Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fires, Floods, Hurricanes and Earthquakes

Above: I mounted sprinklers on poles to wet down the house.

Camp Connell, CA - One of the benefits, depending how you view it, of having lived in numerous sections of the country is that we have had some experience with most of the natural disasters that can afflict mankind.
I've been pondering this recently as we keep the windows closed on our un-air conditioned home in the mountains to avoid as much smoke as possible. We live in the middle of the Sierra Nevada forests.
California, as you probably know, has had over 1,300 wildfires so far this summer, and the fire season normally doesn't even begin until August. Today the smokey haze is milder, and we will probably venture out for a walk.
Of those fires, most sparked by dry lightening in June, over 300 are still burning. The closest to us today is about 100 miles north near the town of, Paradise, best known as the retirement home for famed test pilot Chuck Yeager. As of Tuesday, no fires are burning anywhere near us. We just get the smoke which spreads all over the north state.
We are in no immediate danger, but we stay alert.
Maybe because I was raised in hurricane country on the Gulf Coast, earthquakes scare me the most. You can't predict them, and the damage - if you are in the wrong spot - can be catastrophic. We've only experienced one or two of any significance since moving to California almost 30 years ago. But it was an interesting experience, watching the plate glass windows in my newsroom ripple like vertical waves. Then I realized the concrete floor was also rolling up and down. By the time I was scared, it was all over, and the only damage at my home was water sloshing out of the hot tub.
We lived through one flood while in the Mid-West. We lived at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, between Cincinatti and Pittsburg. An ice dam backed up the rivers which then backed up into town, but did little damage. Long-time residents were used to it, and marked the big floods on the wall of the old hotel downtown.
Both Pat and I grew up with hurricanes. We were raised on the Gulf Coast, and she even experienced a typhoon in Okinawa during her high school years. One of my earliest
memories is my mother, a nurse, going to Gulfport with the Red Cross response team. And one of my early assignments as a reporter for the Miami Herald was to cover the aftermath of a big hurricane that hit Louisianna and Mississippi in 1965.
And then during our recent two-year stint in Florida, we had back-to-back hurricanes and had to evacuate.
That's the only good thing about hurricanes, if there is anything good: you normally have plenty of warning to get out of the way. I'll not try to convince anyone from New Orleans, however, but we have always been lucky.
Fires are a different thing, and are beginning to compete with earthquakes as the scariest disaster we may encounter.
The biggest problem is the lack of good local specific information. Firefighters in the state do a great job fighting fires, quickly and efficiently, but the administration has a tendency to bureaucratic press releases that discuss "resources applied" and money spent. They rarely tell us in a timely manner where the closest fires are and if we should be concerned.
Once you understand the local system for fighting fires, you can apply that information.
Anytime we hear a fire truck on the highway (there's only one highway) or a small plane or helicopter overhead, we are on alert.
Firefighters in the wilderness utilize small spotter planes to identify and categorize fires, and then direct other aircraft in as quickly as possible. The surest sign of a fire dangerously near is a helicopter with a water bucket flying over the house, or an old DC 3 tanker flying low and slow overhead.
We had about a dozen fires with 50 miles of us within the past three weeks. All were spotted quickly, and put out.
I usually jump on the Internet and check two local web sites, our only source of local news. If it looks questionable, I'll drive down to the general store, where they always know what is going on, or maybe up the road to the National Forest office. Sometimes they know.
Meanwhile, we do what we can to make the house safe. We rake up debris near the house, cut back tree limbs to avoid a path for the fire into the tree tops, and I have even cut down about 25 trees in the past three years to thin the area around the house.
And, as the attached photos show poorly, I even experiment with mounting sprinklers on poles to wet down the house. It worked, but needs improvement.
But we don't kid ourselves. We live in the woods, and if there is a forest fire nearby we are leaving -- laptop and family photos in hand -- and finding a safer place.
That's the price we pay for living on the edge of the wilderness. It's worth it.

The sprinkler experiment, and the closeness of big trees...

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