The California Wildfire That Burned Big Sur – Part 12

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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 37-75

7/27/2008, 12:55 PM

Below is what happened yesterday afternoon! Erupting volcanoes and battleships on fire jump immediately to mind.

A perfect object example of:

"Contained" does not mean "Extinguished".

"Contained" only means that there is a ring of now black, mostly un-burnable material completely around the perimeter sufficiently wide that they are reasonably sure it won't jump to ignite fuel that will burn. A good, strong wind in the wrong direction could rescind that "Contained" proclamation right quick.

Interior Burn Day 2Interior Burn
Interior BurnInterior Burn
7/26 Interior island burn grows to alarming proportions.

Later on last night, we were away from the ranch for a short bit and returning home. Upon cresting a high ridge, we saw a huge glow in the sky over the mountains 8 air miles to the SE of our present location, where the studio is. It was the largest and brightest that we have seen in the nighttime. We were pretty confident that the studio wasn't in danger, having checked the conditions prior to leaving (or we wouldn't have left), but the sight was alarming, just the same. When you witness something like that, your mind runs all of the equations: winds, elapsed time, previously known data (distance to perimeter, distance to new ignition, distance traversed by time), etc., and you arrive at the conclusion that it is the interior continuing to burn into the night. By the time we got back here, it had died down. I got no photography. It was spectacular, with the huge plume seen that day being lit from below by what must have once been a magnificently large stand of trees. Very sad.

Smoke last night was thick again. Blew out relatively early, compared to previous days. Winds from the NW are stronger. Strong enough last night that it took quite a while for the local S wind to start and begin bringing us the smoke. Stayed calm for quite a while and we stayed clear; the two forces counteracting each other. Suddenly, it hits and we run around the studio closing up to minimize the toxic effects. So far tonight, it is acting the same but the marine layer is up at our altitude, so we should be in moisture, and the smoke diminished because of it. When this happens, the cloud flows over our mountain top and falls into the valley to the south. Here's hoping that holds true.

7/29/2008, 2:15 PM

We awoke this morning to a very strange and eerie sound. It still continues into the day.

No Helicopters.

After 38 straight days, they became part of our environment. Now back to the precious deep silence that we bought this place because of, it seems very weird. I'll get used to it.

The air is beginning to clear. We can see farther into the range. There are some small plumes out there that are relatively close in, still, and I could see flare-ups on the peaks visible out of the bedroom window as I drifted off to sleep. Smoke still comes our way at night, and we have to close up, but it's not as dense as it once was. An area on the SE edge is widely populated but the MODIS plot shows that the fire starts are 12-24 hours old and that area is 17 miles away.

We can stand down.

Total area burned: 381.4 square miles
Injuries: 9
Structures destroyed: 58
Suppression cost to date: $77.2 million
Crews: 25
Engines: 74
Helicopters: 19
Air Tankers: 9
Total Personnel Assigned: 2,371

We can begin to get back to a normal life, such as that may be. Don't have to worry about leaving to get supplies or just to go out for dinner. We have a lot of clean up to do and moving things around to get the studios out of combat mode and back into working order again.

I know that you understand the dilemma of what we created and did not need to use, but how could we have done less than prepare for the worst case? There was no choice. I know all of the rationalizations and it is the Right Thing to have done but it's a significant amount of coin. Still, I keep having feelings of my being Chicken Little. Not exactly the same, because the threat was indeed real, but nothing came of it. ...Not that I'm wishing it had! I'm so confused. The other fact that I try to keep in the front of my mind is that the next one will be closer. There's nothing much out past the dozer lines to burn and we won't have two weeks to prepare.

We've been alarmed, not to make a pun, by small fires getting started in the summer months before, by exhaust particles hitting the dry grass by the side of the road or idiots carelessly tossing cigarettes... or arson. These were dealt with early and hard. This one wasn't and it got away from them. The conditions are so bad, the FD likens this season to it already being late September! YIKES! Two more months of this?

8/11/2008 01:05 AM

The fire has continued to burn, sometimes becoming bright for brief periods at night. Each night brings heavy smoke as the wind turns. Over the weeks since containment, we have noticed that it had slowly begun to arrive later each night, so there is hope that it will be gone soon, as the fire burns farther and farther away and finally goes out. When it does arrive, we get a whiff and then, WHAM, it comes on strong. We run around the studio again closing everything up—starting with the south-facing windows and doors, then moving through to the others. The smoke still gets in by morning but at least it is tolerable and doesn't irritate our bronchial tubes so much. Sleeping with a respirator on is an option but not a comfortable or necessarily workable one.

Three nights ago brought us a thick marine layer that crept in and reached up to our altitude, bringing back the cloud we love to wake up in. This has made a significant positive change in the fire activity and the smoke is diminishing such that we can open the windows at night once more. MODIS plot shows no new starts in the last six days, but there are isolated fires. Plumes in the daytime are now reduced to a low-hanging haze that drifts through the far valleys but individual fires can be seen at night.

51 days—It's not over but it's fading.

I feel a little battle weary. Almost seems strange not to be on alert anymore. Sometimes, I'll be thinking about something (or not thinking about anything) and the fire will break into my consciousness—I'll snap into emergency mode for a few seconds until I realize that there's no need. Every so often, a chopper is heard and the same thing happens. If the sound lasts long enough, we end up outside looking to see where it is, which way it's headed and what it may be carrying. I suppose that it will be some time before the stress wanes.

8/14/2008 04:35 PM

Just when you think it might be safe to be thinking about something else, you get a reminder that it isn't. After a couple of days of waning activity and diminishing smoke at night, an eruption occurred directly between us and Ventana Double Cone.

Areas continue to smolder out there, creeping across the ground until they reach a pocket, build, and finally bring larger fuels to flash point. First thing you know, a plume manifests its once-hidden existence. We're in for more days of evening smoke.

The disconcerting aspect of this is that nothing showed up on the MODIS plot that we have come to depend upon for the past two months. While decidedly not as threatening as eruptions past, if a fire of this size is going for a number of hours to more than a day, and the space-based instruments aren't registering it at all, the system is not as reliable as one may have thought.

In other news, bird population has significantly increased. Steller's Jays with the huge crest on their heads, Scrub Jays, Black-headed Grosbeaks with their party plumage, Band-tailed Pigeons, Dark-eyed Juncos, Titmice, Mountain Chickadees, American Robins, White Breasted Nuthatch and Brown Creepers jumping along and around the tree branches and trunks searching for insects, Nuttal's Woodpeckers making a racket, Anna's Hummingbirds flitting and hovering about, Northern Flickers and, in the deep of the night, a few species of owls congregate in the trees; talking back and forth. Now, we're gonna go broke buying bird seed. At least the owls will keep the rodent population in check.

Haven't seen any new predators prowling or just passing through, but I'm sure they're out there. Skunk activity and attendant exhaust plumes are on the increase, though; and Peter Pettigrew, our resident ratty-looking Wormtail Possum, comes up on the porch to see if he can score a meal, which he often does.

8/19/2008 06:05 PM

We have had recurring nights of marine layer that have been suppressing the fire activity. Aromas of smoke arrive at unexpected times but they are farther between and not as intense. Helicopters can be heard in the distance during the daylight hours, although not as frequently as before.

59+ days—It's over... we think.

The valleys on either side of us are filling with fog and condensing down into cloud layers below us as I type. You can watch it change from one stage to another as it progresses. A wonderful feeling; but I never appreciated it like I do now.

I pulled another all-nighter, as frequently I do, and was on hand to witness this morning's "cloud tide" ebbing out to sea, as the Sun rose over the mountains to the east. I had assumed that it always just evaporated in place under the Sun's rays, but this morning it really is a tidal flow. Fun to watch and very calming, as it ever so slowly and steadily glides off to whence it came.

9/3/2008 12:35 AM

Wrong! We thought it was over, but it isn't. Tonight, I went out on the porch to lower the big umbrella, so it won't get buffeted by that south wind that comes almost every night and I smelled smoke. In the mountain range, was a glow. Can't be. Got the glasses and checked closely. Sure enough, a smoke cloud being lit from below after all this time. Unbelievable. Apparently, the fire is still creeping across the ground and flare-ups can happen at any time. Only when the rains come will be be relatively sure that it has been extinguished.

75 days and counting....

What a ride—a long and very scary ride—one that none of us will ever forget, and it certainly provides a unique perspective on what is important and how we tend to take for granted that which we have; when it really should be appreciated each and every day. Somehow, that never seems to happen. Take time out every once in a while and reflect on what you do have, how good life can be and notice how beautiful your surroundings—no matter where you may happen to be or what you may be doing.

All we have is now.

Thank you, all, for reading and traveling along with us, for your support, for your thoughts and wishes; even offers to come work! They have helped immensely; more than you may know or we may ever be able to convey. We are in your debt.


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