Thursday, November 20, 2008

Denver Interlude, and the Fires 

I've been in Denver the past few days, attending a technical conference and in the downtime between events, catching up on e-mail and various website tasks. The conference, by the way, is at a hotel several miles southeast of downtown, in the Denver 'tech center', not in the downtown area where the Worldcon was three months ago.

This past weekend there was another round of devastating brush fires in southern California, first in the Santa Barbara area, then closer to my home in the San Fernando Valley and then, quickly, in northern Orange County. Two hundreds homes, some very expensive, burned in Santa Barbara; 500 mobile homes, among others, in the Sylmar fire.

I woke up 4 a.m. on Saturday morning to the heavy smell of smoke, and knew that a fire was burning somewhere close by -- I got up and checked news on the web. That was the Sylmar fire, a good 15 miles across the San Fernando Valley from me to the northeast. I closed all the windows -- it had been a mild evening with a nice breeze -- but in the morning after I got up I discovered that enough ash had blown in through the screens to coat surfaces in those rooms near the windows, enough so that it crunched when walking across the hardwood floors...

I spent much of Saturday watching the continuous TV coverage of the local fires, initially in Sylmar, then abruptly in Brea and Corona and Yorba Linda down in Orange County (even briefly a fire, quickly contained, in Palos Verdes, the distinctive peninsula that distinguishes the Los Angeles area coastline).

It was riveting, and heartbreaking to watch helicopter views of often large, recently built homes ablaze, fully engulfed, in the middle of neighborhoods otherwise intact. It wasn't a matter of one house catching fire because the house next door was burning, or the brush on the hillside below. The culprit as often was embers blown by the winds (the weather was warm, though not hot, but the humidity was very low, something like 4%) -- and these embers would drift into attic vents and ignite the underside of the roofs of these homes. Surely, I thought, there must be a technological solution to this -- couldn't such vents be constructed so they can be closed when dangerous fire conditions exist? But I can only suppose others have thought about this too, and realize that changes to building codes can take years, or decades, to implement. (The current codes are already very strict, in terms of roof composition and brush clearance in fire-prone areas.)

And then leaving on Sunday to fly to Denver, the worst of the news over, and the news in any event receding. A mid-level headline on CNN, not the immersive TV coverage provided for those living through the event...

More notes on recent reading, soon.
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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