and the large noisy parade entrants, stand our volunteers in their bright yellow vests.  Our job has always been to keep everyone safe and it has not always been an easy or appreciated job.  This year, however, after the City of Centralia changed its parade policy to read that no candy was to be thrown from floats but it would be handed to children who were on the sidewalk, our job as volunteers became easier.  The crowds were still present but there was much less danger of a child getting hurt.  Centralia’s parade lasts about an hour and a half as it is somewhat confined by the size of the downtown area.  By 5:30pm, the parade is finally done and we begin the breakdown of equipment.  Within another hour, the vans are back in their garages and we shuffle home tired after a very warm day.

Downtown Parade Command

Many citizens are willing to give back to their communities during the July 4th holiday.  Most go unrecognized for the work they do, but each of these volunteers should be recognized for their time and work.  While others are enjoying picnics or time with their families, many volunteers – our ARES team members included – spent their day serving others and their community.  They don’t get paid for their time and it is hot, tiring work but many holiday events would not occur without their help.  To all those Amateur Radio Emergency Service volunteers who spent their day helping others be safe, thank you!  You are a great bunch of people!

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