Friday, September 04, 2009

The Great Fire of Ought Nine

Monday, August 29, 2009

The mountain is on fire.  All of the mountains are on fire. I took this photo from my own backyard!

The past few days have been some the wildest -- and, at times, the most exhilarating -- of my life.

An enormous fire swept across the mountains facing the San Gabriel Valley and across 120,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest. These fires do happen, but they usually happen miles away from my house. And they are usually small, and get put out or a least contained within a day or two.

Sure, we are on the wilderness interface; it's that place where civilization -- well-lit streets, rows of houses with pools, telephone lines, HBO, broadband Internet -- meets the untamed chaparral.  We are at a location where nobody can ever build a house above us -- less than 1/4 mile from the National Forest.  Deers walk into our backyard, skunks sneak into the kitchen through the cat door, the occasional rattlesnake finds shade in our garage... And we like it that way. I grew up surrounded by mountains and I've only felt comfortable when near them. I can never find my orientation when I'm in the flatland.

Even here, in one of the largest metropolitan areas on earth, we have a feeling of being in the country. I can hike directly from my back yard, up past a circa-1900 stone-and-mortar cistern, past the treehouse I built for the kids 17 years ago, into Dukmejain Wilderness park, across a gurgling brook and even all the way up to Mt. Lukens. When the kids were little, we'd pack a lunch and go on "The Frog Hike" or "The Muck Hike" or "The Hole Hike" or to the "Kid-Sized Waterfall."

Just 200 yards above my house, we had places named "Camp Bob" and "Camp Amanda" where we could easily do an overnight trip, boiling water for cup-a-noodle soup and roasting hotdogs and marshmallows.  Camp Amanda is below "Toe" among the trees we'd named "Tic, Tac, Toe, and Toto, too!" It looks out over an ocean of city lights. Camp Bob faces the other direction -- looking north, you would never know there was a city anywhere nearby.

I love the mountain behind our house. Curious about that stone structure a few years back, I cleared away some brush and found pipes and a large rusty valve assembly on the east end of it. You can barely make out "Pat. July 23, 1901" in the cast-iron housing. That makes it contemporary with the "historic stone barn" in Deukmejian Wilderness Park. When the kids were small, I built a very cool tree house in the California Live Oak near it. I've always been particularly proud of the "ell" joint I created to make it a split-level structure...

Well. the treehouse is no more.  And the entire mountain looks a lot different now... but I love it all the same. Well, that's the background. I might as well get into the story of The Great Fire of '09.

27th Wedding Anniversary
Yep, Jane and I were married 27 years ago, last Friday, and we planned a trip to a bed-and-breakfast in Summerland, just outside of Santa Barbara. We woke up that day to the sound of helicopters -- BIG helicopters -- going directly over the house. We'd seen a large yellow tank -- the size of a semi-truck trailer -- placed in the Dunsmore Debris Basin and now it was in continuous use. Copters would fly in, hover above it to fill up with water then fly away to the area above La Canada where a fire was now burning.

We gave it a lot of thought, but we decided to go ahead with the trip.  After all, the fire was miles away -- that general area had burned before and never gotten at all close to our house.  Just in case, Jane gathered photo albums and genealogical documents and hauled them down to Nan and Evelyn's house which is well below Foothill Blvd.  We drove to the B-and-B via Ojai, and had a great time (wink wink) Friday night.  Saturday... we visited Lotusland, Madam Walksk's incredible botanical garden in Santa Barbara.

But about 6 PM, we (ah, hmmm...{blush}...) turned the cell phones back on, and immediately got a call from Robert to say that the area above Markridge had been evacuated.  He'd filled the car with computers and skedaddled down the hill to a friend's house.  Nothing for it but to pack up and cut short our romantic holiday.  On the way home, we listened to news radio and knew that this was real -- not just another distant 'threat.'  We started smelling smoke in Fillmore (over fifty miles from the fires).  When we got home, we found that police had a barricade across every street going uphill.  Robert and I drove up to the house to see if we could make another pass at saving stuff.  The policeman had to see a driver's license, but let us through.   Interestingly, many of the neighbors had not left.  Again, the fire was still miles away, though it was now approaching from two directions.   Neighbors were standing around in the street as night fell -- the fire easily visible to the east and a smoky glow from the west.

The Red Cross Shelter at CVHS
The official Evacuation Center was at Crescenta Valley High School -- in the cafeteria.  They had cots laid out, and plenty of food and drinks.   There were maybe 40- 50 evacuees, including none of our neighbors -- they all went elsewhere, I guess.  We ended up spending parts of three days here.  Our street -- the area above Markridge -- was the very last to be re-populated and the evacuation center actually closed up before the mandatory evacuation order was lifted.

We have a new kitten living with us -- named Camoflage (Cammy) -- because her coloring matches the carpet -- and we had put her in a pet carrier in the car. The Red Cross told us what to do -- take her to a designated animal shelter for the duration of the evacuation.  She did not like being penned up like that, but there was really nothing else we could do.  We'd not see her again until Wednesday.

Oddly, the area between Lowell and Pennsylvania was evacuated, as was the area to the east of Ramsdel, but there was a large "gap" where fire was easily visible but residents had not been evacuated.  Later, I heard that our street had been designated as a pre-determined hazard area in the standing evacuation plans -- possibly because the hill had not burned in nearly forty years so the fuel level was exceptionally high. 

For whatever reason, officials lowered the status to "Voluntary Evacuation" in our area so Robert and I went back home and stayed the night (Jane preferred to stay at the high school).  We were watching the TV coverage, occasionally switching from the Dodger game to read the text screen alert messages displayed on channel 6...  (Note: we had no computers to access the Internet!)  At about midnight, a new alert came up: The level was to go back to "Mandatory" starting Sunday morning.  

"Reverse 911" System
About one minute after the text notice changed on the TV, we got a phone call and an automated voice indicating mandatory evacuation starting at 8AM.   We learned later that there was a flurry of activity at the Evacuation Center:  Apparently, the call had accidentally gone out to a large section of La Crescenta rather than the much narrower area intended.  Lots of people packed up and went down to the high school only to find out that they should go back home.

"Controlled burn" Planned
Anyway, a policeman knocked on the door at 6 AM, and said that we'd need to be out soon.  There was going to be a "tactical burn" in the area of Deukmejian Wilderness Park  -- which is adjacent to our street. 

In the morning, the air was unbelievably thick with smoke.  The thermal inversion layer traps it all low against the mountains.  It was as thick as a dense fog, making it hard to breath and stinging the eyes.  We went back down to the air-conditioned shelter where the Red Cross volunteers had put out boxes of MacDonald's "Big Breakfasts" -- pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage.  The tables were also groaning with piles of donuts, bagels, cookies -- some homemade by local folks, most donated by local businesses -- Yummy!  Comfort Food!

Nothing to do, but sit around.  I did get some sleep, but they did not start the tactical burn all that day.  We read books, worked some sudoku puzzles, and talked to news reporters, but nothing else happened in our area on Sunday.

Robert and I drove around looking for a vantage point -- a place where we could see our house or at least our neighborhood.  We went up the other side of the valley, and knocked on a door.  The housekeeper said "The lady, she is not home, but she lets people go back there..."  We walked to the back and what a view!

Deukmejian park was already a field of ashes -- though they had saved that enormous California Live Oak that's just above the "stone barn". 

From this vantage point, I could see that the fire was coming not just from east and west, but that the entire mountain was burning from the top down -- so fire was coming at my house from THREE DIRECTIONS.  Through the binoculars, I could see activity on our street, including one of my neighbors wandering around with his dog, talking to firemen. 

And now, the fire was only a few hundred yards from my house.  I watched as Tic,Tac,Toe burned -- "Camp Amanda" was destroyed as Toe, a large Ponderosa Pine tree, took fire in one big explosion.

I decided I just had to get closer.  Robert and I drove up and, though the policeman at the barrier hesitated, saying "You can't go above Markridge," he did let us in again.

This time, there were at least five news vans and as many firetrucks.   There were at least fifty firefighters in the immediate neighborhood  There were a dozen men behind my house alone.  

Yep, we walked right up the street, as if we owned the place.  When nobody stopped us, we went into the backyard.  The chief said "Is this your house?"  And that's all.  It turns out that there is a California law that says that a person cannot be forced to leave his home -- short of an arrest for misconduct.  So... we were going to have front-row seats.
The crews had done a lot of work in preparation for the tactical burn. They had cleared an additional 10 feet behind the fence, down to the bare earth and had been spraying down the ground and especially the large pine tree against the fence line -- and the dangerous bed of pine needles and pine cones below it.

As we had come up the hill, we had heard "pop pop pop" -- and could see that a crew was shooting flares into the brush.  The flares are unusual -- they would hit the ground then spark like fireworks and jump up and dance around.   They are very effective.  Soon there were pools of fire and the pools join into lakes, and the lakes into an ocean of fire
Next, in my own backyard, we hear some radio chatter and the crew chief yells out "Everybody get ready!  They're going to LIGHT-IT-UP!"  Then a firefighter walked along above my fence and with a small flamethrower-type device and laid down a dotted line of fire.  The slight up-hill breeze was perfect -- the line of fire grew, but for the first time, it was going away from my house.

The fire was climbing up the ridge on the west toward the treehouse, but by now the lake of fire on the east was gathering serious force.  It moved to a stand of Laurel Sumac trees -- they have leaves that are covered with an oily substance to retain moisture -- and when the air is dry and the fire is hot enough, that oil evaporates all at once.  
There is an enormous WHOOSH -- and the entire tree basically explodes.  When that happened, a wall of heat radiated in our direction.  We could really feel it.  I took my cues from the firefighters. They were NOT rushing around, looking worried.  Rather, they calmly watched the fire and checked, and re-checked their gear.  The fire was burning madly, but it was controlled.   It was supposed to be doing that!
If you look in the center of that photo, you can see the fiery demise of our wonderful treehouse.

At one point, I heard someone yell "Rock!" and saw a flash as a yellow-clad firefighter dove quickly to the side.  There was a tremendous crash, and I could see that a piece of the chain-link fence was gone. The firefighter was unharmed, but it clearly is dangerous work.

What's with the rocks? The slope is covered with rocks of all sizes -- we sometimes call this town "Rock-Crescenta" -- and when there is an earthquake, it often jars a few boulders loose. They tumble for a while and usually get stopped by a tree. There they stay for years and years. Well, guess what happens when that tree suddenly disappears.....

Although it seemed like hours, the entire slope burned in just a few minutes.  There were isolated hot spots, and the next day a crew came in to check it out and wet down some smoldering smokepots, but the controlled burn worked perfectly -- there was no fuel left to burn.  The neighborhood was now safe and the crews could move to the west and focus on the next part of the fire.  The "red line" on the map could be be changed to a "black line" indicating containment in this area.
There was still work for the firefighters.  The fire was traveling downhill in Cooks Canyon to the west.   A crew worked down the treacherous slope and up the other side, right behind the neighbor, Steve's, house, manually clearing a narrow firebreak.   This is where they would hold the line.  Helicopters came in to stop the fire on that line. 
Robert and I were watching on the first water drop, and we got caught in the very edge of it; it felt like a short burst of a heavy rain, but the water was warm.  We were standing there stupidly grinning at each other when the chief yelled "HEY!  Get the Hell OUT of THERE!  He's coming back for another pass!" 
We scampered beneath the eves and avoided a major soaking -- those things drop a LOT of water!

The hills are a moonscape of black ashes.

We can expect significant problems when the rains come.  There will be "debris flows" -- mud mixed with ashes -- and it will be a serious problem if we have an El-Nino rainy season this year.   We can certainly expect more big rocks to come tumbling down. 

It took a while to unpack the cars and get the computers set up, but things are starting to get back to normal.  There is a strong smell of ashes, and still some smoke from distant files (the "Station" Fire is still burning and has consumed great swaths of the Nation Forest where I've hiked so many times with the Sierra Club).   But the smell is less powerful now and it diminishes each day.  And there is even a major upside! -- There is basically no chance that this hill will burn again for at least 10 years.

The plant life on these mountains -- the "chaparral" -- has evolved to survive fires like this.  The mountain burns in the summer and then in the spring, ashes wash down to the valley (making it into excellent farmland, until it gets paved over), but the trees tend to be able to survive the fire and regrow from the roots.  

In the spring, the hills will be greener than ever since the grass and wildflowers won't be choked out by the brownish-green sagebrush.  But in two years, the sagebrush will be back and in three, there will be surprisingly-large trees again.   I certainly look forward to hiking up there and watching it all happen.

We did not get hurt.  Aside from the fence, we sustained no property damage.   Yes, we are lucky -- but not that we are alive... we were never in any physical danger.  The big luck was that the air was so calm.  Had there been a Santa Ana wind blowing, well... this story might be a lot different. The fire crews had plenty of time to prepare the area, and the government was able to put thousands of people and billions of dollars worth of equipment where and when it was needed.

Was it terrifying?  No (at least not to me).  

It was Nature, doing her thing -- writ large.   My experience was more like the kick of riding a roller-coaster:  Exciting, exhilarating, adrenaline-drenched.  Frightening only in the way that one lets oneself be frightened by scary movies or at the amusement park.  The thrill of being in the backyard when they got the word to "Light it up!" was one I will never forget.

I am truly saddened that firefighters died and some people were injured.  I am sorry about the loss of our treehouse and the incalculable loss of the beautiful forest land.  I empathize with people who were actually terrified by the situation -- Jane is one of them -- but I can only guess at what it must be like to feel that way.   In my fifty years, there are only a handful of things that I can point to as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  This one goes right on the the top of that list.  And I'd not trade that memory for anything.


Blogger Whatboy said...

Glad you and your wife are ok... Looks like the guy milking the clowds is not doing his work!!!

8:46 PM


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