Friday, October 26, 2007

Wildfire Tragedy in California

My heart weeps for those so suffering.

Driven from their homes by firestorms, not knowing if they will return to a welcome home, or to a smoking ashen ruin.

The world can be such a beautiful place. Southern California holds some of the greatest delights on earth. But with the beauty and splendor, there lurks insidious danger. The architecture and climate of many S.Cal locales lends itself to this kind of wildland fire event. Native chaparral is adapted to thrive in the xeric environment that is natural to so many of the areas that burned. And the notorious Santa Ana winds, so wild and unpredictable, are born and formed in the natural topography of the region. They come raging downslope, from the high desert toward the ocean, dessicating every bit of moisture from the air and from the plants, and the fuels on the ground. Under those conditions it only takes a tiny spark to start up an incendiary inferno.

In these circumstances most of the firefighters can only stand and watch it burn. The danger to human life is far to high to allow them to protect property. When the winds finally subside, the firefighters can move in and establish containment lines, hold the flames in check, and wait for the fire to burn itself out.

These guys were very lucky.

They got caught by the firestorm on an exposed ridgetop. On realizing that their escape route was cut off and their water supply interrupted, the team leader ordered them to deploy their emergency fire shelters. Fortunately, a helitanker was able to drop water on top of them before the fire became too intense. Their shelters protected them through the hottest period of the firestorm.


Orange County Fire Authority (ORC)
Twelve Firefighters Deploy Fire Shelters – All Twelve Survive Uninjured
October 22, 2007
Santiago Incident CA-ORC-07068555

This Preliminary Summary Report is intended as an aid in accident prevention, and to provide factual information within a short time frame. Information contained within may be subject to revision as further investigation is conducted, and other reports and documents are received.


Twelve OCFA firefighters were advancing a progressive hose lay on a hillside near a road cut along Santiago Canyon Road in eastern Orange County (Unincorporated). Upon reaching the top of the 200-foot hill, their hose line apparently ruptured, causing them to run out of water. As fire encroached upon their position, the firefighters deployed their fire shelters, and all twelve firefighters escaped injury.


A wildland fire was reported near Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon at 1755 on 10/21/07. The Orange County Fire Authority dispatched a watershed fire assignment, and initial reports indicated a 20-30 acre fire. Firefighters held the main body of the Santiago Fire to the west side of Santiago Canyon Road, which was a critical control line for keeping the fire out of the communities of Silverado and Modjeska Canyons.

On 10/22/07 at approximately 1530, firefighters discovered that the fire had jumped Santiago Canyon Road approximately 200 yards south of Call Box SC-13. Two teams of firefighters immediately initiated two separate but coordinated progressive hose lays anchored on the eastern edge of Santiago Canyon road. One hose lay progressed along each flank. The hose team on the left flank consisted of two members from Engine-22, three members from Engine-9, three members from Engine-34, three members from Patrol-16, and one member from Engine-53.

The left-flank hose team had reached (or nearly reached) the top of the 200-foot hill when they lost water, apparently due to one or more ruptured hose lines. With fire below, the progressive hose team leader selected a level site at the top of the hill and ordered all twelve members to deploy their shelters. OCFA helicopter(s) made one or more high-priority water drops on the fire immediately adjacent to the deployed firefighters. The firefighters remained in communication while they were inside their shelters.

Once conditions were cool enough, all twelve firefighters exited their shelters and walked unassisted down the hill to Santiago Canyon Road. All twelve firefighters were evaluated on-site, and then transported to OCFA Fire Headquarters for further evaluation. None of the firefighters required treatment at a hospital.

Recommended Actions: All firefighters should review and practice Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones. All firefighters should regularly review and practice fire shelter deployment. Commanders should develop procedures for managing deployment emergencies.

Future Reports:

A full report is forthcoming pursuant to OCFA SOP AM 115.02

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Poetry: How shall I serve them?

My friends, my loved ones --
how shall I best serve them?
Toward them, promises laid before God,
my sacred obligation:

To help bear their burdens.
To mourn with them in mourning.
To share their joy and sadness.
To extend compassion and charity
without reservation or hesitation.
To stand as a witness of that Divine One,
the perfect example for all.

How many times I have failed
to serve those in need.

In blind selfishness, I cannot
see the needs of others beyond
my own bitter greedy demands.

What opportunities have passed,
because I could not see.

What great blessings might have been,
if only I had the faith.

Miserable servant that I am,
I continue striving to do my best.
Heavenly Father, please,
accept my flawed offerings,
bless my feeble struggles.

Snowshoes on Rampart Ridge

Looking forward to new tracks in the snow, I am revisiting other stories, written some years ago...

Snowshoes on Rampart Ridge

Bitter cold penetrates with a chill that cannot be dispelled, as we waddle along the trail, bundled in thick layers of clothing, clumsy burdensome snowshoes stealing all grace from our walk. Steaming clouds of frosty breath trail behind. Crusty snow emits weird squeaks and groans as our toes dig in.

We stop for a breather, at a vista overlooking the valley. Night in the deep woods is silent and brooding dark, swathed in a blanket of snow. Nature's array is spread forth before us in the moonlight, hundreds of acres of evergreen pines and spruces and firs, looming black and secretive in the still night air, climbing the hillsides and standing stern and motionless sentinels along the ridge tops.

Crossing a thick stand of brush, we stumble across a resting elk, who springs up in alarm at the disturbance. Which of us was frightened more? With sweeping strides and massive power, plunging headlong through the undergrowth at a thundering gallop, he escapes from our threat, and is gone from view almost before we realize what we are looking at. We stand there for a moment in amazed silence, gaping at each other like wondering fools.

Later on, crossing our trail like a silent wraith, a red fox flashes by and disappears into the chaparral. From time to time we hear a great owl, his muffled query floating across the dark forest, as he glides through the night sky, scanning the snow for prey.

We are the strangers here. This is no longer our world, we find no warmth in nature. We have too long allowed ourselves to be enticed away, wrapped in the insulating comfort of technology. In our complacence, we have been robbed of natural rapport with the forest. Now we stumble as aliens through this seemingly stark wilderness, interlopers for an hour, feeling as if we could barely survive a few miles trek through this unfriendly locale. To every creature of the forest, we are a threat and a foe. We don't belong.

In the end, we circle back to the car, arriving in relief back at civilization, anxiously looking forward to the comforts of home, and a long hot shower.

Symbols in the Snow

I think the fresh snowfall represents renewal. It is a tangible representation of the repentance process. New snow erases the old tracks and ruts, leaving a cold, clear surface upon which to begin again. It is a symbol of surpassing whiteness and purity, so clean and pristine. Waiting to receive whatever new impressions may come, tracks laid down over the smooth white surface. The snow uniquely records our passages and progress, the trail a chronicle of coming and going embedded in icy footsteps.

In my back-yard treks, I follow an established snowshoe trail climbing up to the nearby summit of the mountain. I have found that after each new storm it is far easier to follow the old track to the top, rather than break from the trail on a new course. Under the top layer of unpacked powder, the firmer base of compressed snow offers better support for my ponderous advance.

Over the past couple of months, my tracks through the snow have gathered in wandering footsteps of nearly every other creature happening by. Rabbits. Birds. Deer and elk follow the path, herd animals filing serially, each carefully placing feet precisely into the steps of the leader. I never see these creatures in the flesh, but they leave their tracks. I have been mighty curious about how the "footed-ness" of these animals might affect their gait. Do clumsy inept deer ever have trouble staying inside the lines? To my amusement, I sometimes find signs that these animals have as much difficulty navigating through the deep drifts as I. Occasional deep belly-marks. Errant tracks that diverge from the path, then join back. Though I suppose that with them, it is no laughing matter to forage in the desperate cold and barren winter-clad slopes seeking food.

I wonder about whatever unidentified dog-like creature happens to own those frighteningly large canine feet that also trail along in my footsteps. Sometimes the snow records the signs of their predation. Scattered tufts of fur and feathers. Bit of bones. Crimson blood spilled on the cold white snow. How much can such animals read from the tale of _my_ three-foot long treads. Are they ever watching me from among the trees along the bluff? Do they ever follow the scent of my slow and labored passage and dream about spilling more hot blood onto the cool clean snow?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Indelible Tracks

This evening I took a hike up the backyard mountain to look at the fall colors. About half a mile up the mountain, the road runs out and narrows down into a fair hiking trail. A ways further, and it fans out into a dozen faintly defined meanders through the PJ.

If you wander through the mixed Juniperus scopulorum and Pinus monophyllum long enough, detouring around the scattered patches of Arctostaphylos, you can hook back into the mountain road that crosses the saddle and descends into the next valley. Beautiful vistas all around. I usually find the trail virtually untracked by humans, and a nice hillside to watch the sunset.

Some time in the last couple of weeks, an ambitious soul on an ATV took it upon himself to blaze the foot trail through.

Nothing tragic about this. It was always an unremarkable spot, nothing special to distinguish it from mountainsides and ridges all around this area. But it was untracked before. I presume that it never will be again — not in my lifetime.

I’ve seen this happen before in other areas around this neighborhood. Opening one track starts it. Where one ATV operator sees tire tracks, it apparently signals a green light to traverse the same ground.

There’s no reason to make new trails in this area. There are hundreds of miles of dirt trails to explore. Ripping a new one across formerly pristine territory is just senseless destruction.

Fall Colors!

We have had a couple of wintry storms here over the last few days. Frosty mornings. Most of the leaves are gone already.

A project here, every spring, to plant a garden. Last year Dad put up a little plastic greenhouse to see if he could save his tomatoes. In Hideaway Valley, the season is just long enough to grow up huge bushy plants with loads of green fruit on them, then along comes a hard freeze overnight and spoils all.

Last fall, we tried to nurse the plants through early frosts with propane heaters. I am not sure how much the fuel costs, but we probably burned up $50 worth of propane trying to ripen $10 worth of tomatoes. And in the end, they all froze anyway.

This year the vines all froze last week in the first hard frost. I went into the greenhouse and picked off about half the green fruits and brought them in the house. About 10 gallons. I buried the rest of the fruit underneath the dead vines, thinking maybe it will insulate them and keep the tomatoes warm from ground heat.

We haven't had much luck trying to ripen the green fruit. It just doesn't have enough time on the vines here.

I think we picked about three red-ripe tomatoes this year -- but thousands of green ones.

"...True love is the greatest thing in the world-except for a nice MLT - mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe." (Princess Bride)