Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nervous in the Forest

It’s going to be 100F or higher with very low humidity for at least two days this week. While other parts of the country don’t find this so unusual. It is not common to this California Coastal guy.

My ears perk up. My nose goes into sensitive mode. My paranoia level rises. And old memories arise.

I when through the 1991 fire in Santa Barbara, California fire; helping a friend evacuate due to impending flames. The sky was filed a strange, beautiful yet evil-colored smoke, as seen in the photo to the left above. The fire raged for days and dozens of homes burned down. People died. The flames raced through dry brush of the chaparral almost faster than a motorcycle cop trying to get away from the roaring flames.

The same year there was a murderous fire in the urban setting of Oakland, California. [The photo on the right.] I photographed the scene after the coals were no longer warm. The amazing lesson to learn was how fickle a firestorm can be. Some houses were burnt to the ground except for the brick chimney, while the house next door was untouched—much like Santa Barbara.

The hair on the back of my neck stands up as the hot winds roll from the inland area towrd the sea, the reverse of the normal movement of air. Where I live, the forest around my wooden house hasn’t burned in over 60 years. I get very edgy and scan the sky for the smoke and fumes I experienced in Santa Barbara. And I lock all my fire safes.

There really are no plants that can withstand a firestorm; except, perhaps, for a well-watered lawn. Some of the houses in Santa Barbara were saved by a short stone fire wall just at the top of the slope surrounding the home and before the flat lawn. The flames raced up the hill like being in a chimney. The wall deflected the flames and what flame or cinders fell on the lawn found things too moist to ignite. The other best defense is to scrap the land to bare soil around the house like the house in the middle photograph. This home is only protected from a grass fire. However, the trees within the bare soil can easily ignite from embers during a firestorm. A friend in Santa Barbara is on the volunteer fire department. He encouraged Joe Cocker to strip all foliage to the ground 60 feet down the hill below the house. The fire burned to the edge of the chaparral and stopped at the bare soil. The house was saved.

I’m surrounded by trees. No hope during a canopy firestorm except to jump the fence and wade into the reservoir lake developed for the vineyard next door. Sit it out and watch everything go up in smoke.

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