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Volunteer Station Eases Fears as Wildfire Nears Covelo

It wouldn’t take much for the remote Mendocino County town of Covelo to be cut off completely from the rest of the world.

“There’s one paved road, one power line, one phone line and one cell tower,” said longtime resident Lew Chichester, one of the founders of the town’s all-volunteer radio station, KYBU Round Valley Radio. “There are also no fire hydrants here, because there’s no water system and everybody’s on a well.”

So when the August Complex Fire (now the largest wildfire in California history) began inching closer and closer to Round Valley this month, the community understandably grew worried. And their worry turned into panic last week when the skies suddenly turned “dark as night,” prompting Chichester to “go online and try to find out what the heck was going on. And there was no information anywhere.”

When the skies cleared the panic only intensified, because “then we could see flames. Before, we could just see the smoke, but when we could see the flames, and they were looking like they were coming over the pass toward the (Eel River), people started really freaking out,” he said.

And the Nixle alerts arriving on residents’ phones just made it worse, Chichester said, “since they had very little details, just told us there was ‘fire to the north, south and east of Covelo,’ which was really alarming. People didn’t know if they needed to evacuate, and they didn’t even know if they could go to Ukiah to get supplies, because they might not be able to get back home again if the road back in was closed.”

So Chichester, who has lived in Covelo for 50 years and has known Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall since he was just one of the sons of the local Cal Fire captain, called up the sheriff to see how he could calm the fears of residents.

“And he suggested that we do these spots on the radio, so he and Lt. Shannon Barney, who also grew up in Covelo, could help people understand where the fire is, where it’s headed, what resources (firefighters) they have on it, whether they need to evacuate, and whether if they go to Ukiah, will they be able to get back here again?

“And those radio spots have been great, because the texts people have been sending me with questions really slowed down, and (Kendall) has been really great about assuring people that the fire is still miles away from Highway 162, the Covelo Road,” he said, adding that having people familiar with Covelo explaining the situation was invaluable, since many residents only two hours away in Ukiah have no idea where landmarks like Mexico Ridge and Indian Dick Road are, let alone the state and federal agency representatives who had been giving status updates on the fire.

“It’s so comforting having people who know the area describing where the fire is,” said Emily Ellickson-Brown, who helped found the station and manages its website as one of about 20 volunteers who keep the station running. She said residents of Covelo know that Mexico Ridge is where their only cell tower sits, and that Indian Dick Road was named after a man named Richard, “and locals don’t laugh at the name like others do.”

Chichester’s segments with Kendall and Barney are uploaded to the station’s website through an automated system created by volunteers Max Dunn and Eric Hoaglin, so anyone who doesn’t have a radio or missed the broadcasts can still listen. He said the first few updates were almost a half-hour long as he culled through all the questions residents had, “but now they’re much shorter, because I think people now really understand where the fire is, how they are fighting it, and what all these evacuation warnings and orders really mean.”

The station has also recently begun uploading segments in Spanish that are read by a bilingual member of the Sheriff’s Office.

Chichester said he feels very proud of his station and of what the all-volunteer crew has been doing lately, especially since he understands from accounts of events like Hurricane Katrina, “that a natural disaster becomes a catastrophe when the people start freaking out. It is the panic that makes it get out of control.”

Lew Chichester at the microphone in the KYBU studio in Covelo. Submitted photo

How KYBU started

Chichester said the radio station began as a conversation on his porch one day after the community had raised a million dollars to build a library about 10 years ago.

“I was thinking that we had this great new building, and all this community support, and that I knew all these young people, including my kid, who had just completed college with degrees in communications, and had experience on their college radio stations, and I thought, ‘This is the time to start a radio station,’” he said, recalling that while researching how to get on the air, the group from his porch soon discovered someone had already acquired a construction permit for a radio repeater in Round Valley.

“Because here in the valley at the time, there were only two stations you could get if you were lucky: KMUD in Redway (southern Humboldt County), and KZYX (in Mendocino County),” he said.

Ellickson-Brown was on that porch with Chichester and his son Imil Ferrara, whom she met while both were studying at Vassar College, and remembers learning that the permit was owned by KOZT in Fort Bragg, which had planned to put a repeater on a cell phone tower that was never built.

“And KOZT became our godparents, because they just gave us the permit, which was going to expire in like three months,” she recalled, explaining that after KOZT also paid the fees to transfer the title and relocate the transmitter, the Covelo radio station founders began raising the $10,000 they needed for equipment, including their own “cell phone tower.”

“Which was just a really long pole we hoisted onto the library building,” Ellickson-Brown said with a laugh. In December of 2011, just before the permit was about to expire, KYBU went on the air. And while they waited for the former coffee shop in the building to be turned into a studio, she said, “we were broadcasting out of a closet, sitting there with the janitor’s mops.”

Several months later the North Pass Fire broke out in 2012, and as Ellickson-Brown was airing remote updates from the firefighters’ base in Covelo, “I thought, ‘This is why we started this station!’”

Nearly 10 years later, Ellickson-Brown said she has scaled back her work at the station to devote more time to her young son, but she and a core group of volunteers, as well as a steady supply of community donations, keep the station on the air.

“The licensing fees are a few thousand a year, and with all volunteers, it only costs about $800 a month to keep the station running,” Chichester said.

The station is on the air 24/7, so it also plays plenty of music that Chichester said was acquired after “we asked listeners to send us their favorite songs.”

Those thousands and thousands of songs were then divided into genres like folk and soul that are played during the day, and “things like hip hop that have profanity are played late at night,” he said.

There’s also a show called “Bulletin Board,” which Ellickson-Brown said is hosted by a woman named Sharon Mills, who “goes around town, taking photos of the posters on the bulletin boards and reads them on the air.” Other volunteers include Louisa Bolton-Ast, Rainbow Gibbs, Bill Cull, Jon Guisti, Terrance Planty, Ginny Chichester, Blaire AuClair, Suzanne Jung, Josh Bennett, Dixie DeBerry and Howard Wenz.

In normal times, the station raises money by “hosting parties with bands and free beer from local breweries, but of course we can’t do that now because of the pandemic. So we’ve been asking people to make donations, which they’ve been really good about.” And the station can accept such donations since it is officially a project of the Friends of the Round Valley Public Library, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

The station also usually sells T-shirts at Covelo’s annual Blackberry Festival, which was canceled due to Covid, but Ellickson-Brown said the station found a way to bring at least its music to the valley this year.

“Lew and another volunteer curated a bunch of songs that have been recorded during the Blackberry Festival, like 60 hours worth, and we played them over an entire weekend, so you could listen and at least feel like you were at the festival,” she said.

Since 2020 is also a Census year, Chichester said the station has been running announcements urging residents to fill out the forms, especially since so much of the population in Covelo is Native American, which he described as “historically underrepresented in the Census.”

“And I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I figured we had to try,” he said. “Because how I understand it is, the Census is how the federal government allocates money to Mendocino County. And by last count they have 1,300 people living here. But I look around, and there’s at least 4,000 people here.”

(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal.)

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