wildfire

You are currently browsing articles tagged wildfire.

Fire from above

stationfire_from_above

Above is a picture of the Station Fire, taken from the plane I was riding from Santa Barbara to Denver on Monday afternoon. I believe the water body at the bottom is the San Gabriel Reservoir. It lies in the midst of the San Gabriel Mountains, most of which are in the Angeles National Forest, much of which got burned up in the last two weeks.

I didn’t see this scene myself, since I was seated on the left side of the plane, with a view of the Mojave desert. But I knew the fire was there, below the right side of the plane, which had a perfect view of the burn area. So I handed my camera over to people sitting on the right side, and they made the shots.

The fire has been burning itself out in the back country, which it was doing on Monday when that shot was taken. Current stats: 160,357 acres, 71% contained, 3,647 personnel, containment expected on Tuesday September 15th, 2009, at approximately 6:00 PM. (Yes, they’re that precise.)

Here’s my whole set of Station Fire-related images.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

stony

Above is the latest (as of this morning) MODIS satellite map (on Google Earth) of Station Fire spottings in the Angeles National Forest north of the Los Angeles basin. Near the center I’ve marked the Stony Ridge Observatory. While less familiar than the famous Mt. Wilson Observatory (and little known outside its own circles), Stony Ridge has a long history and is much loved as well as relied-upon.

This story in the LA Times raised concerns that Stony Ridge might be lost, but the latest word on the observatory’s own site, as well as the map above, suggest that it has been spared. I wonder to what degree this is because firefighters worked to save it, or that the fire simply avoided it. In any case it looks like a hole in the donut of surrounding fire—and that most of the fire spreading currently is away from populated areas.

Here are some aftermath shots of Mt. Wilson.

Here’s my whole Angeles Fire series on Flickr.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

redwoods

Why do mature redwood trees have trunks that rise two hundred feet before branches commence, live for centuries and have bark that’s a foot thick? Because they are adapted to fire.

zaca

Why does the silver-green chaparral that covers California’s hills and mountains burn so easily? Because it’s supposed to.

calpoppies

Why, other than its color, is the California Poppy such an appropriate flower for the Golden State? Because it is adapted to both fire and earthquakes. Says Wikipedia, “It grows well in disturbed areas and often recolonizes after fires”.

Of course, so do we. That’s why it’s not weird to find humans colonizing hillsides and other “disturbed areas” of California. Case in point: I am writing this in a house sited on an former landslide, not far from the perimeters of two wildfires that claimed hundreds of other houses in the past few months.

Every spot on Earth is temporary, but California is a special example. As permanence goes, California is a house of cards.

For example, take a look at some of the animations here, prepared by geologists at UCSB. Watch as a sheet of crust the size of a continent gets shoved under the western edge of North America. Debris that piled up in the trench where that happened is what we now call the Bay Area. Submerged crust that melted, rose and hardened under North America — and was just recently exposed — we now call the Sierras. Take a look at the last 20 million years of Southern California history. It’s a wreck that’s still going on. One section of that wreck is a bend along the boundary between plates of crust. Mountains pile up along that bend, like snow in front of a plow. The biggest of these ranges we call the San Gabriels. Those are on fire right now. Add up all the Southern California wildfires over the last twenty years and you’ll get a territory exceeding that of several smaller states.

My point is perspective. The human one is so brief that it can hardly take in the full scope of What’s Going On, or what our lives contribute to it. In a geological context, what we contribute are carbon and fossils. We do that by dying. Other planets have geologies as well, but none have marble, limestone, coal or oil. Those are all produced by dead plants and animals. It would be hard to make heat on Mars because — as far as we know — there is no dead stuff to burn.

Humans love to make structures and produce heat, which means we have an unusually strong appetite for dead stuff. Even cement and steel require dead stuff in their making.

If you fly a lot, as I do, you start to notice black lines on the landscape. These are coal trains that move like ant trails from mines in the West to power plants all over the country. The largest of these mines are in Wyoming, more than 50% of which has coal to burn. This coal consists of dead stuff that has been buried for dozens of millions of years, and took at least as long to form. In Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee says the largest power plant in Georgia, Plant Sherer, “burns nearly thirteen hundred coal trains a year—two thousand miles of coal cars, twelve million tons of the bedrock of Wyoming.”

Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless you’re not human.

From any scope wider than our own, we are a pestilential species. Since the human diaspora began spreading out of Africa only a few thousand generations ago, we have chewed our way through land and species at a rate without equal in the history of the Earth, which began 4.567 billion years ago, or more than a third of the way back to the start of the Universe. We are distinguished by our intelligence, our powers of speech and expression, our ability to use tools and to build things, our ability to learn and teach, and our diversity (no two of us, even twins, are exactly alike). There are 6.781 billion of us now. Few of us will live more than a hundred years, and fewer still will have more than a few decades to contribute more than carbon to the world.

Among the many recent developments in civilization, two stand out. One is a widespread realization that the effects of human activity on the planet are non-trivial. The other is a growing ability to connect with each other and communicate over any distance at very little cost. What will we do with this knowledge, and the ability to share it? Will we follow the model of civilizations that waste the places where they live? Or will we prove to be creatures who can change their nature and stop doing that?

The former is the way to bet. The latter is the way to go.

Bonus read: John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. A third of it is called “Los Angeles vs. The San Gabriel Mountains.” While it is mostly about “debris flows” — slow motion landslides — that happen during winter rains, the important part for today’s discussion involves a primary condition for those flows: mountain slopes denuded of vegetation by fires. This means you can count on many mudslides this coming winter.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

mtwilsonfire1

Just arrived at my house in Santa Barbara after a long drive down from Monterey. Most of the way I listened to live coverage of the Station Fire on KNX/1070, both through the car radio (KNX has a huge signal that covers the whole southwest at night) and online over my iPhone, which was plugged into the AUX input of the radio in my rented Ford Focus (not a bad car, by the way).

Here’s KNX’s latest story, with a map.

Here is a set of mashed-up fire maps I just created, courtesy of MODIS and the U.S. Forest Service and Google Earth.

On the Live Web

Lots of grist for (and from) the news mills there.

Among other directions, the fire is moving eastward across Mt. Wilson, which looms over Los Angeles from just north of Pasadena. Mt. Wilson is one among many points along the nearest ridge of the San Gabriel Mountains, most of which lie within the Angeles National Forest. Perhaps more significantly, it is the home to nearly all the transmitters of FM and TV stations serving the Los Angeles metro. Also Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Reports say that firefighters (two of which have died so far) are doing their best to protect the Mt. Wilson facilities, but I wonder how long they’ll stay before driving back down. The only road out to the north is the long and winding Angeles Crest Highway — which is closed and may already be burned — and Mt. Wilson Road itself, which goes west through areas colored in the map above. The LATimes says the firefighters will stay there “no matter what”.

I’ve been to Mt. Wilson a number of times, and have often shot it from the air as well. These now comprise “before” pictures of the mountain.

Here is a Bing “birds eye” view of one section of the top of Mt. Wilson. This shot shows the observatory.

This Google Map shows the parking area where I assume firefighting equipment can keep away from advancing fire.

For what little it’s worth, the five zillion channels I get on my Dish Network TV system have nothing I can find on the fire. The locals here in Santa Barbara are running network shows. CNN and HLN are covering two dead guys. CNN has Larry King interviewing Ted Kennedy, and HLN has junk news coverage of Michael Jackson’s creepy autopsy results. As a news environment, TV is a slo-mo suicide victim.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

jesusita_google_modis8

(Scroll to the bottom for my latest. Not the latest, just mine.)

The shot above looks west from the eastern flank of the Jesusita fire, above Montecito.  The overlays are MODIS (the dots and squares) and GEOMAC (the red line). I think the GEOMAC data is older, but I’m not sure. Both were downloaded at about 4:42am, Pacific time. The newest detections are red and the oldest are yellow. They are from instruments on satellites and may or may not indicate major fire activity. One during the Tea Fire suggested that the fire had spread far down into the Riviera district and toward town. When I checked the spot, it turned out to have been a fire in part of a small isolated oak tree. No fire had spread to or from there.

Still, the data do show changes in the fire’s approximate perimeter over time. Step through this photoset and you can see how the fire has gone over the past few days.

Sean Trek has a way of seeing MODIS with radiative power.

It looks to me now like the next challenge, after saving lives and homes, is keeping the fire from burning for many more days or weeks across the back country. The trick here is to let the fire take nature’s course while also keeping it away from civilization. It is a significant fact that California’s state tree (the Coast Redwood) and state flower (the California Poppy) are both adapted to fire. One might also make the case that the latter is adapted to earthquakes.

I don’t doubt that if any of the three most recent fires — Gap, Tea and Jesusita — had hit fifty years ago, much of Santa Barbara would have been cremated by this morning. Since we are among more than 30,000 current evacuees, that might  have included our house too. Firefighting and team coordination have vastly improved just since the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, when more than 600 homes were lost. Experience from that fire led to many of the improvements that saved homes this past week. (For a history of Santa Barbara’s wildfires, go to Santa Barbara Outdoors, and read the remarkable series that starts here. It covers the eight fires between 1955 and 1990.)

Life everywhere is a losing game with death. We just hope that the substantive things we do and build will outlive us. In much of California, the chance that our homes will outlive us is smaller than most other places. Some homes lost in the Tea Fire had replaced homes on the same property that had burned in 1964 Coyote Fire and again in the 1977 Sycamore Fire. Among disasters that might befall homes in California, only earthquakes are more certain to occur, and in more places. Hence the higher insurance costs.

But still the graces of living here are exceptionally high. Mild, sunny weather. Clean air. Beautiful mountains and beaches. Wonderful people. Excellent university. So we do.

And every day we should thank the heroic work required of the firefighters who keep the worst of nature at bay. Posted 5:38am, Pacfic.

Meanwhile, I’m glad to see the subtitle in Gretchen Miller’s report in the Independent, Fires Burn In Canyon Near Painted Cave: Favorable Weather Conditions Keep Fire Under Control. From around 10pm last night. 6:20am

The LA Times has a story on the fire, dated 10:28pm last night.

Last night on KCLU before going to sleep I heard that the Gane House at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden was destroyed. This confirms it. 6:28am

A news conference is scheduled for 8am. Just heard that on KNX, which has done an excellent job covering the fire.

Okay, the press conference just ended. KCLU, KNX and KTYD (and, presumably, some or all of its four sister stations) all carried it. KCLU bailed before it was over. So did KNX, though they stuck it out a bit longer. Only KTYD stayed until the end. (Bravo for them.)

The news that matters is that the fire is “contained” along the northern border of Santa Barbara. Thus spake SB Fire Chief Andrew DeMizio (who always starts by spelling his name). He was glad to see “that black line” on the new Incident map. Contained does not mean put out. He had another word for that, but I forget what it was.

The language is interesting. A fire is an “indicent”. Police, fire, Red Cross and other personnel are “assets”. Lifting an evacuation order is “repopulation”. My kid just said, “I thought ‘repopulation’ was what you got after the first population has died”.

Inexcusable, if true: No questions about locations still apparently threatened. (Could be that somebody asked and I didn’t hear it.) Specifically, the only two communities up in the Santa Ynez Mountains, overlooking the city: Painted Cave and Flores Flat. I gathered from the Indy story mentioned above that Painted Cave was okay. But the only way I knew that Flores Flat survived was from a little human interest feature that KNX has been running over and over again: comments by a woman who gave advice about what to take and what to leave behind. She said she had resigned herself to losing her home in Flores Flat, but was surprised to find it had survived. Frankly, I’m amazed that Flores Flat is okay. I’ll bet the firefighters gave special attention to that one. Maybe one of the places where the DC-10 laid down some of its 12000+ gallons of fire retardant was between Flores Flat and the fire.

Flores Flat is far up Gibraltar Road, between Gibraltar Peak (where many of Santa Barbara’s FM stations radiate from, including KCLU and KTYD) and the site farther up the mountain face where hang gliders and paragliders launch toward the city when the winds are right.  From the looks of the map and overlays above, the fire movement was eastward away from Gibraltar, and up and over the crest of the ridge near Montecito Peak to the east and LaCumbre Peak to the west.

The Tea Fire surely created a fire break as well. It burned much of Gibraltar road, and up the face of Gibraltar Peak, where it roasted the antennas of KCLU and many of the other stations there. KTYD and its AM sister KTMS are located a few hundred feet above and behind there, so they survived.  To the west of there are some of the main power lines that supply the city. As I recall those lines are draped quite high, and I suppose survived the fire as it approached Gibraltar road this time. Other high power lines coming into the Goleta side of town were hurt in the Gap Fire last summer, knocking out power for much of the city at the time.

The weather is much better now. Cooler, and moist, with marine layer fog moving in off the Pacific Ocean to the south. Vari0us officials cautioned that this could change, and in fact it probably will. Typical late Spring and Summer weather is early morning fog, burning off as the day goes on. Whether hot “sundowner” winds return is still an open question, but various weather sources suggest that won’t happen. On the other hand, if the fire gets into Paradise Valley on the north side of the ridge, the story might be different. The climate there tends to be much hotter and dryer than on the Santa Barbara side of the mountains. 8:50am

We have friends in Worchester who were going to Santa Barbara to see Katy Perry’s last show, in her home town. That last link is from Noozhawk, which I’ve neglected to follow more closely. The reason is that Santa Barbara is being repopulated with a raft of new and improved media sources growing like a ring of redwood sprouts where a mighty tree has fallen. That tree is the Santa Barbara News-Press, a once fine newspaper that was (and remains) in a much better position to survive than papers in other cities that are owned by stressed public companies or private individuals with shallower pockets. The story of the News-Press’s meltdown is not yet the stuff of legend, only because it’s still going on. Kind of like a fallen tree with a few intact roots, staying alive, but barely. For more on that, just look up Wendy McCaw on Google. Or read Craig Smith. It’s his main beat. A sample:

A major fire in town didn’t stop the Santa Barbara News-Press from doing business as usual. In this case, “business as usual,” meant laying people off.

This time, the unlucky employee was Jued Martinez. He was a digital image technician for the paper, the “go-to-guy for Photoshop issues,” as he put it, working in the camera (pre-press) department for many 15 years.

He announced his own layoff via Twitter around 1:40 Thursday afternoon by saying, “Wow! I’m available for Design work now. Just got laid off from the SBNP. Feel a little better now, not worrying about it.”

To witness how retro and self-destructive the News-Press is, go to their Jesusita Fire Coverage page. Click on a story. Say, this one. You get one sentence. Then you’re told to long in. Subscribers only. Hell, even when we were subscribers, we couldn’t get in there. I’m sure it all disappears or scrolls behind a paywall after a few days in any case. Gone like snow on the water.

Except as a source of fodder about itself, the News-Press plays a self-minimized role in the local news ecology. For getting news on the fire, that includes:

  1. Twitter search for Jesustiafire or Jesusita (@latimesfires uses this search)
  2. Google News search for Jesusita (most recent)
  3. The Independent
  4. Edhat
  5. Noozhawk
  6. City2
  7. KNX
  8. KTYD
  9. KCLU
  10. KCSB

With the radio stations, I mean their streams, not their sites.

I’ll add others later (including stream addresses). Gotta go. Here’s a photo pool in the meantime. 9:33am

And here’s one last photo, courtesy of the only commenter so far on this post:

jesusita_google_modis9

Thanks, nathan. 10:19am

They’re “repopulating” at last. The worst is over. 10:48am

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

jesusita_google_modis4

The shot above, a screen capture of a Google Earth view, with a .kml overlay from MODIS, shows the first fire detections (that I’ve seen at least), south of Foothill/Cathedral Oaks and west of 154. It also shows the first detections across the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains. 3:02am. (All times Pacific.)

These detections do not mean fire spreading. During the Tea Fire, there were many detections that didn’t spread, at some distance from the fire itself. Still, this map gives a good visualization  of the growing fire perimeter. 3:03am

KEYT/3′s 3:00am video report. 3:04am

Far as I know, only KTYD is covering the fire live right now, at 3:10am. All the talk is about evacuations. Nothing about homes burning. KTYD’s four sister stations are also carrying the same audio. Click on “Listen Live” on the website. 3:13am

The latest from the Independent:

The fire is only a few hundred yards from Foothill in the San Roque area, but doesn’t appear to be burning any houses at the moment thanks to the firefighters concerted effort to hold Foothill Road.

Firefighters extinguished a small spot fire at Steven’s Park and trying to save homes at Canyon Acres off Ontare. One structure is already burning there; firefighters requested three to four extra engines to protect approximately 12 houses. 3:28am

Collected Independent coverage. 3:28am Copied from a byline: Ray Ford, Matt Kettmann, Chris Meagher, Ben Preston, Nick Welsh. These guys are doing a great job. Near as I can tell, the Indy is the only news organization with reporters working the fire around the clock. Outstanding work.

Hats off to Edhat as well. There are 328 comments so far to Ed’s latest report. 5:32am

From among the Edhat comments, this collection of GOES-10 satellite photos. Interesting to see where the smoke goes. 5:35am

John Wiley has lots of photos. 5:41am

I listened to the first three or four speakers in the 8am press conference, and then made the good chap I had an appointment with wait while we both listened to see if anybody would say what listeners most wanted to hear: what homes were lost, and what homes were most in danger. I hate to be critical of people doing heroic and much appreciated work, especially when it is quite true — as these speakers said — that many more homes were saved than lost, and at great risk and effort. I’ll just say it was frustrating not to get specifics about homes. Maybe they came around to it eventually. I don’t know. Eventually I had to turn off the radio (actually an iPhone tuned to KTYD) and get on with my meeting.

On the positive side, dig what Matt Kettmann (Contact), Sam Kornell , Ben Preston (Contact), Ethan Stewart (Contact) of the Independent wrote in Assessing What’s Burned: Damage Report, Updated Friday:

Although the task can be difficult in a wildfire zone — especially one with as many twists, turns, and long driveways as the foothills of Santa Barbara — The Independent’s reporters are trying their hardest to deliver what everyone who’s evacuated wants to know: the addresses of homes that have not survived the Jesusita Fire.

And deliver they do. First, the disclaimer:

We are fully aware that mistakes in this sort of reporting could be horrible for homeowners who get the wrong information, so we’ve strived for the utmost accuracy. Furthermore, based on responses we’ve already received during this fire and others, we believe that this public service is one of our most valuable roles as a media entity, and hope you find the information useful.

As of 1:30 p.m. on Friday, the following is what The Indy’s team of reporters has been able to put together.

Then the list, with very careful qualification. Excellent stuff. If the Indy doesn’t get an award for its fire coverage, there is no justice in Officialized Journalism.

Here is a recent Google Earth shot with a MODIS overlay of fire spottings by satellite. Note the difference between this one and the shot at the top from early this morning:

jesusita_google_modis5

The nearest red spot is above San Jose Creek in the canyon above Patterson Ave, near some orchards or vineyards. This is in or below the area burned by the Gap Fire in July of last year. Perhaps more scary is the set of new red squares advancing northwest toward Painted Cave, which is on the left edge of this shot. Here’s a better view:

painted_cave

The last big fire in Santa Barbara — and the biggest ever in terms of home loss — was the Painted Cave Fire of 1990. More than 600 homes were lost. But none in Painted Cave itself. The fire started near there, but advanced straight down toward the sea. Many of the houses you see on this picture between the 101 and 154 symbols on this shot were burned in that fire. 5:09pm

There’s a press conference going on. I’m listening on KNX/1070. Also KCLU/1340/102.3. The KCLU stream (which is what I’m now listening to, here in Boston) is here. 5:14pm.

30,500 are evacuated. (That includes us, by the way. We’re kind of extremely evacuated, staying about 3,000 miles away.) “There will be no re-population tonight.” Shelter is available. Room left at the Multi-Activities Center at UCSB. Find it off Mesa. “A supurb evacuation center.” Special needs folks should go to the Thunderdome on the campus. KCLU is summarizing now. KNX continues to carry the audio of the conference. Surprising since KNX is a Los Angeles news station that covers all of SoCal, and needs to run advertising every few minutes. So they’re eating that income. KCLU is back to its regular NPR program. 5:22pm

Inciweb has a Jesusita Fire incident page now. For earlier fires, Inciweb has been the canonical (if unofficial) source of data. KNX just directed listeners looking for non-Santa Barbara news to KFWB, its sister station in Los Angeles. KNX has a strong signal in Santa Barbara. KFWB has none and is much more local to L.A. itself. 8:27pm

They’ve been using “multiple arial assets” including a DC-10 that can deliver large payloads.5:32

Getting close to posting addresses and other “assessments”. “Confident we’re moving towards” posting those. In the next two days. Close to 2500 personnel. More than 200 fire engines. Massive mutual aid program. 5:33pm

Can somebody ask about Painted Cave? 5:34pm

Pictures from Mercury Press. 5:40pm

Ray Ford has another excellent piece in the Independent. To answer a commenter, below, Cocopah was okay. Ray names names on other streets as well. 7:31pm

Here is a view toward MODIS fire findings. I’ve added Gap and Tea Fire perimeters as well. When this thing is over, we’ll have a charred mountain face, but not a bad fire break. For a short while, anyway. 7:38p

jesusita_google_modis6

Okay, that’s enough pictures for your browser to suffer. I’m heading for bed. It’s 10:39 here and I need to be up early. 7:39pm

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The fire in Santa Barbara is officially called the Tea Incident, because it started near (or at) a (or the) tea house, on Mountain Road in Montecito. (Here? Ah, no, here.)

There are lots of good places to see what’s happening. One of the best is this Google Map. KEYT, Edhat, the Independent, Noozhawk and others are helpful. Inciweb has nothing so far, perhaps because the Tea Incident is not yet an official wildfire. It’s usually very helpful once it gets rolling on a fire. And the MODIS maps are great. That’s a screenshot of one, above.

It’s also a little too interesting that temperatures will be as high as 90° today (unusually hot for here) with strong winds from the northeast. Which will be bad, if any of the fire is still going. Some of it will be, but it’s clear that this is not a rolling conflagration like the Oakland fire in 1990 or the San Diego fire last year. Watching the Montecito and Santa Barbara fire chiefs and Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum in a press conference right now. The phrases “damage assessment” and “mopping up” are being used. Also “narrow window of opportunity” to contain the fire.

So right now the top thing people want to know is, Which houses have burned down? Can we be exact about what has burned? Saying “over a hundred homes” gives us a quantity of nothing.

If anybody has something exact — streets and neighborhoods, if not addresses — let us know in the comments below. Meanwhile I’ll be headed out shortly to check things out, or at least to sit at a coffee shop and hang out with concerned and/or evacuated neighbors.

[Not much later...] The County Sherrif is on now, and giving specifics. The Mount Calvary Retreat House and Monastery is completely distroyed. (A beautiful place, and a terrible loss.) Areas where many homes burned: Las Canoas, East Mountain Drive, Gibraltar Road, Scofield Park. Mostly inside a triangle between Westmont Collage, the East Riviera and St. Mary’s. (By Rattlesnake Canyon.) Over 100 homes lost, but many also saved.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,