OK, Pal, Where’s the Fire?

Forest fire season has started in Colorado. Last week you may have seen pictures of the “Snaking” fire in the mountains west of Denver on the news.

I volunteer for a special Red Cross team that provides communications in disasters (radios and cell phones don’t work well in the mountains). I’m a “ham” — no, not that kind of ham, an amateur radio operator! — and hams in Colorado have set up some amazing radio systems that work quite well in the mountains.

Last week I and my wife (who is also a ham) pulled shifts to provide communications for the Red Cross — from the shelter for the people evacuated from the fire areas, and from the fire command center, which is where the Red Cross gets most of its information about the fire to pass along to those evacuees.

Well Organized

What an interesting place Incident Command is at a big fire like that! I’m happy to report that the guys and gals who risk it all to be flown all over the country to fight these kinds of fires are well taken care of. Portable showers, good food, on-scene medical care for any injuries (and I heard in the briefings again and again cautions to be careful).

There were no injuries — and no houses lost to the fire. Having fire season start in April is a bad sign; the hotshots are sure to be busy this year.

Indeed, this week there’s another fire going in Colorado, very near the last one. I was called yesterday by the communications team asking if I could go work it, but Sunday is the day I write, so I had to ask them to put me on the relief list.

Ham Radio? You Bet

When I mentioned my involvement earlier, I got a lot of notes from ham radio operators. Don in Washington:

With the explosive gains in the Internet, we as radio enthusiasts are abandoning the traditional uses of ham radio in droves. Daily, it is becoming easier to get that ‘rare dx’ [long-distance contact] via the Internet rather than the conventional mode. As a result, many are losing incentive to build on their knowledge and expertise to maintain a real radio station. When the telephone lines are lost due to many hazards, it is becoming more difficult to communicate, via the only failsafe system, we have available to us: Radio. I see no solution on the horizon that will improve our plight. I hope someone has a way to invigorate our hobby.

It’s true that the ’net satisfies the basic drive to communicate (especially by geeky methods!) that ham radio used to. But amateur radio has always changed with the times — not too many communicate via spark gap anymore, you know?

By pointing out that ham radio is still viable (e.g., by use in forest fires and other emergencies), people learn that …ham radio is still viable! What it lacks, I think, is good press: “the public” doesn’t know that ham radio isn’t just scratchy communications between continents (which can be fun, of course); it’s rarely Morse Code anymore, either (much to the annoyance of a lot of the old timers). It’s color, full-motion TV. It’s communications over hundreds of miles with tiny handheld radios. It’s bouncing signals off the moon. It’s beaming your voice over satellites. It’s talking direct to the space station (I helped set up a chat between Boulder County school kids and the station last year). And a lot more.

If you’ve “always wanted to” learn about ham radio, you use the best tool for the job: the ’net! The Amateur Radio Relay League, formed in 1914, is still an active organization. Newcomers will probably want to start with the “Learn About Amateur Radio” link near the top.

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