Australian fires

I have a lot of readers and regular commenters in Australia. I actually don’t know where most of them live. I just wanted to take a moment to say that I hope you are all safe. Being a Californian, I know that, even if you do not live in direct harm’s way, the smoke and the accompanying weather can make life difficult during these emergencies. Be safe, and be well.

Smoke and chill

We have been dealing with heavy smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County, which is a couple hours’ drive north of us. The weather conditions have been such that the smoke has settled and some days it has been like a fog that starts out moderately thick and never totally clears.

What I did not expect was that it would be so cold during this smoky phase. The fire began on 8 November, and the winds that initially made the fire so devastating died down late in the day on the 11th. Since then, we have had six straight mornings with low temperatures at 36F or lower, including three at 32 and two more at 33. This is substantially colder than the norm for this time of year. Usually–at least in the years I have been at this location–we do not get a morning below 32 until some time in December.

The NWS forecast discussion last night mentioned, “The smoke is keeping temperatures below normal blocking heating from the sun during the day and allowing heat to escape at night, unlike cloud cover.”

It is obvious that smoke cover would keep daytime highs down. In fact, we have not had a high temperature higher than 66 for the past six days, and some days have been only 62 or 63. That is near or a little below the norm for mid-November. (Normal low and high temperatures for the month of November around here would be more like 41 and 66.)

I would not have expected smoke to help keep it so cool overnight. Perhaps naively, I would have expected it to act more like cloud cover. Evidently, however, the fire has had the effect of getting our winter-chilling off to an early start. The deciduous trees are presumably dormant enough by now to “receive” chill, so this early cold snap is a good start.

The fire has been one of the worst disasters in the state in some time, and the air quality has resulted in UC Davis being shut down since 12 November and through the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Through all the awfulness, these cold mornings have been welcome.

Yes, we most certainly felt it

In case anyone is wondering, yes, we felt the 7.2 earthquake on Sunday afternoon. Even though it was about 180 km away, we rolled and shook a lot here. No damage, but a few minor things fell over. Lots of creaking could be heard in the house. The shaking started slow and gentle, then got more and more intense. It lasted for over 20 seconds, which does not seem very long–except when you are shaking and wondering when it will stop.

There have been numerous smaller quakes throughout the afternoon, many of them centered just to the east/southeast of us, north of the border.

The main quake would count as one of the largest I have personnally experienced, going back to 1971 Sylmar and 1987 Whittier Narrows (when I lived in Orange County), and the Northridge and Landers quakes in the 1990s (when I lived on the coast in San Diego County). It is hard to rank them, given the vagaries of memory, but this probably felt bigger than some of those others, despite the distance.

No, earthquakes are not something you really ever get “used” to, and, yes, I could do without them.

Kucinich in Fallbrook

In my previous entry on ‘minor’ candidates, I wondered why Dennis Kucinich, along with Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray, had been in Fallbrook recently to discuss wildfire response.

The reason is that Kucinich chairs the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee. Issa and Bilbray are the only two local members of that Committee. Now his appearance makes more sense.

In his statement (which you can find through the link in the previous paragraph) he has a mild, but still somewhat stinging, rebuke to San Diego County officials for allowing their County to remain the only one in California without a fire department. The County continues to have a patchwork of small special districts and private fire companies. Local control and all that. Problem is that wildfires are very much a whole-County phenomenon. They have this annoying tendency to start way out east in the jurisdiction of some little, understaffed and underfunded, department or district and then, by next morning, be burning houses in incorporated cities. In 2004, there was 81% Countywide endorsement of a ballot measure (advisory only, of course) to propose a consolidate County fire department. This was in the wake of the 2003 fires. Of course, nothing has been done. And then came the 2007 fires.

Good for Kucinich to help shed some light on this problem. I don’t think it will win him any delegates out this way for his presidential campaign (given the 15% threshold), but it might win him a vote or two from some frustrated residents of an always badly governed County’s urban-wildlands interface.

Power wash

Before the fires were even contained, makeshift signs went up all over advertising ash cleanup with power wash–despite repeated requests from the County not to power wash the ash away. “Away” just means downhill to someone else’s property or downstream to wetlands and the shoreline. Of course, there was also the regular whir of leaf blowers, an even worse way to “clean up” the toxic ash fall: putting the fine stuff right back into the airstream.

However, after weeks of dealing with ash literally everywhere outdoors–despite having undertaken the recommended cleanup via sweeping and disposal in the trash in areas where it was practical, such as in front of the house, office, and garages–I was getting close to ordering a power wash after all. Well, I sure got it!

There is no better power wash than the free kind. Nearly three inches of rain in just over a 24-hour period, with occasional bouts of relatively heavy showers, and the ash is nearly all gone.

During that worst night of the week of firestorms, the early hours of Wednesday morning, the ash was falling like snow. Unlike snow, it does not melt away. Here is what the trees and fruit looked like as a result.

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The bigger particles blew off after a few days, but a sticky ashy residue remained until the rains.

Everything is nice and clean at the finca again. My apologies to those, of various species, downhill and downstream, who got the ash that washed down from the finca.

Locals: What’s the smoke like?

Revised and extended (as they say on Capitol Hill).

I hope some readers in San Diego and nearby counties can report what the smoke is like in their areas today.

It is really bad here today. A blue-grey haze. Much worse than yesterday, when we actually had high clouds and some light rain showers, after which it actually got clear. It is not clear (so to speak) to me whether this is just localized in the canyons areas, of all over.

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Compare the above photo with the one from 23 October. Bad as it has been today, it could be worse!

Friday night it was clear enough that the (just past full) moon actually was a pure white again. Last night too. Earlier in the week, it had been a rather unpleasant orangish color due to all the smoke in the sky.

I don’t have any moonshots to post (surprising, I know), but here is what the sun looked like on 24 October.

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And the next photo shows the sky yesterday afternoon. There were lots of clouds and even some light rain. It is amazing that any rain could fall given how dry the atmosphere has been. We still have had ground-level humidity barely go above 50% at any point in the past week except early Saturday morning, when it was briefly in the 80s.

Even when the light rain was falling, the humidity was quite low (30% range). We were out in the afternoon and passed through Escondido during a surprisingly good (but brief) rain shower. Even under the cloud cover, we could see a thick column of smoke still rising from a fire in the distant northeast, near Palomar Mountain. (No camera handy then, unfortunately; it was quite an impressive sight.)

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The photo above also gives some idea of the ash fall here at the finca. The grime and dirt you see on the sidewalk here is actually mostly ash.

Today it is hot again. 92 at last check,with 17% humidity. But winds have been light and mostly from the southwest.

Update: After about 1:00 p.m. it has become a good deal clearer here.

Google Earth view of fires

If you have Google Earth (and if you do not, why not?) and want to see where the fires burned, the SD County Emergency website now has maps that overlay the approximate fire perimeters on the satellite maps of the county. (Clicking that link will download a kml file.)

When you open the file in Google Earth, the fire areas first appear as big green blotches. It took me a while to notice that one can make them transparent and thus see what is underneath. ((Presumably most F&V readers are savvy enough that they would figure that out faster than I did, but just in case…))

Warning: It is sickening. The resolution of Google Earth images is such that you can make out not only houses, but features of people’s yards. You really get a sense of what was burned ((Of course, not everything you see is destroyed. Many structures in the burn areas will have survived due to the dedication of firefighters on scene and the efforts of homebuilders and homeowners to make homes capable of withstanding wildfire. In fact, I am able to identify a street within the depicted fire perimeter and on which one friend lives, and I know her house survived (but neighbors’ homes were lost).)), and the images are very hard to look at. For some reason, I find this almost more difficult than what’s shown on TV from ground level.