In the face of natural disasters, amateur radio groups fill the communications void in rural California

Eileen Strangfeld doesn’t really like puzzles, but she’s getting used to putting the pieces together these days.

“I have three pieces taped together here, and two here, and two here,” she said, pointing to the scattering of teal and beige cardboard fragments on her dining room table.

The 69-year-old writer lives in a rental home in El Dorado Hills, after her Grizzly Flats home was burned down in the Caldor fire last year.

“When I turn on the radio on Wednesday nights, they go through this whole recording process,” she said, scanning the portrait of inspiring women shattered into 1,000 pieces. “It can sometimes last like half an hour, so I can sit here and do the puzzle while I listen.”

She’s not talking about listening to standard FM radio. Strangfeld is part of the Neighborhood Radio Watch group in El Dorado County, a network of amateur radio users who work in emergencies. She is one of about 350 members, and their ranks are growing after hundreds of homes burned in the Caldor fire last year. Strangfeld said the network gave him timely updates on the fire’s rapid progress, allowing him to safely evacuate and notify neighbors.

In the face of worsening climate change, California is investing billions of dollars in high-tech solutions to predict and respond to natural disasters. Meanwhile, communities across the state — battling fires, floods and winter storms — are increasingly embracing century-old two-way radio technology as a failsafe. In rural areas, where disasters can easily cut off power and cellular coverage, these networks become an essential part of the communications ecosystem.

“We know that if all else fails, our radio will work – it will help keep us safe,” said Alan Thompson, a licensed amateur radio operator who helped launch the El County Neighborhood Radio Watch. Dorado.

Campfire as a cautionary tale

Thompson came up with the idea for a community radio group after the 2018 camp fire killed more than 80 people and leveled the town of Paradise.

“People were stuck,” Thompson said. “They had no communication and the evacuation was chaotic, to say the least.”

More than a third of Paradise residents who signed up to receive evacuation notifications never received one, according to the Los Angeles Times. Their reports revealed that the success rate of notifications decreased as the fire progressed, destroying cellphone towers.

In 2019, Thompson gave a presentation to the Placerville Fire Safe Council, outlining what neighborhood radio watch would look like. Representatives from Cal Fire and law enforcement were also present.

And they were skeptical.

“The general opinion … among law enforcement and first responders was that we would create havoc in an emergency,” said Bob Hess, who helped co-found the community radio group.

Bob Hess, Alan Thompson and Mike Sumersille – members of Neighborhood Radio Watch in El Dorado County – sit on a hill where the group maintains one of its repeater antennas.

He offered insurance to get them on board. The group would only relay official emergency notifications, not their own. Users sending alerts would need special training. And they would stay away from radio frequencies used by police and fire departments.

The group now has several former first responders on its board of directors.

Hess and Thompson are both amateur radio operators – or “hobbyist” – which requires technical understanding and more extensive licenses. The world of ham operators is small. Neighborhood Radio Watch’s goal is to put user-friendly radio into the hands of everyday people – “radio for the rest of us”, as Thompson describes it.

Their group buys large batches of second-hand radios on eBay – usually retired from the police or fire department – ​​and refurbishes them. Average users must purchase a license from the Federal Communications Commission, and the group offers training for members.

There are similar networks throughout California and across the country, with more popping up every year.

“The pattern we see is always in response to disasters or large-scale disasters,” said Joe Ames, national president of Radio Relay International, a nonprofit that works with local radio clubs.

In New England, interest can skyrocket after a major snowstorm; in the Gulf States, after a hurricane; in the Midwest, after a tornado.

In many areas there is more than one threat. The El Dorado County Neighborhood Watch Radio responded to a severe winter storm over the holidays, helping stranded residents get food and firewood. The storm knocked out power and cell service for more than 10 days in some areas.

Go up the mountain

There is a 20 foot metal post behind Strangeld’s El Dorado Hills rental house. This was not standard with the property. It’s an improvised antenna that barely picks up the signal from radio users in Coloma, on the other side of the hill. The rest of the county is out of reach.

Their Wednesday night taping is one of the few tenuous ties Strangfeld still has to his life and community before the fire.

Most of his belongings, and the memories attached to them, are gone. Its telescope and its cameras. The model train collection. Her daughters’ baptism outfits.

Much has been left behind. Much has turned to ashes.

She credits the radio network for giving her enough time to salvage irreplaceable possessions, including reminders of her late husband, Ken.

“He never bought me jewelry, he did everything,” she said. “Since he was gone, I could never have replaced my jewelry.”

After some hesitation, Strangfeld decided to rebuild on top of the mountain at Grizzly Flats. Unlike the spotty radio signal she receives at her rental house, the elevation will allow her to pick up everyone in the neighborhood radio watch.

Strangfeld has had its ups and, more importantly, its downs over the past six months. Going back up to Grizzly Flats is something that excites him.

She beamed as she described the plans for her new home, with its wraparound porch.

“My contractor told me the view wouldn’t be on the trees for a while,” Strangfeld said. “But he says, you know, being up there at the top, you’re going to have the best view in the whole valley.”

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