California Broadcasters Chase Fires, Tackle Power Outages

Television crews in Southern California this week have battled tough access, fires that shift with the wind faster than a politician’s stances, and the potential for RF congestion. But as they say out West, this ain’t their first rodeo.

“California is a nonstop disaster state,” said Stan Statham, president of the California Broadcasters Association, stressing that as a Golden State native he loves the place. “They know what they’re doing. They do it all the time.”

Fire reached the key San Miguel site near San Diego, home to several stations' transmitters, knocking one LPTV station off the air while others were able to continue to some degree with generators, according to this account on the local SBE site by Gary Stigall, director of engineering at XETV- FOX6 in San Diego.

A problem for most stations was the disruption to mountaintop ENG microwave sites, generally caused by loss of power lines and disruption of phone service required to control the sites.

Near San Diego, service at the Palomar Mountain site (home also to the famed astronomical observatory) was interrupted. Up north, the Saddle Peak site above Malibu and the Oat Mountain site north of the Valley also lost power.

“The challenge here is that Oat Mountain serves a lot of L.A.,” said Pat O’Keefe, news operations manager at KTLA.

That meant that in some cases ENG crews could not send their signals home and had to drive to reach other receive sites.

Broadcasters resorted to on-site generators, but Los Angeles Frequency Coordinator Howard Fine said some generators were ill-maintained, with inadequate oil or only a short time’s worth of fuel.

With the fires moving through multiple counties including the enormous Los Angeles and San Diego markets, plus the influx of outside media and emergency crews, engineers have had to coordinate RF but encountered few problems.

“As far as frequency coordination goes, it’s not bad, because in Los Angeles we have it worked out very well,” said O’Keefe.

Fine said the only RF conflict reported to him was in the case of a Los Angeles crew heading to San Diego and forgetting to coordinate.

Safety is a huge concern as well, with crews literally chasing fires when embers fly from one spot into another patch of brush.

Statham said the state’s history of fires and earthquakes and even police chases have required basic inter-station cooperation, such as sharing information and not flying helicopters too close to each other.

“There’s nothing smooth about it,” he said. “It just works as well as it can because we’ve done it so many times.”