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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.

Instinct and error

We humans have a well placed instinct to fear fire. We also all have a tendency to err. We had quite an experience with both instinct and error this week. But first, a little background.

We have lived at the property we affectionately call the finca, Ladera Frutal, since the summer of 2002. It is located in Bonsall, south of state route 76 and west of interstate 15. I felt this area was as safe as any semi-rural part of this dangerous county could be, and that’s one of the reasons we chose to move here, rather than Fallbrook, Coronado Hills (San Marcos), or Harmony Grove. Those were all places we seriously considered, to the point of looking closely at minute details of property history and legal issues in some cases. Those are all places that were evacuated and seriously threatened or even burned this week.

Our own little corner of Bonsall is fairly well protected. Instinct tells me that a fire is a fairly low risk here. We have many acres of avocado groves all around us. For example, see the banner photo above [update: the old banner], where you can see that the whole area above our house is covered with groves. (This view is almost due north, from the canyon bottom below, and you can see that most of south and eastern slopes of Mt. Ararat are indeed covered with avocado trees.) Avocado trees will burn, of course, but they burn rather slowly, because they have thick leathery leaves and healthy avo trees are full of water (as I am reminded every time the monthly water bill comes in). The Santa Ana winds–those fierce, drying winds that come mainly the northeast and mainly in fall and winter–blow less strongly here than most of the canyon areas of southern California, because the canyon we are in is one of the few in the area that drains from the southeast and then runs due west. Winds can be so strong up near highway 76 (which runs in the San Luis Rey river canyon, which in turn drains from northeast to southwest) that you can barely stand up, while here they will be much weaker. (Parts of Fallbrook this week had 50+ MPH gusts, while our greatest was 21.) Between us and the most at-risk areas, there are not only lots of avocado trees, but also wetlands. So, of course a fire could come and devastate this area. It is in San Diego County, and the whole county is at risk. But instinctively, I feel this area is pretty safe–for a semi-rural portion of this region. Yet this week, there was good reason to doubt one’s sense of safety, to feel a fire was unlikely here was to engaged in complacency.

With the ‘Rice’ fire–named after the beautiful and lush north-south canyon with “one of the least improved through roads in the county” to our northeast where arcing power lines ignited dry brush ((I saw an interview with the head firefighter for the region, in which he said it was downed power lines that sparked the fire. But later, the SD emergency website posted a notice that the Rice fire was “human caused,” but that there were no further details yet.))–quite close and with our finca downwind of it, we were getting fairly concerned by Monday afternoon. The most worrisome news up to this point was the burning of parts of the Pala Mesa Resort, which is about 4.5 miles northeast of us.

At least one of us was up through the night both Monday and Tuesday. Finally, at 1:00 on Wednesday morning, Merry woke me and told me that the TV had listed Bonsall as under mandatory evacuation. I went to the SD emergency website and it showed an order for Bonsall north of 76. We are south, so we appeared not to be under threat from a fire burning about 3 miles north but moving west, nor under orders to get out. Instinct said we were safe. And there were stars in the sky and a beautifully clear view of the moon, and absolutely no wind. All common sense said that, despite ash floating in the air, there was no fire close enough to be an imminent threat and no weather conditions that would allow one to rip through the wide and wet riverbed and many thousands of avocado trees between the Rice fire and us.

But conditions can change rapidly, and there were some occasional wind gusts on an otherwise calm night. I stayed at the computer, monitoring a discussion forum at the North County Times website (which includes good maps of the fires). This on-line forum was a great resource, a real community service by this newspaper. There was notice there about evacuation for all of Bonsall posted by their reporter who was moderating the discussion. I asked if he had information regarding an evacuation order other than the SD emergency news release and he said no, apologizing that he misread the statement regarding parts of Bonsall, rather than all of it. (By area, if not by population, by far most of Bonsall is south of 76, but the only indications of “Bonsall” on the Thomas Bros. maps –the standard map resource in these parts–are on the north side, so the error is easy to make.)

Then shortly after 3:00 a.m., two people posted that there were reverse 911 calls ((We would learn shortly that such a call–which we worriedly were awaiting–does not go to unlisted numbers unless you have taken the initiative to register your number with the county emergency office. Who knew? Perhaps everyone but us.)) going to areas very close to us and that 211 (the county’s fire-information hot line) was telling people that all of Bonsall was being evacuated, as the fire had jumped Hwy 76 at Gird Road (more or less due north, and barely over 2 miles away).

It was no longer difficult to imagine that winds could pick up around sunrise (as the forecast at the time suggested) and that the fire could race up the southern wall of the San Luis Rey valley, which has many areas of high brush. Because fire naturally burns faster uphill than down, it would not even take significant winds for it to advance this way. If it did that, it could come up any of the several small canyons that have brush in them and that would channel winds, including the winds made by the fire itself. The northern and western sides of Mt. Ararat are less irrigated and planted, and have a lot of brush. Such a fire would still have to get through a lot of groves–the closest of which was being irrigated all that night–before it would get to us. But by the time it reached the crest of Ararat it would be only about half a mile away. Narrow canyons leading down from there could cut off escape routes even sooner than the fire could reach us. The disaster scenario was now seeming quite real.

I called 211 shortly after 4:00 and identified my location as south of 76, and the operator said that we were required to have been out hours ago! So, we got belongings together (really essential things had been in the car since Monday, in case something happened without notice), caged four of the five cats ((The fifth had to be loose in the car; we’ll have to be sure to get a fifth carrier just in case this happens again. We hadn’t really prepared for the “finca feline” who came with the property, stays outdoors other than during freeze or current smoke conditions, and would not even let us near her for almost four years before finally warming up to us and revealing what a nice cat she is after all.)), and were out by 5:00.

Only later did I realize that by 4:30, everyone on the NCT on-line discussion forum was aware that the reverse 911 calls, the report of the fire crossing 76, and the info that all of Bonsall was ordered to evacuate were all in error. We never had to get out. My instinct was right all along that there was no real risk here from this event. But there had been the risk that we were being complacent, and there was the instinctive fear of fire and the fear that it was I, and not the emergency operators, who was in error. It is certainly better to evacuate unnecessarily than to wait till it might be too late.

The eight of us (three humans and five felines) went to my mother-in-law’s place in Vista–only about 20 minutes away but in an area with no threat–for several hours after 5:00 a.m. Wednesday. We are back home safe now. There was no fire here. And there is currently no risk to any of Bonsall. The Rice fire is still mostly un-contained, but is burning now only on the north and east side of Fallbrook, mostly in unpopulated areas of the rugged and wild Santa Margarita River valley (where the first railroad to San Diego once ran). The ash and sooty grime are unbelievable for an area that did not have its own fire–far worse than in 2003. And the air quality is awful, but not as bad as it was Tuesday, nor has it been as bad as it was for two days in 2003. It has been a miserable week. But it has not been nearly as bad for us as for a half million or so others in the county who evacuated, nor for those whose homes were among the hundreds destroyed (and others still threatened). We are fortunate to have avoided real danger.

Thanks to the many colleagues, friends, family and those I “know” only because you read this blog for your expressions of concern. I am sorry for the extended absence here. I did not reconnect the computer till today, being simply too exhausted and overwhelmed with the experience to do much of anything. Fortunately, there is the World Series to help get back to normal, and last night it got off to pretty much exactly the start I expected. Welcome, Rockies, to the big leagues!!