May 30, 2011

Reindeer, UV Light, and Marketing

Results of a study that show Arctic reindeer can see into the ultraviolet spectrum have been getting some attention.
The frozen wastes of the Arctic reflect around 90 per cent of the UV light that hits them; snow-free land typically reflects only a few per cent. So [Glen] Jeffery and colleagues wondered whether reindeers had adapted to their UV-rich world.
Fair enough. I had understood that birds, too, could see more UV than we do. Consequently, what looks like dull plumage in a bird species may actually be more vivid in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.

What puzzles me is that two decades ago I was introduced to products like U-V-Killer, marketed to hunters. There is a spray to make your clothing non-UV-reflective as well as a detergent for washing hunting clothes—virtually all commercial laundry detergents contain optical brighteners that cause clothes to reflect more at that end of the visible spectrum, thus seeming brighter. (Notice how the chemical brightens under ultraviolet illumination in the photo.)

The pitch is that you want hunting clothes to reflect less ultraviolet light, so you use the special detergents and sprays.

Therefore, is this reindeer research really nothing new? Just another example of gee-whiz science reporting?

May 29, 2011

Fire and Landscape in Central Texas

It's not a Southern Rockies story per se, but we have similar situations here: "Texas wildfires made worse by changes on the state's vast landscape, scientists say."
A century and a half ago, Central Texas was a mosaic of grasses, some patches of trees and some sizable forested acreage, maintained in approximate proportions by fires every five to seven years.
A visitor today sees a wooded terrain, with dense junipers covering many hillsides and homes tucked among the trees. Fire is seen now only as the enemy in those places -- understandably, since a bad fire could be a disaster for people.
If I recall correctly, Texas folklorist and writer J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964) told a similar story about an experience he had when riding as a young man (on his family ranch?) in southern Texas. 

He decided to take a break, so he tied his horse to a mesquite. Then he looked and saw an old iron picket pin in the ground nearby, left by some nineteenth-century cowboy or cavalry trooper.

And it occurred to him that only a short time earlier that spot must have been all grassland, for only then would a rider have needed to drive the pin in order to tether his horse. Ecological change in just two generations or so.

May 28, 2011

Finally, a Bear

All through late April and May, M. had been coming home from her walks (and I from mine) noting the lack of bear sign. Where were they?

So on May 21, before we left for a short trip to Taos, I put a scout camera on what I call prosaically The Hidden Trail, the same place where I recently captured the mule deer doe.

This morning I walked up there with fresh batteries and a fresh SD card and right away noticed that the camera seemed to be a little askew.
Brown fur in front of the lens, uh-oh.
Yep, the usual culprit. At least this bear did not try to destroy it but was just investigating.

As I thought. While we were in town, a bear came by.
So the bears definitely are out and about. This one looks pretty healthy—will its particular shade of brown be enough to identify it if I see it again?

May 23, 2011

Ideas for Bird Photography

"Caught in the Act," by Marie Reed, presents this accomplished photographer's thoughts on digital photography for birds, including both equipment and planning the shot. From the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology web site.

May 22, 2011

Eagle-Rassling and Rooster-Netting

M. and went down to the Raptor Center in Pueblo on Saturday for a wildlife-transporters' class on handling raptors.

Here Diana Miller, the Raptor Center director, demonstrates how to handle an eagle. This particular bird has been handled a lot—she is more than forty years old and has been an "education bird" for most of her life after having an injured wing amputated. That does not mean she is completely docile, however!

When it was my turn, in fact, I kept thinking about how close her beak was to my chin and wondering how she felt about men with beards. (OK, apparently.)

The next session involved capture, and since the Raptor Center did not want us chasing their Swainson's hawk or some other exhibit birds around, someone provided two roosters.

In the second photo, you see one of the transport volunteers making her approach with a capture net.

The net is cotton—mesh nets can cause injuries to birds and animals if their feet, wings, or heads become entangled.

The roosters were indignant about being netted, but once released they quickly returned to checking the ground for green plants and bugs.

Speaking of capture, the peregrine falcon that I picked up last August in the Wet Mountain Valley was released there in late April after spending the winter recuperating at the Raptor Center. Unfortunately, M. and I were unable to be present for the release, which was done for a school presentation in Westcliffe, but apparently all went well.

And the foxes from Mission: Wolf are doing well too, the local rehabilitator tells me.

May 21, 2011

Suddenly, New York City is Full of (Pretend) Big-Game Hunters

"Hunting" at the Black Bear Lodge in Manhattan, a "theme-dive bar"
It's that sick, tired, old "drunk hunter" meme again.

But these are hipsters, so the New York TImes likes them.

Pretend-hunting is big at "the Black Bear Lodge, a hunting-themed bar in Gramercy Park."

May 20, 2011

Mysterious Band-tailed Pigeons

Band-tailed Pigeons (Columba fasciata) mob one of our sunflower seed feeders.
Band-tailed pigeons were a new species to M. and me when we moved into the Wet Mountains, which are part of their limited Southern Rockies range.

Their presence here is why we found noted bird photographer Richard Crossley strolling up our driveway three springs ago.

These are not city pigeons (otherwise called rock doves or rock pigeons). In fact, they are a little bigger.

And quite a bit spookier than city pigeons, mourning doves, or the Eurasian collared doves that are now thoroughly at home hereabouts.

The movement of a face behind the window twenty yards away is enough to send them whap-whap-whapping into the air. Often I am just walking around watering plants or something when, suddenly, a flock of thirty or so band-tails explodes out of a pine tree like a helicopter taking off. Be still, my heart.

They are a game species but in Colorado a minor one—what this Colorado bird site reports fits my informal observation.

In Colorado, their distribution seems roughly equivalent to the distribution of Gambel oak. No acorns, no band-tailed pigeons?

(To me, the presence or absence of scrub oak is the marker between Southern and Northern Rockies, not Interstate 80 or South Pass.)

Poking around on the Web, I find a number of scientific papers on parasites and nesting, but this does not seem to be a heavily studied species in the Southern Rockies. But I can tell you that between them and the black-headed grosbeaks, I am buying lots sunflower seeds.

May 19, 2011

I Contain Multitudes

Computer artwork and colored electron microscope images of bacteria in and on the human body.

"The human gut alone contains almost four and a half pounds of bacteria. We are in essence only ten percent human - the rest is pure microbe."

Think of the "Song of Myself" that Walt Whitman could have written had he known that fact.

May 15, 2011

American Dogs of War

Pamela Geller rounds up some images of American war dogs. Being Pamela Geller, she especially appreciates the fact that dogs are "unclean" in most Muslim societies.

However, if you have ever lived alongside dogs without the benefits of modern plumbing, you might come to understand just why they are considered to be "unclean."

Not that we infidels don't love them all the same.

Photo: U.S. sergeant Matthew Templet and his bomb-sniffing dog, Basco, search for explosives in an abandoned house in Haji Ghaffar village during a clearance patrol in Zari district of Kandahar province on Dec. 27, 2010. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

May 14, 2011

Wildlife Commission Says No to Christo

In a unanimous vote, the Colorado Wildlife Commission recommended against covering parts of the Arkansas River with fabric panels, a vision of the artist Christo, who likes to "wrap" things, reports the Denver Post.
"This is an inappropriate action that we cannot support," commissioner Dorothea Farris said before initiating the decree at the commission's monthly workshop in Salida last Thursday. "We have a responsibility to protect the wildlife."
About 13 years into the artist's $50 million plan to temporarily suspend 5.9 miles of translucent fabric above the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City, the opposition of the Wildlife Commission represents the largest stumbling block for the project to date.

While approval or denial of the project falls outside of the commission's jurisdiction, its interpretation of detrimental consequences to abundant wildlife throughout the 42-mile corridor carries significant weight as the BLM decides whether to issue necessary permits based upon environmental impacts.
Salida writer Ed Quillan remains agnostic—at least he was last year—but one of his commenters summed up the view of many of those local residents who are not in the tourism business: "CDOT projects that a minor accident will cause a back up of thousands of cars. For what? The ego of a man who occasionally visits to say how good he is to us and how lucky we are to have his vision." I have noticed that aspect of his personality too.

May 11, 2011

When Black Bears Attack, Don't Blame Maternal Instinct

The black bears most dangerous to people are not mothers with cubs but single bears—often males—prowling for food, a new study says.
The study also found, contrary to popular perception, that the black bears most likely to kill are not mothers protecting cubs. Most attacks, 88 percent, involved a bear on the prowl, likely hunting for food. And most of those predators, 92 percent, were male. 
This article in the New York Times includes a valuable video by bear-attack researcher Stephen Herrero, who talks about patterns in bear attacks.

I used to believe the "mother bear defending her cubs" idea too. Then, in the early 1990s, M. and I worked as contractors each summer for the Bureau of Land Management, counting Mexican spotted owls (and other owl species) in southern Colorado.

Since our work involved hiking from late afternoon into darkness, we had a number of encounters with black bears.

The first time we encountered a sow with two cubs in a narrow canyon, we immediately retreated. The we climbed up on a nearby rocky outcropping. We could hear the bears flipping rocks in the little creek, looking for food, and grunting at each other. Eventually, it became dark, and they had to be still out there somewhere. But we could not afford to wait all night, so we flicked on our headlamps and hiked out with many an anxious glance backwards. Never saw the bears.

Another time, another deep canyon, we met a mother and cub. Mom sent the cub up a tree, while the last we saw of her was her butt going over the ridge. We continued higher up the canyon to our calling spot. Meanwhile, the cub started to wail—a sound somewhere between the crying of a 100-pound baby and the bray of a donkey.

After trying unsuccessfully to find another way down that did not involve passing the cub, we eventually started back the way that we had come. By then Mom had come back, and they were both gone.

All other bear encounters were inconsequential. Most bears are shy.

Prof. Herrero points out that bears are still mostly "benign," when you consider that there are on average two attacks a year from a North American bear population of 750,000-800,000.

May 10, 2011

Where the Elk Go to Nap

On the morning of April 22, I went to place a camera at Camera Trap Spring, which I had been leaving alone since last summer's bear-versus-camera incident.

With the dry year that we have have experienced, the little spring was dry. But nearby I saw a place that looked like an elk bedding spot. It certainly was. Later that same afternoon a sleepy bull elk arrived.
A bull elk with antlers in velvet (tip barely visible) decides to lie down for a nap.
Ah, now he is comfortable.
Then his buddy decides to step in front of the camera.
Unfortunately, the second elk decided to rub against the tree to which the camera was strapped. I got several photos of his butt. His rubbing pushed the camera around so that it faced a useless direction and captured no more photos.

I retrieved the camera on April 29, even as smoke from the Sand Gulch Fire—on the edge of exploding beyond its "containment"—was blowing overhead.

Although the terrain is rough, these elk are fairly close to some homes as the crow flies. They are spending the day in a thick stand of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

May 09, 2011

Video Trailer for a Falconer's Writing

In November 2009 I reviewed Rebecca O'Connor's book Lift, saying,
That dialectic--woman as prey and predator--spirals through Lift, a book that is intensely erotic in the original sense, being about passion, desire, and union with the Beloved, even when the beloved is a bird.
Rise: A Collection of Writings is her new collection of short pieces and poetry, and she has made a "video trailer" for it. Rise will be available as an ebook in July.

May 08, 2011

A Blog for Colorado Gardeners

Perennial Favorites is a small nursery in Colorado City, south of Pueblo, so obscure that you only learn of its existence when a friend tells you about it.

The nursery specializes in plants adapted for our altitude, low humidity (the relative humidity was only 2 percent in Pueblo today), and sudden shifts from cold to hot.

Everything comes with expert advice and occasionally contact information for even more obscure growers, scribbled on a scrap of paper.

They do most of their business in May, opening fewer and fewer days as the summer progresses.

M. and I went by today and dropped about $150 on bedding plants—we will rebuild some perennial beds hit hard by this cold, dry winter, and try some new experiments as well.

This year they started a blog, which I will add to my blog roll under Southwesterners, hoping to learn more about growing plants  "particularly suited to Colorado's challenging conditions."

May 06, 2011

This Photo Was Not Taken in the American West

Rather, it was taken in the United Kingdom—in Wales, to be precise. The UK has a series of wildland fires burning, in England and Scotland as well as Wales. Several seem to have been started by teenage boys. More photos at the link.

Three Approaches to Disaster Planning

"Meet at the red box." Jim Shepherd at The Outdoor Wire talks about disaster preparedness around the house.
There are many, many things you could include in a comfort and recovery kit, but it's important to remember that in an emergency, the essentials are most important. One lady in Tennessee told me of telling her kids to put clothes and toiletries into their backpacks because they were going to her parents house. The tornadoes missed their home, and shortly after midnight, they returned to their own home.

There, she discovered that her son had packed video games, not clothes or toiletries. Fortunately, they weren't among the groups that lost everything except what they were wearing or carrying.
Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit on low-budget preparedness:
So yesterday's post on  low-budget disaster prep has produced still more email. Mostly it’s suggestions for what more people can do. That, of course, goes all the way up to a custom bomb-shelter / retreat in the mountains somewhere. But for most people, resources are limited. What are some things you can do that go beyond just keeping some extra groceries and bottled water? But not too far beyond?
And if you really want to start down that dark, scary road in your mind, here is an essay from  SurvivalBlog, "The Unrealistic Mentality of the Modern Survivalist." It begins,
I am guilty of falling into the “Wolverines!” mindset from time-to-time, that being the image of going toe-to-toe with the insidious foreign invasion force and setting up ambushes to destroy the evil occupiers or perhaps having to confront droves of hostiles, be they urban gang-bangers, local looters, or some other such group of less than savory individuals. The modern survivalist seems to be rather obsessed with the idea of a total collapse of all centralized authority to the point where society is little better than Somalia, although historical precedent doesn’t give much credibility to this theory. The idea of a “total collapse” has been covered to the point of ad nauseam but what of the idea of a “partial” or “limited” collapse?
In such a situation, he suggests, the isolated, well-stocked rural hideout beloved of many survivalists is actually a bad idea.

Somewhere down the list of my reasons for joining the volunteer fire department is something like what this writer advocates: "small yet close-knit communities [for those] who had the support and trust of their neighbors." (And such a thing can exist in urban areas too.)

Aside from my own wanting to give back something to the community, I also figured that if other sorts of bad things happen, it does not hurt to be friends with a group of people who are competent, have access to tools of many types, and who have an attitude of helpfulness and community service too.

May 05, 2011

Dry Times on the Southern Plains—Boise City, Oklahoma

I recently mentioned how drought has hit southeastern Colorado, heart of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

A few miles south in the Oklahoma Panhandle, it is as bad or worse.
With a drought continuing to punish much of the Great Plains, this one stands out. Boise (rhymes with voice) City has gone 222 consecutive days through Tuesday with less than a quarter-inch of rainfall in any single day, said Gary McManus, a state climatologist. That is the longest such dry spell here since note-keeping began in 1908.
Population is falling, businesses closing, etc. If you want to be left alone, do like some of the outlaws of old and move to Cimarron County, Oklahoma.

Some people are stubborn:
But the Sharps are committed to ranching. “The land is like a member of the family,” Ms. Sharp said. “You don’t disown it if things aren’t going right.” 
On the other hand, the overall economic picture is not good at all. It sounds like another piece of the depopulation of the High Plains that has been going on for decades.

Historical Footnote: Boise City has a unique distinction of having been bombed by American forces during World War II.
The B-17 made another pass and dropped a second bomb that struck the white framed Baptist church, exploding beside the building and breaking out several windows. The crater was three feet deep.

Western Snow Pack Map for May 1, 2011

Click to see larger view

As before, conditions are driest in southern Colorado, the San Luis Valley, and northern New Mexico.

But if you average in all those blue bits, Colorado's snow pack is 148 percent of average.

This and earlier snow pack maps available at this Natural Resources Conservation Service site, part of the Department of Agriculture.

May 04, 2011

76 Trombones—and a Nuclear Reactor

When we evacuated our house last Friday afternoon, M. scooped some new sequined, strappy dress sandals that she had not yet worn outside the store.

She is not big on "retail therapy," but these were purchased partly to celebrate the denial of a zoning request in Pueblo County for a vaguely proposed nuclear power plant—or something.

Although the proposer, lawyer Don Banner, was not from out of town, the whole scenario kind of reminded me of the Broadway musical (and later movie) The Music Man.

The film's protagonist travels from town to town, telling the residents that he will organize a boys' marching band. Then he takes the money meant for instruments and uniforms and catches the next train to Somewhere Else.

Banner wanted the county to give him a planned unit development zoning on land he did not own (although he had some options), to build a nuclear power plant with financing and partners that did not yet exist, said power plant to be cooled with water to which he did not have any rights.

And this is Colorado, where water rights are everything.

Oh, and his proposal went before the Board of Commissioners right when the nuclear-plant disaster in Japan was at the top of the news.

But he promised jobs. And you could just imagine a zombie-fied board of commissioners shuffling forward mumbling, "Jobs ..." Right here in River City, as the song goes.

But then, in the words of the Pueblo Chieftain, it all "melted down."
For themselves, the commissioners expected to hear a bitter argument over the safety of nuclear power. Where the ground shifted away from Banner was on the fundamental questions of why was he asking the county to fast-track his project by considering it as a request for a simple planned-unit development instead of a more comprehensive review?

Also, how could he ask the county to approve zoning for a nuclear plant when Banner had no actual power plant for consideration? The controversial details of size, water use and waste storage all would be delayed for future consideration if Banner could find a developer. . . .
For his part, Banner acknowledged that there were many unknowns in his proposal. He was trying to get a site zoned for a power plant without having a utility interested in building it. It was a "build it and they will come" approach that he justified with his enthusiasm for nuclear power.
No water, no land, no partners, no plan. As The Denver Post put it,
But here's the hitch, one that Banner freely concedes: There is no money, developer, committed transmission line or customer for the nuclear power plant.
But he's a visionary!
Banner, who has described himself as "overly zealous" on occasion, accepted the verdict with the same certainty that made him champion the power plant in the first place.
"This was a short-sighted decision," he told The Chieftain after the vote. "And I am a visionary."
Xcel Energy has a coal-fired power plant in Pueblo, and Black Hills Energy is building a natural gas-fired plant as well. So it was not like the area needed a power plant; this was strictly for export, so to speak.

In the end, the commissioners cited the lack of water as perhaps the least-controversial way of saying no to Banner's request. Nuclear reactors require a huge amount of cooling water, which is why they are often located next to rivers or oceans.

Banner is not an out-and-out con man like "the professor" in The Music Man, but his approach likewise was based on telling people down in Pueblo that they had a problem that he could cure. All they had to do was believe in him.

Blog Stew with Kittens

• Science writer Emily Anthes on how it is impossible to be logically consistent about animals—especially cats.

• There is lots of snow in northern Colorado. Coyote Gulch has the roundup. Not so much here. The southwest part of the state is doing OK.

• Federal district court awards damages in suit against US Forest Service over bear attack in Utah campground.

• Chad Love remembers a hard-ass Chesapeake Bay retriever. Chessies are not the smartest dogs, not the biggest, not the fastest, not the most glamorous—but they yield to none in terms of attitude and stubbornness. ("Fisher, no! I mean it! I'm talking to you, buster.")

May 02, 2011

Two Crazy Days, Part 5: Bureaucratese

Part 1: "It's Blowing Up"

Part 2: The E-Word

Part 3: "No Structures Burned?"

Part 4: The Worst is Over

A news report from last Saturday on KOAA (Pueblo-Colorado Springs)
"There will be some smoke on the incident"—at what two-day workshop do people learn to talk like that?  

"You will still see some smoke." Subject-verb-object. So simple. Note how the raging wildfire becomes the bureaucratically neutral term, "incident."
Twenty-four hours after this report was broadcast, the district ranger held a community meeting for local residents. He brought a bodyguard.

What I mean by that is that for the first time in three days of meetings, an armed Forest Service law-enforcement guy showed up along with all the fire specialists. I could only wonder if their boss, the district ranger, expected someone to come flying over the folding chairs and go for his throat.

But there were no fisticuffs. Someone did shout that "the guy who made that decision [not to put it out immediately, i.e., the ranger] was an idiot!" A number of speakers called for immediate suppression of all fires that might threaten homes.

On the other hand, there was a round of applause for the Forest Service and BLM firefighters.

I joined in clapping—but I do feel that the fire specialists were too optimistic when they proclaimed that a hand-dug fire line reinforced by burnouts would hold against 50-mph winds. Embers from further back were just wafted right over it—and we were off to the races.

The rocky ridge that was supposed to contain the fire downwind is blackened on both sides. Did no one say, "Forget the bighorn sheep-habitat improvement, guys, this thing is going to run tomorrow when the wind comes up"? We all had the same weather forecast.

Why Government Foresters Are Like Medical Doctors

If you add up all the money spent on the average American's medical care, I have been told, the bulk of it is spent in the last two weeks of life.

The medical establishment talks "prevention," but they spend money in the Intensive Care Unit.

Likewise, the Forest Service talks about preventing fire in the "urban interface"—wherever homes and other structures are close to forest boundaries, be they truly urban or not—but they do not spend so much money on the problem.

Give them a lightning-strike forest fire though, and they spend money like it was the invasion of Iraq.

Although parts of his document give me pause, I cannot disagree with Randall O'Toole's position here: 
[Forest Service] leaders are taking advantage of Congress's willingness to throw money at the fire issue. With an increasingly large share of the Forest Service bureaucracy dependent on the extra funding that comes around each fire season, the agency blindly puts out almost all fires. Even people within the Forest Service fear that the agency's traditional commitment to conservation is being lost in an orgy of spending on fire-related activities.
The local foresters—and I—fully realize that this community is at risk from wildfire.  We have forested public lands on two sides and part of the third.

Back in about 1988—that was two district rangers ago—the San Carlos Ranger District offered a plan for prescribed burning to reduce fire risk around us. I was at the meeting, and as I recall, the general sentiment was strongly against fire any form. 

Various other plans were proposed during the 1990s. In 2000, they did have one successful prescribed burn about two miles from where I am writing. (I reported on it for Colorado Central magazine.)  That burn went as planned (not all do), but it was deliberately set well away from any homes or barns.

In 2002, some thinning was done on the national forest near us. Those thinned areas did burn less than surrounding areas during the 11,000-plus-acre Mason Gulch Fire of July 2005, which came within a quarter mile of some homes, including mine.

Ironically, now I hear the Mason Gulch Fire touted as having removed a lot of the fuel load around the community. Yes, it has, but other plans for "treatment"—prescribed burns or mechanical thinning—were put back on the shelf. They are just not as glamorous as a monster forest fire. I don't know if the problem is money or agency priorities or both.

So the timber in the "interface" just gets thicker and thicker, waiting for the next lightning strike or tossed cigarette butt.

As for the Sand Gulch Fire, despite snow and sleet off and on for the last twenty-four hours, it is still burning a little. That is to be expected. Federal firefighters are still working on it and will be for some time. Our little volunteer department is finished, we hope, and looking forward to the income that we as a department will collect for the "rental" of our engines and personnel.

Thanks, American taxpayers. We will spend it on new gear. After all, it is only May—and the real fire season has not even begun.

May 01, 2011

Two Crazy Days, Part 4: The Worst is Over

A telephoto shot of the Skycrane air tanker rising after sucking water from a ranch pond. These helitankers can carry more than 2,000 gallons of water at a time.
Part 1: "It's Blowing Up"

Part 2: The E-Word

Part 3: "No Structures Burned?"

Saturday, April 30, was cool and bright, with the wind shifting around to the north and east as the cold front arrived.

Two volunteers arrived at 6:30 a.m. and rolled out in the brush truck. But it would not be until until after eight o'clock that the long procession of fire apparatus came back from town and headed toward the Sand Gulch Fire itself.

Friday's blow-up had increased its size from about 20 acres to 565 acres—still fairly small compared to some, but its proximity made up for that.

The fire was less active, I could tell. At nine, needing some medicine, etc., from the house, I decided to make a quick trip back. I could get what was needed and make a quick reconnaissance in case any neighbor asked about their house.

My yellow hard hat, yellow shirt, and a friendly wave got me through the road block on the state highway. At the house, I picked up a few things ("I left my leather jacket," M. had lamented) forgot some other things, watered the seedlings in the greenhouse, filled the bird feeders, then left again.

In a parking lot by the state highway I saw all the fire engines, including ours, parked with the crews listening to somebody talk. 

A state trooper was driving slowly down the little county road. Rather "sketchy" characters whom no one seems to know sometimes show up at times like these.

With the winds easing, the aerial attack was back: a single-engine air tanker, the big helitanker, and a smaller helicopter with a bucket.

One of our crew came back at 2 p.m. and said they had spent the whole day just sitting, on standby. I was ready at that point to replace him, but someone with more seniority went instead.

Sheriff Fred Jobe announces
that evacuees can return home.
With only two of our volunteers in the field, the radio and telephone traffic dropped way off—residents were now attending the Forest Service's fire-information meetings at the old schoolhouse, held at noon and at 5 p.m.

And that turned out all right too, because I was able to strike camp and come home a little before our brush truck was released for the day—about 7 p.m.

By then, the snow was falling—thick wet flakes—and I wondered how many helitanker trips it would take to equal all the water in a spring snowstorm.

M. and I carried our motley collection of stuff back into the house, snow coating our shoulders and the dogs' fur. Quickly the low clouds settled over the burned slopes across the valley, shutting them from view, and the smell of smoke in the air was from our own chimney.

(More to come)

Two Crazy Days, Part 3: "No Structures Burned?"

Part 1: "It's Blowing Up"

Part 2: The E-Word

We parked in an open area by the fire station, out of the way of traffic. The wind was blowing hard, and I did not relish erecting the pop-up trailer right away. Nor did I want to leave M. and the dogs there while I took off for who knew how long fighting the fire.

I hated to miss the action, but I figured that I could be some use at the station, so I appointed myself public information officer. After all, I had already manned a hose once that day.

So for the next few hours, I
  • helped members of our department find each other
  • talked to a newspaper reporter and told her how to contact the chief
  • answered inquiries of people who stopped by the station for information
  • relayed messages from firefighters to their spouses at home
  • guided another department's water tender to a hydrant where they could refill—it is at a Catholic summer camp way up in the pines, the only city-style hydrant in 100 square miles
  • sat and watched the smoke, tensing up every time I thought I saw a new plume near our road. No air tankers were flying because of the winds.
Not long after we came, two more volunteers took out the older, recently donated engine that we are rehabilitating. A thirty-something guy and a fifty-something woman in too-large Nomex trousers and an old bunker coat—and a pumper with leaks in its plumbing. As they drove away, something hit me:  "Chas to Unit 3. The left-side booster hose is not connected. Don't turn it on! Only the right-side line is working!"

They would break down only a mile from the station—but the problem was only with the throttle linkage, which the driver literally wired back together—and they helped fight the fire with that one working booster line.

Eventually I put up the trailer. M. and I drank several glasses of wine.

Well after dark, the volunteers started rolling back in. The rancher and his two grown sons who had the water tender backed it into its bay, said a quick good-bye, and headed home to supper.

The brush truck came back, everyone tired and smokey, with a report that the houses nearest the flames were still standing. I started to relax a little.

And the old pumper returned, having picked up a third crew member, with a strong suggestion from the driver that it not go out again until it had had more repairs.

We swapped information, but no one wanted to linger long. The Forest Service wanted the brush truck again at 7 a.m.—not directly to the fire, but at a meeting in the town twelve miles away. Things were starting to get bureaucratic. We had a real "incident management team" now.

Two Crazy Days, Part 2: The E-Word

The Sand Gulch Fire about 1 p.m. Friday, April 29, shortly before it "blew up." The smoke plume is already horizontal due to a strong southwest wind.
Part 1: "It's Blowing Up."

The telephone call was from the sheriff's office. They could not locate our fire chief, so could I come to a meeting with the sheriff at an intersection on the state highway about a mile from the house.

"Why  me?" I thought. I am still relatively new, just one of the worker bees. I reminded the caller that if our chief was not answering his cell phone, they should try the radio. He is, after all, a county Road &  Bridge employee. (Both cell and radio reception can be spotty in the mountains, but the radio is more reliable.)

And then I re-donned my wildland-fire clothes and drove to the meeting.

The little intersection was getting that command-post look: two sheriff's cars, a couple of Forest Service trucks, a Bureau of Land Management law-enforcement ranger's SUV—people standing around with hand-held radios and clipboards.

The fancy new brush truck from Bigger Department Down the Road pulled up, and the driver conferred briefly with the man whom I took to be the FS incident commander. Where were our people? I walked to the sheriff's car and waited for him to finish his radio call.

The way it works, the sheriff's office, 25 miles away, controls the emergency siren in our community. So I urged him to activate it. This was not "our" fire, it was clearly the feds' fire, but our firefighters needed notification.

The editor of our weekly newspaper and his teenaged son drove up, and they started chatting and snapping photos. People were starting to use the E-word: evacuation.

We Really Need a Checklist, We Later Thought

Back home, M. was thinking evacuation too. Ash was falling from the sky, but no embers, luckily.

Our packing was haphazard. We got the computers, checkbooks, and our passports. (Were we fleeing to Canada?) I threw in the other clothes that I had worn that day and some clean underwear and socks. M. grabbed some still-unworn strappy, sequined sandals that she had bought largely in celebration of a decision by the county commissioners down in Puebl0 (that will be another blogging topic).

The dogs and their food. Some crackers and peanut butter. One favorite revolver. Some bottled water. I realized later that not only had I left my good camera outfit behind, but I hadn't brought anything to read!

 We got extra sleeping bags to supplement the bedding in the pop-up camping trailer.

We were a lot less organized than the last time we evacuated, but we had several hours to load up that time—and still did not know just how to do it. (Do you pack for just a few days or for the rest of your life?)

I pulled her Jeep Wrangler out of the garage and hooked the Jeep Liberty to the trailer. Its tires were low after sitting all winter. Too bad. This would be a short trip—just 3.5 miles to the fire station.

And then the house:
  • Blinds drawn, windows closed, interior doors closed. Front door unlocked.
  • Ladder propped against the roof.
  • Porch lights on.
  • Propane tank turned off.
  • Hose and sprinkler positioned on the side closest to the trees, ready for use.
  • Final quick blessing.
And then the power went out, which meant no pressure pump—no water. So it goes.

I met the sheriff again where our driveway comes out on the county road. His deputies and some Forest Service people were there, sizing up the situation, getting ready to go door-to-door.

By the time I reached the state highway, there were two of my department's three pieces of apparatus—our brush truck and the water tender. We were in the show.

The wind was still blowing hard.