Archive for 2006 September

Wouldn’t It Be Nice

$75 million.


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Life Under Smoke

While trying to put a couple of posts together for Grist, let me just give you a tiny taste of what it’s been like for the last couple of weeks.

First, the evening sky a week ago. Second, the way the Sheriff’s Department lets everyone know we’ve officially been warned to evacuate. And third, an example of the signs popping up around the neighborhood.




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Fire as War in SoCal

An efriend named Judith Lewis, an enviro reporter for the LAWeekly, has a good story out this week on the Day Fire. She too interviewed fire ecologist Richard Minnich, but had the advantage of interviewing him after the fire broke out. He made an important point, quoting a TV forecaster:

"‘It’s better that it got burned off in the weather we’ve got right now instead of waiting for the Santa Anas to come along over the weekend.’ He actually suggested that the forest might need to burn."

It’s absolutely true. Twice during the three-plus weeks the fire has been burning, a Santa Ana condition developed, causing havoc and near-panic in both cases, but both times the winds were relatively mild (about 25 mph) and brief. Later in the fall, we will get Santa Anas blowing 50 mph or more, for days at a time. Much better than the fire burn now.

Lewis also noted Minnich’s point on controlling fire is always likened to war: 

Firefighters battle blazes on their frontlines and, as they contain them, mop up their smoldering remnants.

This is true, and most war metaphors (war on cancer, war on poverty) are ludicrous, but in this case I think the word fits. The Ventura County Fire Department is well-aware of the benefits of controlled burns, and has a full-time fire planner working on how to best burn down fuel beds at the right times. But they also know that air campaigns, ground campaigns, evacuations, and countless other massive, war-like, technology-dependent measures are necessary to avoid disaster in SoCal when the flames begin to rise. Fire suppression is not sufficient in and of itself, but it is sometimes necessary, and when it is necessary, war is what it feels like.

Here’s a picture of a couple of the smaller helicopters based at the fire helicamp not far from us in Upper Ojai:


And here’s a picture from the LATimes of the fire in the Lockwood Valley. It’s not over…

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Fire in Southern California: How Close Are We to the Edge?

My report from the Ventura County Reporter. This was filed literally the morning the Day Fire broke out, so my timing couldn’t be beat, and, I’m proud to say, the story stands up to the reality of what ensued quite well. In an attempt to entice you to read it, I’m going to copy over the opening and a picture. Here goes:

    On my office desk sits a small blue and white cup. I use it to hold paper clips.

    Once glossy and smooth, now it’s badly damaged — cracked, charred, chipped and smoked — but I will never give it up, because it’s the only thing left from the fire in the Oakland and Berkeley hills that fully consumed my father’s home in October of l991.

    Everything else — family photos and paintings, silverware, glassware, a dishwasher, even a heavy cast iron stove — was incinerated.

My father was away, perhaps fortunately, perhaps not. In fact, he was visiting me and my family. We had moved to the Ojai area a few months before. When he heard the news about the fire, he was on the way to LAX, but he was not able to get home in time to help.

    Even after he returned to the East Bay, he was not able to get close enough to see the charred foundation that remained for two full days.

That fire, which burned about 1,600 acres, and killed 25 people, was so hot some houses exploded in flames even before the fire reached them, set off by temperatures that reached at least 2,800 degrees, when cast iron will catch fire and burn.

    The Ranch Fire, was a similarly wind-driven fire that burned through a corner of my back yard here in Ventura County in l999. It went on to consume 4,400 acres in Upper Ojai and Ojai, costing over $4 million to fight. Though mild by comparison, it had flames as high as 20 feet. Folks around here still talk about it.

    We all know these kind of wind-driven fires could happen again. In the infamous “fire siege” of 2003, the Santa Ana-fueled Piru and Simi fires burned through 170,000 acres of Ventura County in just a few days. Statewide that week in October, wildfire blazes seriously wounded 216 people, and killed 22. Since l970, 12 of the nation’s 15 most deadly and destructive wildfires in history have hit California, and every single one of those infernos was powered by the hot dry winds of late fall and early winter commonly called the Santa Anas.

    This is “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” wrote Joan Didion in a memorable essay on the Santa Anas. “The violence and unpredictability of the Santa Anas affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds show us how close to the edge we are.”

    She was talking about Los Angeles, but the history of our region offers plenty of examples to prove Didion’s point. Although the Cedar Fire in San Diego three years ago is the single largest on state record, newspaper accounts from 1889 detailed a drought-fueled fire in what is today Orange County that was probably three times as large, and Native American legends from several tribes in the San Diego area recall a mass migration hundreds of years ago driven by what may have been an even bigger fire.

    So when, in July, I saw several stories in the newspapers suggesting that climate change could lead to a greater risk of fire in the West, an alarm bell went off in my mind. The time had come to look at the dangers we face. It’s scary enough already. Could it get worse?


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A DC-10 Takes on the Day Fire

This morning we can sniff smoke in the air, and it’s going to be very hot today, but the atmospheric
low off the coast has dissipated and the winds gone. The worst of the Day Fire may be over.

Much credit goes to the Ventura County Fire Department, the "Hotshots" teams, the prison hand crews, and many many others…but also to the technology (including a jumbo jet!) that has been dousing the fire with water and fire retardants for the last three weeks. From the LATimes:


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Day Fire Makes Front Page of NYTimes

With a nice pic and story from the Associated Press.


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Day Fire Burns On

The Day Fire is now advancing slowly but surely towards our home in Upper Ojai on two fronts.

From the north, over the Topa Topas (6600 feet high) and from the east, up Santa Paula canyon. The eastern firefront is much more likely to cause us harm, because it’s more likely to be driven by Santa Ana winds. The fire began three weeks ago, and we’ve been threatened now for two weeks. This takes a toll emotionally; frankly, we’re all sick of it. Again area residents have been advised to evacuate, although few have, because the slow-moving fire isn’t likely to kill, and because literally thousands of firefighters, with engines, hand-crews, and air support have moved in and occupied the area. Here’s a picture of what it looked like yesterday evening, courtesy of the Ventura County Fire Department. It looks less threatening now.


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Sunday Morning on the Planet

Val on a Sierra beach. Hard to believe this was just a week ago. Especially since we are facing yet  another evacuation threat, here in Upper Ojai…nearly three weeks after the Day fire started.

Gather ye beauties while ye may


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Day Fire, Day Twenty-One

The perimeter map posted on the useful-if-slow InciWeb site, which tracks big wildfires across the country. We are closest to the little nub of fire to the southwest. It’s about ten miles away and the Santa Ana winds, as forecast, are blowing, although relatively mildly at this point. We have been given a preliminary evacuation order, but bulldozers have cut a line twenty-four feet across all the way from the Topa Topa  mountains northeast of Ojai to Santa Paula canyon, between us and the fire, and that line has been soaked in fire retardant.

A neighbor visited with the firemen standing watch at the top of the hill. "Yep," one said in country-tinged voice, "when that fire gets here we’ll fight it. I got a bottle of water right here."


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Don’t Eat Your Spinach

Over a hundred people recently came down sick after eating bagged spinach contaminated by the rare but potentially deadly E. coli 0157 bacteria.

One person died, according to the FDA.

But insight into this sickening has been hard to come by until today, when three excellent stories were published on the subject, the first linked above from the opinion section of the NYTimes.

Nina Planck reveals that this particular brand of E. coli is typically associated with cows eating grain, producing a strain of the bacteria that can stand up to stomach acid, and thus overcome human defenses that can handle the usual strains of the omnipresent E. coli without serious difficulty.

The good news is that there is a well-known solution for E. coli 0157:

In 2003, The Journal of Dairy Science noted that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry O157. (Fortunately, food safety measures prevent contaminated fecal matter from getting into most of our food most of the time.) Happily, the journal also provided a remedy based on a simple experiment. When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

The bad news is that the present situation is unsustainable, according to Marla Cone of the LATimes.

The bacterium that has sickened people across the nation and forced growers to destroy spinach crops is so pervasive in the Salinas Valley that virtually every waterway there violates national standards.

At Grist, Tom Philpott  picks up the story from a different angle, looking not so much at the bacterium or its source, but at our desire for convenience, and the the scale of agriculture that feeds that desire.

I can see why pre-washed salad greens have grown into a $4 billion industry since 1986, when Earthbound Farm first sorted out the technology for keeping them fresh. It’s undeniably tempting to pluck a sealed bag of uniform greens from the supermarket counter and dump it right into the salad bowl, ready for a lashing of pre-made salad dressing.

But in doing so, you’re making huge demands on the environment. Even assuming organic production, consider that California salad greens consumed on the East Coast must be trucked across the continent and kept cool at a constant 36 degrees Fahrenheit. "At least given the fuel burned to get it to my table," Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, "there’s little reason to think my Earthbound salad mix is any more sustainable than a conventional salad."

I’m relieved to say that on this front, a neighbor got us into a CSA, so I need not fear my spinach. Or my lettuce. Or my zucchini. Or my tomatoes. Or my squash. Or my peppers. Or my beets…

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