Crews Keep Communications Running During California’s Carr Fire
Tuesday, August 28, 2018 | Comments

Early in the morning July 26, Matthew Weinberger received word that the Carr Fire was burning toward a main communications site for the city of Redding, California.

In the past, fires had burned closed to the site on South Fork Mountain, but they had never actually reached site; the Carr Fire became the first to do so. Around 4 a.m., Weinberger, manager of Valley Industrial Communications, received a photo from the company that monitors the site showing it on fire.

“I knew that we were going to have some issues up there if there were active fires on the site,” Weinberger said. Valley, a local communications dealer, has contracts to support the communications of multiple agencies in Shasta County and Redding including the Shasta County Sheriff, the city of Redding Fire Department and the Redding Police Department.

After receiving that image, Weinberger began mobilizing support crews, and around 7 a.m., he and another Valley worker started the drive up to the site. It was the start of several busy weeks for the crews as they worked to keep communications up and running for firefighting efforts.

The Carr Fire started July 23 in the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area northwest of Redding. As of Aug. 28, the fire had burned 229,651 acres and was 96 percent contained. The fire is currently the seventh-largest fire in California history in terms of acreage burned.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (CAL FIRE) information page, the fire has destroyed 1,604 structures, including 1,079 homes and 22 commercial buildings. Eight deaths, including three from crews working on the fire, have also been attributed to the fire, according to local media reports.

While the Carr Fire and another fire in the county impacted three different communications sites in the county, emergency crews never lost communications during the firefighting effort, Weinberger said.

"All of our infrastructure held up very well," said Justin Smith, an engineer for the Redding Fire Department who manages communications for the department.

South Fork Mountain
On their way up South Fork Mountain to check on the site, Weinberger and an employee encountered about 10 burning trees that had to be cleared from the road. Additionally, the extreme heat from fire caused rocks alongside the road to explode, littering the road with pieces, requiring careful driving to avoid a flat tire.

South Fork Mountain is a critical location in the Redding area communications environment because it provides good reach into the city itself with its elevation while sheltering those communications from interference from Sacramento to the south. The mountain houses seven different communications sites, including the city’s communications site.

Upon reaching the site, Weinberger and his crew determined that the fire had not hit the site as hard as initially expected. While the fire had burned over the site, it did not burn the coaxial cable on the site and did not damage anything on the tower. However, the fire did impact two backup generators — one that serves communications for the city’s water department and other city services and one that serves additional emergency communications — that were powering communications with the power out.

Weinberger and his crew first noticed that the city’s generator was not running and the water department’s small battery plant had been depleted during the early morning hours. They made the trip down and then back up the mountain to bring a crew that could fix the generator.

With the help of a portable generator, the crew kept those communications running while the generator was repaired. As they finished repairing that generator, the one supporting the additional emergency communications died, so they ran an umbilical cord from the repaired generator to support emergency communications while they fixed the second generator.

After the fire passed, a main repeater supporting the Redding Fire Department on the site began having issues because of issues caused by the power outages, Smith said. Crews ordered an emergency replacement from Motorola Solutions and received that a few days later. While that repeater was fixed, the city relied on a backup repeater located on top of a fire station to serve those communications.

Shasta Bally and Haney Mountain
About a week after the fire hit South Fork Mountain, it burned over several communications sites on Shasta Bally, a mountain located in the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area.

The fire damaged a repeater that supports medical communications in the county and burned the coaxial cable on the site. Because of its remoteness, Shasta Bally is one of the more difficult communications sites to reach in the county, Weinberger said. However, Valley crews reached the site with a new antenna and duplexer to get the repeater running again.

A second fire burning in Shasta County called the Hat Fire burned over a site on Haney Mountain in the northeastern portion of the county. The fire fried the coaxial cable on a repeater that serves the sheriff’s office. Once power in the area was restored, crews got new coaxial cable and an antenna into the site to get the repeater back online.

As of Aug. 20, one other communications site, on Sugarloaf Mountain, was still threatened by the Carr Fire, Weinberger said. “Firefighters have a good containment line on that fire, but it has burned quite close to that site,” he said.

On July 26, as the fire moved into Redding, it knocked out the power for the Shasta Area Safety Communications Agency (SHASCOM-911) dispatch center. Dual generators kept the communications for the center running.

SHASCOM-911 provides 9-1-1 and dispatch services for the Redding Police and Fire departments, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office and EMS providers in the county.

While the fire moved close to the center, dispatchers did not have to be evacuated. “From the parking lot, you could see flames from three sides,” said SHASCOM-911 Director James Divis.

The center’s backup dispatching location is at a CAL FIRE center, but SHASCOM-911 would have been unable to send dispatchers there because no seats were available while CAL FIRE coordinated the firefighting efforts. If necessary, the center could have sent dispatchers to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office and set up dispatch using a mobile command vehicle, Divis said.

SHASCOM-911 handled the initial dispatch of the fire, but dispatch duties for the fire were passed off to CAL FIRE once it took command of the firefighting efforts. SHASCOM did resume some fire dispatching duties once the fire moved into Redding itself.

During the 24-hour period that the fire burned in Redding, the dispatch center received about 1,072 9-1-1 calls, fewer than expected considering that 38,000 people were evacuating the town, Divis said.

The call center has eight 9-1-1 trunks, and the center would not have received calls that came in while all eight trunks were in use. Additionally, degraded cellphone service because of congestion could have impacted the call numbers as well, Divis said.

SHASCOM-911 was also responsible for sending evacuation notices and emergency alerts. There were a few reports of emergency alerts not going out or going out too early on Twitter. Divis said that to his knowledge, there were no major issues with emergency alerting system during the fire.

In regard to alerts going out too early, Divis said he heard that the community of Mary Lake was told to evacuate seven hours earlier than necessary. A Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) telling residents in nearby communities such as Old Shasta was sent. Mary Lake is near the cell tower that the WEA alert went out over so residents there would have received it even though it was not targeted to them because of the way WEA alerts move from cell towers, Divis said.

“I think a lot of people just heard evacuation and reacted to that,” Divis said.

For other alerts, residents with VoIP phone systems would not have received alerts because the power was down, and there was likely a loss of cellular service in certain areas because of the number of people evacuating and placing calls to family members and friends, making it difficult for some alerts to come through, Divis said.

Lessons Learned
Weinberger highlighted two key aspects that helped mitigate the damage done to the communications sites in the area. First, the sites had plenty of defensible space around them because crews kept grasses and other fuels from growing to close to the site prior to the fire.

Because of heavy snows in the winter, the seasonal grasses around Shasta County grew fast during the spring and then died off in the heat of the summer, leaving a lot of dead, dry fuel for the fire. If crews had not cleared those grasses out from around the site prior to the fire, the fire could have burned more intensely at the site, potentially destroying the generators instead of just damaging them, Weinberger said.

Second, the buildings on the communications sites that Valley supports are made of nonflammable materials such as metal and cinder. While the fire damaged those buildings, they held up and protected the equipment housed inside, Weinberger said.

A fiberbond building that houses equipment on an AT&T site just above the city’s site on South Fork Mountain also held up well during the fire, Weinberger said. Conversely, an old communications shack made of wood on a local radio station’s site on Shasta Bally was almost completely destroyed.

On the dispatch side, Divis said his organization is looking at things that they can work on and improve in future situations. One such area is outreach to the local deaf community. The county’s alert system has TDD capabilities, but many deaf people in California are now using a system called California Relay to communicate, which is not integrated into the alert system, so some may not have received the evacuation notices. The county wants to look at ways it can better contact the deaf community in the future, Divis said.

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