The Pacific Northwest, and in particular, the western half of Washington State is not generally known for its summertime wildfires when compared to other states like California and Oregon. Most people think of our part of Washington State as a lush, green heavily forested area and while that is true, every county has its share of lowland grass or hay fields that become tinder dry when warm summer weather arrives.
In Lewis County, there are fifty five fire districts, many of which are rural volunteer stations not manned 24 hours a day. Riverside Fire Authority (RFA) is the largest district in our area with 184 sq. miles and covers the Centralia ARES served agencies. RFA operates out of two main stations with full time personnel as well as several volunteer stations. When summer arrives and the temperatures rise, several weather patterns join to create volatile and dangerous wildfire conditions. Extreme temperatures, high winds, low humidity and lowland topography filled with dry grasses, hay fields and other fuel sources create what is known as “Red Flag” weather conditions which are every fire fighters worst nightmare. When these conditions arrive, the National Weather Service (NWS) puts out Red Flag warnings and local authorities clamp down with burn bans. Wildfires that occur during Red Flag periods are not only dangerous, they can be explosive. Minutes, even seconds count in attacking these fires. While Red Flag warnings usually happen only a few times over the summer, they can last from a few days to a few weeks where everyone is on edge.
In conjunction with Riverside Fire Authority and with approval of Chief Mike Kytta, KG7GQT, Centralia ARES is working to develop a “Red Flag Spotters” program where trained amateur radio operators from our ARES team will volunteer to patrol rural areas of Riverside Fire Authority’s jurisdiction as an extra set of eyes watching for smoke or fires during dangerous Red Flag periods.
For safety purposes, Red Flag spotters will use their own vehicles, complete with at least 50 watt VHF radios connecting to two reliable local repeaters. A designated net control will oversee a minimum of two individual spotters working three and one half hour shifts. The plan is to cover the most dangerous parts of the day from Noon through 7pm. and spotters may drive rural roads or use hilltop locations to park and scan the area with binoculars. Should suspicious smoke or a fire be located, spotters or net control can communicate quickly by phone with an on duty fire supervisor capable of assessing what kind of deployment is needed.
For several years, Centralia ARES has trained to conduct windshield surveys for Riverside Fire ahead of what can be fast moving wildfires. ARES volunteers are watching for dangerous fire brands carried by the hot winds associated with a wildfire. These fire brands can easily start new fires ahead or around the wildfire and identifying the danger and alerting RFA allows for a quick response to the potentially new fire. The Red Flag spotters program is just an extension of our wildfire windshield survey work but we hope to bring just one more level of protection to our served agency and our community.
Saturday ended up being cloudy with a few sprinkles and a cold light wind, typical for May in beautiful Lewis County, Washington. Today, we would help provide checkpoint communications along with the Lewis County Amateur Radio Emergency Service team. The Lewis County Historical Bike Ride provides several routes in varying lengths of 12, 40, 68, and 100 miles. Along each routes are checkpoints where ham radio operators monitor riders just to make sure all are safe, hydrated and informed about the bike routes. Checking off rider numbers between checkpoints and sweeping the routes with a support and gear (SAG) vehicle, ensures any rider with a flat tire or broken piece of equipment is never left behind on the route.
For the first time, Centralia’s ARES team was divided between two checkpoints. Traditionally, we place one of our communications vans at the northern most turn around point on the 68 / 100 mile routes. This year we were also tasked with an additional checkpoint at the Historic Claquato Church. Ride Base, located at the south end of the county kept in touch with everyone using the local BawFaw repeater with each checkpoint being assigned a tactical callsign. By 8am, both Claquato Church and our Mellen Street locations were ready to receive riders.
For our team, this event is a little of everything. We enjoy the comradery, the boxes of donuts and hot coffee and after 2020, an opportunity to be doing ham radio in the field once again. It is also a training time as we reacquaint ourselves with our van’s communications equipment and have an opportunity to train new team members as well. The Lewis County Historical Bike Ride is often considered a run up to the much larger Seattle To Portland (STP) 200 mile bike ride usually held in July each year, however this year Covid-19 issues are still present and that ride has already been postponed until 2022. With fewer riders needing to prepare for STP this year, fewer riders took advantage of the Lewis County Bike Ride. Over an eight hour event, approximately 50 riders passed through our checkpoints, but this gave us the opportunity to offer water and chat with the riders. Many others chose a shorter ride route. Wind and rain showers made those routes more popular.
It is interesting to note that throughout the day, everyone from the riders to support teams all had smiles on their faces. The riders were surely tired but they were happy to be doing what they enjoyed… and we were happy to be doing the same.
Centralia is located in the northern part of Lewis County, Washington. Other than the I-5 corridor that runs through our community, the terrain is never flat. Four hundred foot hills covered in large fir trees radiate in every direction. When roads were laid more than a century ago, those constructing the roads looked for the natural ravines between the hills. Around here, roads were not built on the hilltops instead opting for the easier construction sites found near the creeks and rivers that occupy most if not all the valleys in the area.
Over a decade ago, we installed our K7CEM repeater at a Riverside Fire Station on top of Cooks Hill. Examining a propagation map of the site showed a beautiful 360 degree circle out around the repeater. As we have learned since that time however is that propagation at ground level in and among the valleys and ravines that surround Centralia is not that simple or easy. Transmitting from one of the country roads in our service area means about 50% copy depending where you are at at the time you press the tx button. Basically, in many cases, it depends on your location along that road. Hit and miss just isn’t good enough so this fall we set out to map, as exactly as possible, where we could and could not be heard along the 15-20 roads disappearing out into the country.
First, we designed a field exercise sending team members out in every direction and asking them to transmit from identifiable locations such as intersections and small, adjoining communities. This gave us a baseline to begin filling out propagation map. The shape certainly was not a perfect circle. It was more like a large “K” shape. Hmmmm..
Next we came up with a different and fun way to do our propagation tests. We call it “Operation Propagation”. We identified 19 state, county and city parks within Centralia, Chehalis and the adjoining County area. We added three historical markers and two volunteer fire stations to round out the list. We then made it into a contest. Check into one or both of our two repeaters and contact another ARES team member and you get between one and four points. One point for the each repeater on your mobile rig and one point for each repeater on your HT. Make all four contacts and you get four points. By logging this information, we get some great propagation data which is then inserted into the map. To make it more fun, if you make a contact with our Emergency Coordinator, you will receive a special one of a kind Operation Propagation QSL card in the mail. Make even one contact and you receive a certificate. Special endorsements include making at least one contact on your HT, making contacts while bicycle mobile, contacts on multiple repeaters and finally a park to park contact will also get you an endorsement as well.
Operation Propagation will run through the end of the year. When 2021 rolls around we will declare some winners and issue the certificates. Win or lose, this contest brings accurate data to our propagation map. It requires team members to locate each park, historical marker or fire station helping them become more familiar with their response area and has generated a large increase in the use of our repeaters as we chat back and forth while travelling to the different sites. I think our propagation map will be substantially more accurate when 2020 closes. Look for a report on the results in January.
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Centralia Emergency Operations Center Callsign: K7CEM
Contact information: EC Bob Willey, KD7OWN at email@example.com