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Guardsmen Provide Communication Support to Wildfire Evacuees

By Air Force Senior Airman Crystal Houseman California National Guard

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MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif., Oct. 18, 2017 — Airmen from the California National Guard continue to provide cellphone and internet support to people who fled their homes last week as wildfires raged through California's wine country.

A mobile emergency operations center from the California Air National Guard's 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base, Calif.
A mobile emergency operations center from the California Air National Guard's 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., is set up at Napa Valley College in Napa, Calif., to provide communications support to victims of Northern California wildfires, Oct. 11, 2017. The center provided wireless internet access and a cellphone network for evacuees who took up shelter in the college gymnasium after a series of fires burned across California's wine country. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Hideyoshi Izumi
A mobile emergency operations center from the California Air National Guard's 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base, Calif. Airmen Provide Critical Communication Support
A mobile emergency operations center from the California Air National Guard's 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., is set up at Napa Valley College in Napa, Calif., to provide communications support to victims of Northern California wildfires, Oct. 11, 2017. The center provided wireless internet access and a cellphone network for evacuees who took up shelter in the college gymnasium after a series of fires burned across California's wine country. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Hideyoshi Izumi

The 163rd Attack Wing here sent four airmen and the wing's mobile emergency operations center, or MEOC, to an evacuation area at Napa Valley College in Napa on Oct. 10 after the Tubbs fire threatened homes in the Calistoga area.

The MEOC is a rapidly deployable, Federal Emergency Management Agency Type 2 communications trailer that can provide customers with ground-to-ground and air-to-ground communications support. It also features a self-contained wireless network and satellite uplink capabilities.

With local cellphone towers down and internet access limited by the fires, many evacuees had no way to reach family members or get new information about the fires.

Wireless Internet, Cellphone Tower

By early the next morning, the MEOC and its staff of emergency management and communications airmen established a wireless internet network and set up a tactical cellphone tower, enabling evacuees to make phone calls and contact loved ones.

The MEOC team is also providing up-to-date fire maps and incident information along with full-motion video being streamed into the trailer. More than 300 people have come into the MEOC seeking information since the airmen arrived.

"A lot of these people are wondering if their house is burned to the ground or not, and we're giving those people relief," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Tyler Crumpton, MEOC team leader and emergency manager.

"We were able to type in their address and see how close they were to the fire line," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Hideyoshi Izumi, who serves as a communications operator for the MEOC.

'They Want to Know If Their Home is Gone'

Izumi, who is working the overnight shift while the MEOC provides around-the-clock services to evacuees, said about 20 people stop by for updated information each night. "People can't sleep," Izumi said. "They want to know if their home is gone."

Sometimes the news isn't good.

"These people are taking bad news like a champ. They're told some pretty rough stuff," Crumpton said. "I get the feeling they are hopeful and tough people."

About 1,200 people from the Calistoga, Napa and Lake Berryessa communities have come through the shelter, American Red Cross officials said.

FEMA personnel and insurance representatives are also using the MEOC to access real-time fire maps and data to further their work.

The California National Guard activated in support of civil authorities battling a series of wildfires that started Oct. 9. Soldiers and airmen are providing aerial, ground and infrastructure support during the response and recovery effort.