How Amateur Radio Communication Connected My Family and Community on a Terrible, Terrible Night
This is what I saw one terrible night when my son, Stu, woke me saying “Mom, there’s a fire across the road!” That night, amateur radio helped my family stay connected when the Sheriff deputies closed our road before everyone had evacuated. It helped the Red Cross find our community members who had lost their homes, and gathered at a site with others for temporary shelter. Amateur radio helped the Sheriff deputy who took refuge at the end of the road with a handful of residents, including my husband Dave (WB6DWP), who relayed information to the deputy whose narrow band radio did not work in our mountainous community.
This was not the CZU Fire. This happened late at night on October 8, 2013 in the Aptos Hills near Nisene Marks State Park under perilous red flag conditions.
That night, the Aptos Creek canyon was bright with the glaringly-bright flames that were devouring two houses in my neighborhood. Mind racing, I called
9-1-1, the first to report the emergency. Frantic, I started calling my slumbering neighbors further up the dead-end road to alert them, many of whom were elderly. No one answered. It was 1am. I ran to the MURS radio base station for our CERT group and shouted “Fire! Fire on Redwood!” No one answered. I ran outside and began honking the horn on our car. Lights began to come on up the road…it worked.
My family had practiced evacuation many times, and everyone began gathering basics, loading the car. Stu (KI6TKA), a teenager, had a car loaded and drove out. “I’ll be on 52, at the Post Office!” I saw our wide-eyed cat jump into the bushes and disappear. Bria (not yet licensed as KM6HBM) met me at the door with her backpack of essentials. “Let’s load the goats” I said and we ran to get her three Nigerian Dwarf goats. No time to load kennels and feed, we grabbed a tarp, put it in the back of the station wagon and crammed the goats in. Dave (WB6DWP) was prepping the decks and the house. “We’ll be at the Post Office, on 52!” I called out as Bria and I drove up to the end of the road to check on a frail elderly neighbor who lived alone.
His lights were not on. Parking, I ran down the stairs to his front door and pounded. He took a long time to come to the door, but when he opened it, I realized that his house was so bright from the light of the blaze nearby, he had no need to turn on any lights. He was very confused, but immediately tried to find a kennel for his two very large Ragdoll cats. We looked and looked, but could find nothing. “Michael, this is really bad. We just have to get out. I’ll take your cats for you.” I managed to catch them, stuff them both in his wicker laundry basket, and ran up the stairs. Bria was trying to comfort her goats as I squeezed the hamper of unhappy cats into the back seat. Back down the stairs to get Michael to his car…he was loading…and finally drove out.
Driving down the road, we had to pass the inferno. The fire roared like a thundering waterfall and the heat was intense. Neighbors were frantic, on the road, moving cars, running everywhere and yelling. I was glad to see the neighbors whose homes were ablaze were out safely, working side by side with a neighbor who is a professional firefighter, clearing the path for the fire engines that we hoped would arrive any minute.
Bria, three goats, a hamper of unhappy cats and I drove down our narrow mountain road, honking the horn as we went, hoping to wake anyone who may not know about the fire.
“KI6TKB; KI6TKA” Stu’s voice broke the din of the animals and honking horn. “Mom, I am at the Post Office with some other people. The fire engines are coming up. Lots of them.” We drove on, pulling over as we encountered flashing red lights of four fire engines. A car sped past us, then another, and another, rushing to exit the canyon. We later learned a reverse 9-1-1 evacuation order had been issued.
The Post Office parking lot was nearly full, people milling about. I parked across the street, seeing Stu among them. “You can use the radio, Bria. This is an emergency.’ I said, handing her the microphone, “Let Dad know we are here with Stu and others” and I jumped out of the car.
In the pandemonium, some wondered if their neighbors and family members still in the canyon were safe. There is no cell phone reception in our community until you get to the Post Office. “Have you heard Dad on the radio, Stu?” “No” he answered. More flashing red lights raced by. More neighbors evacuating stopped at the Post Office parking lot refuge. I was relieved to see my elderly neighbor had made it out and was among them. He was worried about his cats. I ran to our car to get them.
“Bria, have you heard Dad on the radio?” I asked, muscling out the wicker hamper. “Yes. The Sheriff closed the road and he can’t get out. He’s helping Cliff water down their house.” I ran with the hamper of squirming, screeching cats to Michael’s car. He smiled, closing the car door gently as the cats exploded out of the hamper. “Dad is stuck in the canyon!” Stu yelled. “They’ve closed the road!” More fire engines raced by, red lights flashing.
Returning to the car, Bria updated me. Dave was now with a handful of neighbors, assembled with a sheriff deputy in the bare field at the end of the road, watching the massive fire. “We are here,” he said, and named who was with him. I ran out to let the worried neighbors know the names of the refugees sheltering in the field with the deputy. They were concerned, but confident that if the blaze spread toward them, the deputy would somehow get them to safety.
I could see Stu talking on the amateur radio in his car, and went over for an update. ” It’s bad. The propane tanks are shooting flames way up into the trees.” he said. Suddenly, I was aware of how cold the night had become. Fog soon swirled in. Returning to the car, I saw a Felton Fire District utility truck next to it. The familiar face of our daughter, Gretta (KI6TNL), popped out the open window. “Thanks for coming to the party!” I said. She relayed that the engines on scene had a water relay established, and were working to stop the fire from spreading to other houses.
I went to the car, Bria relayed to Dave the information Gretta had provided. Dave reported the Sheriff deputy was listening, and glad for the information. His new narrow band radio did not seem to work.
The Aptos/La Selva Fire Chief drove into the parking lot. He had seen us there on his way to the fire, and now came to give us information. People gathered around. The red flag conditions had changed, thankfully, and crews were doing their best to defend the neighborhood. I asked if we could relocate back into the canyon to Monte Toyon Camp, our neighborhood emergency shelter. He looked at the people, huddled and shivering. “Yes. I’ll tell the people up there where to find you.” He drove back into the canyon.
Stu relayed the information to Dave that we were all going to the Camp. “How are you doing, Dad?” I heard him ask. “This is bad, Stu. I hope they can stop it from spreading to more houses.”
Back at the car, I noticed Gretta and her team were gone, heading in to defend the neighborhood where she had played as a child. Bria had a report: “Dad is okay, but the propane tanks are screaming. The Sheriff likes Dad’s radio and wants to get one, too.” I smiled. “Please tell Dad we are all coming to the Camp. See if he can get there, too.” I listened as she expertly relayed the message. I heard Dave’s unsteady and tired voice “I can’t. The engines are everywhere and the road is blocked. The deputy says thanks for the letting him know where everybody will be, in case something happens.”
We slowly made our way back into the dark winding canyon to the welcoming shelter of Monte Toyon Camp. A string of headlights followed in the rear view mirror. I smelled goat pee, and hoped it stayed on the tarp.
Because I once worked at the Camp, I knew where to find an emergency key to the back door. As if in a dream, I walked through the lovely high-beam dining hall, my steps echoing on the hardwood floor. I turned on the lights and opened the main door. A sea of weary faces flooded in, making their way to the chairs and the restrooms. “Coffee will be ready in 10 minutes!” I called out, and started the machine.
I walked back to the kitchen and into the pantry where the amateur radio station our CERT group had purchased and installed with the help of local ARES EC Jerry (AE6I) just a few months before. The wooden cabinet door squeaked open. I turned on the radio, and heard Cap (KE6AFE) talking with Jerry (AE6I). talking on the K6BJ repeater frequency. The Red Cross had activated them in case the fire in my neighborhood spread. Cap had heard our chatter on 146.52 and filled Jerry in. “We are at Monte Toyon Camp” I explained. “We’ll advise” Jerry said.
Outside, Bria was walking one goat at a time. They were calmer now. Stu was asleep in his car. Inside, people were talking softly, some were bent over the tables, steaming mugs warming their hands. Suddenly, the owners of one of the homes that we all saw burning as we drove out came walking in through the front door. Immediately embraced by many, many arms, they sadly told us that everything they had was now gone.
I returned to the emergency amateur radio station in the pantry. “The Red Cross wants to know where the homeowners of the houses that burned are” Jerry said. Cap relayed that the Red Cross was wondering where to set up a shelter. “The people are here at Monte Toyon Camp. This is our neighborhood’s shelter.” I said. Jerry relayed the information to the Red Cross staff. “They are on their way, and are grateful you found a shelter location.” he said.
Switching back to the 146.52 simplex frequency we had been using in the night, Dave’s voice came clearly “Are you okay? Where are Bria and Stu? Are they okay?” I responded that all was well, but everyone was very tired. “So are we, but the fire seems to be getting less intense now.” He switched to the K6BJ repeater, and gave Jerry and Cap an update.
Back outside, I helped Bria get the remaining goat back in the station wagon and ushered her in for a cup of hot cocoa. The sea of people in the dining room had returned to a quiet mournful collection of tired bodies. “I have a bad headache’ said the woman who had watched her home burn. I gave her an aspirin from the Camp first aid kit, and handed her some coffee as I sat down next to her. “Everything is gone.” she said again, “I couldn’t even save our photo albums.”
Three Red Cross workers strode in with arms full of blanket rolls and boxes of food and water. Right away, they found the people who now had no home.
I returned to the pantry radio station, reporting to Jerry, Cap and Dave that the Calvary had arrived. “The fire is alot less now. The sky is starting to lighten up, so the sun will be up soon. People here have walked back home. I’m still here with the sheriff, but he wants to leave.” Dave reported. Both Dave and I thanked Cap and Jerry for their service to help our neighborhood that night. They signed off.
There were new voices in the dining hall, so I returned. It was the Fire Chief. “You can go home now. We have the fire under control but you’ll have to walk in if you live past the fire because we’ve got hose lines still set.”
The sea of weary neighbors embraced the shock-numbed victims one more time, then melted out the door, thanking the Red Cross people still there. Eventually, they left with the supplies, and escorted the tired victims to a local hotel. Michael’s daughter had heard of the fire, and came to find him. It was a happy reunion, and she helped him load the cats into her car to take them all home to rest.
I returned to the pantry radio station. “WB6DWP, KI6TKB; The neighbors are returning home. We will meet you at the house, but will have to walk the goats in.” “Copy” his weary voice came “Somehow the Sheriff got through, and I am going home.”
Reversing my earlier steps, I closed the radio cabinet, closed the dining hall door, and exited the back door, grateful for the access to shelter and comfort our community had been afforded in a time of great need.
Bria and I woke Stu. The first light of day was rosy, the air crisp. The station wagon smelled like goat pee, but somehow, it did not matter. In a daze, we drove back up the road that had been a flurry of flashing red lights and honking horns in the darkness, but now was quiet and surreal with the daylight beginning.
Parking off the road, Bria and I led the goats past many fire engines still humming, pumping water through long stretches of canvas lines that snaked up the driveway to the scene of destruction. We thanked the ash-covered firefighters, still working hard to mop up the blaze and watch for spot fires. What had been an intensely roaring inferno was now a steaming, hissing mass of acrid rubble among towering blackened redwood trees. It all made my eyes sting.
We returned the goats to their pen and went inside our house. Dave was there, blowing ash off the deck, and returning it to a sense of order. We all hugged each other and stumbled off to bed. Amateur radio had helped our family know throughout that intense and terrible night that we were all okay, and that our neighbors had survived a devastating fire that shook our souls.