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Communication Challenges at Forest Fires

Big Windy WorkNEAR GALICE, Ore. — Nearly 79,000 acres are burning. All of these fires are burning in very rural, rugged terrain. Communication is key to get resources in motion.

Cell phone service, radio signals, and internet service are all among the things that pop up overnight once a fire camp is established. Before fire fighters are allowed to head out to the fire lines, four things must be in place: lookouts, escape routes, safety zones and communications.

At the Big Windy Complex, that last element, communication, is run by Jeff Keener. The communications department focuses on three main components: helibase, 911 dispatch and, for the firefighters and fire line, communication. Keener says it can be challenging setting everything up in the matter of hours in thick wilderness and unfamiliar territory.

“Like the city of Medford has all the facilities, 911 dispatches and radio system coverage, medical transports, security and all that stuff. We take a field and turn it into a city overnight,” Keener explained.

Among the things done in those few hours of set up are placing repeaters for radio signals on top of nearby mountains to ensure the best possible coverage for radio signals. Officials say this can be a challenge because of roads not often traveled and areas full of trees interfering with the signals.

With so many fire crews fighting each fire, divisions within each fire are set up each with their own frequencies to help reduce the chance of multiple people talking at once.