Blizzards of 2006 – ARES

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and game, while both male and female reindeer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December. Female reindeer retain their antlers until after they give birth in the spring. Therefore, according to every historical rendition depicting Santa’s reindeer, every single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen … had to be a girl.

We should’ve known. Only women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night and not get lost.

For some of us, preparation for the Blizzards of 2006 started on Halloween!

Once a year, Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) districts demonstrate to the various agencies they serve (American Red Cross, County Sheriff, etc.) that they can respond in a natural disaster and provide emergency communications. These tests are called Simulated Emergency Test (SET).

The ARES parent organization, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), takes these exercises very seriously with very clear guidelines. However, this does not mean we can’t have a little fun. ARES District 24’s Operation and Training Officer, Randy Reynard (NQØR) planned this year’s SET with the following news flashes:

OPERATION “GREAT PUMPKIN”
ARES District 24 Simulated Emergency Test

SIMULATION * SIMULATION * SIMULATION

NWS Statement 29 October 2006, 2000 MST

WINTER STORM WATCH

A strong storm is forming over the Sierra Nevada region and is expected to move into the Rocky Mountain Region over the next two days. This storm has the potential for heavy rain, icing conditions and heavy snow.

A winter storm watch will go into effect at 1201 AM MST 30 October.

Persons with agricultural, public safety, utility and transportation interests should make preparations for unusually heavy winter conditions starting sometime Tuesday.

SIMULATION * SIMULATION * SIMULATION

No action should be taken by D-24 personnel unless there is an imminent danger to lives or property that is not part of this exercise.

The exercise will be monitored by ARES D-24 Operations.

Randy Reynard, NQØR
ARES CO D-24 AEC
Operations and Training Officer

On October 31st, Randy, acting as an agent of the Douglas County Sheriff Office (DCSO), activated ARES District 24. In the scenario, with the impending storm, gangs of vagabonds were roaming the neighborhoods within Douglas County, looting or begging for scraps of food. The DCSO also requested hourly weather reports.

In reality, the gangs of vagabonds roaming the neighborhoods were the trick-or-treaters taking part in the Halloween festivities. Most of us participated from the comfort of our homes. Some reports were very imaginative, with a house catching fire, helping a pregnant lady give birth, and 18-foot snowdrifts blocking the neighborhoods.

18 foot drifts? Almost prophetic with the blizzards Colorado suffered in the end of 2006!

Let’s fast forward to five days before Christmas.

I subscribe to a number of weather alert services (in my attempt to be proactive as the Emergency Coordinator of ARES District D-24). As the first blizzard was moving towards Colorado, my pager and e-mail account inbox were filling up. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that we could be in for a time of it.

As I was pulling into work on December 20th, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office called my cell phone. The Point of Contact (POC) for the DCSO asked me to be ready to activate ARES D-24 to staff at least one or two Red Cross Shelters and the DCSO Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Throughout 2006 D-24 has been training and training for such a call. One part of me hoped we would never have to use our skills, the other part of me wanted to see how well we would do.

Taking the call, I now became the Mission Coordinator (MC) and I either had to start planning for the activation or look for someone else in D-24 to take the assignment. I decided to plan for the activation. I sent out a “heads up” page to all the members of D24, asking for a preliminary availability. As responses started to trickle in, the DCSO called me around 10 AM for an activation: one radio person at the DCSO EOC and one radio person possibly at a Red Cross Shelter, maybe at the Douglas County High School. Both assignments were in Castle Rock.

As the weather rapidly got worse, my office released us early. As I headed towards Castle Rock, I had at least one ARES operator monitor our primary activation frequency (Eric Freund, KØEWF) and record any D24 member checking in and have them wait for assignments. I had another D24 member (Perry Lundquest, W6AUN) heading toward the DCSO EOC. I originally planned to be at the DCSO EOC, but plans quickly changed.

As I was racing towards Castle Rock, traffic already started to back up around the Lincoln exit. As I got closer to Surrey Ridge, I saw the bottleneck. In the center lane was a stalled UPS semi-tractor trailer. The rig could not get any traction and the driver was putting on chains. Other truck drivers were taking this as an omen to pull over and apply their chains. These big rigs making their way over to the shoulder only added to the already increasing traffic problem.

As I got past the UPS truck, I received another call from the DCSO. The first Red Cross Shelter would be set up at Kirk Hall in the Douglas County Fair Grounds. The DCSO wanted a faculty as far South of town as possible for stranded motorists south of Castle Rock. I looked at what D24 members who were available and close to the southern part of Castle Rock.

I was the only one close. I figured I could multi-task, provide communications for the Shelter and still be the MC for the activation. I quickly went home and changed into my self-proclaimed ARES uniform: hiking pants, boots, ARES shirt with sweatshirt, and thermal underwear. My go-kit was already in the truck.

I got to the Fairgrounds, but finding Kirk Hall was challenging. It was not easy to get to, as the snow covered up all signs and the road access was completely smothered by snow. So I shrugged my shoulders, put the truck in 4-wheel drive and made my own tracks. I noticed the Red Cross Emergency trailer parked next to Kirk Hall, but I did not see anyone around. The building was open. I went in and scared the willies out of a Fairgrounds employee. Once he got his wits about him and I identified who I was and why I was there, I selected a spot for my radio operations and set up my stuff.

Perry (W6AUN) finally got to the DCSO EOC and reported that the DCSO requested a second shelter to be set up at Chaparral High School. I checked with Erik (KØEWF) on who was available for assignment near Parker. Mark Kelly (WØGO) was available. I mentioned to Mark that he could be at Chaparral over night as the storm progressed. Eric volunteered to join Mark and the two of them could tag team the assignment.

I had Eric transfer net control to Perry (who now had help from the infamous Randy – NQØR). By now it was 3 PM and we were getting rumors from DCSO that I-25 would be closed from Lincoln to Colorado Springs. Donita (KCØSWX) called in for limited assignment (she could help out from her home, but could not deploy yet). I had Donita start calling up members for second and third shift assignments at the DCSO EOC, Red Cross Shelters or as Net Control.

As I did my first radio check with net control, Douglas County Search and Rescue (DCSAR) showed up with the Red Cross (RC) volunteers (about an hour after I got there). One of the DCSAR volunteers looked at me and asked, “How’d you get here?”

“Big blue pickup truck out front,” I answered.

“Really?” he replied.

“Well yeah, it has four wheel drive and a pretty high clearance.” I said.

“He probably knows how to drive in this stuff,” quipped another DCSAR volunteer.

“Shaddup.” said the first DCSAR volunteer.

Joyce, the Red Cross volunteer, smiled at me and said in a stage whisper, “We have been stuck and needed help digging out. I did not realize a HUMVEE could get stuck so easily.”

As the evening progressed, we had a few folks trickle in. The DCSO EOC reported that I-25 was now closed from Lincoln to the New Mexico border. Most of our guests were folks that had to be rescued from US 83 (Parker Road south of Franktown) and County Road 105 (South of Larkspur). The travelers along these routes figured that these roads were not closed down and should be okay to drive on. One of the DCSO Deputies said this storm already had the shades of the storm in 1997, with travelers getting stranded.

Made you wonder where Santa was at with his lady reindeer, except we were four days from his big trip.

Donita was pretty busy getting our relief shifts. My relief (Carl Schultz – KB9UNG) hiked in from his house a half mile away. He looked like an Eskimo in fatigues. Randy and Perry got their relief from a father and son team (Mikey – KBØVJY and Daeron – KCØCNS). Perry and his trusty Isuzu Rodeo made it ok to his home in Highlands Ranch. He mentioned that it was really spooky being the only one on the Interstate. Randy, on the other hand, was not so lucky as he and his mini-van continued to get stuck in the snow on his way to the Founders subdivision in Castle Rock.

My trip home was uneventful, after all, according to DCSAR I know how to drive in this stuff. However, during the evening hours I found out that Jeannie and Allie were out in this fun stuff and had gotten stuck.

During the Christmas break Allie agreed to watch a friend’s dog in the Meadows (another Castle Rock subdivision). Both must have thought they were female reindeers in a previous life or figured the trusted Ford Explorer could go anywhere (a true statement most of the time). But without a fat man for traction to drag around in the snow, they got stuck in the cul-de-sac where the dog under Allie’s care lives. Some of the neighbors helped the dynamic duo dig out, but in the process, Allie’s cell phone fell out of her coat pocket into the snow. She was not aware of this until Jeannie and Allie got home. She was fairly bummed.

As morning came, I jumped back into the blue truck and raced back to Kirk Hall to relieve Carl. During the night, twenty-nine guests and one horse found their way to the shelter. At Chaparral, seventy-five guests took up the Red Cross invitation. However, the snow stopped the third shift relief staff from relieving the DCSO and Chaparral High School teams.

Donita’s availability upgraded to full-time status and Sue Walentosky (who never made it to Castle Rock, so stayed at Donita’s) started a three hour process of digging out and heading towards the Chaparral Red Cross Shelter. With about twenty minutes of digging to do, one of the ARES members, in trying to be chivalrous, suggested over the radio, that perhaps Sue and Donita should review their “options”. I sat at Kirk Hall just shaking my head and then heard Donita’s response: “Oh no, after all of this work, we will be there.” Within 30 minutes of this broadcast, Donita and Sue relived Eric and Mark, along with Perry.

Another member, Jim, used his snow blower to clear out a path in his 50-foot drive way in Parker, and relived Mikey and Daeron.

At about 5 PM on the 21st the DCSO thanked us for our assistance, as they shut down their two Red Cross Shelters and deactivated the EOC.

On the evening of the 22nd, Allie and I took the blue truck to the Meadows to check on her friend’s dog. Both she and Jeannie were there on the 21st, checking on the dog and looking for Allie’s cell phone. The dog was okay, if a little lonely. Jeannie and Allie’s search turned up no cell phone. So in one more attempt, we looked around, calling the number to see if we could hear it.

I did not realize that her tone from my phone was Frosty the Snowman. I was hearing it, but thought the music was coming from one of the Christmas displays. Then Allie heard it. She asks me if I was calling her phone and I said I was.

“Play it again!” she asked.

And then her continence was like that of a coyote stalking a mouse in the snow. Her head cocked to one side. Then deep in the snow, near the neighbors shoveled out driveway, she saw the light of her cell phone. She dug furiously and got close to the pavement, only to see that her cell phone was encased in ice. Out came my trusty pocket knife (a leatherman), and using the blade, I chipped the phone out of the ice. The phone was in good condition with just one scratch on the case.

On the second blizzard of 2006, once again the DCSO activated D24. This time, I asked one of the Assistant Emergency Coordinators, Frank (ABØWV), to be the Mission Coordinator (Melanie carpooled with me and could not leave work early). Frank ramped up the activation for the first wave of assignments. He took a lesson from the previous week by having Donita make the calls for the second and third relief shifts. Donita also took a page from the logistics book and asked Robert (KCØUBD) to provide four wheel drive taxi service for those members who could help, but could not get out. As he delivered Dirk (N2PDQ) to the DCSO EOC, the DCSO deactivated D24, as it seemed more travelers were prepared for this storm and did not need to be rescued. That is, most people stayed home. So must have Santa, as we had no reports of rescuing him or his female reindeer buddies in this weather.

Having back-to-back blizzards was very taxing, but all of us were happy to be able to help out.

Did our training pay off? I think so. The following week at the ARES D-24 Face-to-Face meeting a representative of the DCSO stopped by to convey Sheriff Weaver’s gratitude and appreciation.

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