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Amateur Radio Volunteers Who Helped During Thomas Fire Seek to Replace Lost Gear

Site on Reeves Road in Ojai was overrun by the fire, which 'cooked a lot of stuff'

One of the first images, taken by remote equipment, of the Thomas Fire on the night of Dec. 4, 2017. Investigators would later inquire about the image and video of the event to aid in their work. Click to view larger
One of the first images, taken by remote equipment, of the Thomas Fire on the night of Dec. 4, 2017. Investigators would later inquire about the image and video of the event to aid in their work. (Benjamin Kuo photo)

As the Thomas Fire roared to life on the night of Dec. 4, a video camera in Ojai caught what is among the first video images of the blaze.

The camera on Sulphur Mountain Road was pointed toward Santa Paula, where the wildfire started south of Thomas Aquinas College off Highway 150 around 6:30 p.m.

A group of ham radio volunteers who operate the camera -- part of a network of shared equipment around the county -- first saw flames on screen around 7:15 p.m. Within 15 minutes, they had the camera's feed streaming live on YouTube.

"I turned around and called all of the people I knew," said Benjamin Kuo, who was among the amateur radio operators closely monitoring the fire's path.

Such volunteers ended up playing a crucial role as the fire exploded toward Ventura, Ojai and eventually into Santa Barbara County.

An amateur radio group was activated to provide communication between Red Cross shelters, staffing at least four evacuation centers, including ones in Ojai and at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

The group, known as ACS/ARES, for Ventura County Auxiliary Communication Service, was also deployed to the county's emergency operations center, according to the National Association of Amateur Radio news site.

Kuo, a 45-year-old Newbury Park resident who founded tech-news site socaltech.com, has been an amateur radio operator for three years.

Even before the Thomas Fire, Kuo knew the hobby can play a critical service during disasters. When Hurricane Maria hit the country of Dominica in September, he helped get messages from the U.S. Embassy there. For three days, he said, amateur radio provided the country's only communication while phones and internet were cut off.

During the Thomas Fire, Kuo helped bridge the workings of the amateur radio crowd with that of social media.

Through his Twitter account, @ai6yrham -- his call sign as issued by the Federal Communications Commission -- Kuo tweeted prolifically during the fire. He not only recounted traffic from emergency scanners, but also posted screen grabs of helicopter and air tanker flight paths that indicated exactly where firefighting operations were most active.

"You could see which house they were dropping Phos-Chek on," he said.

Image showing tracking on one of the helicopters as it flew over Toro Canyon area to aid firefighters during the Thomas Fire. Click to view larger
Image showing tracking on one of the helicopters as it flew over Toro Canyon area to aid firefighters during the Thomas Fire. (Benjamin Kuo photo)

Kuo's Twitter feed, along with others such as Simi Valley resident Thomas Gorden's @VCScanner, provided a stream of detailed, real-time information that was hard to find elsewhere. Even some firefighters working the line would check his feed to see what was going on in other areas of the fire, he said.

"It's a very powerful combination," Kuo said. "The amateur radio folks may not necessarily be on social media."

Likewise, social media users might not know about amateur radio, he said, with its talk of repeater systems, high-speed mesh nodes and other tech-heavy chatter.

But amateur radio operators who provided fire information also ended up losing gear to the blaze.

Now, Kuo is helping out again.

A ham radio site on Reeves Road in Ojai was overrun by the fire, which "cooked a lot of stuff," Kuo said. "All of it was part of the information network during the fire."

Kuo has organized a GoFundMe campaign on behalf of the network aimed at raising $5,000. As of Monday night, $1,750 had been raised.

The funds will be distributed among the ham radio operators who run the repeater network, Kuo said. Not only will it replace lost equipment, but it will enhance the station with items like additional cameras, solar panels, batteries and other hardware.

In addition, the money will add a weather station to the Ojai site.

"Wouldn't it have been useful to know what the wind was doing during the fire?" Kuo said, adding that all of the money is going to others, not to him.

The fundraising page can be found at http://bit.ly/2lz8gJ3

Also Monday, the Thomas Fire's 29th day, containment stayed at 92 percent and the burn area totaled 281,893 acres. The fire, which became the largest in California's modern history on Dec. 22, destroyed more than 1,000 structures, including 775 houses. Two deaths are linked to the incident. Cal Fire Engineer Cory Iverson, 32, died while battling the blaze outside Fillmore on Dec. 14. Santa Paula resident Virginia Pesola, 70, was found Dec. 6 at the site of a car crash on Wheeler Canyon Road, which was under mandatory evacuation orders.

Los Padres National Forest officials now oversee the fire. Remaining active areas in rugged wilderness areas at the blaze's northern edge are being allowed to burn out.

Click here to read more from the Ventura County Star.

Gretchen Wenner is a reporter for the Ventura County Star. Contact her at [email protected], or 805.437.0270.

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