Once upon a time, our wildfire season here in Lewis County, Washington was mid-July through mid-September. But over the last few years that has changed. Fire season is now mid-May through mid-October. Fires from British Columbia have resulted in heavy smoke inversions over Western Washington causing burning eyes and sore throats. An unappreciated result of these smoke inversions is their ability to conceal real time fire and smoke locally making the call & response time longer for overworked firefighters.
According to Riverside Fire Authority Chief Mike Kytta, there are 48 fire stations in Lewis County. Onc firefighter for every 68 miles. Taking into consideration the need to hold back personnel at the fire station to handle multiple calls for service, this means there are a total of approximately 22 firefighters available for deployment to a wildfire in Western Lewis County at any one time.
So what are the danger indicators of a wildfire season? Basically, they are hot summer days (between 11am – 7pm), low humidity and winds from the east. Up slope winds during the day and down slope winds during the evening. Basic fuel sources are grasses (quick to dry out and very burnable) and Scotch Broom.
Centralia ARES has been training to support Riverside Fire during the wildfire season in several ways. Last summer we trained to perform windshield surveys ahead and on the flanks of a fast moving fire. Strong winds can push burning fire brands ahead of the main fire jumping rivers and roads. The key is to find those new fires immediately. The ARES team also worked on safe responses for our communications vans and volunteers. Determining evacuation estimates and evacuation routes are also a primary function.
This year, we have trained several times in wildfire / urban dynamics – what does a wildfire do in different situations based on weather, terrain and fuel sources. We’re testing quick reaction teams and better ways of knowing when the fire department is responding to a possible wildfire. Along with this comes map work and better emergency communications.
Summer is a time we all enjoy but for firefighters, it is also a time of tension and a need for absolute readiness. For our ARES team it generally means every training night is a field exercise learning to shave time off deployment, Incident Action Plans, safety briefings, and assignments. As always, each and every field location has its share of communications issues that must be worked out as well. Working together for a safer community is always the goal.
At our May 6th ARES training, instructor Ken Adams, KK6YUQ, gave a presentation on hazardous material to a combined Centralia and Lewis County ARES team. Ken has been with Centralia ARES for nearly a year now and is a retired police officer from Orange, California. A trained hazardous material instructor, ken was the perfect person to provide much needed training for our group.
Armed with the Emergency Response Guide on our cell phones and instructional forms provided by Riverside Fire Authority, the team worked through the process of identifying and evaluating several different potentially hazardous materials. Ken’s presentation also included plenty of disaster video to keep us on our toes
Within an hour, we formed teams and worked on several local disaster scenarios where we were required to identify the hazardous materials by their placard numbers. From there, we worked to determine isolation distances and whether foam or water could be used on a potential fire. Before we knew it, the 90 minute training session was over and it was time to go home.
Ken’s professionalism and training created a fun environment where it was a joy to learn. Thanks to him, our team is much more aware of the issues that face our community.
Our annual maintenance trip to the Centralia City Shop is complete. There were a few more repairs found than we had on our list but, as usual Matt and Terry at the shop did an amazing job. Now it is time for our annual trip to the Seattle Communications Academy where we will once again display our two comm vans during Saturday’s “show and tell”.
Leaving beautiful, historic Centralia at 5:30am to arrive at the South Seattle Community College no later than 7:30am requires a large infusion of coffee to get our older and more mature volunteers moving at that time of day but we’ll manage somehow. This will be our third year as part of the response vehicle display. Each year we’ve enjoyed meeting people from all over the Pacific Northwest. While there are always larger, more expensive vehicles on display, many seem to enjoy seeing what can be done on a smaller budget.
Our vans were found through military surplus (Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office) and are owned, maintained, insured, licensed and fueled by the Centralia Police Department but permanently assigned to the Amateur Radio Emergency Service team. Approximately 500 volunteer hours went into each van. Equipment estimates run around $6,500 per van. Since we are part of the Western Washington Section Emergency Communications Group, a 501(c)3 organization, we were able to seek funding from various groups such as TwinStar Credit Union and the Chehalis Indian Tribe to cover the entire cost of outfitting each van.
Basic communications equipment includes a Vhf radio and CB in the driver’s cab. In the communications bay there are three Vhf/Uhf dual band radios, a digital station, an Icom IC-7300 HF radio, and a fire/law radio. There are additional scanners, amateur radio HT’s and fire/law HT’s as well.
These vans have suited our team very well. They are small enough for all team members to feel comfortable driving them but large enough and versatile enough to go anywhere. They can run off battery or generator in addition to the normal shore power and have a great little heater which is always a plus in the Pacific Northwest. While the team can use a much larger command & control vehicle also owned by the police department, we much prefer our smaller comm vans. Comm IV, a small towable communications trailer built as a project by team members, is dedicated to shelter communications. Between the four communications vehicles, we can cover almost any requirement up to and including using the vans as a mobile Emergency Operations Center.
If you are going to the Seattle Communications Academy this year, please stop by our vans and say hello. We’ll give you the grand tour and may even have coffee available.
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Centralia Emergency Operations Center Callsign: K7CEM
Contact information: EC Bob Willey at firstname.lastname@example.org