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This was last night:

And this was just before sunset tonight:

From the Mt. Wilson Observatory website:

Mount Wilson Observatory Status

Angeles National Forest is CLOSED due to the extreme fire hazard conditions. To see how the Observatory is faring during the ongoing Bobcat fire, check our Facebook linkTwitter link, or go to the HPWREN Tower Cam and click on the second frame from the left at the top, which looks east towards the fire (also check the south-facing cam and the recently archived timelapse movies below which offer a good look at the latest events in 3-hour segments. Note to media: These images can be used with credit to HPWREN). For the latest updates on the Bobcat fire from U.S. Forest Service, please check out their Twitter page.

Last night the firefighters set a strategic backfire to make a barrier to the fire on our southern flank. To many of us who did not know what was happening it looked like the end. Click here to watch the timelapse. The 12 ground crews up there have now declared us safe. They will remain to make sure nothing gets by as the fires tend to linger in the canyons below. They are our heroes and we owe them our existence. They are true professionals, artists with those backfires, and willing to put themselves at considerable risk to protect us. We thank them!!!!

There will be plenty of stories about how the Observatory and the many broadcast transmitters nearby were saved from the Bobcat Fire. For the curious, start with these links:

I’ll add some more soon.

On fire

The white mess in the image above is the Bobcat Fire, spreading now in the San Gabriel Mountains, against which Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl (that’s it, on the right) reaches its limits of advance to the north. It makes no sense to build very far up or into these mountains, for two good reasons. One is fire, which happens often and awfully. The other is that the mountains are geologically new, and falling down almost as fast as they are rising up. At the mouths of valleys emptying into the sprawl are vast empty reservoirs—catch basins—ready to be filled with rocks, soil and mud “downwasting,” as geologists say, from a range as big as the Smokies, twice as high, ready to burn and shed.

Outside of its northern rain forests and snow-capped mountains, California has just two seasons: fire and rain. Right now we’re in the midst of fire season. Rain is called Winter, and it has been dry since the last one. If the Bobcat fire burns down to the edge of Monrovia, or Altadena, or any of the towns at the base of the mountains, heavy winter rains will cause downwasting in a form John McPhee describes in Los Angeles Against the Mountains:

The water was now spreading over the street. It descended in heavy sheets. As the young Genofiles and their mother glimpsed it in the all but total darkness, the scene was suddenly illuminated by a blue electrical flash. In the blue light they saw a massive blackness, moving. It was not a landslide, not a mudslide, not a rock avalanche; nor by any means was it the front of a conventional flood. In Jackie’s words, “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.

In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins. On its way down Pine Cone Road, it plucked up cars from driveways and the street. When it crashed into the Genofiles’ house, the shattering of safety glass made terrific explosive sounds. A door burst open. Mud and boulders poured into the hall. We’re going to go, Jackie thought. Oh, my God, what a hell of a way for the four of us to die together.

Three rains ago we had debris flows in Montecito, the next zip code over from our home in Santa Barbara. I wrote about it in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. The flows, which destroyed much of the town and killed about two dozen people, were caused by heavy rains following the Thomas Fire, which at 281,893 acres was biggest fire in California history at the time. The Camp Fire, a few months later, burned a bit less land but killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, including whole towns. This year we already have two fires bigger than the Thomas, and at least three more growing fast enough to take the lead. You can see the whole updated list on the Los Angeles Times California Wildfires Map.

For a good high-altitude picture of what’s going on, I recommend NASA’s FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System). It’s a highly interactive map that lets you mix input from satellite photographs and fire detection by orbiting MODIS and VIIRS systems. MODIS is onboard the Terra and Aqua satellites; and VIIRS is onboard the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) spacecraft. (It’s actually more complicated than that. If you’re interested, dig into those links.) Here’s how the FIRMS map shows the active West Coast fires and the smoke they’re producing:

That’s a lot of cremated forest and wildlife right there.

I just put those two images and a bunch of others up on Flickr, here. Most are of MODIS fire detections superimposed on 3-D Google Earth maps. The main thing I want to get across with these is how large and anomalous these fires are.

True: fire is essential to many of the West’s wild ecosystems. It’s no accident that the California state tree, the Coast Redwood, grows so tall and lives so long: it’s adapted to fire. (One can also make a case that the state flower, the California Poppy, which thrives amidst fresh rocks and soil, is adapted to earthquakes.) But what’s going on here is something much bigger. Explain it any way you like, including strange luck.

Whatever you conclude, it’s a hell of a show. And vice versa.

I don’t want to explain why we’re bivouac’d at a friend’s house in San Marino. What matters, for the purpose of this post, is that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Covid-19 pandemic.

But hey, it’s a nice house in a nice town. My only complaint is that there’s nothing resembling an office desk or chair here. I’ve coped by collecting my ass and my electronics within an arrangement of mostly antique furniture. That’s what you see in the screenshot above. (From my most recent Floss Weekly podcast.) The rest of the house looks kinda like the set of Knives Out.

I start with this setting because a friend asked me to write my own version of what Francine @Hardaway published today in Releasing My Former Life. (It’s a good piece. Go read it. I also thank Francine for turning me on to #Clubhouse. It is reportedly invite-only and apparently website-less, but I’m hoping she or a reader can get me one. Or two.)

So, what to report?

Well, in pre-pandemic times my wife and I were on the road at least a third of the time, so we’re used to operating out of hotel rooms, conference spaces and seats by the gates of departing flights at airports. So living in places other than home is not odd for us. It is odd to go around wearing masks in public while keeping our distance, as if everyone had just farted; but we hardly go out at all. We provision the kitchen here with runs to Trader Joe’s or Costco on days when they open early for geezers, and that only happens every couple weeks or so. Also, this region isn’t one of those in denial of the pandemic. People here tend to have Fauci-compliant public health practices.

In the early mornings or late evenings, when it’s not 95° outside, I do venture out for walks of 2-3 miles or more in the neighborhood. The roads are wide here, and the pedestrian traffic is light, so I leave the mask off most of the time. There are also lots of amazing trees and gardens, so I’ll pause to admire those and post occasional photos of interesting stuff on Instagram. (This kind of thing, by the way, comprises almost my entire experience of Instagram.)

While paying work has taken a hit, I remain overcommitted to all the obligations I had before the pandemic arrived, plus a couple new ones, such as the Floss Weekly podcast. It bothers me that I’m not as efficient or as effective in that work as I’d like, but being bothered about it isn’t the same as being depressed or anxious. It just kinda sucks.

Other stuff…

  1. Dorothy Parker said (or is said to have said) that she preferred the company of younger men “because their stories are shorter.” I am mindful of that. I also know it’s way too easy to talk about infirmities that accumulate, lengthen and get more complicated with age. So I avoid writing, thinking or talking about being old, even though it keeps me up at night, mostly because I have to pee.
  2. I’m optimistic about the long-run future, though the short run will surely get worse before it gets better. (Bad things happen when people die at wartime rates and large hunks of the economy are turned off.) I could say more about that, but I won’t, because—
  3. There is far more than enough political writing and talk. Sure, I fantasize about speaking up, because I do think I have some useful things to say. I just don’t expect what I say to make a bit of difference. The noise level is so high right now, and the effect level of any given tweet or post is so low, that I’m disinclined to say much. Add that to what I said here in 2014 and here two months ago, and you’ll see why I’d mostly rather work on other stuff.

The main thing for me right now is Customer Commons. If it succeeds, it will be the most leveraged thing I’ve ever done, meaning the best for the world. If you’re interested in helping, drop me an email. First name at last name dot com. Thanks.

 

 

The tallest structure in Santa Barbara’s skyline is a 195-foot pole painted red and white. It stands in a city equipment yard, not far from the ocean and the city’s famous Wharf. You can see it in the photo above, with the Wharf behind it.

As landmarks go it’s not much, but I like its looks and its legacy.

On the looks side, I dig the simplicity of its structure and the red and white colors. On the legacy side, I’m a connoisseur of radio transmitters (see here) who digs the fact that this pole radiates the broadcast signals of three AM stations at once, which is a rare thing. Since Santa Barbara has only five AM stations, the majority of them are right here. Scanning up (what used to be) the dial, those are:

All three have changed call letters, ownership, formats and transmitter locations many times over the years. Near as I can tell, this was originally the 1490 site, and the other two arrived in the early 90s: first 1290 and then 1340.

I bring this up because I’m worried that we might lose this landmark. That’s because (says here) KCLU and KOSJ have construction permits for a new transmitting system on this same spot that involves a tower or pole that’s a good bit shorter—and KZSB has an application for the same.

The tower specified by all three stations is about 130 feet tall. It will also be “top-loaded,” which means that either it will get some extra wires extending away from the tower, or a new “umbrella” on top (extending about 11 feet out).

So I’m hoping one or more of the engineers involved can let us know what the plan is. I do hope they’ll keep the whole pole; but I’ll understand if they can’t. Either way, it should in some way keep what has become a familiar landmark.

That was yesterday. Hard to tell from just looking at it, but that’s a 180° shot, panning from east to west across California’s South Coast, most of which is masked by smoke from the Thomas Fire.

We weren’t in the smoke then, but we are now, so there’s not much to shoot. Just something more to wear: a dust mask. Yesterday I picked up two of the few left at the nearest hardware store, and now I’m wearing one around the house. Since wildfire smoke is bad news for lungs, that seems like a good idea.

I’m also noticing dead air coming from radio stations whose transmitters have likely burned up. And websites that seem dead to the fire as well. Here’s a list of signals that I’m pretty sure is off the air right now. All their transmitters are within the Thomas Fire perimeter:

Some are on Red Mountain (on the west of Highway 33, which connects Ventura with Ojai); some are in the Ventura Hills; and some are on Sulphur Mountain, which is the high ridge on the south side of Ojai. One is on Santa Paula Mountain, with a backup on Red Mountain. (That’s KOCP. I don’t hear it, and normally do.)

In some cases I’m hearing a live signal but dead air. In others I’m hearing nothing at all. In still other cases I’m hearing something faint. And some signals are too small, directional or isolated for me to check from 30 miles (give or take) away. So, fact checking is welcome. There’s a chance some of these are on the air with lower power at temporary locations.

The links in the list above go to technical information for each station, including exact transmitter locations and facilities, rather than to the stations themselves. Here’s a short cut to those, from the great Radio-Locator.com.

Nearly all the Ventura area FM stations — KHAY, KRUZ, KFYV, KMLA, KCAQ , KMRO, KSSC and KOCP — have nothing about the fire on their websites. Kinda sad, that. I’ve only found only two local stations doing what they should be doing at times like this. One is KCLU/88.3, the public station in Thousand Oaks. KCLU also serves the South Coast with an AM and an FM signal in Santa Barbara. The other is KVTA/1590. The latter is almost inaudible here right now. I suppose that’s because of a power outage. Its transmitter, like those of the other two AM stations in town, is down in a flat area unlikely to burn.

KBBY, on Rincon Mountain (a bit west of Red Mountain, but in an evacuation area with reported spot fires), is still on the air. Its website also has no mention of the fire. Same with KHAY/100.7, on Red Mountain, which was off the air but is now back on. Likewise KMLA/103.7, licensed to El Rio but serving the Ventura area.

KXLM/102.9 which transmits from the flats, is on the air.

Other sources of fire coverage are KPCC, KCRW and KNX.

 

 

 

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