With the wildfires in Southern California well on their way to be being contained, San Diego area ARES Amateur Radio operators have ceased assisting their served agencies; many hams had been called to action early last week. When the fires began early Sunday morning, October 21, ARRL San Diego Section Emergency Coordinator Jim Cammarano, KG6R, conferred with California Fire VIP Red Flag Coordinator Rich Beisgl N6NJK; Beisgl told Cammarano that local ARES groups were not needed at that time. “A few hours later, I called again and our status remained the same. They assured me that they would call me immediately if they required [assistance from] San Diego ARES. With the Santa Ana winds blowing, the fires had rapidly advanced far beyond the point where volunteer radio operators would be safe in performing such a role,” Cammarano said.

Cammarano said that San Diego ARES “first started up an information Net before any concrete news from the mainstream media existed. People were checking in with facts about road closures, traffic congestion and reports on the locations of the fires. Once we were told to deploy by the San Diego County EMS [on Sunday afternoon], I initiated our Web-based automated call-out system that made more than 400 calls in less than five minutes.”

Hams were deployed all over the San Diego area, including Mt Palomar, home of CalTech’s 200 inch telescope. ARRL Assistant SEC Teri Rowe, KI6FKD, a Registered Nurse, was appointed Incident Command nurse, providing a supply of responders available for initial deployment and replacement personnel. “She compiled manpower reports and lined up personnel well in advance to the Medical Operations Center order to deploy. On Sunday evening, she manned three phones and two PCs monitoring the County WebEOC online message boards, keeping us updated with road closures, patient transports and hospital evacuations. She answered questions, reviewing the ICS forms and calling each hospital Incident Command RN or Officer to coordinate deployment of the responders,” Cammarano said. “Mark Williams, KF6ZBF, manned the radio room at Kaiser Zion (a local hospital); he assisted an RN onsite who had her radio license, but who needed help. Mike Green, W6MTG, helped Teri on Tuesday, making calls to our members, all while evacuating from his home.”

Many ARES hams were busy serving local hospitals, some working for more than 15 hours, Cammarano said. “Hospitals asked our responders to help get their staff deployed to the hospital to relieve their overworked personnel. At one point, a trauma center was in danger of losing a communications tower. Numerous hospitals were evacuated and patients were transported. We were there as back-up if the critical communications links were broken. As the order to change our status from deployment to standby came, many responders were asked for their contact information in case they were needed again.” While many hams did not pass emergency traffic, many communicated critical information regarding the status of other hospitals to the various Incident Commanders at the facilities where they were deployed, Cammarano said. “The hospital staff was thankful for the support from our responders, for many feared that the fire might force the repeaters on Mt Woodson off the air, causing the hospitals’ regional radio link to ambulances to fail, resulting in a serious impact of hospitals to prepare for arrival of critical cases or transports to other vital trauma centers in the county.”

According to Cammarano, other ARES members volunteered at Qualcomm Stadium; with more than 5000 evacuees, this became the largest temporary shelter in the area. San Diego city officials closed the stadium, home to the NFL’s Chargers, to evacuees at midday Friday and cleared the team to play its scheduled Sunday afternoon game there against the Houston Texans. After a week in which nearly a million Southern Californians fled their homes in seven counties, fewer than 50,000 people remain under mandatory evacuation orders in hardest-hit San Diego County.

At least two of the fires were started intentionally and two more have suspicious origins, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said during a news conference on Sunday. He issued issuing a warning for the arsonists: “We will hunt down the people that are responsible for that.” Meanwhile, downed power lines, leaking gas lines, broken water pipes and still-blazing fires have blocked the return of thousands of Southern Californians who fled their homes this week ahead of more than 20 wind-whipped wildfires. Fourteen people died, seven from the fires and seven from causes linked to their evacuation

President Bush visited the area on Thursday, October 25 and declared a federal emergency for seven Southern California counties: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura. FEMA Administrator David Paulison said that the President’s action authorizes FEMA to “coordinate all disaster relief efforts, which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorized under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives, protect property and public health and safety and lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe.”

Schwarzenegger estimated that at least $75 million in federal aid would be needed for the devastated areas. He announced cash grants of up to $10,000 will be available to help people with expenses caused by the disaster, such as housing, medical costs and transportation; this is in addition to any FEMA money residents may be eligible for. “California stands ready to provide fire victims all the assistance they need to get their lives back on track. Even after the fires are extinguished, we will still be here to help fire victims in need,” Schwarzenegger said.

The number of people hurt in the fires increased Friday to 85, including at least 61 firefighters, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Flames destroyed almost 2000 homes. The cost of homes destroyed by the wildfires is likely to top $1 billion in San Diego County alone, an emergency official said.

Cammarano expressed his thanks to the amateurs who went above the call of duty to the public and to served agencies: “The San Diego Amateur Radio Community had high visibility to the County of San Diego and the nation; I want to acknowledge their many contributions to public safety. Other EmComm groups protected the citizens of San Diego. This was a community effort and San Diego ARES was part of a greater team who performed our mission to a high level. We had a part to play in contributing to the public safety and welfare of citizens of San Diego and Imperial Counties. I want to express our sincere appreciation to CERO, ECRA, MARA, PARC and SANDRA, for the use of their repeater systems. I heard many reports of their member’s heroic efforts to keep the repeaters up and running, providing the county with this critical communications link.” — Some information from CNN