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.



  1. When we first moved to the mountains I once called in seeing smoke. It turned out to b fog. :)

    Then there was the time I thought I smelled smoke and it was a neighbor having new asphalt put on his drive way.

    Not all ducks quack.

  2. Very true, Merikay, but fog doesn't smell, and no one is putting down asphalt at 10pm on a Friday night. Circumstances meant that this had to be something burning, somewhere. There really isn't any explanation. I suppose someone might have lit a BBQ to make smores and had some plastic in it that caused the odd odor, but it was still 10pm and not anywhere near dinner time, when you might expect that sort of thing to happen.

    I agree that caution is important, but smoke coming in through the windows and doors is far too common in the summer evenings. I think people honestly don't think about it, or the impacts it has on others.

  3. My wife may have found out what this was. Turns out a neighbor was smoking some fish he'd caught at about that time. Not concrete proof, but it is very possibly what the cause was. No way for the fire department to find that while driving around on the streets, and it might explain the specific odor. Interesting.

  4. Nighttime smoke is often alarming because it is so hard to pinpoint location/source. Since during summer we often have skylights and other windows open, drifting smoke, from locations far away even, may seep in and wake us. The longer i live in a wildfire vulnerable place, the more anxious these events are. When you know there is no good reason for a woodstove or BBQ to be in use (at night, in warm weather), you check outside - see if there is a direction you can establish, figure out if the drift is from a far away source because you are at a certain altitude. Then you cross fingers and hope for the rainy season to come sooner this year.

  5. yes - smoke checks during summer - a feature of living in a place where we all feel vulnerable. we often have seeping smoke events like this one with windows and skylights open during warm weather, and end up going outside to determine if there is any place you can identify as a source - so much fun at 3 am...

    We had one a couple of nights ago, even tho there had been a fogy damp spell earlier, it was still something that makes one anxious. That doesn't lesson the longer you live here - because you worry more as you go thru more fire seasons. An acute awareness of vulnerability to fire definitely is a disruptor to any bucolic hopes one might associate with living in the mountains!

  6. I understand that the worry doesn't lessen with time, but there is a counter argument that (for me, at least) gets stronger with time: it's all just stuff. I don't want it all burned up, but it's just stuff in the end, and I could get by with it all disappearing.

    And there are so many other great things about living up here - yourself among them - that the worry isn't tops on my list. I do worry - I am, after all, a professional worrier - but I do my best to keep it in perspective.

    In this case I think it is good to recall that fires happen in cities and suburbs too. Sometimes even huge, nasty ones that are tough to contain. Not as often, but they do happen, and I think we do OK up here.


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