Friday, June 27, 2008

No lightning, we hope...

The chance of lightning tonight and this weekend seems to have gone north of us, and for the moment I am breathing a sigh of relief. Today's smoky haze was enough to drive everyone nuts, but it cleared slightly this afternoon. Not entirely, mind you, but slightly.

I'm not sure what else to write about tonight. I've been tired for several days now and can't seem to shake it off, but I have no idea why that would be. Given the comments at the gym this morning, though, it appears I am not the only one suffering. Perhaps the smoke is responsible for my lethargy.

Anyway, I hope to do some serious carving this weekend. I've got a big piece of pumice out on the driveway that needs to get finished up soon. If I get somewhere with it I'll try to get a picture put up here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

ARTWORKSx6 Encore!

We're doing ARTWORKSx6 again this year. The last time we did it was 2005, so it was time. This is an art show and reception by 6 Santa Cruz Mountain artists on September 27th, 2008. You can find more information here, and there will be updates in the near term. We all look forward to seeing you there.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Maybe no lightning after all...

The NOAA weather site has dropped the chances of lightning over the weekend. We all know weather forecasts aren;t that great beyond what's happening right now or in the next hour or two, but I'll take this one. This morning we had a 20% chance of thunderstorms on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Given the vast number of fires started all over the northern half of California by lightning last weekend, I rejoice to see that vanish off my local forecast.

Art News! Sculpture Repair

So I know I started this blog to cover the local fires, but it really only makes sense in the long term if I also cover art related items in here. To that end, here's the first brief post on a related topic.

Recently I finished up a sculpture repair for someone. It was a big enough job that I took some photos, wrote it up, and added it to my website. Take a look if you're curious.

More art related news should be coming to this blog one of these days.

And remember, I'm always interested in your feedback about these posts. You can leave responses to a blog post directly, or you can email me.


Highway 17 Fire Wasn't Arson Either

This link says that the fire along 17 on Monday afternoon wasn't arson either. The source isn't quite as solid (as far as I can tell) as the news on the Trabing fire, but I'll take it. We've got a nasty fire season ahead of us - with another chance at lightning this coming weekend - and don't need an arsonist running around.

Trabing Fire Cause Determined

The cause of the Trabing Fire has been determined and it wasn't arson. It was car exhaust. You can read the details in this article. I'm now on a CAL FIRE mailing list and got the news late last night but am only now getting the chance to share it with you.

This gives me the chance to reinforce some things I've said here and in person as well.

First off, I know I've commented on the potential inaccuracy of early news reports. In the case of the Trabing fire, I know I read early reports that indicated the fire was caused by someone, but they didn't necessarily indicate it was deliberate. The wording was actually rather vague. Over the next few days the news media fed on itself and the cause went from being uncertain to arson. This is a great example of the fact that early information - even a few days after an event - may be wrong.

Secondly, this reduces the likelihood that we have an arsonist running around. Sure, it's still possible, but now we know a major fire people thought might be arson caused wasn't, and that's something of a relief. I'll sleep a bit better.

And finally it's another example of how we unwittingly do things that cause risk to ourselves and others. Car maintenance is critical to avoiding fires, particularly in extremely dry conditions like we currently have.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Another day, another fire...

This routine is getting old. Fire after fire. Today we had another one. It was small, along the west side of highway 17, and messed up my afternoon, but fortunately it didn't spread quickly and was swamped with equipment rapidly.

The fallout from some conversations that followed, though, is more important. Some of you reading this blog may not have thought about this, so it's time I wrote it up.

The unfortunate fact is that fires happen. They happen with some frequency, year round, regardless of weather, holidays, or anything else.

Right now the entire Loma Prieta community is on edge thanks to the three big fires we've had in the area, and to the many other big fires burning in northern California. But we wouldn't be as edgy in the rainy season, for example, or even at this point in a "normal" fire season.

This is relevant because people who are worried go looking for data as quickly as they can. They hear helicopters or air tankers go overhead, or sirens going down the road, and they hit the web trying to find out where the fire is, for example. I know multiple people for whom this is true, so if you think I'm writing about you specifically, you're wrong.

In any event, the system doesn't always get news out that quickly. As I said, fires happen all the time, and not every house fire or small grass fire ever makes it to the paper or the web. Wildland fires have to get to some moderate size, use some significant resources, and/or threaten homes or businesses before they're going to appear on the CAL FIRE website with a name and maps. It simply wouldn't be practical to get that kind of data out about every fire that happens. There are simply too many of them.

Here's another example. When I was part of a crew covering Big Creek station the other day, we were told that we'd get relieved around midnight by an engine that was being made available. At 1am it hadn't arrived, but that's normal. Things always take longer than anticipated, and we were OK with that. But then we heard that several engines had been sent to a small fire up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This was the middle of the night, and they held that fire to less than an acre if my memory for the radio traffic serves. That fire was put out so quickly that it's likely no one had a chance to get it into the news cycle, or post anything about it to the web.

And I'd like to point out that even when news does get out quickly, some early media reports can be inaccurate. Remember the Summit Fire was originally said to be at the corner of Summit and Loma Prieta? There are at least two such intersections, and they are miles apart. The TV announced road closures in the wrong place and even the wrong location for the fire for some time.

Today's fire along 17 had some chaos in it's initial dispatch. Multiple people called in fires in various locations, and that information was given to the responding engines over the radio. Anyone with a scanner could hear it. In that initial confusion, fire crews were searching for fires on 17 south of Summit, at the junction of 17 and Summit, and all along Summit back to the Summit Store - 4.5 miles down the road.

That initial confusion will happen some times. In this case there's a store on 17 - called "Casa del 17" - that commuters might think of as "the store at 17 and Summit" or "the store near Summit", and such descriptions can get muddled easily, particularly in stressful conditions, like calling 911 in a moving car to report a fire.

But it all got sorted out quickly, with multiple people and engines checking the various areas to be sure that nothing was missed. And the fire itself was out before any property was lost or injuries happened. I'm sure the drivers on southbound 17 weren't happy with the road closure, but it was kept to a minimum and people were moving again pretty quickly.

Anyway, the first thing to do when confronted with a fire - or any other event of a similar nature - is to step back and assess what is going on. Take a deep breath and think it through. What do you really need to know? What is the best way to get that information? Early on in the case of a fire, your own eyes and ears may be the best and most reliable source of data you have. Follow that with a scanner that announces your local fire dispatch frequency, and after that try the websites of your local newspapers. Live TV coverage comes after that in my experience, but your mileage may vary.

I've got a few other posts planned on related topics. Alas, with all the fires we're having and my other workload, it may be a while before I can get to them.

Fires in the Big Sur area

My post yesterday didn't mention the lightning started fires in the Big Sur area. Well, they are out there, they're big, and below is the proof. This view was photographed just up the hill, near midnight on 6/22/08, by my friend and neighbor Alan Seales.

He was looking nearly due south, across Monterey Bay. My thanks to Alan for permission to share this image with you. Click on it for a larger version that will let you see the details and read the annotations.

Everyone keep safe!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Don't Ask...

More fires. Yes, more fires.

When I started this blog it was to keep my thoughts about a single fire - the Summit fire - available to those interested in reading them. I hoped, though, that that blogging about fires wouldn't become a regular event.

Well, it has become a regular event, and we're only two days into the Summer.

Friday saw the appearance of the Trabing fire along highway 1 near Watsonville. My department wasn't dispatched to that fire, though we thought it might happen at one point when they asked for additional water tenders. Once again, however, everything else in the county and all kinds of mutual aid was sent to that fire leaving our department as the only emergency coverage in our area.

But it gets better. Because the Trabing fire pulled in so many resources, the county needed additional engines to cover in other places, and my department got tapped to provide one. I volunteered for a shift of unknown duration to cover a station in the deep south of Santa Cruz county - at Pajaro Dunes. Along with two other firefighters we packed up and headed down there. When we arrived we learned that the engine normally stationed there had been out of service due to a tire problem, but that it was being fixed and would be back in service - literally in just a few minutes.

That being the case we were then sent to cover a station in the far north of Santa Cruz county - Big Creek station, about ten miles north of Davenport. We spent the night there, and were relieved at about 9am on Saturday morning by an engine and crew normally stationed there. At that point our dispatchers had managed to gather up some additional engines via mutual aid and could let us go back home.

In our case that meant back to our station for training, where we did wildland hose lay practice in the scorching sun. Then, as we cleaned up, we watched some unusual clouds roll in and bring with them something we hate in the area: lightning. I'd seen this mentioned in various weather forecasts, but nothing made it's appearance until probably 1pm or so.

For a few hours the central CA coast was peppered with lightning strikes, some of which started fires. I helped staff our station all the rest of the day with the exception of a brief stint - of less than an hour - during which I raced home and tried to take care of some long delayed chores. It was during that interval that the department was paged out for three different, lightning related, fires: one way out on Loma Chiquita, another near our station, and a third near the Summit fire border. The first two weren't found, but the third was, and as of this (Sunday) morning we still have equipment working there.

Based purely on what I read in the news media, the rest of the lightning sparked fires in Santa Cruz county are out now, though a couple burn nearby in Santa Clara county, and I've read that over 400 fires were started in the state as a result of that set of storm cells.

Changing topics - if only slightly - it's time for all of us to consider our fire safety in various ways. For example, parts of Santa Cruz county still allow the sales of fireworks. In this tinder dry year that is a very stupid thing to do. Personally, I'd like to see a state law passed prohibiting firework sales, but starting locally seems fine. Anyone interested in helping and who lives in Santa Cruz county can contact your county supervisor and ask for such a law. To make that easier, here's a link to the board of supervisors website. Just figure out who your supervisor is and call, write, or email them asking for a permanent ban on the sales of all fireworks in the county.

Another thing to consider is our own behaviors. Do you park a hot car over grass when you come home from work? That's a big risk right there. Years ago I saw an old VW minibus whose muffler actually glowed orange as it drove along Summit road. It turned off on some side street and ever since I've regretted I didn't flag down the driver and point out the problem. But it doesn't take something that obviously broken with your car to start a fire. If you tow a trailer and the safety chains drag on the ground they can throw sparks, and a normally functioning catalytic converter or muffler might ignite dry grass it comes in contact with when you park.

Another pet peeve of mine is cigarette butts tossed out car windows. I can't count the number of times I see them on the road as I walk my dogs, and I don't live on a busy street. A cigarette thrown out a window could easily kill people by starting a raging wildfire. If you do this, or know of someone who does - perhaps a child, other relative, or even someone you hire to work on your home - please ask them to stop it. You may be uncomfortable asking, but in doing so you're showing that you care about where you live. You don't have to be confrontational, but make it clear that the risk of fire is very significant and that it matters to you. The Summit, Martin, and Trabing fires should be more than enough supporting evidence.

Lastly I'll mention the thing that is probably least popular. Remember that this opinion - like everything else I write in this blog - is purely my own. I speak for no one else.

It is long past time to ban backyard burning in all of Santa Cruz county. While it is true that most people burn their tree trimmings safely, a few always screw it up and the results are dramatic for everyone. Houses and possessions are lost, people are injured or killed, and the cost of fire suppression goes up for all of us. We all pay for those escaped burns in various ways.

Thus I believe it is in the public's self interest to end the backyard burn season and replace it with other programs that help residents mitigate their fire hazards. Chipping programs, perhaps, or allow brush and tree trimmings into the local recycling centers free instead of for a fee. Whatever is changed, the most important point is that the backyard burning of brush & tree trimmings needs to end. The risks have simply become too high. If you agree, talking with your county supervisor is probably the place to start.

I must point out that I don't usually favor government regulation of individual behavior. But I do recognize there are times when the costs associated with some particular behavior are too high, even if only a few individuals cause the problems, and even those problems are only accidental in nature, rather than deliberate. In my opinion the risks associated with backyard burns are too high now, and thus they need to be stopped.

If you can suggest other behaviors, actions, or activities that might cause wildfires, please let me know with a comment here. The more we talk about these things the more likely we all are to avoid them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Experience vs. Gender in the White House

With a title like that you'd think I had something interesting or useful to say about politics, right? Probably not, but you're welcome to read on if my inane babble doesn't offend.

With the Democrats finally settling on a candidate, I had hoped to see the party come together and unite behind the winner, regardless of who that winner was. And perhaps that is happening, but not completely and not quickly.

I've heard multiple interviews with supporters of Clinton saying they aren't sure about Obama, and some even saying they will support McCain instead. Excuse me? Doesn't that seem a bit like a Catholic deciding to opt for supporting the devil when he learns that Catholicism was wrong and Anglicanism is the one truth? No, perhaps not. I am given to hyperbole from time to time, but I still don't see how a Democrat can rationalize supporting McCain.

Obama supporters, of course, aren't faced with the same question. But one can easily imagine that the decision had gone the other way and Clinton was the party's choice. Isn't it easy to envision disgruntled Obama supporters deciding they couldn't support Clinton for a variety of reasons, none of which would be particularly compelling (to me, at least) when faced with the question "Who is your alternative?"

More directly related to the title of this post, I've also heard gripes from both sides of the Democratic divide about how one candidate or the other is better (or less well) suited to run the country. I'm simply not buying it. Neither side is persuasive to me on that front.

Thinking about Clinton, I've got no problem at all with putting a woman in charge, but I don't think that specifically being a woman makes one more qualified. It may change one's point of view on certain issues, but so does being from Alabama vs. California, or being Hispanic vs. Native American. This country still faces serious, gender related issues on a regular basis, and having a woman in office might affect the way some people see things, but I don't know that the decision about who to put into the white house should be based on gender.

Nor should it be based on race. I have no problem with electing a black to the office of President. I think it would be just fine to elect someone of any other ethnicity as well. As with the question of gender, though, I don't think race should be the defining issue in how we chose a candidate. Yes, electing a black president - if it happens - will be a milestone, but so would electing a woman, or an amputee, or a second generation Japanese immigrant.

To be honest, there haven't been that many presidents in our nation's history. Electing anyone other than a white male would basically be breaking new ground.

On the question of experience and the candidates, I am dubious about the value of experience in general. Firstly, since the office of president has been effectively term limited for quite some time now, the truth is that no president rules in a vacuum. The staff that comes in with a president is huge, and thus brings with it a collective of experience that far exceeds the president's own, even if he's as old as McCain.

In addition, I'm pretty sure there is a large and relatively constant staff that serves the executive branch of the government, and not all of it turns over with a new administration. Those people embody an even larger chunk of the collective knowledge and experience that makes up any administration, and they have to be counted upon for assistance.

No one person is qualified to run this nation on his or her own. It's really that simple. If the president is open to all sources of information - something the Bush administration is very bad about - and actually considers all options before making any major decisions, I'll probably be happy.

One of the problems with our system, however, is that to get elected our candidates wind up making promises to many different groups. When they get into office they may well be faced with breaking those promises in the face of real world situations, or keeping them despite their desire to do something different in a given situation. When campaign promises rule despite good evidence to the contrary, things are going poorly.

If I were dumb enough to run for office I would never make promises, even about things over which I have strong opinions. Almost everything has to be assessed in context, and a decision determined in advance - in the absence of the relevant facts at the time - could easily be the wrong thing to do when reality hits the fan. "Here's what I think about X right now..." is a fine thing to say, but not "If elected, I will do Y about X."

Of course I'd never get elected, and you can easily see why.

Anyway, I don't buy the Clinton camp's arguments about Obama's lack of experience. Nor do I buy arguments about gender or race being critical to the role of president. The next president - whoever he may be - needs to be president of the entire country, not just his party's members. I hope that comes to pass.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


In last night's post I said we had ash falling from the drift smoke from the Indians Fire. Here's the proof:

That's the ash that got through the screen of an open window and landed full two feet away on a piece of paper on my desk. The object casting the shadow is a pen.

I know this isn't all that exciting to most of you, but it's interesting to me. The Indians Fire is a long way from here. My best guess - given the lack of detailed maps I can find on this incident - is that it is about 100 miles from our home. And yet the smoke is dropping ash that thick through a screen at my house.


Friday, June 13, 2008

More Fires

Sorry to me MIA for a day or two, but fire season continues to be unusually bad this year for northern California and I was diverted as a result.

The Martin Fire broke out in Bonny Doon on the afternoon of June 11. While my department wasn't sent to work the fire itself, just about everyone else was, and we were the only emergency personnel in our area for quite a while. We had to hard-cover our station for a long time, and I did a 12 hour shift on Thursday, plus our regularly scheduled training session on Thursday night, which kept me out just about the entire day. Thankfully we had only one call during my cover shift - an uneventful smoke check.

This evening, drift smoke from the Indians Fire in the Los Padres National Forest moved north and spread out over our area. It was ugly and thick, but pretty high up. We couldn't smell it at all, but it did drop some very fine ash on us at one point.

It made for some interesting photographic possibilities. The accompanying image shows the sun through the smoke. Sadly my ancient digital camera doesn't do justice to the colors involved. The sun actually looked orange to the naked eye when I took that photo, as did the smoke itself. As the evening went on, the sky went from orange to a greenish gray, to almost black sometime before sunset. Having lived in the midwest, there was a point where it looked like tornado weather.

Beneath that smoke the fog is rolling back into the Monterey Bay, and that's great news. Temperatures are dropping nicely - it's 57 degrees at my home as I write this - and that'll a big help to the people still working the remains of the Summit Fire, the Martin Fire, and the Indians Fire too.

Let's all hope the fire season calms down a bit now.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Another Big Fire In The Area

It's going to be a long fire season.

This afternoon the Bonny Doon fire started up. It's many miles from my home, and our volunteer fire department hasn't been asked to send equipment to it since if we did there'd be no one to work any new events in our area, but it's still a big incident and I've already had a couple of calls and emails asking if we are OK, etc.

So, once again, I thank everyone for thinking of us. We're fine, and it's hard to imagine that this fire could even get near us. But there are evacuations as a result of this fire. People are definitely affected.

At the current rate I can't imagine what August and September are going to be like.

Wind, Wind, Go Away...

For those of you living in Northern CA, things are pretty ugly right now. We have a large batch of wild fires burning from Monterey all the way up through Sacramento. And we have wind to drive them along with tinder dry brush and trees to burn thanks to an extremely dry spring.

Last night I slept only in fits because the wind was blowing so steadily. I expected my pager to go off for a tree down, wires down, or a fire. The recent Summit Fire was wind driven and it's left me wondering just what we're going to be dealing with this Summer.

In the end we got through the night without incident, and things are calmer now, but we still have some wind. And according to the NOAA weather site it's predicted to continue through Thursday evening. That's a very long time from now.

In addition, I've learned that Doug's home is threatened by a flood, so now I have to worry about him too.. I hope he has a home to go back to when his current trip ends.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Overhead of Life

I have to credit my friend and former co-worker Jesse Mundis with the phrase "the overhead of life". Of course he may not have originated it, but I think I heard it from him, and it turns out to be useful. That's probably because I spend a lot of time dealing with the overhead of life now, and wondering how I ever managed to get anything done before I stopped working full time.

What is the overhead of life? Well, it's the stuff you have to do to get to the stuff you want to do. Laundry. Washing dishes. For some, cooking. Cleaning. Paying and mailing bills. Going to the grocery store. You get the idea. None of it is very exciting, but if it doesn't get done other things grind to a halt.

For me, today's big time sink was mowing a part of the lot to get our 100' clearance on that side of the house. I mowed the entire thing weeks ago, but - of course - all the weeds came back. The problem is that when they did grow back I was in the thick of other work and didn't have time to get after them again right away. But today, at least, I did get a chunk of that issue handled. More will probably happen over the next few days as well. Thus, the overhead of life sucks time away from other endeavours.

Despite that, I did manage to publish some more of my VFD related articles. I keep them online over here if you're interested. I was a few months behind in getting them uploaded, but with a new article for the local news magazine about the Summit Fire, I figured I'd better get caught up.

I've got 4 books stacked up too, waiting to get reviewed, and those reviews need to be posted both on my site and on Doug's site too.

I have a web page to create about the sculpture I repaired. I have all the pictures except the last one of the piece in it's home, but the rest isn't started yet.

And I've got a commission of sorts that I need to work on for an outdoor sculpture. That's on a tight deadline and I need to get moving. I spent time yesterday getting the stone to have a base and sit upright, which is good. Then this morning I had an "ah-hah!" moment about what the piece may look like, but I haven't yet managed to get back out to the driveway to work on it. My thermometer says it's 93 degrees outside, so I'm lying low after mowing and trying to get other things done while staying cool.

Hopefully you'll find links to all these good things around the site in time, and maybe a few other interesting things as well.

I hope the overhead of life doesn't get in your way too much. Go out and get something useful - or fun - done!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Why "The Powell Triangle"?

Someone at my last job - with Concentric - is responsible for the name of this blog. Or at least, they made the name up in response to something I am still capable of, and I've kept it around.

I have a knack for causing things of just about any sort to fail in mysterious and unreproducable ways. At work this would generally happen when I was using some bit of software that was working perfectly for everyone else. I'd do something perfectly normal and not at all dangerous but which would result in something going gloriously wrong.

With the evidence sitting on my screen I would go find whoever was responsible for the software in question and show them the mess. Almost without exception I'd hear words like: "I've never seen that before" or "No one's ever made it do that." Whoever it was would stand there gawking for a minute or two longer and then ask me to reproduce it while they watched.

And here it gets interesting. Some large percentage of the time, whatever happened would not happen again when the individual who could fix - or at least understand - it was present. If they wandered off, I'd often be able to recreate the issue on my own, but not while they were looking over my shoulder. Personally, I think the universe has a sick sense of humor.

In any event, my ability to break software that was tested and working through normal use was well enough known that someone - probably my boss, David - decided that I was the center of the "Powell Triangle" - a place where things that otherwise worked normally would fail unexpectedly. Somewhat akin to ships and planes mysteriously vanishing in a similarly named chunk of ocean.

It's a good name, so I've used it here. It may be me that founders upon my own words, or it may be the reader, cursing me in the process, but I hope it's interesting and occasionally amusing.

But now, I have a lot of Saturday chores to get to. sigh. I'll post again on Sunday or Monday.

Monday, June 2, 2008

BBQ is over

As expected, I wrote nothing over the weekend. But that's a good thing, as the event went very, very well. We had an amazing turnout, and everyone I spoke with was happy and glad to be there.

I have a few things to do that will eat up much of my time today, but I hope to get back to things here tomorrow or on Wednesday.

In the meantime, I once again want to thank everyone that purchased raffle tickets, donated items, and/or attended the event itself. Community support is critical to our ability to help in so many ways. Thank you!