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How A Group Of Dedicated Volunteers Are Keeping California's Wildfires At Bay


Wildfires are raging in California, and the state is on target to surpass last year's historic devastation. Emergency personnel are preparing for the worst, and so is a group of dedicated volunteers. Their job - to provide backup emergency communications for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Reporter Gloria Hillard introduces us to them.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: In this hillside community of Los Angeles, you are eye level with the hawks on the horizon. It is also one of the city's many high-risk fire areas. Amateur ham radio operator Michael Schlenker lives here and knows firsthand what can happen when a brush fire gets out of control.

MICHAEL SCHLENKER: You open up your drapes, and you see the entire canyon on fire.

HILLARD: It was 2017, the Skirball Fire, when the 405 Freeway looked like an expressway into hell, and hundreds of homes were evacuated. That's when Schlenker and other members of the LA Fire Department's Auxiliary Communication Service went into action.

SCHLENKER: We were able to send our community, when we were under evacuation order, out and into the valley opposite of the way of the fire.

HILLARD: We were at the highest point of the landscape, surrounded by tall pines. Schlenker has placed a portable antenna on the roof of his SUV. His ham radio is in the back of the vehicle.


HILLARD: Every Saturday morning, Schlenker is on the air, running practice drills with other licensed and trained volunteers across the city.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fire station 99 operating portable on Mulholland.

SCHLENKER: Gives us a state of readiness.

HILLARD: In a wildfire emergency, they can send information to the fire department from the affected areas, as well as relaying potentially lifesaving communication back into the communities.

SCHLENKER: Cell phone towers can go down. The internet will go down. Power lines will go down. All of these will burn in a disaster.

HILLARD: That happened in Northern California in 2018 during the destructive and deadly Camp Fire in Paradise when communication infrastructure was scorched, taking down emergency alerts and 911 calls.

MIKE HORST: The volunteers are absolutely vital.

HILLARD: LA Fire Department Captain Mike Horst.

HORST: Communications is very important. That's how we coordinate all of our fire suppression companies in attacking the fire, as well as our aircraft, as well, to make sure that we can stop the spread of the fire in the most effective way possible.


JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN: That's our repeater.

HILLARD: Seventy-three-year-old Jonathan Zimmerman has been a communications volunteer for 16 years. He's wearing his uniform, a light blue shirt with LA Fire Department insignia. He's sitting in front of a computer screen, watching live camera feeds from the eastern end of the San Fernando Valley.

ZIMMERMAN: Looking for smoke or dust or somebody lighting off their barbecue, and if I see something, I would report it up through the chain of command.

JOHN: Roger that, Greenleaf one.

ZIMMERMAN: Thanks, John (ph). You might want to check the Sage Peak cameras.

HILLARD: Zimmerman says what began as a hobby has become so much more.

ZIMMERMAN: Every once in a while, you're in a position to do something really important. And if we're lucky, we get to do that.

HILLARD: Important to firefighters and residents whose homes these ham radio operators help protect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Net control, calling K6JGZ.


HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard in Los Angeles.