Bill Baker (right) and Harold Witten, deputy director Eastern Division of Riverside County RACES, on presentation of a plaque to Baker in Feb. 2013 honoring his many years of service to MHRC and RACES. Photo by Marshall Smith

Since 1989 the nonprofit Mile High Radio Club has connected the Hill. First formed as a social club for individuals interested in amateur radio, Mile High Radio Club very soon recognized the role it could play in communication during disasters, especially given the isolation of Idyllwild and the San Jacinto mountain communities. The club also provides radio communication for nonemergency events such as this weekend’s Idyllwild Spring Challenge and the annual Jazz in the Pines festival.

Former president, longtime Mile High Radio Club member and radio instructor Bill Baker, played a pivotal role in expanding the number of club members and advancing their radio operator skills and license levels through training and classes he offered.

An advocate for disaster preparation, Baker has also been instrumental in expanding the reach of the club’s communication. He pushed for installation of a repeater that gives the club and its sponsored governmentally administered affiliate Mountain District RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) communication to and from points as far away as Santa Barbara and San Diego.

The repeater is installed on Pine Cove Water District property’s Rocky Point. For an isolated mountaintop region, likely to be cut off from outside assistance during a major disaster, Mile High Radio Club and Mountain District RACES provide communication lifelines. Baker also advocated development of a truck mounted portable repeater that could be moved as necessary to add flexibility to mountaintop disaster communication.

Baker talked about his love affair with amateur radio. “It was George Covington who took me under his wing and hijacked my mind,” Baker said, referring to how Covington, an Mile High Radio Club founder, pulled Baker into the world of amateur radio. “I went through all five levels of advancement and licensure from 1992 to 1994,” he said. Two levels involving Morse code have now been eliminated. “Morse allowed you to talk to people overseas,” remembered Baker.

When asked what he was most proud of from his years of service to the mountain communities in the radio club and RACES, Baker noted that he had helped graduate over 200 people into the ranks of licensed radio operators. Baker remembered recruiting was sometimes difficult. “I was a little instrumental in keeping the club alive for a while because of the teaching I was doing,” he recalled. “I taught most of my classes up here.

“When I first joined the activity level was low, but now there are 60 members in the club.” That’s a number Baker believes valuable to a community likely to be isolated for long periods in the aftermath of disaster.

One such disaster Baker remembers clearly was the Bee Canyon Fire and evacuation in 1996. Baker and his wife remained behind in Pine Cove, based at CAL FIRE Station 23, not far from their home. They helped staff communication during the dangerous fire. “I handled the radio communication, my wife handled the telephone.” He remembers walking out of the fire station as the fire approached. “I went outside, looked down the street and I could see the flames of the fire. We were on duty for two days nonstop.”

Now, after 21 years in teaching or board positions for Mile High Radio Club, Baker said he is content to provide general support. “I don’t have any particular duties,” he said, “no more teaching.” Current club president Bill Tell notes, “He’s an icon who has never failed in his commitment to advancing the Hill’s disaster radio communication network. Both Bill and [prior president] Vi [Hallacy] left some big shoes to fill. Between the two of them they took care of more than their share of the deal. My focus has been centered on succession of the Mile High Radio Club and Mountain District RACES operations and making sure that we have the right individuals in the key spots.”

Now, the club is assuming a new and expanded role. WNKI, the Hill’s own disaster reporting station at 1610 AM, had long been under the supervision of Bob McCullough who, almost singlehandedly, made sure the station was up and running during Hill emergencies. With McCullough’s retirement, WNKI’s fate was uncertain, but it now appears that members of the radio club and the new IFPD fire auxiliary will form a volunteer base to insure that the station broadcasts during disasters.

Volunteers will track professional volunteer radio communication during emergencies and update the community with recorded messages advising of current status. There was a recent brief period when volunteers could not get messages to upload, but the problem has been fixed and WNKI is operational. The Memorandum of Understanding between Idyllwild Fire Protection District and Mile High Radio Club is not yet approved; but once adopted, the station will be operational and staffed. Fire Chief Patrick Reitz said he looks forward to building the teamwork between IFPD, its volunteer auxiliary and Mile High Radio Club that will ensure WNKI’s longterm effective operation.