The California Wildfire That Burned Big Sur – Part 3

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   Posted by: BJ Johnson in studio
This entry is part of a series: Spherical Magic & The Basin Complex Wildfire »

Spherical Magic & The Basin Complex Wildfire – Days 16-18

Uncle Sam Far Side Plume  Plume rising from the far side of Uncle Sam

7/6/08, 1:30 PM

The front on Uncle Sam has reached the ridge and we can see flames towering into the air again. It will soon begin creeping down this side of the mountain toward us, probably by tonight. There's no dozer line up there. The front has a ways to go, still, and the tanks aren't here yet but should be in time, unless the wind (which is going to shift back again to the fire's direction starting Tuesday for two days) whips it along faster.

When it's on the far side of the ridge, you can talk yourself into a calm space that the fight is going well. But when it becomes visibly active, naked eye--let alone in the glasses--the fear can no longer be suppressed and begins to take over. We'll be building the system in the thick smoke but, conservatively, should have it all set by Thursday, give it all a "wet run" and then make refinements based upon what we learn.

The helicopters are flying directly over the studio between the heliport to the East and the newest fronts on Uncle Sam and near Palo Colorado Canyon. They're carrying retardant now. Interesting to watch them hover over huge vats of the gooey red stuff and lower the bucket down into it for a refill.

Chinook with BucketSikorskyPhos Chek Bucket
A Chinook returns to the scene carrying another bucket of retardant.
  and
A Sikorsky with on-board tank follows.
  and
One of three vats of retardant out in a farmer's field.

Sky CraneSky CraneSky Crane
 A Sikorsky S-64E Sky Crane with tank under the backbone
Bell 410Phos Chek Bucket
A Bell 410 with bucket.
  and
Aerospatiale A350 A-Star.

At least two new choppers are now on the force; Kaman K1200's that have two 2-blade rotors sitting laterally, right next to each other, interleaving as they rotate 90° out of phase. Very interesting concept, which makes a very distinctive sound. Goofy looking but effective, nonetheless.
Bell 410  Kaman K1200 with its support truck.

7/6/08, 10:14 PM

We arranged for delivery of the gravel foundation for the tanks to rest upon today. That's about all we could really do. Waiting over a long holiday weekend is really frustrating, although the guys running the company we are getting the tanks and equipment from said they had no problem bringing them here at 05:00 4th of July morning or open the store for me to get fittings on Saturday if I wanted them. We do have some time, even though it is steadily slipping away, so I elected to not make them go through that for us. If we really need a special delivery of something, I'll ask then. Better to get the land cleared and the foundation in place in a planned sequence and pace. There'll be plenty of time for panic later.

We have just come from this week's fire advisory meeting. The Sheriff, Forestry Service, SPCA and the Incident Commander overseeing all three sections of the combined fires all briefed us on what has happened this week, in greater detail than can be obtained by other available means, and what is planned for this week. They told us about their scenario running, using data from previous fires; where they spread, how fast, what the conditions were at the time, so that they can glimpse into the future of this fire.

There is a good chance that the south front can be headed to the ocean on the west side and corralled on the other to the east between a creek and a dozer line. This will bring it to the perimeter of the Indians Fire and that section will then require a lot less resources to monitor; freeing them to come to the north and upper east fronts where we are. The interior of the Indians Fire is nearly all burned out, so there's no fuel there for the Basin Complex Fire to use. One large island in the interior is all that is burning now, but they're not just leaving it to its own devices. As that dwindles, more forces will become available. We'll need them.

We were very happy to learn that our local guys are nearly complete in their task of cutting a second set of contingency dozer lines outside the primary set that they cut last week. With only one line, it is a real gamble. Still a crap shoot with two--but the odds are better. I feel better.

A multi-square mile section to the SE of us is now under Mandatory Evacuation. Our area is under an Evacuation Advisory so far.

We continue to work and think and try to see into the future how the fire will advance if it comes from various vectors up the mountain. Today, I employed a 3D model I made of the studio for another project and overlaid it with squashed hemispheres indicating the spray patterns obtained from the RainBird test that we conducted three days ago up on the roof. From that, I know it will take 8 to cover the house, studios, porches, decks, garage and a perimeter around them. In all, we'll have as many as 30 in zones surrounding and through the property to turn on or off as the need arises, kind of like an irrigation rig. This will free us to handle the hot spots, tree tops and sides of the house and studio with the 600 feet of fire hose; 300 feet on each pump, so we can attack from two flanks, be in separate areas, or re-configure the 100 foot sections to get a longer reach.

I hope that I have thought of everything; with as many contingencies as possible for the unexpected. You can never really predict a wildfire, only guess intelligently.

7/8/08, 6:50 PM

The 3 yards of pea gravel arrived this morning by 10-wheel dump truck, after an 07:00 phone call to let us know they were on their way. I and our two landscape guys shovelled, barrowed and raked it to form a level pad 36 feet long and 10 feet wide for the tanks to rest upon. Took us three hours. With that complete, we set to work on clearing more of the fuels up next to the studio in order to prepare a place for the 6000W generator and getting the remaining logs for the wintertime into the wood pile or standing on end apart from each other so that they can be hosed down and not become more fuel.

During this, I heard a familiar growl. High Output Turbofans! Being a pilot, one gets to know these sounds first-hand. Immediately dropped what I was doing and went out into the East yard. Flying overhead in slow flight was a DC-10 tanker! Yep, a wide body airliner carrying a 12,000 gallon tank of retardant flying not 1,000 feet overhead going really slow. Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about, baby! The landscape guys were smiling when I turned and gave them an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

DC-10 Tanker  The DC-10 Tanker

Now, it's noon-ish, 105° and the wind has been out of the south since last night. Visibility is 1/4 mile or less. Let me tell ya, 100° smoke is not fun. Joy came out to see the cleanup for the generator and within three minutes doubled over with her hands on her knees, not being able to breathe. I got her back inside as quiclky as possible and sitting down to rest and recover. When it's like this, the respirator is mandatory for her. I can feel it in my chest but it's not that severe for me.... so far.

The 4 tanks, pumps and some of the fittings arrived about two hours later on three trucks. Tanks are 8 feet in diameter, 8 feet tall. We rolled them off, through the East gate and lined them up next to each other alongside the pad. One by one, we made gross adjustments to their rotation and position while the tanks were still on their sides then, once I figured I had a good idea where it would land, we flipped them up onto their bases upon the gravel. Took us a number of adjustments for rotation and position to get it lined up. The next three went better, having learned from the first. Once these things are on their feet, they are not as easy to move around. They weigh 400 lbs.

What with all of the gravel moving, clearing, generator assembly and placement, tank moving and adjusting I was really hurting, but it didn't really set in until I stopped. Wasn't until Joy fixed dinner and we were eating that I realized that I did it on an empty stomach. The 07:00 phone call startled me out of bed and I just kept going. Drank plenty of lemon water to keep hydrated but that was all.

Tank Farm Left
BJ piping  Assembling the Tank Farm
Tank Farm Left

Now, the four of them are all lined up next to each other, looking like something out of Dune, and ready for building the 2" header that will hook them all together and provide three outputs; one each between tanks 1-2 and 3-4 for our engine-driven pumps and a third going between the center two back to the fence behind them to provide a hookup for the fire trucks if we need more water or if we have extra that we can provide to help save someone else's house.

All of our properties up here have colored streamers tied to trees or fences, or visible hydrants that let the crews know how much water, in what type of container, is available. Some have tanks like we do, others a pool, others a hydrant, others nothing but their service line.

Part of the reason we decided to build a self-contained system is that this is not what most would call a Municipal Water System. It is a private system that feeds the 40 homes on this mountain. Pretty good, but not beefy. The two wells are approximately 850' down in the valley. The well pumps push the water to a pair of tanks half way up the mountainside and one pump pushes it from there up to the reservoir up here. The two mid-tanks feed the lower houses and the reservoir feeds the upper. The mains aren't that large. It's a drinking/sprinkler water system; not made for fire fighting. There are hydrants, yes, but the throughput (with everyone panicking and trying to use their garden hoses) will become a big fat 0. The water pressure on an -average- day isn't all that great. If anything in this system breaks, and we're relying on it, we're screwed. Total capacity of the system in all three tanks is 63,700 gallons. Now, we've got 100 gallons more than 1/6 of that just for our studio.

I don't like to lose.




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