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Volunteer Radio Operators Are A Lifesaver During Emergencies In The San Bernardino National Forest

A man tunes to a local radio station while driving on a road lined with trees.
Amateur radio operators are playing a key role in mountain emergencies.
(David Tran
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When disaster strikes, phone lines and signal towers can go down. And that’s where the Mile High Radio Club steps in.

“When it hits the fan or there's no other means of communication, we all know that ham radio continues to work,” said club president Bill Tell. “Our operations are often completely off the grid. When there’s no power, for example, we can set up remotely in various locations.”

So-called “ham radio” is a broadcast platform that uses low-wattage radio frequencies — known as “amateur bands” — provided by the Federal Communications Commission.

Based in Idyllwild, the group of volunteer radio operators in the Mile High group stretches across the San Jacinto Mountains — an area at particularly high risk for extreme wildfire. The Mile High Radio Club took the initiative to step up during emergencies — both to get information to locals and tourists, and to pass messages among first responders.

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When Idyllwild was evacuated during the 2018 Cranston Fire, Tell and the club were on the airwaves for five straight days.

“We relayed information back and forth between Idyllwild Fire and the Emergency Management Department,” Tell said. “And we were provided with various messages to be played on the air for broadcast for regular consumption. Even when the power was out at the local FM station, our ham radio station, only 10 watts, continued to push the message out.”

But the members realized there are stretches of the mountain range they’re not able to reach, including along Highways 243 and 74 — the only roads in and out of the area. In response, Mile High Radio created a strategic plan to add more radio transmitters to expand the reach of its signal, WNKI 578 - 1610 AM.

The club’s plan was approved by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors Wednesday as part of the Idyllwild & San Jacinto Mountains Emergency Outdoor Warning System. The county added on a contract with a tech company, Genasys Inc., to install loudspeaker emergency sirens.

“If a siren were to sound, they want to ensure that there's a radio signal across the corridor so that the traveling motorist or the residents could turn to the radio station,” Tell said. “The radio station is going to have the information that they need to follow in terms of evacuation, shelter at home, or whatnot.”

The county has allocated more than $210,000 from a federal Homeland Security grant for the project, which is expected to take two years to complete.

What questions do you have about the fires burning in Southern California?

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