FIRESTORM 2007 – It Gets Real and Personal




By:      Howard White KY6LA – FIRENET CONTROL (AM)

 There are so many real ham heroes in this story that I am sure that I will not be able to name all of them no was I able to record events outside of my shifts even though I know that many heroic deeds were done by FIRENET hams and especially Harry W6YOO, Tom KI6IET, and  Dan KG6VVN who are the real heroes and did much more than I did to help their neighbors in San Diego.   By my count I had over a hundred different calls pass traffic at night and there were what seemed to be at least 200 – 300 different calls passing emergency traffic  in during the days.

 Firestorm 2003, I was mostly a listener.  Katrina I passed traffic for people I did not know who were a long way away.  But Firestorm 2007 has been Real and Personal for me but more on that later.  Katrina evacuated 50,000 people.  Firestorm 2007 evacuated 560,000 people. 

Many of you have been listening to the exemplary Emergency Communications Operation on the PARC 146.730 repeater of the Palomar Emergency Services Net to gather and share vital Fire Information – “FIRENET”. 

With flames starting to engulf the county and no active single source of information, as best as I could determine Charlie NN3V stepped into the information vacuum to start the “FIRENET” as an ad hoc operation on Sunday afternoon.  Early contributors included Gayle K6GO and Gary W6GDK.   Initial operations started by collecting fire information as to fire location, wind directions, shelter locations and initial evacuations.    Hams provided eyes and ears on the ground where the danger was.  Soon however the fires seemed to be heading down to the Poway area so Charlie and the other Poway hams needed to evacuate.

At that point on Sunday evening Dan, KG6VVN, stepped into the breach to assume the net control operation.  By now the fire were raging out of control.   Ramona was evacuating.  Tom, KD6TR gave FIRENET on the spot information from Ramona that proved vital to evacuees in getting through traffic jams and out of harms way.  Kurt K6MD reported on site evacuation information, fire and traffic reports from Julian as he tried to move his family.   Terry K3PXX drove his animal rescue trailer through fire and smoke up to the Ramona Fire House to rescue animals.  Terry’s heroics including saving all but 4 rare birds before flames finally forced him to evacuate himself.

 With Dan dropping from exhaustion after working at the highest intensity and his really making a difference for several hours, I assumed net control at 0215 Monday. 

0215 Monday:  Even working Katrina EMCOMM did not prepare me for this one.  It was intense.  My ham friends and family were calling for help.   

 The question came fast and furious.  “Is the fire near us?  Where is the head of the fire? What directions are the heads going? What are the winds doing?  Should we evacuate?  What roads are closed?  What about our animals? Where should we go?  What should we take? What is the route to avoid the flames?  Where are the shelters?  Can you help us find missing people or pets?  Can you help us get barrels of water for animals? Can you help us find food and water?  Can you get the police to deal with looters?”

Unlike Katrina, the questions and answers did not abate at nite.  It was non stop. Terry K3PXX needed routing around the fires to evacuate his Animal trailer.  Terry reported on Fires as he drove through Poway and back to San Marcos EOC.  ROARS hams had evacuated Ramona leaving the 147.03 repeater and were looking for help to be routed safely out of the area.   

FIRENET reported three bright flashes in San Marcos. FIRENET determined it was downed power lines.  Fires broke out in Coronado Hills in San Marcos.  People needed to be evacuated. Brian KF6C asked where to evacuate his 4 children.  San Marcos EOC needed to be activated and FIRENET held the fort for them passing traffic until they could get there and became operational to evacuate San Marcos.  Terry K3PXX drove to San Marcos EOC to help with communications.  

George KG6IDE tries to drive up to Ramona to evacuate elderly parents but FIRENET turned him back to avoid the flames.   

0230 Monday:  The fire streamed down to Lake Hodges, jumped the I-15… The I-15 was closed cutting off escape to the South.   People needed to be rerouted for their evacuation routes.  It’s the middle of the night and EMCOMM traffic is intense.   

Fire reported in Pauma Valley so I call relatives there to wake them up and tell them to pack their valuables in case it gets closer. 

0300 Monday Rob WA3IHV asked for fire info for evacuation for his family and 2 horses.  “How near was the head of the fire to his house? Should he evacuate?  Could we find a horse trailer?” FIRENET reported the Fire was on as cresting his hill. He evacuates in time to Palomar Hospital where he works but has to leave the horses behind.   The horses survive but house across street is gone.

FIRENET reports that the Fire in Pauma is contained 2 hours later so I tell relatives that they can stay another night.   

0500 Monday:  Daylight is starting creep through the smoke.  EMCOMM Message traffic picks up even more, if such were even possible.  I have 4 radios, a scanner, 2 TV’s, AM 600, Winlink, and 2 computers with 3 screens going.  Responders on FIRENET are finding fires before the authorities and giving very accurate traffic routing.  In spite of all the computers, I am at times so overwhelmed with traffic that I could really use a scribe. 

Throughout the night, PALOMAR FIRENET continually received many heartfelt thanks from victims who said FIRENET was making a difference to them personally.  

0600 Monday:  Traffic load keeps on increased and I am starting to make mistakes as I have been up for 20+ hours and Net Control for 4+ hours without a break.  

I hear the friendly voice of Octogenarian and Net Control Extraordinaire Harry, W6YOO asking if I needed help.  Thankfully I turn over FIRENET Control to Harry.  Shades of Katrina working with Harry again! 

Harry is the guru of the art of Net Control.  He masterfully takes over the net and teaches everyone how to handle extra high volumes of traffic information.  With Daylight, Winds pick up even worse and EMCOMM Traffic increases but Harry, as usual, is absolutely cool under fire.  He seems to have had hundreds of check-ins with people calling for help.  Harry is under a mandatory evacuation order himself but he stays at his post.  Harry institutes an information attribution process so that FIRENET can source information accurately.  He always seems to have information as to the exact heads of the fire at his finger tips.  He coordinates people on their evacuation routes.  He arranges to look for missing persons.  He coordinates families to find loved once.  He directs people to shelters.   Harry helps FIRENET keep people safe. 

Iron Man Harry W6YOO runs the Net for the next 15 hours.   

It’s 0800 Monday and I want to get some sleep but my Son’s Office calls me in to help backup servers to the East Coast.  So I am not destined to get any sleep.  After working all day I must go to my son’s house as it is my Grandson’s 4th birthday.  I deliver him a Toy Fire Engine (Ironic) and an HT to his father while we finalize family evacuation plans.  I do not get to sleep until 7 PM Monday after 32 hours on my feet.  

2100 Monday – Harry W6YOO turns over FIRENET Control to Dan KG6VVN and Tom KI6IET.  EMCOMM Traffic load all day is heavy.  People need food and water. Evacuation Routes needed planning.  Road Closures reported.  Most important is the people on the ground giving accurate descriptions of the heads of the fires. 

Call signs participating on Monday early AM included (I did not have a scribe so I missed a lot of them as message traffic was very heavy) KA7FUW, NG6V,KG6WVK, KG6WVG, KG6YQU, KG6WFE, KC6HQV, AE6SD, KD6TR, KI6IET, KC6HKM, KG6WFV, W6ODG, KI6JFK, W6EPX, W6EOG, WA3IHV, KF6C, KG6IDE, KG6RZ, KC5NJU, K6RXZ, K6MHY, KI6FTL, KF6YVF, KI6KTG, K6BK, W6ASP, N6VAY, KI6DZI, K6MHY, WD6FWE. AD6VI to name but a few.


0005 Tuesday – After second day of heroic efforts, Dan KG6VVN is fading fast.  He has had little sleep for 2 days. So with only 4 hours sleep I take over for a second night as FIRENET Control.  Tom KI6IET is backing me up as he has done all evening for Dan.  Tom proves himself to be invaluable  

FIRENET traffic remains hectic throughout early Tuesday AM.   

“Should we evacuate? Where are the fires? We have lost power and have no other communications so what should we do? How close are the fires?  Fallbrook evacuated.  Poway evacuated.  What routes are open? Where are the shelters? Can you help us find missing family and friends?  There are fires in all directions, which way do I go to evacuate my family?” 

 0130 Tuesday N9XF reports flame proceeding down 76 from Fallbrook.  Tom KI6IET, who is blind, but stays at his post as my backup net control.  He reports that while he cannot see the flames, he can feel the heat on his face so he needs to be evacuated.  Evacuation arranged ok but I lose him as backup net control.     Rob WA3IHV calls from his office at Palomar hospital to tell us his family was evacuated OK and horses survived.   

0200 Tuesday   Harris Fire down south has gotten worse.  It is advancing towards Spring Valley and La Mesa.   South Bay Hams call into FIRENET looking for information and help with evacuations.  Recommend families to go to Qualcomm as other shelters now in fire’s path.  KG6IDE call for help to move his family. 

0340 Tuesday.  Alan KE6SQS calls to report that Fires have broken out again in the La Jolla Indian Reservation.  He is evacuating but needs routing information.  FIRENET observers in Valley Center report seeing flames on Cole Grade so we route him the other way.   

0355 Tuesday:  Now it is personal.  I call my family in Pauma Valley and tell them to get out as fast as they can.  They get reverse 911 calls but ask FIRE NET which way to go.  The Fire Captain is telling them to go up the Cole Grade.  But FIRENET reports that flames are blocking that route.  So FIRENET routes them and their neighbors via Pala to grade over to Temecula as 76 and 15 are closed and flames block 76 and Cole Grade.  The Fire Captain who went up Cole Grade is forced back by flames.  Needless to say FIRENET received thank notes for saving my family and their neighbors.   

0400  Tuesday: There are now simultaneous evacuations are going on both in North and South County.  New fire on Cole Grade discovered by FIRENET is reported to authorities.  Message traffic intensifies yet again as people do not know where to go or how to get there because of road closures and fires.    Fires hit Mt. Miguel in the south.  Spring Valley, Lemon Grove and parts of La Mesa are now evacuating. 

0415 Tuesday:  AB6QT reports power has been lost on Palomar Mountain due to La Jolla Indian Reservation Fire.. He says that need to conserve the available battery power as much as possible. He will try to bring an emergency generator.  He completes this after sunrise.  There are reports of fire along Highway 76, around the La Jolla Indian Reservation, so access to the mountain is limited so he may not be able to refuel it again. In addition, this means the PARC repeater site could be over ran by fire some time today or in the next few days. Several other repeaters in the area have already failed. 

0500 Tuesday:  There are more and more calls for help on where to go and how to get there.  South Bay Hams could have really used a South FIRE NET but without it FIRENET has had to do double duty.  Message traffic especially for routings and evacuations is very heavy.  We literally do not have time to worry about anything else as the primary concern is now using FIRNET just to keep people safe. 

0630 Tuesday:  Dave N2AXZ spells me as FIRE NET Control while I call to wake up Harry W6YOO.   

0700 Tuesday:  Harry assumes Fire Net Control at 0700 and runs it with his usual masterful precision for the next 12 hours.   What is perhaps the largest single city evacuation in US history continues.  FIRENET is masterfully helping people find routes to escape flames and get out safely.  FIRENET continues to provide a single source of reliable information about the heads of fires.   

0800 Tuesday: I finally get some sleep 

Call signs participating on Tuesday early AM included (I did not have a scribe so I missed a lot of them and likely have some wrong)   AB6QT, N2AXZ, WD6FWE, W6ASP, KG6IDE. KE6SQS, W6EPX, K6MHY, NN3V, WA3IHV, KB6PZV, KM6XV,  KJ6TDC, KF6BFD, N9XF, KI6IET, K6RCA, AE6TR, KD6YQR, KG6WSM, W6WWZ, KD6VJ, KE6EOR, NO6Z, KF6ECO, N0FU, NK6D, KM6XV, KI6EHD, KI6BJA, WA8IHA, AE6BU, KF6C, WA8ZHG, KI6FPD, W3LFR, W6ASP, K6BAA, AD6VI, KE6MDF, KI6JES, KF6AUP, N6KTG, NU6L, to name but a few. 

1900 Tuesday:  Dan KG6VVN with the help of Tom KI6IET takes over as FIRE NET Control 

A ham at Carlsbad Evacuation Center calls for help with supplies.  Dan transfers Net Control to his Truck and delivers supplies to Ham.  While at the Center the Carlsbad Police tell Dan that Mira Costa College Evacuation Center has no food. 

2100 Tuesday: Dan arranges for FIRE NET Hams drive to Qualcomm Stadium and load trucks with food. It is amazing how empty the highways are now.  It takes less than two hours to make the round trip.  Dan leads ham relief convoy with food and supplies to Mira Costa College.  Fire victims at shelter express gratitude for first food delivery.



0005 Wednesday:   Dan KG6VVN was exhausted.  His rescue mission to Mira Costa College while being FIRENET control and little sleep for 3 days had done him in.   

I take back the reigns of FIRENET.   It was a very different picture than the last 2 days.   More than 500,000 People had already been evacuated.   PARC Repeater is now on battery power as Mt Palomar is on fire and there was no way to refuel the generators.  Repeaters were dropping like flies all over the county.  Many of the south and east county repeaters have failed. 

0100 Wednesday: KC6SDO Lake Hodges Neighborhood Safety Association who were guarding their burnt out neighborhood from looters calls FIRENET to get assistance from the Police.  They report a truck with youths in 20’s drinking beer and up to no good. Police were overwhelmed but nearest to them was a Fire Engine which was dispatched and chased away the looters.  They stayed on guard for the rest of the night and regularly checked into FIRENET to make sure we were available to give them the needed help. They report that National Guard arrived to relieve them in the AM. 

Lots of calls still coming in regarding road closures, shelters, fire perimeters. 

0200 Wednesday:  We are receiving reports of fires on Camp Pendleton.  KI6IET, our blind net control backup, needs to be evacuated again.  He is taken to Oceanside where he reports using a handheld.   

0300 Wednesday:  I-5 is now closed through Camp Pendleton so we have to reroute people heading north via 78 to I-15 and then to the 91 as Ortega Highway is also blocked by fire.  Needless to say no one is getting to work in Orange County today.  

0400 Wednesday:   KG6HKM has 20 Llamas that need water.  We need to get him 55 gallon drums with water for animals.  

0500 Wednesday:  Most of message traffic is now about road closures especially with I-5 closed.  People really need rerouting help but there in only the 15 /91 available.  FIRENET reports on Camp Pendleton Fires that they have heard ammunition blowing up.  Possible evacuation from Pendleton may be in the works.  Lake Hodges Safety Association still waiting for National Guard to protect property but Fire and Police finally in area now. 

0615 Wednesday:  FIRENET still going strong but I am fading fast.  I have had too many days with little sleep and too much high adrenalin.   FIRENET is getting lots of queries and traffic but I am not effective anymore.  I turned the FIRENET Control over to Fred, W6HPH and go to sleep for the next 12 hours.

2350 Wednesday:  KG6VVN signs off as net control as the 146.730 repeater runs out of fuel and goes off the air. 

Call signs participating on Wednesday early AM included (I did not have a scribe so I missed a lot of them and likely have some wrong)  NU6L, K6JET, KF4ZWZ,K6KEV, KE6EUM, KE6TUJ, KG6UTS, N6MD, WA3IHV, KA6MWT, W6KY, K6JEC, W6TIA, KC6SDO, KI6HCB, N6LGK, W6MTG, N6LKG, N6LPG, KG6HKM, KI6IET, W6WU, KC6RCW, KI6HPH, W6HPH to name but a few. 

FIRENET was an ad-hoc EMCOMM net set up by hams who in the absence of any outside leadership did the right thing at the right time.   FIRENET helped people with information when they needed it most.  FIRENET continued to receive heartfelt thanks from Fire Victims who thanked FIRENET for being there to save them.  Palomar Amateur Radio Club should be proud of the efforts of its members and its repeater system in providing this vital tool to help our neighbors in this time of need.   

To Quote Hospital Responder: “I found the information useful while I working Kaiser Zion (with really nothing to do) because it gave mostly good information about fires that I could pass along to the IC at Kaiser and others staying informed, knowing ahead where possible victims would come from.

 Firenet maybe the best use of HAM radio that I have personally witnessed.”