Colorado wildfire: Colorado’s amateur radio operators fill in wildfire-coverage gaps
Randy Long, an Amateur Radio Emergency Service coordinator for Larimer and Weld counties, fled his house southeast of Buckhorn Mountain and started rallying more licensed ham operators to work the fire.
Since Saturday, he has been managing operators staffing eight-hour shifts around the clock. They’re doing such things as setting up portable radio repeaters and relaying messages between the fire lines and command posts. About 40 operators have volunteered.
“My guys don’t start before I do, and they don’t finish after I do,” said Long, 55, who still doesn’t know whether his home burned in the 46,600-acre blaze.
The American Radio Relay League — the national association for amateur radio — organized ARES in 1935 to serve agencies during times of disaster. More than 700 people volunteer as ham operators across 28 districts in Colorado.
“We’re kind of the unsung heroes,” said Robert Wareham, Colorado section emergency coordinator.
Wareham, 59, works full time as a lawyer in Highlands Ranch and logs an additional 10 to 20 hours a week with ARES.
Long, Wareham and a handful of ARES volunteers stood at the National Guard Armory in Fort Collins on Monday, radios in hand or clipped to belts. Clouds of smoke billowed overhead, and tents dotted the grassy field where firefighters slept between shifts.
They were called to service at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, as the High Park fire encircled Buckhorn and Horsetooth mountains, where a critical hub of Larimer County public-safety communications towers stand.
“Those are the kind of things we train for day in and day out,” Wareham said.
As part of their hobby, amateur radio operators have set up about 50 mountaintop repeaters around northern Colorado.
“Well, why do people climb rocks? Because they’re there. Why do we build stuff? Because we can,” Wareham said.
If the communication towers went down, ARES operators could send the radio signals to one of their repeaters or set up a portable repeater.
Many times, emergency officials don’t know how to fix the dropped signals — or don’t have time.
“We just want to keep the people in this county safe,” said Long, who works as a private investigator.
Loveland Community Safety Division Chief Merlin Green said it’s hard to say “just how valuable” the ham operators are to government agencies.
“We have some of the most robust, redundant communication capabilities,” Green said. “It’s because of their expertise.”
“It’s a hobby for us”
The ARES volunteers contribute most of their own equipment when on scene.
ARES regional emergency coordinator Rob Strieby has worked with ham radios for 20 years.
As a child, he built radio kits. He still tinkers with vintage radios.
Strieby, of Loveland, said his radio collection ranges from “World War II transmitters to modern digital equipment.”
Strieby has plenty of company in radio collecting — some ARES members tout owning upward of 25 devices.
Amateur radio operators aren’t transfixed only by vintage devices.
In Wareham’s black truck, his laptop sits on a metal stand mapping the car’s location, a radio is strapped to the dashboard, and a bag of about six types of radios rests in the back, straddled by two wireless routers.
“You never know when the terrorist attack will come or when the natural disaster will hit or when the forest fire will catch fire,” said Wareham, who is better known by his radio call sign “NØESQ.”
Wareham’s call sign matches his license plate, and the “esq” fits in nicely with his lawyer career path.
“It’s a hobby for us,” Wareham said. “But it’s also a way we give back to the community.”
Rocky Mountain Ham Radio was requested to assist D14, Pikes Peak ARES with the effort to support The Colorado Springs EOC, The Red Cross and The Salvation Army in disaster and shelter traffic. The event is a multi operational period event where 350 houses were destroyed and two people were killed by a forest fire on the northwest side of Colorado Springs.
Due to the multi day event, the Springs ARES community was seriously stretched thin and the Colorado Section ARES EC under the authority of the new Auxiliary Emergency Communications Unit of the State Office of Emergency Management asked us to assist in backfilling many of the support and tactical positions with amateur radio operators as well as Rocky Mountain Ham Radio’s Communications trailer. RMHAM stepped up with team members and equipment to support the effort.
Members, Emit Hurdelbrink WØUAW, David Dean KØPWO, Jeff Ryan, KØRM, Jim Hammond KCØYYF, Randy Councell NØOEM, John Maxwell WØVG, Mike Davey NØVBY and Bob Sterner KBØBS all put in shifts to assist the efforts of the served agencies. Many of the team were driving back and forth from Denver to Colorado Springs daily for 5 days in support of the trailer and some living in the shelters.
We can’t support these events without the tireless efforts of our volunteer team. Even if you weren’t deployed to the disaster scene, there were still valuable roles supporting the technology and operational efforts put forth by many and my thanks goes out to each and every member of RMHAM and District 22 ARES that supported the disaster crew.