30 October 2019

The S--- Truly Has Hit The Fan

We learned just a few days ago that the Kincade Fire in California has turned into a 'perfect storm' of high winds, dry conditions, political malfeasance, idiotic environmental policy, bad utility management practices and poor power grid maintenance. As a result, California is probably the first political entity in America to simultaneously shut off power to millions of residents, allow explosive fires to devour tens of thousands of acres of poorly managed state land, and cause entire critical communications networks to 'go dark' for no good reason. In short, a self-inflicted gunshot wound of the highest order.

When I started this blog a few years back I promised myself I'd keep it non-political. After all, dear reader, I want you to come here for pithy Amateur Radio content, not political bashing. But California is just too deserving a target. If what's happening in California were instead happening in south Georgia the press would be all over the story, blaming the toothless Bible-thumping rednecks of the region for the situation. But because this is happening in The Golden State - the land of feel-good environmental policy, the bullet train to nowhere, celebrity governors and beaches littered with Beautiful People - the mainstream media seems utterly uninterested in trying to find out how and why things got this bad.

Huge swaths of central California have 'gone dark' and will go dark again (and again) as Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) institutes wide area blackouts in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfire ignition. It seems that PG&E's power line infrastructure is so poorly maintained that the lines in many remote areas are prone to shorting out in high winds or high heat, causing showers of sparks that ignite the tinder-dry wood and vegetation sitting on the forest floor. So PG&E shuts off power to entire sections of its grid and a series of cascading failures begins. Without power cell phone sites (which are not required to have backup power in California) go dark. And of course, with no power there's no internet (either on phones or in homes). Then the remote repeater sites start to go dark as their backup systems - usually a combination of batteries and generators - go dead. What about landlines? Well, since most 'landline' these days is VOIP, that goes dark as soon as the power to everyone's internet modem goes out. The few left with old fashioned conventional landline service are OK for a time, but at some point the fires take out those lines too. Because, you see, even though PG&E is shutting down power over wide areas, their live lines are still sparking and igniting forest fires.

Hollywood screen writers couldn't have crafted a more zany set of interlocking failures involving mother nature and poor human decision making. And don't think for a moment your local politicians and utility owners can't bring the same level of incompetence and mismanagement to your hometown. We saw it in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and in Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria. In this context California is not an outlier; 'civilized' countries or regions descend into chaos all the time, and no level of investment in hardened communications systems makes them invulnerable.

What's this all have to do with Amateur Radio? Actually, quite a bit. What's happening in California represents a real-world, full on communications blackout. EVERYTHING is down, even the federal government's vaunted 'FirstNet' system was having problems. Amateur Radio infrastructure is not exempt - I'm sure repeater sites were going down right along with the cell sites.

But there IS an Amateur Radio mode that can operate completely off the grid, with zero dependency on local power or other infrastructure. This is the same mode that came into play in Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and in the Bahamas right after Hurricane Dorian earlier this year. The solution is HF using Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) antenna configurations. If you need to get a signal up and out of an affected area, but still retain the ability to communicate with the guy just on the other side of the ridge, then NVIS is your best - and often your only - bet.

NVIS Propagation

We'll be discussing more about NVIS in later postings. But for now just understand that 'when all else fails', even our highly touted repeater infrastructure, there is still one mode that can get the signal through - NVIS.

W8BYH out.