Category Archives: Disasters

July Can Take A Hike

As in, take a long hike off a short pier. Preferably into deep water with an anvil in your underwear. (Not a euphemism.)

As every month in the past four years or so has gotten steadily worse with only occasional bright spots (surgeries survived, great new job, fun trip in late 2018, Super Bowl champs, comet!) it’s gotten almost ridiculous how events come up some days and your only reaction is, “Really? REALLY??!! Where did THAT plot twist come from? That’s not believable, even Lot didn’t have that many bad things happening in such a short period!”

Yesterday we got the little earthquake to remind us to check our emergency bags. Today I was reminded why as much as I love flying things, I sort of hate hearing multiple helicopters and sirens. It might be a car chase or some other police activity, but you get to know the difference in sound between police sirens and fire truck sirens, and the helicopters sound different too, so at some point fairly quickly your subconscious says, “Maybe you should stick your head out the front door?”

Never good. Maybe it’s just a house or a car or something small…

Or, not. Good thing that it’s only 104°F out there and 14% humidity…

Fortunately Ventura and LA County Fire Departments are jumping on these little brush fires really fast and hitting them hard. This one was about two miles from us and even in this second picture which is only about a half hour after the fire started, you can already see the big fire-fighting bombers circling and dropping Phos-chek.

It was out in a couple of hours and it only burned 27 acres with no homes lost, so that’s a win.

But it’s time to review our evacuation plans and our 30-second, 5-minute, 15-minute, and 60-minute checklists.

It’s going to be a long summer. On top of COVID, fascism, and *waves hands vaguely* everything.


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More Fires

We’re safe. Nothing near our homes.

Nothing near Saturday’s wedding venue, although there have been two small brush fires that were in locations that could have exploded into Malibu Canyon. Fortunately, both were put out quickly and held to under 10 acres. The worst problem was some spectacularly lousy traffic on my commute home. (Remember that bottleneck I mentioned about the Calabasas Grade on the 101 Freeway? The small fires were on either side of that, one yesterday, one today, right in the heart of that pass.) Our undying thanks to the fire crews that jumped on those and saved us from a worst-case scenario.

There have been relatively few homes lost – just a few dozen across Southern California. Northern California is worse off.

But I’ve never seen the sheer number of fires all starting up at once. Watching the news where they were listing just the ones that were at least 30-40 acres up to 300-400 acres with freeways closed and evacuations ordered, there were at least seven or eight today. Plus the one by the Getty Museum from a few days ago that’s pushing 1,000 acres and is still burning. Plus the one that started this morning near the Reagan Museum (remember these views? – they were all on fire today, literally), surrounded the Library right up to the building perimeters, which is at 1,645 acres with 0% containment as of three hours ago.

And the winds are still howling. For 24 hours straight they’ve been blowing at 20-30 knots steadily with gusts much higher. And they’re expected to do that for another 24 hours – or more.

And all of the power outages are horrific, all over the state. The killer part is that the power companies, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, are shutting off the power for days at a time to millions of people and leaving them totally stranded with spoiled food, disabled people left in life-threatening conditions, businesses and schools shut down, lost wages… And they’re doing it to “prevent” more fires, which would be caused by their shoddy, ill-maintained power lines.

Yet several of the local fires look like they were started by…failures of shoddy, ill-maintained power lines.

These idiots are shutting off the power AFTER the fires start to try to prevent the fires from starting.

Even if we can’t get the morons of our society to accept the reality of climate change, can we get them to accept that time travel isn’t possible, no matter how bad they feel about the legal liability of being complete screw ups?

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Layers Of Smoke In The Sunset

I came out of the hangar on my way home at just the perfect time. The sun was just hovering on the horizon, blood red through layer after layer of smoke.

While the worst of the smoke (for the moment) isn’t hitting where we live, the smoke from the past several days of fires has been blown out over the ocean, where a lot of it is lingering. You can see different strata of smoke across the horizon.

It’s beautiful, in a horrific sort of way.

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Smoky Commute

One thing that the new job has a bit of (not too much) which the old job didn’t is a commute in LA traffic. To get to my old office in the morning or back home at night was 10-15 minutes or less and with the grid of local streets available there were a hundred different routes to take if one street or the other was blocked by an accident or something. The new job is 20-45 minutes in the morning (depending on if there’s an accident in the bottleneck through the Calabasas Grade on the 101 Freeway) and typically 40-60 minutes back home in the evening.


Today there was the additional complication of multiple brush fires in the area, which despite being 20 to 40 miles away, filled the air with smoke and ash.

Map from using data from County of Los Angeles, Esri, HERE, Garmin, METI/NASA, USGS, Bureau of Land Management, EPA, NPS, USDA | FEMA NSS, EGIS | USGS, GeoMAC, Esri | County of Los Angeles, Esri, HERE, Garmin, METI/NASA, USGS, Bureau of Land Management, EPA, NPS, USDA | NOAA, Esri | NASA, Esri

For those of you not familiar with the Los Angeles area, I’ve indicated the general area of home (red circle, red arrow) and the new office (red circle, green arrow). That freeway (white line) where it says “Calabasas” is where the 101 Freeway goes through the Calabasas Grade between the San Fernando Valley (Canoga Park, Winnetka, Reseda, Encingo, Granada Hills, etc) and the Canejo Valley (Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks).

Someone at the office noticed the smoke about 16:00 and our first thought was that for it to be that thick there must be a fire nearby – fortunately, that was not the case. Still, here’s the view from the office parking lot when I left at 17:00. I wish there was a way to convey the choking stench in the air.

I knew the commute would be tough for a couple of reasons, even though the fires weren’t near us. First, people get freaky when it smells of smoke and your eyes are burning and you’re starting to cough and it’s hazy and threatening… It’s a very base, animalistic response from somewhere way down on the brain stem left over from our lizard ancestors.

Secondly, with that “Basin” fire at the junction of the 101 and 405 Freeways 20 miles ahead there would be massive slowing. Part of it is people slowing down to simply watch the fire and smoke near the freeway, some of it is the reduced visibility. A lot of it is that many surface streets used as commuting shortcuts in that area had been shut down as fire crews moved in and possible evacuations were set up.

Sure enough, about two exits after I got on the freeway near the office, I saw this:

For reference, if there isn’t any traffic at all, this sign generally shows 7 minutes to Topanga Canyon and about 18-20 minutes to the 405 Freeway.

Welcome to LA – bring fire extinguishers!



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I hadn’t driven the Volvo in a while, but I had left the windows cracked open so that it wouldn’t fry inside setting in the sun.

When I did get in there, I realized that it had been open like that while last week’s brush fires had been going on about ten miles upwind from us.

Configured like that, it made a perfect little trap for ash and debris blown by the wind. The seats, floor mats, window sills, and controls were all covered with ash, twigs, and detritus. (I love that word!)

It’s also a good indicator of how these fires spread so damn fast in high winds. All of this was obviously cool by the time it got here, probably because it was fairly light. But much closer to the fire line, where the hot, heavier stuff is being carried, the fire will keep jumping and jumping, a couple miles at a time, hot embers falling into dry brush, dead leaves, the tops of palm trees…and the cars of people who left the windows cracked open.

Something to be remembered for next time, especially if the fire isn’t ten miles away!

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Sky Crane

While the fires near us (never got closer than about 10-12 miles, but had over 100,000 people evacuated and major freeways closed for days, several dozen homes destroyed and damaged) are not out, the winds have died down, the onshore flow has resumed and raised the humidity back out of single digits, and the fires are contained enough so that the evacuations orders have been lifted and the freeways re-opened.

That having been said, the fires are still a long way from out. With the calmer winds and better humidity, the fire fighters are hitting the fires hard, particularly with “aerial assets,” that is, planes and helicopters.

One of the big helicopters (I think it’s an Erickson Sky Crane, but not 100% positive) was being based out of Camarillo (CMA) right near our hangars. It was fun to watch it come and go.

Warning – I would recommend against starting this video with the sound too loud or while wearing headphones! This sucker is really, REALLY loud.

The strobing effect of the video capture mechanism in the iPhone is also interesting – that tail rotor looks like it’s barely moving, but in fact it was going at hundreds if not thousands of RPM!

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Yes, A Second Major Earthquake

We’re fine, it was a decent distance away. Tonight’s M7.1 quake was about 125 miles away from us, same as the M6.4 quake yesterday.

For those of you who don’t live on shaky ground, that means that for a major quake like that (we’ll see in the morning what’s going on in Ridgecrest and places near the epicenter, but a M7.1 will be knocking down buildings and collapsing bridges) is that here we felt very little of the violent shaking and rattling that you see near the epicenter, but lots of the the rolling and swaying that you get far away.

It’s a matter of physics and geology – check out the CalTech and USGS sites for details. The short version is that the violent, energetic, and largely vertical P-waves don’t travel very far through rock, while the horizontal S-waves with a much higher amplitude do. Then the S-waves damp out as they spread (very much like water waves if you drop a big stone into a calm pool) so 125 miles away you’re likely to feel seasick or dizzy instead of being thrown up against a wall as the bookshelf is falling over and trapping you underneath.

Tonight’s major quake being about eleven times as strong as yesterday’s means that the “oh, is that an earthquake? I think that it probably is!” reaction for 30 seconds or so was supplanted by tonight’s “holy shit, I think this might be getting bigger! sit down and hang on!!!” response for 60 or 90 seconds. Much more adrenaline, the same amount of actual damage. (i.e., NONE)

The scientists at CalTech (who all deserve medals and/or sainthood for dealing with the idiot reporters) always say there’s about a 1 in 20 chance on any earthquake that it will in fact be a foreshock, to be followed by a bigger quake in the next couple of days. Today we hit the jackpot! That’s great – until you hear them saying the same thing about today’s quake having a 1 in 20 chance of being a foreshock of something EVEN BIGGER tomorrow or Sunday.

That would be…exciting.

At least we’re not having any brush fires tonight! Just a couple of really energetic and loud mockingbirds who don’t seem to know that it’s bedtime.

1 in 20, eh? Feeling lucky, punk?

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A Most Bizarre Fourth Of July

First, there was a pretty decent sized earthquake.

I felt it as a long, slow swaying motion, sort of like being on a dock that’s floating free when the wake from a motorboat passes by. There was no rattling or shaking, no sharp movements, and no noise. But it went on and on, at least 30 seconds, possibly twice that. I had time to feel it, know what it was, and get out into the other room, where I could still feel it while standing for a while.

I recognize that phenomenon – it means there was a fairly big earthquake a fair distance away. (I felt the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake like that even though it was over 400 miles away.) This one was about 120 miles away.

It was “exciting.”

Then this afternoon I started hearing multiple helicopters coming low over the house and multiple sirens along Valley Circle Boulevard. Unfortunately, I recognize that phenomenon as well – brush fire!

Yep, that’s the same area that burned last November and kept us for four days with all of our critical documents and belongings packed in the car “just in case.” My money says that today’s brush fire was started by some moron with illegal fireworks.

Fortunately, winds were light, it wasn’t terribly hot, and LA City and LA County and Ventura County Fire Departments jumped on it pretty quickly with over two dozen fire trucks and crews and at least four helicopters. It took a couple of hours, but it’s out.

I hope your Fourth was more fun and less stressful than mine!

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Back in November, our area of California (among others) burned. The fires came within a half mile of our house.

Now the next part of the cycle comes, with the winter rains and a possible El Nino year dumping higher than normal amounts of rain on California, causing mud slides, flooding, rock slides, and other problems in the burn areas as they’re no longer protected by vegetation.

But it’s amazing how quickly the hills can turn from black to green again.

The contrast can be stark and vivid. Parts of the hillsides can still be black as night, burnt, and charred, while patches or even whole mountainsides are an almost iridescent green.

These pictures, taken along the 101 Freeway between Camarillo and Woodland Hills (my son was driving, so I got to take pictures yesterday) show other damage such as this, where rock slides have caused temporary barriers to be put up and lanes closed.

I don’t know what causes this phenomenon where the new growth is in a mottled or spider-web like pattern across the blackened hillside. You can see the burnt bushes and trees everywhere, but the green undergrowth along the ground has started to be re-established.

Just a few hundred yards way, the entire hillside is iridescent green, with the black stumps of the bushes sticking up through it.

This is how the cycle continues. As green as it is now, this brush will grow up and over the summer will spend nine months turning brown and highly flammable.

This might go on for ten years or more, the brush and weeds growing thicker during the winter months, green for a few weeks, and then drying up and turning brown in April and May, finally baking itself into tinder by July.

It’s the same with all of these trees – most of them will grow back and become lush again, just waiting for the next brush fired to come through, when they’ll turning into flaming torches, their leaves and branches burning, breaking, and being blown for miles in the high winds, starting new spot fires ahead of the main fire, spreading it faster than a person can run.

That’s the cycle – burn, regrow, dry out, burn again.

Welcome to California. We don’t know what will try to kill you this year – the earthquakes, the fires, the floods, or the mudslides.

Down here in the lower elevations, it’s unlikely to be a blizzard or hurricane.

But wait for it. That could be coming soon as the climate changes unpredictably.

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Twenty-Five Years Ago Tonight – Beyond The Aftermath

Two nights ago I described how we lived through the Northridge earthquake twenty-five years ago. We were less than five miles from the epicenter of a 6.7M quake, the largest in the Los Angeles area in over 160 years. 57 people died, over 8,700 people were injured, and the damage estimates range all the way up to $50B. We survived the initial shaking, everyone safe but full of adrenaline, and then checked the house for damage.

Last night I talked about the first few days after the earthquake, dealing with all of the utilities being out for days and starting to pick up the pieces. (Literally.)

The weeks and months after the earthquake were a different sort of hell from the first five minutes and the first five days. The first five minutes was a sprint through terror and adrenaline. The first five days was a couple of laps through a whole new world, finally ending in a modicum of normalcy returning as the utilities returned. The weeks and months afterward were an ultramarathon through that new world, realizing in many ways that it wouldn’t ever quite be the same.

There were aftershocks. Damn, I hate aftershocks. Just about the time your subconscious had forgotten to be terrified and on the edge of your seat 24/7, usually right about the time you dared to actually think, “Hey, it’s been a few days since we had a really good aftershock,” then that of course was when one would hit. Even the little ones could do that – it’s amazing how little shaking you need to get triggered while suffering through that particular form of PTSD.

Beyond that were the simple but omnipresent, pain in the ass, nagging inconveniences. It just wore you down.

There was debris everywhere. Almost everyone for miles and miles had some damage to their house or a cinder block wall that was down. An entire county, an area the size of a mid-sized state, all at once started piling tons of brick, wood, insulation, dirt, drywall, toilets, water heaters, and every other sort of construction material out on the curb. There were piles of debris for months, and as soon as the city swept through the neighborhood and picked it all up then new piles started.

On top of that, you couldn’t get there from here. The 10 Freeway through the heart of town from Santa Monica to Downtown had dozens of bridges that had collapsed or were unsafe. The original estimates were that it was going to take decades to get them all fixed. (To the credit of the mayor, governor, and everyone else involved, they did it in something on the order of a year – it was an amazing accomplishment.) A major overpass on the 118 Freeway had collapsed, blocking both the 118 and the 5 Freeways. Trying to get into the Antelope Valley was a nightmare for years afterward. The 5 Freeway, which is THE major artery between Los Angeles and Northern California, was blocked for weeks.

And yet…

Time moves on. Bridges and houses and schools and hospitals and office buildings do finally get repaired. Debris gets hauled off.

And people forget. They stop thinking of preparation for the next time. They are too busy to keep in mind that as bad as this was, it wasn’t “the Big One.” So preparation and preparedness becomes lax again.

We keep our bugout bags. Just in case.

We keep water and dry food stocked. Just in case.

I keep clothes and shoes and flashlights by my bed where I can find them. Just in case.

But it won’t be enough.

When “the Big One” hits, the power and water and gas and won’t be out for four or five days. It will be out for four or five months, if not longer.

The gas stations won’t be dark and dry for a week. They’ll be empty and useless for months.

The ATMs won’t be out of order for a few days. The grocery stores won’t be shuttered for a few days. The schools and offices won’t be closed for a week.

There won’t be 57 dead – there will be 5,000+ dead. Or 25,000+. Or 50,000+.

There won’t be 8,700 injured, there will be 100,000+. With very few hospitals, doctors, nurses, or other facilities left standing for a hundred miles.

There won’t be a dozen fires and buildings burning as they’re still shaking and collapsing. There will be thousands. (Look at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.)

It might happen tonight. It might happen in 100 years. There’s no way to predict, no way to know, no way to warn.

But they’re working on warning. The City of Los Angeles just released a free phone app that has the potential to give a few seconds of warning. It’s technology that’s used in Japan and other places, based on the fact that different types of energy released by an earthquake travels at different speeds through the earth. Before the major shaking arrives, low-frequency sound waves have traveled much faster and give an opportunity to sound the warning that the shaking is coming.

If you’re sitting on top of the epicenter, you don’t get any warning. It all happens at once. But if the San Andreas Fault cuts loose out by Palmdale, people in the San Fernando Valley might have ten seconds of warning, those in Downtown or Santa Monica get fifteen seconds, those in Long Beach and Orange County get thirty or forty seconds. (Don’t quote me on the times – I’m discussing the concept as I understand it, not the math as CalTech calculates it.)

Fifteen seconds might not sound like much, until you think about where you might be and what you might be doing. Elevators can be programmed to respond to an alert by stopping at the nearest floor and opening up. Surgeons can be alerted to stop cutting and brace for the quake. People in offices and homes have precious seconds to shut off the stove, or get away from the big, breakable windows, or get under the big, solid desk. Drivers have a chance to slow down or stop and to get out from underneath that overpass that might collapse on them, or off that bridge that might collapse out from under them.

When “the Big One” comes, we won’t be inconvenienced for a few days or a couple of weeks or months like we were twenty-five years ago. We’ll be facing the possibility of being refugees, the only option for many of us being to move to another part of the country and start over. But for many of us, with the use of some better technology, we’ll live to be refugees instead of being casualties. And if we all take responsibility for being better prepared and doing those little things that we usually ignore, we’ll not only survive but be able to recover far more quickly when (not if) the Big One hits.

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