Category Archives: Disasters

Standing Down

The wind continues to howl. It’s got to be 25-35 steady with gusts to 50+, if not more.

But there is no known fire near us.

The air has more than just a whiff of smoke and ash to it, along with the calling card of a particularly pissed off skunk somewhere nearby upwind. They’ve been telling us to watch out for wildlife displaced into urban areas by the destruction of their natural habitat. Perhaps that’s why the skunk is pissed off. Can’t say that I blame him.

But they’ve taken down the police barricades two blocks away from home.

It’s gotten cold, which I guess is good, but it’s staying dry, which is horrible. There were spots this weekend reporting relative humidity in the single digits for days on end – THAT’s a huge problem when fighting brush fires. One report I saw had a reading of 1% relative humidity! That’s rivaling what it would be like on Mars.

But as of about 20:30 tonight, the mandatory evacuation order for all of the neighborhoods on the west side of Valley Circle have been lifted.

So tonight I started standing down. I started unpacking the cars. I started putting all of those valuable pictures, documents, video tapes, jewelry, and priceless memories back away in the house instead of leaving them pointing out of the driveway, ready to be scrambled like a couple of SAC bombers when the ICBMs start streaming over the Pole.

It’s time to stand down.

And maybe get some sleep.

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The Roller Coaster

The thing I have learned today is that when you live close enough to the open brush areas in California and the conditions are right, you’re going to spend a few days on a roller coaster of emotion and adrenaline. If you think you know what’s going to happen, you’re wrong.

First of all, the winds that had been predicted to kick back up overnight had failed to do so. It was calm as could be when I got up at 07:00. It was fairly clear, not nearly as much smoke in the air as on the previous couple of mornings. Looking out at Castle Peak it was interesting to see some grey-ish areas that almost looked like some sort of ground fog or giant spider webs clinging to the side of the mountain – I realized it was just the slightest traces of smoke from smoldering hot spots.

But it was so nice out. Most of the smell of smoke was gone. I figured that we would be able to unpack the cars and get back to normal. I sort of planned on doing it after the Chiefs’ game.

I was wrong.

We went out to our usual Sunday morning breakfast and while there I noticed the winds picking up. And then they were blowing fairly hard. When we were done with breakfast we went across the street to do our weekly grocery shopping.

From two miles away, this is what we saw. Our house would be right about under that tallest column of smoke. Needless to say, we burned our way through the grocery list and hustled our way back home.

That flare up was a bit north of us, on the north side of Bell Canyon Drive, up by Roscoe, a mile or so away. By the time we got home there were several large aircraft called in to make repeated passes dropping Phos-Chek, the fire retardant with the red coloring which they use so the pilots can see where they’ve already sprayed on earlier passes. It was interesting to watch it live on television from the TV helicopter’s point of view from 6,000 feet while also watching them roar north up Valley Circle outside our front window. It’s also bizarre to see your house on television when they’re showing a disaster in progress.

After an hour or so that hot spot was out and I figured the excitement was over. They had hit it pretty hard and that Phos-Chek will last for a while.

I was wrong.

An hour later I started to hear helicopters again, low and fast. We had another flare up, this time over behind the baseball fields.

An hour later there was another flare up, this time with some pretty significant (i.e., “freakin’ huge!”) flames shooting up over one of the lower ridges down in Bell Canyon.

At least then the wind started dying down. We’re done, right?

I was wrong.

While we were okay for the moment, back to the south along the Calabasas western border and down to the ocean in Malibu things were getting extremely hot again. In between the two trees on the left you can see a dot which is a water-dropping DC-10 heading that way. (That’s an impressively HUGE plane to be getting down among them in the canyons while that heavy, that slow, and in that kind of turbulence!!)

So much for unpacking the cars. I was tired of being wrong. All of the areas on the west side of Valley Circle, which is less than a quarter mile away as the crow flies, are still shut off and evacuated with no one allowed back in. Until that evacuation that close to us gets lifted, we’re going to stay ready to bug out. Cars packed, face out of the driveway for a quick exit.

This evening the wind was still blowing (you can see the palm trees bending to the left) but it was again calm and smoke-free.

For now.

We’ll see how early tonight or tomorrow morning I’m proven wrong again.

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Filed under Disasters, Photography, Weather

Calm After The Ordeal

A certain measure of calm has returned after the last two days of anxiety and fire.

(It’s a panoramic image – click to enlarge to all of its glory!)

The winds stayed calm last night. That helped a lot, at least in our area. There were still some massive areas burning down toward the ocean, especially around Pepperdine University, but many areas saw the fire’s spread slowing or coming to a halt.

Thursday night, when we first started dealing with the Woolsey Fire it was at 2,000 acres. This morning it was at 37,000 acres with 0% containment. (Thus the anxiety and packing of cars and mandatory evacuations of 250,000 people.)

When we got up it was smoky. We couldn’t see any open flame where we were, but everything that burned yesterday was smoldering. By noon there were a couple of spots down where Victory, Vanowen, and Kittridge all end at the Ventura County line (maybe two miles south of us) that had lit off again, but the water-dropping helicopters were on them pretty quickly.

We’re not out of the woods yet. Late tonight through Sunday we’re supposed to have the winds kick back up, possibly as bad or worse than they were yesterday. Given that most all of the brush in open areas has already burned near here, I’m not too worried about it for us, but we’ll keep the cars loaded overnight just in case. If the winds get chaotic and blowing from different directions through the canyons, smoldering brush lights off again, embers start getting thrown into new open areas (like Chatsworth Reservoir, let’s say), things could get exciting again.

But it’s like wearing your seat belt. You never expect to have an accident (well, at least *I* don’t, YMMV) but unless you’re an idiot you always wear a seat belt. I don’t expect to have to bug out at this point. I consider it far less likely than it was 24 hours ago. But I would hate to hit that one-in-a-whole-bunch circumstance, need to bug out, and do it with just the clothes on our backs just hours after unloading the cars.

We’re fine. We’ll be fine. It was nice to have a calm day. Let’s have another one tomorrow.

You too! We all deserve a little bit of calm.

 

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Filed under Disasters, Panorama, Photography

Trial By Fire

It’s been a really, really long day.

For the longest time this afternoon and evening I thought that I might be writing this tonight (if I were able to write anything at all tonight) from a hotel or a Red Cross evacuation center.

I’m still at home and it’s now looking like there won’t be a need to evacuate tonight, but it’s been touch and go for hours. We’re still packed into two cars and ready to go in 60 seconds if we get the word.

I was up a couple hours early for a big, all-day work event – that was cancelled early due to many of the key people either having to evacuate last night out of Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks, or Agoura, or because they were up all night preparing to evacuate if necessary, or because they couldn’t get here either way due to the multiple massive freeway closures caused by the fires.

This was what that fire looked like when I first got up this morning, off in the distance, pyrocumulus clouds billowing up to 8,000 feet or more.

But from the office, the smoke rising up from the fires smoldering near our house was pretty benign.

By the middle of the afternoon, that had started to change. While everyone pretty much thought that the fire near us had died down and was almost done, the right combination of wind and terrain kicked it up and I needed to bail out of the office early and get home.

I couldn’t even get home by the shortest route, so ended up by the old house where for the first time I saw that the fire had crossed the ridge from Ventura County into LA County. This view shows the northern end of the ridge, up by Chatsworth, but it was the same for ten miles, all the way south to Calabasas.

Remember how I said last night that I wouldn’t worry until I saw active flame coming over the ridge at Castle Peak? Here it is.

For the longest time I wasn’t too worried about it. It took a couple hours to burn from the top of the ridge down to here. At that rate it was never going to be a threat. I started loading up the cars with the valuables (photos, hard disks, overnight bags, important documents, etc) but figured it was just to get my exercise, not because we were going anywhere.

Then, about an hour before sunset, all hell broke loose. All along this ten-mile ridge line the fire just exploded.

The wind kicked up, the smoke started rising, and the flames started marching down the east flank of Castle Peak toward the homes at the bottom.

I was betting that the firefighters’ strategy was to let it burn like this as long as it was burning brush and open space. Then, when it gets to the houses, which should all be properly prepared with set back areas from the brush and defensible spaces all around, the fire gets hit hard and stopped in its tracks.

That’s pretty much what happened – here you can see the fire as it got to the base of the hill and the houses there, with a water-dropping helicopter above.

It’s a good thing that it worked. If the houses at the bottom of the hill had gone, a lot of embers and debris would have been thrown up into the air. The high winds would have pushed those embers out downwind into houses blocks away, starting new spot fires, with the pattern just repeating over and over. (Look at what happened last year in Northern California, or two days ago up by Chico, or a couple decades ago in Oakland for examples.) From those houses it’s about three blocks to Valley Circle – once the flames crossed Valley Circle it’s only three blocks up hill to us, and we all know how much flames love to climb up hill with a 45 mph wind pushing it!

So we had our two cars packed, on a hair trigger. Several of our neighbors found the point when their bug-out button gets pushed. I decided to stick it out.

And that’s worked. There are some hot spots out there along the fire lines tonight, but none of them are near us and shouldn’t be a threat. (Yes, I’m being selfish. I mean that it shouldn’t be a threat to my neighborhood. There are still some massive fires burning in Calabasas, Thousand Oaks, and Malibu. In particular, the Pepperdine University campus in Malibu is under a massive threat.)

Now the wicked winds have died down. I knew it even before I stopped noticing the wind – for the first time in this mess I can smell the smoke. Even though it was so close, less than a half mile, I haven’t smelled any smoke at all because of the ways the winds have been blowing . Not now. With no winds, the smoke just sits in the valley at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, starting to choke me.

So tonight I might sleep fully dressed and with one eye open and one ear listening for sirens and someone pounding on the door, but I will be sleeping at home.

And don’t worry, I *WILL* be able to sleep. I thought I was exhausted before this – I had no clue what real exhaustion was.

If you’re interested, you can probably catch live coverage on KTLA 5, CBS LA 2, or any other Los Angeles television station’s website. Or you can watch several Facebook Live posts that I put up today.

 

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Filed under Disasters, Photography, Weather

Fire

We woke to horror this morning. Not one of those distant horrors (which are none the less horrifying due to their lack of proximity) but one at a spot I drive by every trip to the hangar.

Then in the afternoon I started to hear the sirens. Along Ventura Boulavard, the major thoroughfare where my office is located, it’s not unusual to hear sirens – but not one after another after another. Then I heard the planes.

Taking off out of Van Nuys, the Canadian fire fighting water bombers are a bad sign on a dry, windy day.

You know how much I love planes, but I prefer days when these guys get to stay on the ground.

The big fire here is out by Camarillo, near the hangar. It’s now at or above 20,000 acres and at last report there were hundreds of houses burned. But the really, really BIG fire in California is up by Chico, north of Sacramento, with possibly a thousand or more houses burned.

Then, near the end of the day today, while I was watching coverage of the Camarillo fire, they mentioned another fire that had just started up, just over the Ventura County line, near the old Rocketdyne test site out in the hills to the west of our house. You’ve seen the view from our neighborhood:

The fire is just on the other side of that big hill just to the left of center.

I decided to take off out of the office a few minutes early, just in case.

From the parking lot at work, about five miles away, you could easily see open flame along the hills.

Yeah, there on the right? That’s not a third light on that pole. That’s the hill burning over past our house.

Then after dark, the winds really started to howl:

With the humidity dropping down into low single digits (I didn’t even know you could get to only 2% relative humidity without being on Mars!) the small fire near us got bigger quickly.

Those multi-million dollar houses up at the top of Bell Canyon? Fantastic views of the city looking this way, great views of the open spaces and sunsets to the west. Amazing locations – until the fire starts marching toward your back yard.

I hope they just left the lights on before they evacuated instead of still being there.

Look at how low the smoke is lying, a sign that the winds are still blowing at 25 to 30 knots with gusts to 45. If it’s not that windy the smoke will billow upward.

There are a dozen or so helicopters still doing water drops, constantly ferrying back and forth between Chatsworth Reservoir and the fire site. It’s going to be a long, long night for all of those people.

Bell Canyon is under mandatory evacuations, and the Hidden Hills (gated community) at Valley Circle and the 101 Freeway (about three miles to our south) have been evacuated. The entire city of Calabasas is on watch – if this explodes and gets out of control it will go right through Calabasas, all the way to the Pacific Ocean in Malibu.

(We’re just above the “W” in “West Hills.”)

I’m not too worried about being in a lot of danger or needing to evacuate. The fire is to our west and being pushed from the north to the south. Even with the flames and smoke less than two miles away, we can’t even smell any of the smoke.

I’ll sleep with one nostril open just in case that changes, but in the meantime I’m going to try to get some sleep and hope that we don’t wake up to an even bigger fire or another mass shooting tomorrow morning.

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The Great Ketchup Debacle Of 2018

There’s a great little local restaurant where we have breakfast on most Sunday mornings before we do our weekly grocery shopping. We’re regulars there, been going for years, the seven or eight waiters and waitresses know us. I’m also boring and order the same thing about 99% of the time. My usual is a club sandwich with steak fries and a Diet Coke.

This morning our wonderful and friendly waitress Connie brought a brand new, never before opened bottle of ketchup out of some refrigerator. By the time I got around to opening it there was a sheen of condensation on it from the humidity. I wiped it dry with my napkin to get a good grip on it and twisted the top off.

Well, at least that was the plan.

This bottle top was having none of that. No joy. No motion on the twist-off cap. No ketchup.

I tried the other hand. Same results.

I wiped it off again, switched back to the first hand, concentrated, leaned into it. The ketchup reward would be mine!

Nada.

Okay, I’m serious now! Another wipe to make sure it wasn’t slipping, back to the right hand, think THROUGH the lid and VISUALIZE it coming loose…

I’m told I turned about the same color as the ketchup with my effort – but the lid never budged.

By this point Connie was back, asking if everything was okay. I gave her the ketchup bottle and politely asked for one that I could open.

She gave me a curious look, took the bottle, and twisted the top off in one motion.

People at adjoining tables guffawed and chortled.

Connie did a fist pumping victory dance in aisle.

There may have been applause from the crowd – I’m not sure and might have missed it as I was greying out in astonishment.

Of course, at that point I still had to get the ketchup out of the bottle and onto the fries, but my spirit had been crushed and my ego bruised to the point where I found no shame in sticking the knife into the bottle and pulling it out rather than turning the bottle upside down and shaking it for a half hour to get the condiment flowing.

I found a brief moment of redemption later in the day when a pickle jar needed opening for our holiday BBQ, but I go to bed tonight knowing that that ketchup jar kicked my ass and I would have had to eat my fries sans condiments if it hadn’t been for the almost nonchalant flick of Connie’s wrists.

Thus ends the Tale of the Great Ketchup Debacle of 2018!

 

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Filed under Disasters, Farce, Paul

Aftershocks

After we had a reminder that we live in earthquake country the other day I was talking online with someone about the experience of living through a big earthquake and how the worst part for me was the aftershocks.

I hate aftershocks.

The absolute worst were not the ones five minutes, five hours, five days after the big shaker. It was the ones five months and twenty-five months later, usually just about when you suddenly thought to yourself, “Hey, self, it’s been a while since we had an aftershock or an earthquake!” Just when you thought you were safe. Just when you thought that your life could get back to normal.

It has often occurred to me that there are similar patterns (which I hate similarly) to other monumental events in life.

For example, many years ago when we were visiting Montreal, our rental car was broken into. Among other things stolen were my briefcase with an assortment of documents, credit cars, my checkbook, and so on.

I got a new rental car, got back to Vermont, wasted some vacation time in the local library (mom’s house didn’t have internet) cancelling accounts and getting new credit cards sent and so on. It was a pain in the ass (much like a major earthquake) but in a day or two I thought we were back to normal.

Wrong.

Once I thought I was safe, once I thought things were back to normal, the “aftershocks” started. I go looking for some document or piece of camera equipment or credit card or something – only to realize it had been in that stolen briefcase and now not only wasn’t there when I needed it, but that I had yet another mess to clean up. It got gradually better with time, but it was a pain.

I think of this tonight because I suddenly recognized that it’s happening again. This time the “major life changing event” isn’t an earthquake or a theft, but the fact that we’re selling our house and into full pack and panic (not necessarily in that order) mode.

Over on FaceBook and Twitter there are starting to be postings about the best places in the Lompoc, CA area to see the Insight launch in four weeks. Insight will be launching from Vandenberg AFB about three hours north of Los Angeles, headed to Mars.

I would love to see that launch. It’s currently scheduled for a Saturday and because of that, unless the launch date slips, I’ve got it penciled into my brain as a day to spend three hours driving north to watch a rocket launch for five minutes and being 10,000% worth it.

Better yet, there’s a NASA Social for the launch. A three-day long NASA Social, including up-close VIP seating for the launch itself. I’m not sure how I would get the Thursday and Friday off work (*cough* maybe I’m coming down with something already?) but I would figure out something. So I applied a couple weeks ago, and for the first time in several years I didn’t get turned down outright. (I’m not complaining, I’ve been to five NASA Socials and figure they’re spreading the wealth around.) I didn’t get an invite, but I did get put on the wait list in case one of the primary invitees can’t make it. That’s got me very excited!

Wrong.

We’re in escrow and have months worth of work to do in the next fifty or so days. I get home from work, usually at 19:00 or 20:00 or later at this time of year (audits, tax returns) and now I’m up until midnight every freaking day packing and panicking, while also trying to squeeze in the occasional minute or two of CAF work. And I’ve got a five day trip to Toronto to squeeze in there as well.

Barring a literal “act of God” there is no way I can afford to take a whole Saturday off to go see the launch, and that’s a zillion times more true about the idea of taking a full three days off for the NASA Social.

Just when I thought I was safe. Just when I thought there might be the tiniest sliver of normalcy to be found in the chaos…

Aftershock.

There will be more. They may keep getting bigger and/or more frequent.

I hate aftershocks.

Now if you’ll pardon me, it’s only 23:40. I have at least two or three more boxes to pack tonight before I can go to sleep.

 

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Filed under Castle Willett, Disasters, Space