A COAL Postscript of Sorts: Fire and Rain

Away from the fire, but out in the rain. Probably the first time it has been rained on in more than 35 years.

Ensconced here in Southern California, my cars are kept in what I call the “distributed garage”. At one time, the distribution of cars involved multiple indoor and outdoor rented spaces. If one has paid attention to So-Cal pricing on such arrangements over time, one can understand the financially unreasonable aspect of going in that direction. Never mind that actually driving or working on one’s cars becomes a logistical exercise of getting there and back, and of ferrying drivers and cars around. It does, however, keep the collection small and the choices must be highly valued, in order to be willing to keep the rent checks and the awkward arrangements going.

In the last couple of decades, my car space has evolved to the “up the hill” and “down the hill” distribution. Up the hill has significant space for storage. Down the hill has the shop and excellent working space. The idea is to keep two cars, at any given time, down the hill (home base) for working on and for driving. Currently, down the hill, the Jeep is at the tail end of its refurbishment and fitting out, and the Lenham is up and running, licensed and insured. Up the hill sit the Mustang and the RX-3, along with some others.

Let’s work towards the point of my story. Every place has natural hazards, be they tornadoes, floods, fire, earthquakes. One can add some situational hazards, such as vulnerability to theft or wanton damage, based on where and how one parks his drive. Let’s stick to natural hazards, this time around. Locked, secure indoor storage for the “good cars” is taken care of, in my case, so I am “situationally” in good shape.

In Southern California, the two big risks are earthquake and fire (of the raging, out-of-control brushfire sort, that can easily consume garages and houses). The earthquake risk is hard to plan for, and arrives with no warning. But one can make sure that the garage roof is securely fixed to the walls, by using metal “ties” and by paying close attention to fasteners and techniques done to strengthen the entire structure, which is going to sway in the quake. Arrange for it to sway without going through spontaneous violent disassembly. You never know for sure until you get tested, so whether you got it right is a mystery until the time comes.

So, too, make sure there is nothing stored where it can fall on your car in an earthquake. If you can’t entirely avoid storing stuff in high places near your cars (which is a hard thing to avoid, for most of us), then the shelves and lofts need to have arrangements for retaining the things you stow on them. Also, put the lighter weight stuff up high, which makes sense anyway, and your back and shoulders will be happier.

Stow the lighter stuff up high, but screen it in so it doesn’t fall on your car in an earthquake.

Fire is another danger, for which one’s exposure can be minimized, but not eliminated. I throw the circuit breakers in the up the hill car barn, when I am not there, to reduce the chances of an electrical fire. The ventilation to the exterior incorporates spark and flying ember protection (there are simple passive technologies for that). A fire resistant roof and sealed eaves are fitted. Not much dangerous fire-prone foliage is growing in the vicinity of the garage, though I do have some desert ornamentals growing along one side, planted by the prior owner. The problem is that big So-Cal brush fires can often overwhelm defensible cleared spaces and fire resistance strategies. Flaming embers can jump long distances and embed themselves in odd little places. The ultimate deterrents are to not live in California in the first place, and to not live adjacent to the wild open spaces. I violate those two dictums, right off the bat, both up the hill and down the hill. I like breathing room and not looking into my neighbors’ windows—or having them look into mine. I like being close to wide open wild places to explore on foot, as I used to do as a kid.

My personal hedging strategy is to keep two highly valued (to me) cars, of the four, up the hill at any given time, and two down the hill, separated by about 75 miles. A single fire or earthquake will not be epicentered in both locations at once. Each location also has proper living space, if one gets evacuated out of the other. Moving two cars out of harm’s way is much easier than moving four of them. This “two site” arrangement wasn’t really planned out, but it just sort of happened, from my being a real estate opportunist who jumped at situations when circumstances offered what turned out to be well-priced properties that made me happy, and that worked out very well in the long run. I think Paul’s Port Orford situation might be a similar opportunity for him, one that will pan out in both the short run and the long run.

One may have been paying attention to the Southern California fires in the last week, particularly the biggest one, the Fairview Fire. Well, that one happens to be somewhat close to nibbling at my front doorstep, up the hill. It didn’t start out that way, but that’s how these brush fires go. In 2003, the Cedar Fire started from an illegal campfire, in the morning, many miles away. By the afternoon, our neighborhood had mostly burned down. The key to reading the situation seems to be to track where the smoke is going. In 2003, the edge of the smoke plume went right over our house. To the south, out the front door, the sky was a dark rusty brown color. To the north, out the back door, clear sky. Sure enough, houses on our street burned, but the bulk of the damage (hundreds of houses in our neighborhood, in the end) was mostly in the few blocks south of us.

Cedar Fire, 2003, San Diego. One of the most expensive and destructive fires ever in California, up to that time. Exceeded in destruction, death, and costs many times by California fires since then. These sorts of events are not outliers, but instead are part of living in many parts of California.

So, this fire at the edge of town in Hemet, CA, needed paying some attention to. Things can happen. We were in the middle of a “heat dome” and the ground was parched. But there were no winds to speak of, though the fires do create their own. Strong winds are what set these fires off to cover as much as dozens of miles in a direction, in just a few hours. Dry, hot, fire, wind, the combination of the four can create catastrophe. We had three of the four this last week. Still, I am down the hill, and I am trying to judge matters up the hill from fragmented news reports and from phone calls to locals.

Given the extreme dry conditions this year, along with the heat wave (90s to 100s up there, and not much less down here), the fire burned with vigor, despite there being no prevailing winds. The lack of wind meant that the fire didn’t burn in one direction, but instead burned, but more slowly, in almost all directions. The heat dome kept the environment hot and dry even at night, so this fire could just go and go, 24 hours a day.

The way it works is that the edge of the fire grows geometrically, and the expansion of the fire becomes compounded over time. At any given point, the fire simply consumes what is in front of it. But as the fire expands in all directions, the flame front gets much bigger over time. It doesn’t move faster over time in any one direction, but instead expands in all directions, moving forward at a constant speed, and engulfing the landscape at ever-increasing helpings.

The fire also creates its own weather. This area, roughly aligned with the San Andreas fault, where the fault turns sharply inland from the coast, is geologically configured as a series of deep valleys or canyons with steep valley walls, generally north-south to northwest-southeast (the “badlands” of the sort that were so difficult for pioneers to cross). The air falls off the valley sides into the valleys, and then runs downhill. This will naturally pull the fire along, even in the absence of prevailing winds. The vast temperature changes and differences within the area of the fire create additional updrafts and downdrafts, and the notorious “fire vortexes” or “fire tornadoes”.

Press photo of a fire vortex, Fairview Fire.

The ignition point was roughly fifteen miles away from the car barn, to the north-by-northwest, as the crow flies. But this fire is moving primarily south-by-southeast, even as it expands in all directions. The landforms are dictating the movement of the fire, rolling downhill to the south and southeast.

Ignition point on the upper left, most of the fire’s movement is to the lower right. This map was last updated Thursday evening, even though it is posted as current on Friday afternoon. Real time hard data is hard to find in the middle of a fast-moving fire.

The fire started Monday afternoon. People want to know how it started. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter what started it. These fires will start, always. Avoid fire in a chaparral area for a few years, and you still will eventually get one, but it will be more intense and dangerous, as the brush will be bigger, denser, and drier (dead) underneath. By Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, the broadest reach of the fire line, to the south and the southeast, put the car barn roughly in its path. Closer to seven(?) miles away now, not fifteen, but the fire was moving relentlessly. Time to get busy, get up there, and move some things out. I had the Mustang up there, the Mazda RX-3, some equipment and tools, and some family heirlooms to bring down. This would take two trips, about two hours each way, plus loading and unloading. The other, lesser cars and parts would have to ride it out.

Getting up there on Thursday afternoon, there were all sorts of signals, good and bad. The neighbors on each side have quite a few animals, dogs, horses, and goats. The animals were already moved out, and the ambient animal noises were missing. Neighbors were either already gone, with the usual cars, trailers and other things absent from their properties, or they were packed and queued up to go. If you are going to leave, it is best to do it as early as you can. Beat the rush and traffic jams, save time for unexpected complications, and have time to go to a “plan B” if a battery or a fuel pump conks out. Having driven out through the flames in 2003, I can tell you it is not something you want to do. The danger is that your vehicle will stall in the middle of the fire, leaving you in there. The fire sucks up all the oxygen, and fills everything with smoke. Engines don’t want to run right. My truck was a manual shift, so I could keep the engine racing in low gear, sort of, bucking and coughing as it went, acting like it had a load of bad gas. There was only one way out and down hill, so “plan B” was to hit the clutch and try to roll to safety, if necessary. There was no other choice. But, all’s well that ends well. Evacuate early, that’s the lesson.

Cedar Fire, 2003, San Diego. My house is/was behind the black smoke in the upper center of the photo. It, and the RX-3 in the garage, made it through, while many neighbors did not.

Back to this week, there was haze everywhere, but the smoke from the fire was going straight up, to sort of spread out and head lazily in a western direction. For all the smoke and haze, there was no smell of smoke at all, which was strange, but it was also a good sign. So, too, no smoke plume over the property was a profoundly positive signal. The fire may be moving in my direction, but the lack of a smoke plume overhead buys quite a bit of time to see things turn for the better, as the fire will likely move much more slowly. The bad signs, the fire was spreading out in all directions, including towards where I stood. I could see the fire line while I drove in, though the line was behind the crest of the nearby mountaintops at the horizon, viewed from the property. Distances are also visually foreshortened in the wide open spaces, so while the fire looked almost on my doorstep, it was still miles away.

A view from the car barn on Thursday afternoon. This is one angry fire, though it appears closer than it is. With a tailwind, a fire like this one, in hot, dry weather, can move very quickly.

The fire was vigorously burning up to the tops of the canyon sides, but not down from the crest into the next valley. This is the same principle in which you hold a lit match with the flame above your fingers, and it will not burn quickly down to your hand. The fire loves to run up the canyon walls, but is less likely to burn down the other side, absent a tailwind or particularly flammable material. One canyon over, that’s how it was burning. Perhaps, if it keeps going, it will pass just to the north of us as it heads southeast, as we stay protected by one last valley wall between us and the fire.

The fire fighting planes were bombing the fire with the pink stuff. You see them flying low, and all of a sudden they dip out of sight, either behind the crest of the hills or into the smoke, and then pop out in a steep climb, having deposited their load. The efficacy of their work is obvious. The angry pulses of rusty black smoke settle into a haze of more light grey smoke, hovering but not roiling quite so much. The intervals between drops are where the fire gets angry again.

Also Thursday afternoon, after the fire bombers had made a series of runs, dropping the pink fire retardant. The bombing really quiets down the intensity of the fire. The plane in the photo has just finished its drop, from left to right, and is doubling back to the staging area to refill.

First trip, load up the photos and keepsakes, and the Mustang. The flatbed trailer tires, now 14 years old, were recently checked but had deflated from 45 pounds to about 25 or so. Not good. Better pump them up before the power goes out, as I didn’t bring my generator with me. Fifteen seconds after plugging in the small compressor, the power went out. Oops. The neighbors, having left or mostly left, didn’t have generators available either. Like the silence of no animals, the cacophony of generators when the power goes out, which it does often up there, was also absent. That was the thing, the area is always alive with animal, machine, and people sounds, as sound really carries in the quieter places, absent the hum of the city. It was unnaturally quiet. You heard the fire fighting planes and helicopters in the distance, and that was about it. The air was still and the fire was still miles away. Maybe the power will come back on. Plan B is to slowly drive down the hill, and seek out a power source for the compressor along the way. After dinner and final packing, the power did indeed come back on. Yay! Get right on it, in case it goes out again. There is only one main power line into the entire area, and when it goes down, that’s it.

The wait for the power to maybe come back on gave me an opportunity to have dinner, and to do some careful extra packing, tying down of the car to the trailer more comprehensively, and to test the trailer brakes and lights. Trailer brakes, check. Trailer lights; turn and brake are OK, but no running lights. Hmm.

Also, the hazard switch on the truck seems to be broken. Not good. Absent taillights and a slow trip down the hill, blinking hazard lights would have been a great thing. In an evacuation, people can be absent-minded (understandable, there is a lot of thinking and disorientation going on), so I wanted to be as visible to them as possible. I was not able to troubleshoot the running lights, so I will just need to go as-is.

Evacuations are odd events. This one was my fourth one, with never actually losing the house in the first three, though number two in 2003 was a close thing. I’ll never forget finding a line of sight from a far distance, and identifying my roof as still there, contrary to all expectations, even as many others around us were gone. I knew the immediate neighborhood had been hard hit. All the dramatic news shots of the day were showing our neighbors’ houses burning. Seeing that kind of thing creates a fatalistic view of things. Even prior to the actual evacuation, you wander around, on the way out for maybe the last time, saying “good bye” to everything. It’s not really about all of the stuff. It’s more that the place where you nest, where you feel comfortable and at home, is under threat of being vaporized. Very disorienting, even before the fact. It must be a similar feeling to when war moves towards your neighborhood. In your head, you say good bye to what you have known. But there is (or at least needs to be) the optimism that it will all be OK, and you keep the spirits up, until you know, 100% for sure, that the cause is lost.

In the meantime, you may as well scatter stuff around and not put things away, as you pack the keepsakes, eat a meal, and sit down for a moment to watch the fire. If it all burns up, it doesn’t matter. If it is all still there, you don’t care, as you get to celebrate victory over the brush with disaster.

As the sun goes down Thursday evening, the northern horizon glows from the fire. The fire is only 5% contained at this point, having burned 27,000 acres, so far. Amazingly, only 12 structures are known to have burned; again, so far. There are two known deaths from people trying to escape the flames, likely by trying to drive through them in their car.

Finally, at 8:00 or so on Thursday night, I pull out on my first return trip. It’s dark, and the north horizon has an orange glow along the crest of the hilltops. Occasionally the orange glow rises and flares like a sunspot being emitted. Absent the danger and potential loss involved to yourself, and certainly to others (two people were killed, early on, trying to drive out through the fire), it is a bit mesmerizing to watch the fire and the smoke. Who doesn’t like to occasionally stare into the campfire, the fireplace, or the wood stove, and zone out to the little dancing fire show, internalizing something powerful that you can see, and maybe hear and smell? Separately, the real danger to your stuff, and potentially to yourself and to your manner of living, has a certain frission of its own. To me, it is not the same, but not entirely dissimilar, to that feeling when you go out to queue up for a car race. It sets your nerve ends tingling. One difference is that you asked to be in the car race, and the fire and evacuation were forced on you, no matter how you felt about it.

I think there is a certain PTSD effect associated with the evacuation, especially as I have had prior, rather traumatic experiences (always ultimately somewhat acceptable personal outcomes; but nobody wants to witness even his neighbors losing their houses). This article is no doubt a compensation of sorts, to keep me busy while the situation plays out.

Here’s the current status of things (Friday, roughly midday). The edges of a Mexican hurricane have settled into the region. This was bound to bring both high and unpredictable winds, and likely some strong rain. More rain than wind, that would be good. Wind without much rain, horrible. So far, it looks like some amount of insistent soft rain, and not too much wind. As good as one could reasonably hope for. Locals who stayed put (against evacuation orders, but people will do what they will do) tell me they are having trouble detecting the course of the fire, as they are clouded in and it is raining, so they have no broader visibility. I have no contact with anyone actually very near the site of the car barn, as they have all left the area. I assume we are OK, and the rain will keep the flame front at bay. I hope.

Everyone for miles around is under mandatory evacuation, as of Thursday evening (the areas marked in brownish-red). Not everyone has left, so the Sheriff’s Department has been going door-to-door, both to ask people to leave, and also to find out how many people are staying, and where they are. Needing or deciding to evacuate late puts both the residents and the responders at extra risk, as does not leaving at all.

I was never able to go back for my second trip, as it was 10 at night on Thursday, when I got home from the first trip, I was exhausted, and I would have needed to unload before going back. I also had a weird moment on the way down the hill. Having no trailer running lights, and running slow with a heavy trailer and older trailer tires, I was careful to slow down and pull over in the wide parts of the two lane roads to let the occasional overtaking car pass me (almost no one was out on the road, I’d never seen it that empty, but those who were out were traveling much faster than I was). Half way home, when I blinked to test the brake lights, as I would blink them to help the overtaking vehicles see me in the dark, the left side truck brake light lit up the front of the Mustang, on the trailer, with white light. That’s not right. Later on, where I could safely pull over, I found that something, flying debris perhaps, had ripped the left side lens off. The bulb was intact and working, but the red lens was gone. The Mustang seemed OK, fortunately. But it was a freak event. In the meantime, the CHP had closed all the roads in the area, and every one all around was under evacuation orders. I would not be going back. One and done. The RX-3 is at risk, but perhaps that could be some sort of a good omen. It rode out the 2003 Cedar Fire in my garage, even as the neighborhood burned down. Fortunately, the Mustang and the Jeep were already off-site at that time. Perhaps the RX-3 (and all the spares for it stored up there) can ride out another fire and evacuation. If not, it must be a case of tempting fate one time or many. I would feel the loss on that one. I have no strong particular attachment to the rest of it, specifically, though I would hate to see the place get destroyed, generally. MGs, RX-7s, the circle track car. Unlike the four cars I particularly value, if they go, I can mentally treat it as it was just meant to happen that way. And, of course, the people dear to me are OK, and that matters the most.

Somewhere between leaving the car barn and halfway home, something happened here. Very strange.

I am now in a sort of limbo, and the news for today (Friday) is almost nonexistent, just a rehash of yesterday’s evacuations and spread of the fire. I’m waiting for news, but I suppose “no news is good news”? I will likely need to go up that hill to witness 100% certainty on the outcome of things, no matter what the news says, or doesn’t say, as the case may be. As the Magic 8-Ball is known to say, “too soon to tell”, or “check back later”.

Magic 8-Ball says “too soon to tell”.

I apologize for the rather disjointed timeline and set of subjects, and the often grammatically incorrect nature of today’s post. I usually rework and carefully edit, but my heart isn’t in it today. As I mentioned above, this is a work of catharsis while I await news. I will report in the comments as I learn more, but a few miles of distance from the flames, cooler weather, and some rain, and the “up the hill” should be OK. Proof when I see it for real.