Saturday, July 14, 2012

Yellow Jackets Are The Worst

My wife found a yellow jacket nest the hard way this afternoon and was stung three times.  She's fine, but I am keeping an eye on her.

And I will be putting up traps in an attempt to reduce their population.  Nasty things.  I hate them.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Friday Night Interrupted

I just sent the following to a local email list... a list of residents of my mountain area.   Figured I'd post it here too, just because someone else might see it and think it over.

Just throwing this out there for others to think about...

Back on Friday night my wife and I were at home, watching a movie.  It was warm-ish, as you may recall, so we had a bunch of doors and windows open.  At about 10:15pm we both just about levitated out of our chairs because we were suddenly overwhelmed with the smell of smoke.  Fresh smoke, not stale, perhaps with some chemical overtones to it.

We checked all around the house, both inside and out.   It was definitely outside, and it was probably coming down the hill from somewhere above us.  We could see no visible column, and there was no wind, so whatever was burning probably wasn't all that close or that large, and it wasn't going anywhere quickly.  I dithered, but I have been explicitly told to call these things in by a Cal Fire captain I trust who used to work at Burrell station.  So after I was sure I had no more detailed information I could report, I did just that.  I hoped the dispatcher would just log the information and see if anyone else called in.  (That way they would have at least one additional data point before sending people out.)  But that isn't what happened, and on thinking about it, they probably aren't allowed to do that.  Get out and find it if you can is the rule, I'm sure.

So at 10:30pm they dispatched the volunteers and Burrell crew to do a smoke check, that is, to go looking for the source of smoke that someone reported.  When I was on the VFD these kinds of calls bugged me a lot.  Not because they were called in - that's fine and good - but because they are difficult to handle.  Even in daylight smoke can be a very hard thing to locate, when you can see it at all.  At night, though, it is much more difficult to find something that has only a smell and almost no way to pin down a visible source.  Still, I was doing what I was told back when I responded to these things, and so were the folks who went looking on Friday night when I caused their pagers to go off.

Burrell station and Loma Prieta both responded.  Two engines crawled the neighborhood for over 30 minutes each.  There was radio traffic saying they smelled it, but they never found the source, and it dissipated over time.  In the end, 5 people from LPVFR and the full Burrell crew both reported it UTL (Unable To Locate) and went back to their normal Friday evenings.  And I am really sorry I dragged them out of whatever they were doing at the time to go on a wild goose chase, but again, that's what I was explicitly told to do.

So why bring this up?  Because something, somewhere, was actually burning.  Someone was using a fireplace, or an outdoor fire pit.  Possibly that someone put something a bit odd on their fire that created the acrid odor.  Whatever the case, that smell caused my wife and I to wonder exactly what was happening, and to call it in.  It was a very strong smell in our house that night at 10pm.

What I would like to ask is to please be considerate of your neighbors in the summer months.  If you do not have to start a fire, please don't.  Smoke drops down to near the ground once it cools off, and it runs downhill, pooling in hollows and valleys.  It definitely doesn't disappear.  If you start a fire, someone below you will be wondering exactly what we were wondering: what is on fire and where is it?  And if there is any wind at all, the worry level only goes up.

Frankly, the same goes for fireworks.  Last night at around midnight I heard a bunch of firecrackers go off somewhere.  While our weather has (wonderfully) been a bit cooler than usual, we're still in high fire danger season, and fireworks of any sort are a serious risk.  Every year I am reminded just how much I hate the 4th of July as things go boom, or even worse, I see colored lights above the local trees.  I know this is obvious, but forest fires kill people and destroy property.  And I know people love fireworks, but this really isn't the place to be setting them off.  Common sense is required.

A quick google search indicates that something on the order of 75% of forest fires are started by people or their equipment in one way or another.  75%.

I'll keep calling these things in when I have to, but I would really like it if that didn't happen when things were dry and the weather is warm.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rain Gauges... What Works And What Doesn't

A while back I posted about rain gauges as we started testing some new ones with the goal of figuring out which one(s) we liked and thought were accurate.

Now I have final data for the 2011-2012 rain year I can present my conclusions.  To help with that, here's the original picture of the gauges in question:

From left to right, here's what I measured with each gauge last year and what they are called:
  • 32.86" - A Stratus gauge, 12" capacity
  • 32.15" - A 6" gauge
  • 33.02" - A wedge shaped 6" gauge
  • 35.20" - Our ancient, yellow, plastic 5" capacity gauge
  • 75.81" - A decorative, glass 8" capacity gauge
I think they were all close enough together for the test that they should have read about the same total rainfall over the season, but clearly there are some obvious differences.  Going through them one at a time, from left to right again, here are my thoughts:
  • The Stratus gauge is far and away the easiest to read if the amount of precipitation is less than 1".  The central tube holds 1" of rain and is easy to read in linear 0.01" increments.  None of the other gauges were nearly as easy to read, nor were they as accurate (as far as I can tell).  That said, however, if the amount of rain goes over 1" it overflows into the outer tube, and the reading process gets more complicated and error prone.  Still, this gauge works very well, and after having used it for a season I trust it.  It's also the standard in use by anyone doing anything serious with the weather as far as I can tell.  There are many places to purchase it.  Here's one, for example:
  • The 6" gauge read about 2% less than the Stratus gauge.  It is difficult to read in amounts of less than 0.1", so the fact that it was that close is probably due to my rounding readings off in opposite directions enough to even out the error.  There is a fundamental design problem with this gauge, though: it slides into a support that is screwed down, but the wind could blow the gauge right out of that support in some cases.  While I never had that happen, it got close a couple of times.  As a result of those issues I cannot really recommend this gauge.  You can find on, though, if you are interested.
  • The 6" wedge gauge presents a mixed bag.  It read only about 0.5% more than the Stratus gauge - essentially the same - but it is hard to read because the markings are small and faint.  Any condensation on the side of the gauge and it is nearly impossible to read without wiping it down, holding it up in the light, and squinting.  It is also the case that the scale isn't linear, so the more it rains the less accurate your reading will be.  And it has only 6" of capacity, so if you're getting a lot of rain you'll be out in it, emptying out the gauge before it overflows.  This is the second best gauge here, though, and for some it may be more than adequate.  It can be purchased from several online vendors, or directly from the manufacturer: Tru-Chek.  It's not particularly expensive either, so consider it if the Stratus isn't to your liking.
  • The yellow 5" gauge is really old, and was a hardware store special back when we bought it 20 years ago.  It read about 7% higher than the Stratus, and though it is heavily embossed and thus easier to read than the wedge, it is marked only in increments of  0.1".  It isn't quite linear either, with a slight taper to the shape.  And finally, the 5" capacity is too limiting if you get heavy rains.  Despite living with it this long I really cannot recommend it, but you can find something essentially identical at if you really want one.
  • The butterfly gauge is essentially worthless, having been created by someone who thought they knew how a rain gauge works but actually got all the details wrong.  This gauge read 2.3 times the rainfall logged by the Stratus gauge.  Yes, really.  It's supposed to have 8" of capacity but the impossibly bad design means you actually have less than 4" if you want to bother correcting for it.  I could write a tome about all the things they did wrong with this product, but I'm not going to bother.  Just don't buy it.  Here's a link to a very similar product from the same maker that you can ignore unless all you want to know is that it rained.  (You certainly won't have a clue about how much water actually came down if this is the only gauge you use.)  In short, give this one a wide berth.
So what happens next with our rain gauges?  Well, that's a question...

I need to move the Stratus gauge about 40 feet from its current location.  There are some oak trees nearby that are going to start impinging on the rainfall in particularly windy conditions, so I need to get it out of that area.  But when I do that I don't know how much the new location will affect the totals.  40 feet doesn't seem all that far, but I suspect I need to prove it actually isn't important.

I think what I will do is move the Stratus gauge to the new location and leave the 6" wedge gauge where it currently hangs.  The idea is to use the wedge to cross check the Stratus and see if they continue to read about the same or not.  If I can get through one more year and remain convinced that the 40 foot move hasn't affected things, then I will be done and have only one gauge to work with again.

The other gauges will probably be discarded.  None are worth passing on in my opinion, so I will recycle them.

I'll update rain data on my web site - see the links to the right - as things happen in the new rain year, but I'll probably only record the numbers from the Stratus unless I see big differences between it and the wedge.

A New Rain Year Dawns

Here in California - or at least the bay area - we track our rain annually from July 1 through June 30. That's because our rainy season falls in the winter and spans the new year. If you are trying to figure out how much water the farmers, watershed, reservoirs, and/or water table is going to get, you need to track it around when it falls, rather than splitting it across an artificial date like January first.

So, July 1 marks the start of the 2012-2013 rain year, and the end of our 20th year of collecting rain data at our home.

This year I tested a bunch of rain gauges, and have revised the way I record and display data. I'll write another post about the rain gauges shortly, but first, here are links to the data I have available:
Those pages hosted on my personal web site, where it is easier to make this work than here on Blogger, where column widths make displaying this stuff something of a challenge.

I will provide links to those pages in the right side navigation bar as well, so you can find them in the future without having to find this post.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions from the data. I stress, though, that rain fall amounts vary widely over even small distances, and we have nothing like a statistically valid sample to analyze anything over the long term. We use this data mostly to try and assess how our well will perform over the coming year. If we have less rainfall we can bet we'll our well will low on water before the next rain year gets going and the aquifer can be recharged.

Another thing this data helps us understand is our local fire danger. Rainfall that is well spread out in time keeps the vegetation moist and thus less likely to be a problem. 2011/2012 was the first time I recorded actual rainfall amounts by the day and kept them, so we still have a lot to learn here.

I hope this data is interesting and useful to someone other than me.