EL DORADO COUNTY, Calif. — Compounding the concern around explosive wildfires in rural California, modern communications infrastructure has proven vulnerable in times of natural disasters.
"It's that fear of not having a cellphone to communicate in the case of an emergency, like it happened at the Camp Fire," said El Dorado County resident Sherry Hawk, who is also the director of the Gold Ridge Forest Fire Safe Council.
The El Dorado County Amateur Radio Club came up with a new idea for an old communications technology -- a neighborhood radio watch.
"It’s not a replacement for 911 or CODE RED or any of the other emergency services. It’s a backup communication system when all other systems fail," said Alan Thompson, the club's public information officer.
85 people died when the Camp Fire burned down the town of Paradise on Nov. 8, 2018. Many of the victims never got a warning, and cellphone service went down as tens of thousands of residents tried to evacuate at once.
"People that were trapped in their cars, were trying to call their loved ones, and their loved ones were trying to call them, but nobody could get through," Thompson said.
Thompson came up with the idea after working as a satellite internet technician in the area shortly after the fire.
He said he realized then that rural areas needed something more resilient, like the time-tested technology of general mobile radio service. It requires an FCC license to use, but not any technical knowledge, like amateur -- or ham -- radio.
"We started last spring with having meetings and people were getting their license, buying radios and started participating," Hawk said, who is a member of the Pollock Pines-Camino Neighborhood Radio Watch, one of several geographically-based organizations operating within El Dorado County.
The group erected a large radio repeater antenna last year on a ridge in Camino, boosting range to up to 15, 20 or even 30 miles away, according to Thompson.
The amateur radio club also refurbishes old handheld commercial radios once used by police and fire departments, providing them at cost to residents. Some features may also be disabled, making it as easy and straightforward as possible for residents to use in an emergency.
When the Caldor Fire broke out in August 2021, Sherry Hawk's Pollock Pines-Camino Neighborhood Watch got its first major test. The fire burned down the nearby town of Grizzly Flats and made a run all the way to the Tahoe Basin.
Her home was spared, but she was among the thousands who evacuated. She credits the network with helping her decide when to begin preparing to leave.
"For me, it was calming to know what was happening," Hawk said. "And I can get choked up when it comes to that because it was a huge help in our community."