Friday, May 30, 2008

VFD BBQ Weekend

This is the weekend of the annual Loma Prieta Volunteer Fire & Rescue barbecue. It's always a big event with a good turnout, and it's our only fundraiser, but this year - thanks to the Summit Fire - it may have more impact than usual.

In any event, as a direct result of working on the setup and preparation for the BBQ on Saturday, and the actual event itself on Sunday, it is entirely possible there will be no new blog posts until Monday. If time and events allow, I'll write what I can, but I expect to come home on both evenings and do nothing but fall asleep as rapidly as possible.

I thank everyone who's purchased raffle tickets, donated raffle items, and who will attend the event. I cannot convey just how important the success of this is to our organization, and we really do appreciate your support!

Summit Fire Update 5/30/08

I've talked to a few people now, and I've learned a few things.

First, the technical definition of the word "contained" is that fire lines surround the entire area of the fire, making it difficult for the fire to escape.

After containment, the next point is "controlled", which means that it's out enough that the fire folks decide they can walk away from it. The best estimates I've been able to drag out of people on that seem to converge at two or three weeks out, so call it mid June.

But even "controlled" doesn't mean "entirely out". Tree roots and heavy timber can smoulder for weeks or months and then flare up again. At least twice now I've heard from different sources that we're likely to see several flare ups over the summer, and that the fire probably won't really be "out" until we get some rain in the fall.

No other fire news today.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Spousal Communications

Those who know me and my wife understand that we don't always talk to each other face to face. In fact, we're both so busy with our various activities that Anne's rule from her days at Amdahl - "If you didn't write it down it never happened" - is something we both have to live by.

As a result, we do strange things, like email each other about commitments, or reminders to check our schedules, even when we're both in the house, and sometimes when we're sitting back to back in the den. This is all perfectly normal for a fair percentage of modern couples, I suspect, and thus not a surprise.

The other day, however, Anne hit me with a new twist. Now she's reading this blog to find out what I'm doing, and though I've only just started writing it there's already been one unexpected discovery: a VFD call in the middle of the night. To explain how it is possible - or rather, the surprise I felt when she told me about it - you need to know how the dispatch process work in the middle of the night in our home.

The pager sits in its charging stand right next to my side of the bed, less than two feet from my ear. When it goes off it makes either an immensely loud beeping noise (despite my turning the volume all the way down) or a loud, low growling (when vibrate mode causes it to rattle the charging stand rather violently on the table top).

Next, I grab the pager to smother it to reduce its chances of waking Anne up. Mind you, it has already beeped at 110 decibels or so, and therefore should already have rattled her skull into wakefulness, but in the off chance that she's still blissfully unaware that someone in Felton wants my attention, I lunge for it, yank it back to the bed, and push it - speaker down - into the mattress so I can just make out what is being said by the dispatcher.

Assuming the page is for my department, my next steps actually involve thought. What sort of incident is it? Where is it? Am I even likely to get to the station before the engine leaves without me? And so on. These are all very difficult questions in the wee hours, at least for me, but I do my best.

Note that sometimes the pager goes off and it isn't anything I have to respond to. The way things are structured, most of the times that Burrell is paged out without us, our department's pagers go off as well. That way we know Burrell station's crew is gone and we're primary coverage for a while. But I digress...

At this point, assuming I am needed and there is a good chance I will get to the station before others leave without me, I get out of bed. This is not a gentle process either, and provides the third serious chance for Anne to wake up enough to realize that something is going on.

Next is a tricky bit. I have to find my way across the room to my clothes, and do that without stumbling over or stepping on either of our dogs. The one that sleeps on my side of the bed - Danno - does his best to make that difficult. He moves around at night and he's roughly floor colored, so I never know where he will be. On a night with little moon, just walking that 12 feet or so may be more dangerous than anything I'm going to face on the call, and tripping over an 85 pound dog leads to me yelping at a minimum. Yet one more possible chance for Anne to exit her coma.

For the sake of argument, let's assume I can get to my clothes without incident. I now dress in a hurry and exit the bedroom. And here I face a choice: do I tell Anne I'm leaving or not? This isn't quite as simple as it sounds. If she's made noises like she might be awake enough to know I'm heading out, I generally say something. If, however, she hasn't moved, I assume that despite my activities she is blissfully unaware of my departure, and leave as quietly as I can, trying not to trip over the other dog - Leah - on the way out the door.

I don't know how others would respond, but I can assure you that in most cases Anne has no idea I've left, nor that I've returned. But her statement the other day that she'd read my blog and learned I'd been on a call was a gem.

That morning - at about 1am - I'd gone through the motions as documented above, and she'd made noises like I'd woken her. Enough that I told her I was going to a fire down towards Scott's Valley (I seem to recall) but that I probably wouldn't be first to the water tender, and even if I was we'd probably be canceled before we got to the scene. She said something vague in response - probably something like "Mmmfff.", looking back on it with hindsight - but it was, clearly, a response.

An hour later when I came home, undressed, wandered across the room yet again, trying to avoid the dogs, and climbed back into bed, cold and unable to sleep for a while, I know she was unconscious. How she slept through my return I don't claim to understand, but she did.

So let me ask you, how can it be possible for me to go through all of the above and have her need to read my blog to discover that I went out on a call? You'd think that after being married as long as we have - over 20 years - I'd have a clue. But I honestly don't.

Combine this with the opposite problem - if she wakes up at the wrong time she's awake for the rest of the night - and I live in fear. If my nocturnal VFD work leads to her being awakened in the middle of the night, I may return to find her sitting up, holding a large, blunt object and telling me how she's going to make sure I "get some sleep now."

And that's a kind of spousal communications I'd rather avoid if I can.

Summit Fire udate 5/29/08

"Contained" doesn't mean "out". This morning, while walking my dogs, we saw a helicopter carrying a bucket. It was clearly working the Summit fire.

At some point I'll have to ask a few people how long they think it will take to fully extinguish this beast.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Summit fire - what I saw on 5/25/08

Here's a picture of what I saw on Sunday evening while working on the water tender. This is taken from the southern edge of Summit / Mt. Madonna road, looking south-east. Or at least that's where I think I was facing when I took this photo.

(Click on picture to see a larger version.)

There are places that look a lot worse than this, but for some reason this is the only vista that grabbed me hard enough that I got out the camera as we were working.

Frau Blücher's name

On several occasions in my short life, I've wound up in discussions about the movie Young Frankenstein, and specifically why the horses whinny after hearing Frau Blücher's name. Some time back I'd been told (I think by someone studying film at a local university) that the reason is she's named after a famous German general who had killed a lot of horses during various battles. But no one I've ever talked to could confirm that, and there was at least one other theory: that the name inspired fear in the horses because it sounded like the German word for glue.

This morning I finally did some searches to see what I could figure out.

The first place I hit was, which quickly dispatched the "Blücher is (or sounds like) the German word for glue" theory. Their claim is that it's funny because Brooks and Wilder are parodying the old style horror film in which an ominous sound - like a clap of thunder - strikes at various points. In other words, it's even more subtle than the glue reference. While I believed them about glue, I wasn't so sure about the rest of their explanation.

The next place I hit was, which ageed with about the glue reference, but added the following:

On the other hand, if you look up Blücher, some German dictionaries do list the expression "er geht ran wie Blücher" ("he doesn't loaf around/he goes at it like Blücher"), but that refers to the Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742-1819), who earned the name "Marschall Vorwärts" ("[Field] Marshal Forward") for his victories over the French at Katzbach and (with Wellington) at Waterloo (1815). In other words, Blücher (or Blucher) is just a German surname. It has no particular meaning as a normal word in German and certainly does not mean "glue"!
That seemed interesting, and it lead me to the full name of the general that might be at the heart of the story I was trying to track down.

The next stop was the wikepedia entry for the movie, which said, in part:

Every time Frau Blücher's name is mentioned, horses are heard whinnying as if afraid of her name. Many viewers mistakenly believe that Blücher means "glue" in German; however, Blücher is a well-known German surname. The German term for glue is der Kleber, or tierischer Leim for animal glue. Brooks suggested in a 2000 interview that he had based the joke on the erroneous translation, which he had heard from someone else.
The entry gives a link to for that quote from Brooks. In that interview, we read:

Other than that, the only thing I cut was another "Blucher" and another whinny. [Whenever the name of Frau Blucher, played by Cloris Leachman, is mentioned, horses whinny and thunder cracks.] I thought we had enough. Before we started shooting, someone told me "blucher" means glue, so that's why I had the horses whinny. I'm not sure if that's true.
Now, far be it from me to disagree with the producer, but it still seemed possible that the name Blücher would belong to a German general who had killed a lot of horses somewhere along the line. So I continued my digging, but this time looking for the General himself, rather than searching for movie related information.

A quick google search lead me to various places, but the most interesting - from the perspective of this quest - was In just the first two paragraphs of their writeup on Blücher they document that he had three different horses shot out from under him, the third actually landed atop him. He wasn't found for two hours, but when he was rescued he reversed a retreat order and headed his troops off to Waterloo.

Clearly, Blücher was a determined man of action, and he was in charge of a lot of cavalry at various points in his career. In addition, he apparently had "a certain way" with horses, if getting three of them shot out from underneath his charging form is any indication.

So, while I cannot prove that General Blücher was the inspiration for the whinnying horses in Young Frankenstein, it still seems to be possible.

Alas I need to do other things now, so for the moment I'll leave it at that. Anyone with information about the German general is welcome to contact me and let me know just how far off the mark I am.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Long day

Just a brief post tonight. It was a very busy day on many levels. This morning at 1am the pager went off for a fire and Loma Prieta's water tender was requested. I got to the station and was on the rig. We headed out and almost got to 17 before we were cancelled. Thus, I spent from 1am - 2am not sleeping, and that has made today that much more interesting. The morning was spent on "the overhead of life" and the afternoon was spent on repairing a sculpture, which I needed to get to. Then it was off to teach stone carving class. I'm exhausted.

The big news on the Summit Fire today is 100% containment has been achieved, and everyone who was evacuated has now been allowed back into their homes. That's a big milestone.

Perhaps tomorrow I will post a photo I took on my Sunday evening water tender shift, but I'm too tired (and it's too late) to do that tonight.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Summit Fire Update 5/26/08

Sorry this took so long to write up. Here's what happened during my time on the water tender on Sunday night.

First off, we met the previous crew and geared up. Then we headed out to the fire with a full load of water. We were working the northern edge of the fire, starting from the west side and moving east. Our job was to fill up any engines that needed water as we encountered them, and to keep certain portable tanks full as well.

Our shift started at 5:30pm, though, and as we drove into the fire zone we found that most everyone working that edge of the fire already had full tanks and were settling in for the evening. In fact, the north and western edges of the fire looked basically quiet to me. The north east corner still had active fire working, however. We could see the smoke plume and even some flames from our easternmost point, at Ormsby Fire Station.

While there we met the head of the water group and talked with him, working on sorting out some paperwork issues. Also at that point we handed out the last of the water we came with. Our 2200 gallon tank empty, we headed back out to refill, but as things were settling in for the night and no one would need additional water until the morning, we were released to go home and sleep in our own beds, rather than on the fire line itself.

I know our water tender was back on the line this morning, probably doing the same job, and I believe it has was released entirely from the fire this evening. That's a fine thing. Our department's limited resources are probably better spent responding to new incidents in our area rather than stretching us too thin and having us work the Summit Fire for prolonged periods. With thousands of personnel there, our best focus is probably on the area we know well, and where we can make a great deal of difference quickly thanks to that knowledge.

Todays news tells me that the fire is 70% contained now, and based on what I saw on Saturday night I believe it. I'm sure mop up work will go on for weeks, but unless something significant changes in the weather it is probable we've seen the worst of the Summit Fire.

I'm still collecting information on other fire information sources. One is Lorri Scott's blog. Lorri is a long time friend and fellow artist. She lives closer and more to the north of the fire than I do, so her perspective is a bit different.

I'm told that has a blog and that it has good information, but I can't read the site in my browser for some reason. It comes up with text all over itself. I pass that link on, but I don't personally know if it will do anyone any good.

From this story I learned that a local animal shelter was destroyed in the fire. They are looking for contributions to help them rebuild. If you are interested, you can find out more from their website

I'm afraid that's all I've got on the fire this time around. Frankly, that's a good thing in my mind. The sooner the Summit Fire is old news the better, so long as we learn our lessons and are prepared for the next one.

With that in mind, over the coming days and/or weeks I will probably reduce my posts in this blog, but also start covering a wider range of topics. You're always welcome to get in touch with me about anything you see here, and of course, share things of interest with me so I can pass them on.

I hope you had a wonderful Memorial Day. Keep safe!

Welcome to the new blog!

Well, I have now created this blog and posted the information from my massive Summit Fire Update emails that have been sent out over the last three days. I expect people to comment on these, either in the blog itself, via email, or via my contact form. However you chose to do it, please let me know what you think.

Oh, and I am well aware that there is a lot for me still to do to make this blog more complete and fit in better with my existing website. I'll get there someday.

Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you soon!

Summit Fire Update 5/24/08

I am considering turning this email into a an actual blog, but there's no time to do that right now. The number of people I am sending it to continues to grow and these kinds of fires drag on for long periods, so there will be additional updates. If you have any thoughts about that, feel free to send them to me. (Ed Note: If you're reading this in the blog, the above has clearly already happened. Oh well.)

Saturday didn't bring a lot of fire related news my way. Those locals who watch television are probably better informed than I am on things right now.

I did hear aircraft today, and I was told by a friend that aircraft were working the fire yesterday as well. That's good. As I write this update the temperature is 49 degrees outside and there is still no wind to speak of at my home. We still might get rain as well. Ideal conditions for fire fighting as far as I can tell, so long as the possible lightning doesn't materialize.

The CALFIRE incident page about this event has gotten a bit more interesting. It now has links to maps and more details about fire activity.

This fire is a big deal, and as if to prove the point, our governor paid a visit to the incident command post yesterday.

One bit of news that surprised me is that they had wind at the fire last night. As I reported yesterday it was calm here, and we had no wind last night that I know of at our home. But one news article said they had some gusts of wind at 40 MPH last night and the fire jumped containment in one or two places as a result, though I think they caught it again quickly.

We're dealing with forces of nature, and our efforts are pretty small in comparison.

I spent Saturday morning at my local fire station in one of our regularly scheduled training sessions. This time we were doing rigging for over-the-side rescue work, specifically lowering and raising systems. That's a type of call I haven't been on yet, but we do get them. Usually it's a vehicle off the side of a road and down an embankment somewhere. We don't have many cliffs in our response area, so these are generally relatively low angle rescues, and that's what we were training for. We have some very good people who know this material well. As a result I am confident that I'll be safe when asked to participate in this kind of work.

Changing topics, I need to thank everyone for their responses and good wishes. If I don't reply directly to you, please accept my apologies. Sometimes I have a lot of time, sometimes I have none. I try to reply, though.

One reader asked who they could donate money to in order to help the victims of this fire. I have one answer but I am also looking for others. That first answer should have appeared in yesterday's email, but in my hurry to get it out I forgot to include it.

The Red Cross is always looking for donations after events like the Summit fire. I've learned from our friend Avis that the local chapters of the Red Cross (Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and others) are coordinating their efforts in this case. Avis is a board member of the Santa Clara Red Cross Chapter, and thus a good source of information on their needs.

She tells me that the local Red Cross chapters wind up spending a lot of money doing their part to assist with overseas disasters, like the earthquake in China or the cyclone in Myanmar, but no portion of donations earmarked for those big disasters are shared with the local chapters. That means local chapters need donations to handle local issues.

I also know that the Red Cross is called out to much smaller events. I've personally heard them requested to help a single family after their home was damaged in a fire leaving them with no place to go.

Thus, the Red Cross needs money to assist the victims of local events like this one. If you are willing and able to contribute, one place to do so is:

That's the Santa Clara Valley Chapter where Avis volunteers, but you're welcome to contribute to your local chapter as well. The Santa Cruz Chapter can be found here:

Both of those links let you contribute specifically for the victims of the Summit Fire.

If you do contribute and are asked, please mention "Avis Brown" as the person who referred or encouraged you to donate as they try to track who's effectively soliciting contributions. I've done a fair bit of volunteer work, so I have a sense of what it takes. Based on that experience, my heartfelt thanks go out to Avis for her efforts on behalf of the Red Cross. And to anyone else doing similar work. Thank you!

Beyond the Red Cross, I am also looking for other ways that the victims of the Summit fire might be helped. Sometimes there are funds setup to assist people in cases like this, but so far I haven't heard about any. If you encounter anything like that, please let me know. I will share that information in future mailings.

And if you see anything else that might be of interest to those interested in this fire, please feel free to send it my way.

Finally, I've volunteered to take a 12 hour shift on our department's water tender on Sunday night. It may be interesting or boring, depending on where we're stationed and what is going on. And of course I won't know until I get there. As a result of that work, though, my next update probably won't come out until Monday afternoon. You get a day off from these missives as a result.

Once again, I thank you all for your concern and your good wishes.

Please stay safe and well!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Summit Fire Update 5/23/08

The caveats below all still apply, and there's nothing new in the 5/22 section, so those of you that got this update yesterday need not read beyond today's info.

First off, today was almost totally calm on the winds here at my home. That's good news, but I also note that I never heard any air tankers or helicopters working today. That may be because they were farther away this time, or it may be that they were grounded some or all of the day thanks to the smoke. I honestly don't know. Remember that I have no visibility on the fire from my home, and today I couldn't even see the smoke plume.

And speaking of smoke, we went from not even smelling it yesterday to being in the thick of it this morning. It spread out overnight and blanketed the area, only gradually going away as the day heated up. I walked the dogs at the gym this morning instead of on our local roads just to avoid some of the thick smoke.

In any event, with the weather as cool and calm as it was today, things should have gone well for those working the front lines of the fire. I sure hope so.

Thanks to some of you I've encountered several new sources of information since I sent out the last email. They include:

  • The Mountain Network News, our local news magazine. They keep a story on their main page containing a summary of the latest info.
  • A navy weather satellite data site found by my wife. That picture clearly shows the smoke plume yesterday. And if you look at other pictures taken around that time you can see the smoke move a bit, but generally head due south. In fact you can see the plume go all the way down to the LA vicinity, though it's out at sea. I think they rotate this data out over time, so after a few weeks you probably won't be able to get that picture anymore.
  • A reasonably good map showing the location of the fire, some of the evacuated areas, origin, etc.
  • Another map containing actual CALFIRE data about actual fire size and location on Thursday night. Our home is about 6 miles or so to the west of the north west edge of the fire, which is pretty close to the point where it originated. I'd have added a marker to it if I could figure out how to do that.

The other bit of news I think is confirmed today is that the home of someone I know - and that many in the MAG know as well - was destroyed in the fire. Hugo Zazzara lost the home he built by himself from scratch. Hugo is a furniture maker who spent a few MAG shows next door to my booth, selling his custom work. I'm sure his home was quite spectacular, and I'm equally certain that he will feel the pain of it's loss for a long, long time. For those who've not already seen it, you can read his story here.

I feel for Hugo. Had this fire started just a few miles farther west I'd be in his shoes, along with quite a few others. There are a lot more houses in our immediate vicinity, and the winds were awful. We're lucky no one died. The fire isn't out yet, though, so we all need to keep alert and be prepared for any changes. And the next fire.

Thanks again to everyone who has shared information, offered help and support, or just worried about us. We're lucky to have so many good friends.

Please keep safe.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Summit Fire Info 5/22/08

An update on the Summit fire from my (personal!) perspective.

Please note that I am not allowed to speak for CALFIRE or Santa Cruz County Fire. (Those who know me well know that I am lucky to speak for myself, let alone anyone else.)

Oh, and some of this may be repetitive for some of you. I apologize, but I'm sending this info to a lot of people, and rather than write it all up several times, I figured I'd just do it once.

Anyway, here's what has happened to me so far as a result of this fire:

  • 5:30am 5/22 - Pager goes off calling the local paid engine out of county to (what turns out to be) this fire.
  • 5:45am 5/22 - Pager goes off requesting my department's water tender. I get up and head to the station where it is kept, but I'm not the first one there and it only seats two. Once the driver arrives, there's no room for me, so I go home. But I see the smoke and the wind is howling, so I know this isn't good.
  • 9am 5/22 - Go to the LPVFR main station. I'm expecting to get sent somewhere, but we aren't. Hang out for a while, do some equipment checkout, etc. We get the word that things are easing off a bit, so we staff down and I head home at about noon. Of course, that's too good to last...
  • 1:20pm - Listening to the pager for the last hour has been crazy. Various other fires are starting up in oddball places - none near us, but we could get paged out to any of them at any time because so much equipment is in use at the big fire. So in desperation I headed back to the station. At about this time one of our engines is sent to one of these smaller fires well away from us. (Yet another reason to go to the station... we need to cover it now that three more of our people have left.)
  • 5pm - My only call so far. A tree limb into wires on a local road. Nothing we can do except ask for PG&E to come fix it, so we head back to the station
  • 7:30pm - Winds have died down and things are clearly calmer now. A new cover crew is in place at the local paid station, so our department stands down and those of us that haven't gone to one of the incidents are released to go home.
And now I'm typing this blog post up.

For those who are curious about the incident itself and the associated statistics, the official source (updated several times a day until it's all over) can be found here:

In addition, you can see some pictures taken by my department chief here:

Our home is 7 or 8 miles west of the fire, and so far the fire has been burning basically south. Thus, while I'm sure it has gotten a bit closer to our house, it's still a very long way away. If the winds stay calm now, the dozers will scrape a super highway around it all tomorrow and that will stop it's advance.

Anne and I have had offers of help from many of you, and we thank you for your thoughtfulness. Right now we have no need to evacuate, and correspondingly we have no need to stay elsewhere. Should that come to pass, rest assured we'll take someone up on their offer, and we will be most appreciative. However, for the moment, I think we're safe. And it is my suspicion that we'll be just fine tomorrow as well.

What worries more than anything else is the size and scope of this fire in May. If it as August or September I wouldn't be surprised. I've said it looks like it could be a bad fire season, and this only reinforces that thought. For those who live in our area, please be sure to get your property cleaned up as required by the 100' clearance law. If you don't know what that means let me know and I'll get you more information.

Things are heating up, and we may see more events like this. Please be careful, do what you need to prepare and stay safe!

All the best, and thanks again for your offers of help, lodging, and/or support. Anne and I are very lucky to know so many good people!