July 09, 2005

Nobody updates their Web pages . . .

Right now, two days into the fire, the Pike & San Isabel National Forest web site proclaims under "current conditions": Currently there are no wildfires or emergencies on the Pike & San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron & Comanche National Grasslands. When prescribed burns, wildland fires, and weather and road emergencies occur, this is where we will provide up-to-date information.


Some news coverage from the Pueblo Chieftain: "Firefighters battle Wetmore blaze" and "Pueblo airport serves as aerial firefighting base".

SRO at the Baptist Church

The little store out on the state highway was probably having its greatest day ever on Fiday, its parking lot full of fire vehicles and loitering crews. Driving past, I saw engines from Fowler and Manzanola (both little prairie towns) among others, and a serious-looking 6x6 rig from the Platte Valley department, from the mountains southwest of Denver. They should know forest fires: the country is similar to ours and it has had some big burns in recent years, including the giant Hayman Fire in 2002.

A new helicopter air tanker had joined the air show, slipping through the smoke like some kind of giant insect with a dangling proboscis.

Every pullout on the highway was filled with emergency vehicles, television trucks, or gawkers, but as M. and I drove past on our way down to town, we could see through the smokey air across to our road, and it was still surrounded by green trees. Fire engines were parked here and there in driveways.

The fire itself grew during the day to something more than 1,500 acres. All the aerial slurry-dropping had not stopped its movement when the winds blew. The steep ridge where it started was hazardous terrain for ground crews, who were just trickling in: an imate crew from the nearby state prison plus elite Hot Shot crews from elsewhere. By Friday evening, the "army" had grown to 350 firefighters, counting managers ("overhead"), public-information officers, engine crews, ground crews, and others.

I had given the sheriff's office the number of the friend's house where we were camped, our trailer set up on a dead-end road next to a cow pasture. That afternoon my friend Hal walked up to the trailer and said he had gotten a recorded telephone message about an "informational meeting" to be held at 7 p.m. at the small Baptist church 2.5 miles from our house. I drove down there, about ten miles from our temporary camp, shooting these pictures on the way.

This is the new Forest Service at work, putting on a good show for local residents and the news media (I actually heard the phrase "your tax dollars at work"). It's a long way from my father's day, when he was a district ranger managing a fire with a rotary-dial telephone and a radio, trying to coordinate everything and take calls from the Rapid City Journal too.

The district ranger and the sheriff orchestrated the show, speaking before the packed pews and TV cameras in front of a blown-up topographic map. It was standing room only--I will bet that church is not so full on Easter Sunday. More evacuees from the east side of the fire, in the next county, were there, along with my neighbors. A lot of bureaucratic syrup was poured, but the essence of the presentation was this: The fire is not under control, and you all can't go home yet.

The management level had outgrown the trailer parked near the church and was moving to the high school in town, 15 miles away. We now had a "Type 2" fire with a name, the Mason [Gulch] Fire, and if kept growing, I suspected that soon the T-shirt vendors would be arriving. Wildland firefighters often go home with commemorative T-shirts produced on the spot.

July 08, 2005

Dogs, cat, computer, fly rods . . .

Around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday the telephone rang with a recorded message from the sheriff's department. "Have a plan," it said, in essence. We had walked up to look at the fire again (sorry, no photo), and we did not like what we saw. It was moving north along a ridge. At the end of that ridge, a steep forested slope leads down to a narrow gravel road. Our house is across the road and down a bit.

I hitched up the pop-up camping trailer, and we started loading our two Jeeps, a Liberty and a Wrangler. The dogs would need the back of the Liberty, with the rear seat folded down, reducing the space available for personal stuff. The cat's carrier would go in the Wrangler.

And, once you get the animals loaded, what comes next? Clothes--how many? Valuables like laptop computers, checkbooks, passport, cameras (too many of those!), firearms (ditto), jewelry? Financial records? Library books?

I showered and fell asleep. M. slept less, and she awoke me at 3 a.m. The light through the bedroom window was rose-pink, and it sounded as though someone had installed Niagara Falls in the near distance. Time to go.

The breeze had swung around to the southeast, and the fire was moving towards us, with embers falling downslope to start new fires out ahead.

House lights were on all up and down the road, and the night rumbled as fire engines and tanker trucks assembled at the nearby junction, which, we would soon see, was marked by a metal sign proclaiming it to be a "Staging Area."

The phone rang: M. answered but said she heard only a beep. Presumably that was the reverse-911 "Get out now" message.

Windows closed . . . curtains drawn . . . propane tank valve off . . . and lights on in every room. "Hey, this is our house here! Please don't overlook it!" (Or at least it'll go down looking like the Titanic.)

M. going first in the Wrangler, we headed down our long driveway at 3:40 a.m. stopping at the rental cabin to do a Paul Revere-style door knocking. The family from Illinois staying there had planned to leave Friday morning anyway, and they had packed up Thursday evening. They would get a nice early start, maybe beating the rush hour traffic through Colorado Springs.

A Forest Service guy was at the end of the driveway, listing which houses were occupied. He told us that our road was now the fireline where it curved between the fire and the homes.At least it would be a narrow front to defend.

And then we were off into the darkness, driving up Hardscrabble Canyon and arriving at a friend's home at 4:30 or so. He knew we might be arriving, but I wondered if he had gone to bed at midnight thinking, "They are not coming after all."

Along the ridge behind us, ponderosa pine trees were flying orange flags of death.

July 07, 2005

Let It Burn

Last month the local Forest Service district ranger sent a form letter out to everyone on his mailing list about proposed changes in the fire-suppression policy. It proposed that naturally occuring fires more than one-half mile from private land be allowed to burn unless other conditions occurred, such as "unacceptable effects on cultural and natural resources."

The fire burning right now near us borders, maybe slops over onto, private land, but it that is part of a ranch. It is more than half a mile from anyone's home, I think.

A former co-worker, a reporter for the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper called around two o'clock this afternoon, fishing for quotes to add "color" to her story on the fire. I did not say what I was really thinking, which is that I am humbly grateful that thousands of dollars are being spent to save my house--and some others. (In case you are wondering, this house was built about 1965.)

The FS has been trying prescribed burns in this area for several years--I reported on one of them myself. Most years, the window of opportunity--after the spring blizzards and before the woods dry out and before passarine birds are nesting--is quite narrow, so narrow, in fact, that the proposed burns never happen or are cut short.

Now we are getting our proposed burn in the "natural" way.

Fire pix

It's so weird to be downloading photos while the airplanes go EEEEEWWWYOWWW over the house.

The fire at 9 a.m., when it had covered 30-50 acres.

One of the four-engine tankers (slurry bomber) over the house. It might have flown up from Albuquerque; I'm not sure.

More later.

Mountain lightning

After my "paint mines" post, I went out to water some plants before the day's heat arrived. A helicopter thudded off in the distance--that happens sometimes--but this one kept circling. Finally, I looked up: white smoke was rising in the south, maybe a mile away at most. Shitshitshitshit, it's a forest fire.

I went inside and told M. She grabbed her binoculars, and we started walking up the one-lane road into the national forest to a high point--walking, in case there was a sudden rush of Forest Service vehicles.

We did meet the district law-enforcement ranger driving out, and he told us what he knew--an air tanker was on its way, plus a ground crew--and then he drove down to the forest boundary by our property and parked to stop vehicular sight-seers.

All day, we have been watching the federal air show: at least four different air tankers of different sizes, one or more helicopters, and other observation planes. It's like being under a World War II air attack, minus the explosions, as the prop-driven aircraft make low-level runs over the house. Forest Service and BLM pickups and fire trucks run up and down the road. From the house, we can't see the slurry drops--we're too close, and the end of the ridge where the fire is burning blocks our view.

Last night there was "dry lightning"--no rain, just flash and boom. Everyone thinks a strike started the fire. Apparently the local volunteers got the call around 6:30 a.m., probably from someone at the little inholding ranch at the end of the road, but it was not in a place that they could reach, since they are not really wildlands firefighters, although they will attack what they can reach with a hose.

When we walked up to see the fire, I picked up a crushed aluminum pop can. M. is conducting a litter survey ("What brands do slobs drink?"), so it was a data point. I looked at the label: Mountain Lightning.
Paint mines are now a park

The "paint mines," an area of eastern El Paso County, Colorado, known for its eroded formations and colored clays, are now part of the county park system.

The linked story from the Colorado Springs Gazette mentions the well-known American Indian use of the pigments, but the colors also attracted the Art Nouveau potter Artus Van Briggle, who dug clays in the area. The firm that he and his wife founded still exists.

July 06, 2005

Birds and turbines

Bird deaths caused by wind-power turbines disturb a lot of people, me included, who would otherwise endorse them. The Altamont Pass site in California is notoriously bad, particularly for raptors.

At least they are not as bad as cars, according to a new Dutch study. Supposedly, newer wind turbines can be designed and sited to be less lethal.

(Thanks to Sustainablog.)
Mixing Red and Green

Hunters, anglers, and environmental activists are often the same people, but too much of the time you would not know it, based, for instance, on what you read in the magazines of each group.

In Montana, however, Governor Schweitzer, a Democrat, has been working to strengthen public-land access laws and incentives for private landowners to preserve habitat.

Blogger David Sirota calls this "turning hunters green" and suggests that Western Democrats follow Schweitzer's lead. He likes the fact that Gov. Schweitzer dressed in waders for a press conference--and then went fishing.

Of course, I have never thought that environmentalism, conservation, or whatever you want to call it, should be a partisan issue. Richard Nixon, a Republican, signed much important federal environmental legislation, not that his heart was necessarily in it, but he knew where the wind blew. Democrats like Bill Clinton seem to assume that they had the environmentalist vote in their pockets, tossing out a little raw meat (like a new national monument) now and then, while Republicans seem to think that they own the gun owners' votes. (Not necessarily.)

By the way, am I the only person whose head is spinning over the fact that "Red" suddenly stopped meaning "Communist" and started meaning "votes Republican"? Whoa!

(Thanks to Coyote Gulch.)

July 05, 2005

Trout bums

Seattle Times columnist Randall Sumner offers etiquette for and about anglers. (A tip of the sweat-stained fishing hat to Fishing Jones.)
Two if by sea

Fossilized footprints in Mexico strike another blow at "Clovis First," the long-standing archaeological assumption that humans arrived in the Americas by trekking across the Bering land bridge during the last Ice Age. This find is more evidence that they arrived well before that.

Evil 'urban' kingbirds

Guest post by Steve Bodio.

I am always fascinated by how animals and plants change their habits to adapt to humans. I live in a very small town, on a dirt road, but my house is virtually "downtown". For the last few years I have been almost unable to sleep in May and June because of the incessant mindless territorial (?) chatter of the western kingbirds that nest in the cottonwood overlooking my bedroom window--I have to resort to loud fans, air conditioners, closed windows...

I mentioned to Libby that, when I used to live in a Forest Service compound outside of town, I had kingbirds, but they were silent at night. Her sensible reply: "They didn't have streetlights". Which we certainly do have, as well as other lights.

I also had pygmy owls there, serious avian predators; any chattering damn birds would have been eliminated quickly. I have a nagging question: could we be selecting for dysfunctional (not to mention annoying) behavior?

July 03, 2005

Thar's stupidity in them thar hills

One day when I was in graduate school, one of my professors called me an "environmental determinist." He said it with a smile, but he did not mean it as a compliment.

Today's Denver Post, however, offers a story package that we could call "environmental determinism in big business." The writers offer numerous examples of how sea-level executives came to the Rockies and made stupid decisions. (Link may expire in two weeks.)

Take Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, for instance. While vacationing in Aspen and Sun Valley, Idaho, he sealed three separate deals that ended up costing The Walt Disney Co. billions.

On a smaller scale, we could include, "I would sure like to have a house here" or "I bet I could make this little ski area a success."

July 01, 2005

The human-animal bond

Aside from quoting the bogus Chief Seattle speech, this Australian site looks good. But there is a "ghost" among all these papers on "animals and the elderly, "pets in the workplace," and so forth. I see little mention of the original dog-human bond: hunting together.

On the other hand, one paper suggests how wolves influenced humans.
If your computer worked like agribusiness. . .

Software engineer-turned-small farmer Dave Haxton compares them:

If we applied the same principles to software engineering that modern agribusinesses apply to farming and ranching, we'd have five or six computers in the US, to which everybody would log in from dumb terminals. And when the system went down or had to be maintained, everybody would be off-line, and no work would get done. The computer industry has, over the years, decentralized. We realized that many computers could work far more effectively than one. Agriculture has gone the other direction: did you know that 90% of the meat distributed in the US comes from four packers?

Read the rest.