Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Fires

So I'm pretty much the last person to actually write anything about the wildfires that have been nearly surrounding my house. Last Sunday, mid-day, there was a plume of smoke that rose above our house. We live in an area that burns fairly regularly, so we weren't too alarmed at the time. However, we are also experiencing very strong Santa Ana winds, so the fires have spread like ... well, wildfire. Some paragraphs from the "Wikipedia" entry:

Santa Anas are a type of föhn wind, the result of air pressure buildup in the high-altitude Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. This high energy wind spills out of the Great Basin and is pulled by gravity into the surrounding lowlands. The air circulates clockwise around the high pressure area bringing winds from the east and northeast to Southern California (the reverse of the westerly winds characteristic of the latitude)...

The air is then forced down the mountain slopes out towards the Pacific coast; the air mass is further heated by compression as it drops in altitude before reaching the Los Angeles Basin, western San Diego County, and Tijuana (Baja California) at typical speeds of 35 knots. The southern California coastal region gets some of its hottest weather of the year during autumn while Santa Ana winds are blowing. During Santa Ana conditions it is typically hotter along the coast than in the deserts and the humidity plummets to less than 15%.

As the Santa Ana winds are channeled through the mountain passes they can approach hurricane force. The combination of wind, heat, and dryness turns the chaparral into explosive fuel for the infamous wildfires for which the region is known.

Yep, that's exactly what's happening. We're getting explosive growth in these fires and after three days they're not even close to being contained. This image is a comparison of the fires above Los Angeles, and illustrates how quickly they grew in just a few hours.

The thing that's crazy about all these fires is that they keep appearing. On Sunday, I heard there were three fires in the Santa Clarita valley where I live. After hearing where they started (at sites near freeways, i.e. with quick in-and-out access), I immediately had the impression that some lunatic was wandering around starting them. Now the authorities have intimated that it looks very likely, as well, at least for the ones here in this valley. There are lots of fires all over southern California.

The ones by San Diego have affected the most people, but the one right by my house was actually the largest of the bunch. The following image shows the fires all over southern California. The second image is zoomed in and shows (exactly!) where my house is. Notice the direction of the plumes -- they're going west! Where we live, per what was written above and by my own experience, the wind nearly always blows to the east off the ocean, but not right now! The Santa Ana winds are very real.

So Sunday night, some friends of ours whose house is about 2.573 miles from here (as the crow flies) were told to evacuate their home due to the fires encroaching on their neighborhood. The husband of this family stayed at his house for a long time and ended up taking quite a few pictures of the fire above his house. The following picture is of the sky above his house, which looks like something out of a movie!

He watched the gnarly-looking helicopters and planes fly over his house and drop water over the fire.

It didn't appear to do much good as the fire continued to chase over the hill. Later that night the fire was quite dramatic on the hills.

His house was never really in danger, but he and his family stayed the night with us since they have a 3-week-old daughter whose young lungs don't deserve to be abused by smoke.

In any case, come the next morning we heard a knock on our door. It was a highway patrolman who told us to evacuate, and said, "You have 15 minutes." Uh huh. I was skeptical because my house is in the middle of hundreds of houses, well-surrounded by streets and other things that would serve as fire breaks. To top it off, my house is a new build with stucco walls, tile roofs; young, green trees, and block walls surrounding my yard. If my house ever goes up in flames because of a wildfire, then there are much bigger problems than what we have witnessed in the last few days.

Nevertheless, as law-abiding citizens, we quickly packed up our stuff (took us only about fifteen to twenty minutes, and that was taking our time) and headed out. We felt bad that our friends ended up getting evacuated twice, and they eventually flew out to Utah where they have some family. We ended up staying at our local church where, ironically, the air quality was far worse than at our own house. My family eventually went over to a friend's house who lived nearby where they could be a little more comfortable, while I waited things out at the church. We had people there who didn't have any place else to go, and I decided to stick around and help out.

Anyway, when we were evacuated, we took the following:
-- Our family.
-- Both vehicles.
-- Our 72-hour kit (which is somewhat outdated ... we need to do something about that)
-- Our cellphones.
-- Our computer box (just the box, no peripherals), which has all our family pictures and family history in it.
-- My work laptop.
-- Our safe with important papers.
-- Our insurance paperwork.
-- Telephone directories.
-- Our family photo CDs and (little) video tapes from our camcorder.
-- Some sleeping paraphernalia, including sleeping bags and pillows.
-- Two changes of clothes for each of us (in one suitcase).
-- Some snacks.
-- Some toiletries.
-- A few other odds and ends.

Since we didn't know how long we were to be gone, we let the kids take some favorite things, like my daughter's favorite blanket; but by and large, everything but the people and the family photographs/videos are replaceable, so we left it all behind. With our credit cards with us, we weren't really worried about much else.

After I sent my family off to the church, though, I stayed behind and checked on some neighbors and friends. It was a really enlightening experience. Some people were quite prepared and were able to get out without too much trouble. Others had no plan as to where they'd go or were completely clueless about what to do.

One man I spoke to was stuffing clothes into his truck. When I asked if he had someplace to go, he just said, "Not really." I told him he was welcome to go to the church where I'd just sent my family, but he shrugged me off, and went back into his house to grab another armful of clothes.

A teenager who lived across the street was just standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, staring in horror at the smoke chasing across the sky above us. She had absolutely no idea what to do. I asked her if her mother was home and she told me she was. I asked her if she knew we were supposed to evacuate, and she just looked at me like I was a space alien. I then told her she should probably take a sleeping bag or something, in case we couldn't come back that night, and she started nodding intently, as if that was the most brilliant idea that she'd ever heard. It was funny in a way, but also a little unnerving since she clearly was in way over her head.

Driving around the neighborhoods, I saw all sorts of things. One family was busy trying to pack all their television sets in the back of their truck. A few other families were just standing around, their kids playing, the parents just discussing the fires as if they hadn't even heard about the evacuation order.

Without fail, though, the families that were members of the church were ready to go when I came by to check on them. Each knew what they would take and what they would leave behind. Each knew where they would go, and even though some elected to stay where they were, they were ready to go if things began to look more dire (which they never did).

As for my little family, we rendezvoused at the church where the kids played a while. We had the foresight to bring a basketball, so they played with that for a while, but as the air quality was so bad, we quickly wanted to go someplace else. A friend of ours offered up her home for a while, which was good since it allowed our youngest to take a nap.

I stayed at the church and helped with people who wandered in and out. Around lunchtime, I went over to Papa Johns to buy some pizza for the people who were camping out at the church, but they were so far behind that I ended up buying chicken at Albertson's to feed the masses. It worked out all right, and the masses ended up only being a few families, but that's all right.

Almost the entire ward that is adjacent to ours was evacuated at one point in time. We expected a flood of people to show up at the church, but as it turned out, nearly everybody found someplace else to go.

What was really impressive was how everybody pulled together for this. It seemed like our cell phones were ringing out of our pockets the whole day, and news was passed quickly from place to place. The fact that families who were out of harm's way were so willing to open their homes was quite impressive.

I hear, though, that some families slipped through the cracks and were never effectively checked on or evacuated. It was a good lesson, I think, and I have no doubt that we will be having many discussions on how we can improve our emergency response times and effectivity.

Come yesterday afternoon, the church was empty -- people returned to their homes or went elsewhere. I closed up the building with the other man who stayed with me, and we, too, went to our homes. It was quite the experience. The fires still rage -- further west of us now -- and even though the freeways are a mess for now, life goes on and is returning to normal quite quickly.

Now, if this had been an earthquake ...

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