SLV ARES Assists Animal Services in CZU Fire

SLV ARES Assists Animal Services in CZU Fire
by Allison Hershey / KM6RMN (PIO)

On August 16th, a severe dry lightning storm swept through the central coast of California, and was especially hard hitting in Santa Cruz County. Several ARES members around the county were wakened by the thunder and high winds and immediately tuned in to local repeaters to check in. Lisa Schallop (KN6IAB) spotted flames near her property and called in the initial fire report. At least 10 other fires were sparked in the area, and by August 18th, they converged to make the northwestern flank of Santa Cruz County one of the largest hotspots in California.

Many of the local ARES members were on alert right away, but activation was delayed because Office of Emergency Services director Rosemary Anderson was out of town at the time. Santa Cruz county DEC Robert Ritchey (KJ6FFP) was given the go-ahead on the afternoon of August 19th, and the San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz coastal chapters of ARES sprang into action.

Robert called on John Gerhardt (N6QX) to set up a resource net. The situation was growing and changing so rapidly, communication needs were not yet clearly defined. Many of the ARES members in Bonny Doon and San Lorenzo Valley were already evacuated, some completely out of the area. Fortunately, enough people who had come forward that John was able to put together an availability schedule. But for the next few days, the volunteers felt under-utilized by the agencies that did request their help.

The first assignment to come through was for communications at evacuation centers in Scotts Valley and Watsonville. Only a few people were requested and the job was soon taken over by volunteer staff at the centers with MURS radios. Then, Santa Cruz County Sheriffs requested assistance from a few experienced radio operators to ride along in back-country areas where normal communications were down. This was only for a day or two.

On August 26, ARES was paired with Equine Evac under the supervision of Santa Cruz County Animal Services, and that’s when they got busy. Many Evacuees had fled their rural homes on short notice, without means to transport their livestock and pets. The fire had swept past some of the neighborhoods by now, but mass evacuation was still in effect and evacuees could not return to care for their animals. Requests had come in to Animal Services for wellness checks and care.

Robert Ritchey made the activation call. John Gerhardt put out the request for operators with DSW level 2 clearance. Gary Watson (K6PDL) provided Emergency Operation Center support, processed paperwork, made clearance badges, and brought volunteers up to speed for deployment. This was going to be a difficult assignment, as some of the terrain still had smoldering hot spots.

The most experienced radio operators were given net control shifts. San Lorenzo Valley EC Bob Fike (KO6XX), Roberta Joiner (AJ6KN) and Gary Watson worked long days running the tactical net over the course of the operation. They set up their base at the Scotts Valley evacuation center but soon had to relocate to county Animal Control several miles away.

Equine Evac volunteers were paired up to drive all terrain vehicles along rural roads cleared of immediate fire danger. Their job was to locate and check the welfare of owners’ animals, feed and water them. Each team was assigned a radio operator from ARES, who would stay in constant contact with net control for safety, communicate location information, and report about animal welfare as needed.

As with any emergency operation, it took a day or two for the planning and organization to catch up with the situation. Three organizations with different approaches had to learn how to work together. The biggest difficulty was matching the requests with assignments, consulting maps and figuring out the most efficient route for each team. But within a couple of days they were well organized and running smoothly.

Animal Services was impressed with how prepared and professional the ARES folk were, and surprised at the thoroughness of reporting by the radio operators. Not accustomed to the level of detail provided, they requested that reports be scaled back after the first day.

ARES animal welfare assignments continued through September 4th. As operations were winding down, DSW level 1 ARES volunteers were invited to ride along. This provided valuable training and gave some of the hard-working level 2 volunteers a break.

More than a dozen ARES radio operators were involved in the animal welfare operation, too many to name here. Several commented that the deployment felt quite familiar, and they realized that the time they had spent volunteering at sports events and training in prior years had given them “muscle memory” of the proper procedures to follow.