Almost History: This Week’s Wildfires

So, how are we? How are the San Diego fires? We’re good, thank you for asking. The fires are pretty much done.

As I write this at 1 PM, it’s 75 degrees with 30% humidity—moisture—in the air. By 11 PM tonight, that will rise to over 80%. A light, cool ocean breeze is blowing. The skies are blue and the birds are singing again—they went oddly silent this week.  The picture above is looking west to Camp Pendleton, 15 miles beyond the ridgeline you see, taken about 8:30 this morning.

Except for a layer of ash everywhere—and the faint aroma of burned carbon—you would never guess what happened here this week.

These pictures were taken last night, at 7:05 and 7:08 PM, same views, looking west where the blazes were still being fought 15 miles away on Camp Pendleton.

Clearly, there was a whole lotta carbon goin’ on!

And the one on the left below was taken at 7:58 PM last night. The one on the right below at 8:30 this morning. Amazing, isn’t it?

For the last few days, wildfires surrounded us, with new ones popping up regularly.

27,000 acres burned in San Diego County, most of those, fully 22,500 acres, were on the federally-owned Camp Pendleton. While over 175,000 evacuation notices were delivered to individual phones in the County, it is unclear exactly how many people were evacuated. It appears to be somewhere between 30,000 and 125,000—most, it appears, for only a few hours. This was far less disruptive to people’s lives and businesses than what we experienced during past wildfires.

Several people have been arrested on arson charges and we have over $20 million in structural damage in the County—that’s homes , gardens, businesses, commercial buildings.

We had two minor injuries to two firefighters this week and fire consumed an as yet unidentified person living in the brush.

Looking back; looking forward

In retrospect, let us consider October 2007, when we had true Santa Ana conditions. 1 million people were evacuated in Southern California, 500,000 acres burned. Nine people died. 85 were injured including 61 fire fighters. Several young people were severely burned because they stayed too long in their neighborhoods packing up their stuff. Felled, burning trees blocked the streets out and the kids tried to walk out around them. It was a horror story.

After that, San Diego County finally got serious about our response to wildfires and improved the telephone/evacuation system, invested in fire-fighting assets, worked out how to reduce fires related to high winds felling transmission lines and much more.

I was evacuated in August 2009, along with 500,000 other people. That year, over 300,000 acres burned but only 2 people died. We considered it a big improvement. But we evacuated far too many people and the traffic jams were dreadful. Never mind the cost of the fires, the loss in productivity and business income meant we had less income that could be taxed to pay for it all. We made some progress, yes, but there was still much room for improvement.

Also, the TV coverage of the 2009 fires was sub-par and we were reduced to listening to online radio to get real info on what was happening. The staff on the small, local papers evacuated too and didn’t use their websites for updates so to find out if my house was still standing, I would call my neighbor’s land line. She had an old fashioned answering machine hooked up—still does. If her house is there, the answering machine picks up. If it doesn’t pick up, odds are her house is gone—mine too.

This week, in 2014, I am REALLY impressed with the evolution of live feeds on news websites. We are got real time info, lots of maps and stats and details. I think the coverage of NBC/7 was especially good, with live coverage and video embedded into the headline stories. And the local Village News, instead of leaving town, issued regular reports and even answered emails. Tremendous!  

Good communication frees up phone lines and the streets since we do what we need to do–stay off the phone, off the streets, keep out of the way of the experts. And we go back to work to earn the money that will ultimately be taxed to pay for all of this. And it is expensive, fighting wildfires, so the powers that be will need every penny. 

This year, preparing for the fires that always come, my neighbors across the street have already cleared their empty lot—bless them—and I just spent hundreds cutting the eucalyptus tree that had grown too big out back.  The $100 tax assessment bill arrived in the mail this week too—perfect timing. It will help pay for brush control on the County’s hills.

The fires were bad but we did not have real Santa Ana conditions, thank goodness. In a real Santa Ana, hot, dry desert winds from the east blow strong and long for days and nights. This week, the nights were cool and moist and the winds died down to be replaced regularly by our normal cool ocean breezes. The ocean winds fought back. In some places, this created whirlwinds where the hot air met the cool. That didn’t help. But overall, the conditions were far better than during a real Santa Ana, generally experienced in October.

Currently, a powerful El Nino weather system is building in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, to the south of us, reportedly the strongest in 17 years.

El Nino is a natural, cyclical warming of the ocean with some of that surface water evaporating, floating north and getting delivered over the Southwest in the fall and winter. While El Nino doesn’t come with a guarantee it will deliver rain, generally it does. A truly wonderful thing.

Overall, I am proud of San Diego County’s citizens and the progress made since 2007.

And, hopefully, the May 2014 wildfires are now history.

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