Monday, July 16, 2012

Robbers Fire Day 6

My home is southeast of the town of Colfax, near the current Robber's Fire. Since the fire started last Thursday (we saw the plume within a few minutes of its start.) Needless to say, I think, is that the fire and its progress have been an object of intense personal interest ever since.

We Want Infomation...Information...Information.
Getting specific, up to date information was the first concern. The twice a day updates from CalFire's PIO is nice, but when you're nearby not knowing if you're going to be called on to evacuate, you want something with a bit more granularity. Looking out the window and watching plumes helps, but without a direct view into the canyons it's hard to interpret for yourself.

The local radio stations have mostly been repeating the CalFire announcements, so no help there.

We don't have any TV reception from the Sacramento stations in our location. The TV antenna in a tree over the house has never worked, and I haven't been in a position to spend the money on it to pay for someone to go 150 feet up there and help me test the cable, replace it if necessary, etc. We've had satellite TV at times, but overall it isn't valuable enough for the monthly fees required, and a few years ago they made it a lot harder to just start and stop the service as we want it, so we've not had that for several years now.

That left us with internet. Fortunately I was able to use Twitter to good effect once I figured out the hashtag I wanted was #RobbersFire. Also, the Wild Land Fire Hotlist and YubaNet have been valuable sources of information. On Friday, KCRA TV put up a live feed from their helicopter that I was able to catch much of, which let me see the landscape and the fire directly.

Roller Coaster Ride

On Wednesday the fire spread rapidly after it started at about 3:30pm. I saw it about 15 minutes after it started while headed out for errands. By the time we came home just over an hour later, the road to our house was closed. There were barriers and a highway patrolman directing traffic away. We'd seen plenty of activity while out, several firefighter units and a trailer with a dozer on the highway between Colfax and Auburn.

One of my daughters was with me, we'd cut our errand run short so that she could get to a youth activity on time. So I just took her there (fortunately we'd brought her swimsuit and all with us), then tried to figure out what to do with myself. I picked up some strawberries and chocolate milk for dinner from the local market, then parked at our church and tried to find some news on the radio.

After a while I decided to see if I could get home through an indirect route. It worked, and I called my other daughter at college to let her know how to get home that evening. Finally, at 7:30 that evening there was a sense of relief once we had all the members of the family home together.

The fire had spread rapidly, sending up several smoke headers. As night set in, we hoped that the fire fighters would be able to make a lot of progress on the fire during the relatively cool night hours. But the terrain was practically impassable in the area of the fire, so we pretty well knew they wouldn't get it completely contained.

We spent that first evening in immediate evacuation preparations. By the time I was able to find a way back to our house, my wife got together pet carriers, medicine, and immediate necessities and had them ready to go by the door.

After that, we collected and packed irreplaceable stuff like family photos and such. Through the evening, my wife worked on that while I prepared the house for evacuation and tried to get current information on exactly where the fire was when taking breaks.

Finally at the end of the evening I was able to determine how far it was to the fire, as well as the fact that it was still on the far side of the American river. Prior to that all we had was the smoke to go by, but couldn't tell if it had jumped the river, and whether it was 3-4 miles away or just a mile or so. Learning that it was about 3 to 3.5 miles away and still on the far side of the river was relieving enough we were able to get some sleep that night. But we still had all the evacuation stuff stacked in the hall by the front door.

The next day it was still burning, but didn't seem to be taking off rapidly. Until about 3:30 or 4pm. Then, as on the prior day, the fire spread rapidly in the late, dry afternoon heat. I had been trying to concentrate on some programming while trying to stay up to date on the fire conditions. I also took breaks to continue preparing the house for evacuation. As it happened, I was making another trip out of the house about the time it took off and the sky started looking ugly.

Fortunately our slightly roundabout route to and from the house remained open.

As the sun set we had S-2s going over the house at a prodigious rate and the fire looked like it had settled down a lot by the time nightfall came.

That night we went through more of our personal possessions and did more evacuation preparation. We were thankful that we had more time to do so. I had spent the afternoon outside doing some pick up and clean up and trying to get the property in better shape.

If I Were a Fire, Where Would I Go?

We keep our property in pretty good shape with respect to fire safety as a matter of course. We were at the edge of the Cleveland Fire at our prior home, and we've been evacuated twice before from this property for fires. One started in the River valley near us, and it threatened not only us, but many of our friends in the Weimar area.

But even though we try to maintain our defensible space, when you go outside and think of that tree burning like a torch, or fire approaching from that direction, you inevitably see more work that can be done.

So piecemeal over Thursday and Friday, then, as a full day activity on Saturday, we went outside and extended and cleaned up the defensible space around our property. On Sunday we attended an hour of church, then came home and got back to work on the property.

Further preparations to assist firefighters were made during that time. I filled a couple of barrels with water, and got buckets ready to position near them. I moved and cleared flammable items within the house to get them away from the windows.

Today my daughter and I rounded up everything that had been set aside for a dump run during the other cleanup and took it down there. A bunch of things we decided we didn't need any more, but which was still in good shape, went to the thrift store.

Tonight some friends are coming over, I've got a fallen tree and some other cleanup to do at the outer edge of our current cleared zone, so that will get a bit wider on one side of the house.

Last Friday, and Saturday, the fire got much worse at this end (the northern end) each night between 6 and 7pm. It was very frightening to see the increased activity each night. The fire got closer each time.

Last night (Sunday) was encouraging, however. The fire threatened to flare up again, but the work of the firefighters kept it from another major round of activity like we'd had the prior two nights. We had a regular airshow over our heads. Not only did we have the usual S-2s over our heads (both S-2A and S-2T models) but a P-2 Neptune tanker had joined the party during the day, and as we were winding down and coming inside to collapse we had a DC-10 tanker come over!

The aerial firefighting is easiest for us to see, but certainly both the airborne and ground-based fire fighting contributed to make things a lot less scary. The weather reports, however, were filled with the fact that the next day would be windy, possibly driving the fire into new areas.


Today the day was cooler and more humid. When we went to the dump there were clouds over the fire, with virga falling from them. The smoke was limited to light drift smoke.

We're all beat, physically, and hoping that these signs show that things are going better with the fire. Wednesday is the predicted day for containment of the fire if all goes well. We certainly hope it does. One home has been lost, and as bad as that is we were glad to hear it was a vacation home rather than a primary residence. Still, our hearts go out to those who lost it, and to those who've lost their outbuildings. Better than your main home, but still painful.

And thanks to the firefighters, whatever happens from here on out. They are working miracles considering the conditions they have for fighting the fire. Hopefully the cooler weather is making their lives easier.

It's certainly still possible for things to go poorly from this point. We're not able to relax yet. I'll be back out this evening (hopefully I can get a brief nap in the next hour or so), doing what I can to make things even better in case the fire breaks out this way.

But we're hoping that things will go methodically from here to full containment then to full control of the fire. And that the firefighters stay safe, and those injured so far reach full recovery soon if that's at all possible (I haven't had any info on the injuries yet except for a brief mention of heat prostration or something like in one case.)

And best wishes to our neighbors who are living the nightmare we're preparing for still--having to leave your home and just wait and hope that you'll be able to return without knowing if that will be the case.

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