May 07, 2009
Living Like A Refugee

Ever watch natural disasters on TV and wondered what it must be like to leave your home and stay in temporary shelters or extra rooms in homes or other sort of ad hoc living arrangements? I have wondered too. Now with the Santa Barbara Jesusita fire raging I'm experiencing at least one variation on that sort of thing. While I still have a place to return to I have no idea if that'll continue to be the case or when I'll return home.

The Jesusita fire in Santa Barbara makes for amazing pictures and even more amazing scenes if you are here. It has also gotten me thinking an assortment of thoughts.

First off, press coverage sucks. The local TV channel has people who talk a lot and repeated showing of flames bursting up. They'll put the camera on a house burning without telling where. You can spend a lot of time listening without learning much. l've heard lots of people complaining about the low information content. Evacuation orders do not provide enough information to tell whether it applies to you. Modest proposal: do what the national networks do and hire a retired expert. In this case: hire a fire chief to do the commentary. He can call his buddies, find out what is going on, and explain it. A forestry prof could provide more in-depth background on fuel amounts, burn rates, how long the fuel has been accumulating, etc. Educate the public while you have their attention.

The local government web sites lag for many hours. They should have a map page well advertised which instantly shows evacuation map changes. That map page should have notes on which neighborhoods can only be entered on foot and which you can drive into. Also spoken statements about evacuation areas should not say a single street name by itself. Yet I heard such statements yesterday. Neighbors were coming by asking "does the new evacuation order apply to us?" I couldn't figure it out either. The Public Information Officers should have canned formats in which they release information that are structured so that they communicate in intelligible ways. Some can't ad lib worth squat. The ambiguity wasn't cleared until when police cruised by saying "you are in imminent danger" and other words to that effect.

The government press conferences feature emergency officials and a few elected officials. They ought to sit down together afterward, watch their press conferences, and critique themselves for how long they took to say how little. I know they just feel for us and want us to take warnings seriously. But I'd like to see more coherent communication. Also, each agency gets up and says their piece. The US Forest Service guy at one conference said the fire hadn't burned much US Forest Service forest yet. Yes, okay, you are parochial guy. But how is this information helping?

The firemen and police perform admirably. Roads near my home are blocked off by police from Pismo Beach. Lots of other police cars and fire trucks are from all over southern California. LAFD were parked next to the old Mission Wednesday waiting for orders. Ventura and other cities and counties have crews here. If you are into fire trucks this is a great place to watch a variety of makes and models.

But what about technology? I know people who claim to have seen the fire up in the hills as soon as smoke became visible. Last night a couple of guys were telling me exactly what I was thinking already: Extremely fast methods of spotting fires in early stages along with very fast reaction times for helicopter tankers could nip somem fires in the bud. Time is of the essence. Could cameras trained on hillsides with image processing software spot fires 10 minutes earlier on average?

Then there is the effect of absolutely massive efforts. If 40 or 50 old jumbo jets were converted into water carriers could a fire get put out even after it has reached a couple of hundred acres? We got lucky the first night when the wind died down. The sundowner was way less than expected. Could a massive aerial assault have stopped it then? The America of the 1950s, given such tech, would have tried. The America of today - not so much.

One cool thing: Some (water-dropping) helicopters can fly at night with night vision goggles. What's the cost limit on more having that ability? Training? Performance capabilities of the chopper?

Update: Another thought: What would it cost to build massive piping along the tops of some valleys to be able to pump up and release water along boundaries in which firemen would want to try to contain a fire? Granted, under heavy winds burning embers travel a long way. But a lot of the fire spread is at lower speeds. If a fire could be stopped on a side with basically an irrigation system then the job of containing the fire would get a lot easier.

Update: Friday May 9, 2009: The evacuation zone (Google Maps link from County of Santa Barbara) has grown to displace 30,000 people. It is moving along the hills and mountainsides into Goleta and Montecito. Sundowner winds off the mountains could pull the fire down to threaten a lot more residential areas. The end is not in sight.

More airborne resources are being thrown at it including 15 helicopters, some fixed wing prop jobs and a DC-10 will arrive today. Ramp-ups to fight fires ought to happen faster with more aircraft thrown at them in the first day to try to stop them when they are still small. Also, a friend asks whatever happened to controlled burns during the rainy seasons? Were these stopped for the benefit of tourists?

Update: Saturday May 10, 2009: I hear no helicopters on Saturday morning. That's the first daytime silence since early afternoon Tuesday. Over 4000 firefighters fought the blaze.

With more than 4,000 firefighters on site, 14 air tankers, 15 helicopters and a DC-10, it was the largest mutual aid deployment in the history of Santa Barbara County.

We need better ways to control fires.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 May 07 12:38 PM  Miscellaneous Coverage

Mthson said at May 7, 2009 1:00 PM:

The cost of the wild fires each year here in California is massive. The price tag was $1 billion for 4 days of fire in 2007 in San Diego county.1

Officials in southern California should consider themselves to have a budget of a couple billion each year to prevent the regular outbreak of fires. That kind of money can buy a lot of prevention.

(I hope for the best for you, Randall!)

Randall Parker said at May 7, 2009 2:36 PM:

Mthson, Thanks.

Budget for prevention: Old jumbo jets are pretty cheap. I wonder how much the conversion costs. I also wonder what the other water delivery aircraft cost.

Fat Man, I've been listening to that song in my mind all day. Hence the title. Granted, he sings "Live Like A Refugee".

BTW guys, I really do not understand what is going on with the fire even though I'm here.

Michael L said at May 7, 2009 3:38 PM:

ever wonder what is the verbal IQ of all those officials who cannot say squat on TV? Or of the ones making decisions about what to say on the website? Clear, effective communication stems from a clear, effective mind. In the absence of the latter, what do you expect? The days of post-Depression civil service filled with smart guys is over, now all we get is the dregs. Just in time to handle the mounting economic troubles, political troubles, climate troubles and all sorts of other problems :)

David Govett said at May 7, 2009 6:21 PM:

How about combining GPS with Google Maps to show pix of houses before they burned?
What about using camera-equipped, fire-resistant robots to get up-close pix?
BTW, why don't houses have a tarp made of a fireproof material that can be pulled over an expensive house and staked down?

Fat Man said at May 7, 2009 6:43 PM:

Great Minds think alike.

averros said at May 8, 2009 3:48 AM:

Jumbo jets are useless for firefighting. Water weighs a lot more per unit of volume than they are designed for. Besides, their performance at low altitudes and speeds simply sucks; they are not easily maneurable. Old turboprop military flying tankers would be more useful (though they still won't be able to carry full tanks of water).

Forest fires create massive updrafts and a/c operation in their vicinity is both very risky and requires special training.

As for noticing wildfires... general aviation pilots are often first reporters. I was the first to report a fire in Santa Cruz mountains last year - it was very visible from 3000 ft, but hardly visible from any roads in the hills when it started. Few hours later when I was flying back along the same route, it became huge.

Patrick O said at May 8, 2009 11:18 AM:

Useless for firefighting?

They are incredible.

They can drop massive amounts of retardant in a short amount of time, absolutely affecting a fire path.

I lived near lake arrowhead during the fires of 2004 and 2007, saw this thing in action. Incredible sight. The helicopters are encouraging, the turboprop planes are worth celebrating, seeing the DC10 in action was extremely encouraging.

But they're expensive to rent, and it might be before the season in which the regular aircraft that are on duty down here are ready to go. Keeping the helicopters and planes ready, within the response time distance, is very expensive, and given California's budget, really not likely, especially this early in the season. In the peak of the fire season, around the 4th, we were getting helicopter drops for local house fires. They were jumping on everything extremely quick, and had spotter planes out and about doing patrols.

Stay safe.

I lived in hills of Santa Barbara in the mid80s, and remember the water dropping planes then. So they definitely have the capability, and the firefighters want them more than anyone, as they are the ones risking their lives, but it takes time to mobilize.

SoCal firefighters are among the best in the world, and once the initial surprise is over you can be pretty confident these folks will be doing as much as possible to save homes.

News is not only a mess, it's dangerous, often the reporters don't know where they are and have old information. Is there a local messageboard or community service website that has a community forum to share info? In the San Bernardino mountains was, by far, significantly more helpful and up to date.

DiRai said at May 8, 2009 11:19 AM:

The Air Force has a lot of older model B-52s in mothballs. They can handle a lot of weight and are already equipped with bomb bays. They couldn't operate as extremely low as the turboprops, but for putting massive amounts of water or fire retardant on a large area they wouldn't need to. One downside is they need special wide runways. The upside is that several of those runways are in Southern California.

Rick Z said at May 8, 2009 11:27 AM:


I'm hoping for the best for you, your friends and neighbors.

I was searching for better info on the fire earlier this week; saw fairly shoddy reporting in the national press, then went looking in your local press. If I hadn't already witnessed terrible reporting on the auto industry from the Detroit press, I would have been shocked. As it is, I've just started reading Atlas Shrugged, so such observations of incompetence are now getting more rather than less alarming.

-Rick Z

Randall Parker said at May 8, 2009 11:28 AM:

Patrick O,

That's the airplane that is showing up today. I'll watch for it. I've seen lots of others.

chicopanther said at May 8, 2009 11:53 AM:

Aren't some of those California wildfires much worse than before because people won't let rangers perform controlled burns to clear burnable brush? Yeah, folks, won't let the brush get burned because it might hurt some animals, then instead they get a huge fire that takes their house. As Mr. Spock would say, "that is not logical"!


J C Rhoades said at May 8, 2009 12:18 PM:

I currently fly the MD-10 and MD-11 and was involved in modifying A-10s for NVG operations when I was a squadron commander in Germany several years ago. I'm not sure about helicopters, but one of the limiting factors to using night vision goggles in fixed-wing aircraft is the need to modify the cockpit displays and lighting for NVG operations. Without the mod, the NVGs "wash out" due to the ambient light generated by the cockpit instrumentation and displays. There are work-arounds but a properly modified cockpit is a lot safer. So, to answer your question as to why NVG capability is not more prevalent in the helos, that might be it (cockpits not modified). Also, if the firefighting hierarchy decides it's necessary to continue the fight in the dark using higher-speed fixed-wing assets (the DC-10, et al.) either an NVG or forward-looking infrared (FLIR) or millimeter-wave display technology with a head's-up display (HUD) capability would go a long way to ensure a safe operation, especially in the mountainous terrain that is much of California.

Henry Bowman, MD said at May 8, 2009 12:30 PM:

DiRai: The normal flight profile of a B52 on a strategic bombing run is within 1 wingspan of the ground. They go very low.

I used to be a firefighter in California. I was working communications at one fire (a rather large one, we had C130 air tankers, civilian air tankers, helos, hotshot teams, the works) in the Ft. Hunter Liggett (North of Santa Barbara).

So, the phone rings, and I answer it. Someone has an idea! Get some B52 bombers, fill them up with watermelons, and bomb the fire!

If you think about it for a second, it almost makes sense: Drop the liquid-filled items right onto the heart of the fire. A little more thinking shows why it wouldn't work, not enough watermelons, no way to secure them in the aircraft, nobody knows the ballistics of a watermelon (and they're differently shaped).

But, it made our day!

To those in the impacted areas, stay safe and G-d Bless!

John A said at May 8, 2009 2:18 PM:

About controlled burns, chicopanther notes "environmentalists" of the clueless variety have killed almost all of them. In Australia some governments are on the verge of toppling for allowing them, and other measures, to be stopped - with resultant huge preventable losses in their recent annual fire season.

Jerry Martinson said at May 9, 2009 3:54 AM:

Good luck Randall... most of us in CA all know that fire is in our future but... damn when it is actually happening it is a lot different.

Randall Parker said at May 9, 2009 7:29 AM:


Thanks. It was cool Friday and we had a thick marine layer come in Friday night contrary to weather predictions. The marine layer is still there on Saturday morning but is expected to burn off.

One problem I see from a situation like this one: People who have given up land line phones do not get reverse 911 calls when evac warnings and evac orders get issued. This problem is going to get bigger and bigger. Either the system needs to know the home addresses of cell phone carriers or it needs to know the current location of each cell phone.

Then there's the cell phone reliability problem: At critical moments the cell phone systems get flooded with calls and you wouldn't get the reverse 911 call anyway.

BTW, the evac warning areas are bigger than the maps show. Where I'm at got reverse 911 warnings yesterday. I watched for hours and the maps never got updated to show this. On the Santa Barbara lower east side the warning area goes all the way to the freeway. But I do not find this on maps.

wcw said at May 9, 2009 3:40 PM:

Having clicked on the google mashup: holy fuck. Good luck, man.

That said: your fire, mine (Oakland hills, thanks), my earthquake (Loma Prieta) and yours (whichever, trust me) are dry runs. The real shit will hit the fan eventually and it will not be pretty.

I'm not moving, but I am ready for a week or two of water only.

Lono said at May 9, 2009 6:36 PM:


Good luck - Stay Safe!

(My wife and I will keep you in our prayers tonight)

Kinda makes one wish Densans weren't runnin' so much of the show, eh?

Maybe it's time we changed that!

Thanks for keeping us all informed - hope things get back to normal for you soon!

Randall Parker said at May 9, 2009 6:42 PM:


They lifted the mandatory evac in my area. So I'm back home after 3 days roughing it. Got a large sized display. Have room to put a mouse. Plus, I just got a fresh shower!

The choppers are still flying. But I think the danger has shifted. Behind me most of the fuel has burned off.

I've watched incredible scenes. The pictures don't do it justice. You gotta see the flames leap up as live video. Also, watching choppers fly overhead, go over hill a half mile away, dip out of sight, and then pop back up empty gave me a sense of danger lurking unseen.

Engineer-Poet said at May 10, 2009 11:24 AM:

Keeping that fuel down needs to be high on the list of priorities for the future.

Has anyone introduced a goat-herding program for the county yet?

Randall Parker said at May 10, 2009 12:04 PM:


Yes, some companies use goats to keep the brush down around their buildings. I wonder if goats could be used to create fire breaks.

averros said at May 10, 2009 9:39 PM:

Patrick O - did you ever wonder why there's only one of firefighting jets in service? They're seriously impractical. The passenger jets are not designed for sustained low-level slow maueuvering flight - something you need to deal with hazards of wild fires and mountainous terrain (as in California). They're not designed for unimproved runways (unlike military transports). Meaning that a lower-capacity turboprop can be deployed nearby, but the huge beast in most cases will have to fly a long way. The flight parameters needed to release massive amounts of weight in flight are seriously out of their safe operational envelope. All of that makes them unsafe. In fact that only jet was involved in an incident which was pretty close to fatal.

Did you know that the standard operating procedure for that one is to have a different a/c to fly ahead of that DC-10 to check for hazards which won't be survivable in the DC-10 fully loaded with fire retardand?

The fact that state of California hired that one for an outrageous cost has more to do with political grandstanding than its actual usefulness.

Shreela said at May 11, 2009 10:52 PM:
There's also a newsfeed for any keyword queries.

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