As a dangerous fire season approaches, with the Sierra snowpack at just 40 percent of normal, people like Capt. Mike Kaliczak, 61, a volunteer with the Butte County Sheriff’s Communication Reserve, become vitally important. On his days off from his job at United Healthcare, Kaliczak helps coordinate communications for state and local agencies during emergencies such as fires and rescues. BCSCR is a nonprofit organization staff by more than 15 volunteers. Go to www.buttescr.org for information on how to donate or become a volunteer.
What are your general duties with Search and Rescue?
When disasters strike I organize a team and two communication trucks filled with radios and equipment that allow different agencies like police and fire to talk with each other by radio. The departments, such as the American Red Cross, Chico Police and CHP may talk on separate frequencies that are incompatible.
What are some of the more memorable cases you’ve helped with?
The Butte County Lightning Complex Fires in the summer of 2008 was one of the biggest. It destroyed 200 homes and buildings, 57,000 acres and caused 15,000 people to evacuate. We first set up operations at Butte College, then as the fires spread we had to move to Jarbo Gap and finally to the Silver Dollar Fair[grounds]. If some agencies couldn’t talk to each other we gave them handheld radios that allowed them to do so. A few years ago a family got lost for several days in a snow whiteout in the mountains hiking for a Christmas tree. During a break in the weather we called a rescue helicopter from Auburn that found the family alive. It’s cases like this that make you feel you’re doing something worthwhile.
What are some of the fun non-emergency events?
We go with the Chico police and set up a communication antenna when they take kids to the mountains in their four-wheel-[drive] jeeps. …We develop a working relationship with them so that during major disasters we won’t be strangers.
How did you get into this?
I’ve been a communications nut since I was 11, when I got my first CB radio. In 2005 my brother-in-law dragged me to a Search and Rescue meeting and I was hooked.
What do friends and family think about your duties?
They think it’s the weirdest hobby in the world. I can’t count the times when my wife and I had our evening plans interrupted by a sheriff’s call. Every 4th of July I work the Oroville Dam and every Labor Day I work the Sacramento River float. I know my wife really loves me to have stuck with me through all that.