Editor’s note: Magdalena Valderrama is the Program Director at Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association, a 501c3 nonprofit organization specializing in facilitating collaboration among neighborhoods, tribal nations, county agencies, municipal advisory councils, special districts, and nonprofits for community resilience in wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration. Magdalena is a longtime member with FAC Net. In this blog, she highlights a network of community members working with radios to increase general awareness and safety from wildfire and other hazards.

The wave of megafires since 2018 in northern California has led to new interest in emergency management communications using radios. This is because amateur radio systems have long been able to function completely independently of internet and cellphone systems, a feature that is useful during wildfire and other disasters when communications towers may go down.  

For immediate emergency management purposes, FEMA encourages using ham radio for Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) operations, and the National Association for Amateur Radio offers the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) to aid government agencies and nonprofit organizations. But can smaller-scale systems with a smaller scope of work also be of service? 

“When the Valley Fire hit, and the evacuation order went out, none of us could even see where the fire was coming from,” recalls licensed ham radio operator and Cobb Area Network founder, Mel McMurrin. “It was hard to know which way to go on our one State highway out, and it took so much time trying to pass along the alarm to friends and neighbors one by one on a cell phone. People weren’t answering their phones. There were also a lot of older friends who didn’t even have cell phones, or if they did, kept them off until they needed to make calls out in an emergency. And pretty soon, the communication towers went out.”

In 2016, along with other wildfire survivors in Cobb, California grappling with the County tally of 1300 structures and 4 lives lost the year before in the Valley Fire, Mel presented an idea to the newly formed Cobb Area Council and their equally new Communications Committee about empowering residents to warn each other of approaching danger in conjunction with the official alerts from the County Sheriff’s office.  The council agreed, and Mel and a few others, including my partner and I, got to work.

Four people in front of a business tabling for the public. Their table has a banner that reads

CAN members staffing an information and programming booth for the public. Left to right: Magdalena Valderrama, Mel McMurrin (CAN founder), Darlene Warner, and Larry Stottsberry. Photo credit: Magdalena Valderrama.

The basic arrangement is simple: the Cobb Area Network radio tiers include a handful of fully licensed ham radio operators and their rigs that form the core, a next larger tier of licensed General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios, and a final tier of neighborhoods where most residents prefer to use the simplest Family Radio Service (FRS) radios. The group leaders share bulk discounts for the FRS radios, program all the radios, and make sure everyone knows which radio frequencies they are allowed to access. Weekly practice for about half an hour to an hour ensures that everyone knows the proper procedures for using the airwaves, including emergency protocols.

Under normal conditions and line of sight, the reach of ham radio equipment starts with a range of five miles. One of our neighbors regularly talks to operators in New Zealand via ham radio. By comparison, GMRS radios have an effective range of between 10-70 miles, especially when used in conjunction with radio repeaters that are at existing radio tower sites (like county radio systems). And under similar conditions, but with line of sight blocked only by a few buildings or trees, the little walkie-talkies that used to be touted as kid’s toys to the Boomer generation can now reach a realistic range of about 0.5 to 1.5 km (0.3 to 1 mile). Costs are comparable (see table below).

An example radio traffic test for CAN, known as “What’s for Dinner.”

As of this date, the total number of CAN participants is 270, scattered over 85 square miles and seven large hamlets. Of this number, a handful are ham operators and 34 are licensed GMRS operators. The group has tracked spot fires and reported them to the local fire department, warned members of sudden highway closures during snowstorms, and sent out regular reminders and announcements about things like being sure not to leave burn piles unattended, or a recent virtual town hall meeting on tree mortality and fire prevention. The weekly practice calls have started to include connecting with the neighboring network, Lake County Amateur Radio Society (LCARS), 21 miles away, that was started in the 1990s and whose members participate in ARES.

Raffles, contests, and test relays have helped grow the group and keep everyone involved. As we all know, community engagement is key to community resilience. 


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