A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Moon Shadows, Interruped

I had intended today to talk more about moon shadows and telescope strategies, but I'm distracted by Google Earth, satellite weather images, and LA Times updates.

Yesterday as I stepped out of the gym on the Caltech campus in the middle of the afternoon (Lilah's nap time is a good time to play squash), I looked up at the sweeping view of the mountains that greets you in many places in Pasadena. This time, though, the first thing I noticed was a plume of smoke coming out of a canyon to the northeast. Which canyon? I quickly zoomed in on some of the familiar ridges and valleys of the San Gabriels to figure out exactly how far away the fire was. How far the fire was from my house where Diane was home, Lilah was asleep. As far as I could tell, it was about 5 miles to the east of our house. Five miles is a long distance for fire on a day when the wind is essentially still. But still. I dropped my gym bag, fished through it to find the phone, and dialed home. Diane answered.

"Where's the fire?" I breathlessly asked.

"Um, what fire?"

This answer was probably the best she could have given. I now more calmly explained to her what I was seeing.

I got in the car and drove back to home. On the freeway you had a nice view, now, of a burning ridge. This fire was definitely not a little spot fire that was going to quickly get put out, but from there I could tell it was pretty far from our house. When I got home I pulled up Google Earth and tried to reproduce the exact view I had had from the freeway. I showed Diane. There. That ridge. Pretty far away.

Last night we had friends over for dinner and, as they got close enough to our neighborhood to see flames a few miles away, they called to say "Hey, isn't that fire kinda close to your house? Maybe we should have dinner at our house instead."

It was OK. Nothing was really close. I surreptitiously went inside now and then to check on the news web pages to see if anything was going on. Not really. Some hikers had to be evacuated. Some boy scouts had been temporarily trapped. The fire would be contained soon. I checked the satellite weather image, on which you could see the plume of smoke heading out to sea. It looked undiminished.

This morning we awoke to something now familiar. As night falls and air cools, the ash that has been lofted into the air all day long falls to earth. The ground was covered in gray flecks and bits. The smell of smoke had invaded the house through the windows we had kept open all night. The sun, rising to the east, on the other side of the fire, made a hazy red glow on the wall of the canyon we could see from our bedroom window.

The helicopters started early. We hadn't seen too many yesterday, but now there numbers were definitely increased. Fire trucks went screaming down the road below us.

Curious to see how far the fire had spread, I took Lilah -- still in pajamas -- and drove down the hill in the direction of the smoke. Whereas yesterday the fire was easily spotted and sharply defined, it was now tough to see anything through all of the smoke. I couldn't tell where it was, but I could tell it had grown overnight.

Sunday plans must go on. Diane had a work event and left. Lilah and I went swimming under the hazy sun. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches, played with finger puppets of the three little pigs, did a little roving hide and seek throughout the house, and finally Lilah went to sleep for her nap. Curious about the fire, I looked to see if I could find any news.

I guess there was a reason for all of the helicopters and firetrucks that seemed so close by. Houses were being evacuated. The fire was still out of control. I got out Google Earth once again to try to interpret what I read. The evacuations are all in the upper part of the city of Sierra Madre, the city immediately to our east. When I finally found the evaculation map I realized that houses 1 1/2 miles from ours were already evacuated.

It's not really that close. But still.

This time it was Diane's turn to call: "I just heard Sierra Madre's been evacuated; should I come home?"

"No. We're fine."

And we are. Really.

We live in a fire zone. Our house overlooks a wild canyon that is right now gloriously flowered, but come the hot winds of the summer and fall will be dead brown fuel. We do what we can. Our roof is fire resistant composite. We thin vegetation. Our swimming pool is connected to a fire hydrant on the street so that a fire truck could easily use the water to douse our lower neighbor's house (but not ours; it's only gravity fed, so it could only help the people below us; sadly, the house above us has no pool that would help us out similarly).

We have evacuation plans with multiple contingencies. Distant fire with plenty of time to plan? Pack both cars and take this this and this. Fire in the canyon right below our house? Take Lilah first, cats if there is time, and run like hell. What if the only road down the hill already has been overtaken? There is a trail behind our neighbor's yard that quickly goes down to a safe spot. Fire on all sides? Jump in the pool and breath through wet clothes.

We won't need any of these plans for this fire. They'll have it out tomorrow or the next day and, more likely than not, nothing significant will have been lost. It's the springtime. It's early. The plants still have some moisture left in them. The winds are not blowing. The real fire season has not yet begun.

These sorts of fires happen all the time in southern California. It will likely not rate more than a 4th page of the local news blip in the LA Times tomorrow morning.

But still. Right now Lilah remains soundly napping. Diane is at work wondering what is going on, and all I can do is sit and check the news sites, watch the helicopters to see how close they drop their loads of water, and stare at Google Earth and speculate on the interaction of slope direction, wind speed, and fire vectors.

Someday, presumably, it will be more. Plans will be put into action. We'll sit below with binoculars staring up at the hillside trying to figure out how close the flames have gotten. We'll call our home telephone to see if the answering machine picks up. For now, though, we do what we can, hope for the best, and always breath a little easier when the winds don't blow.

Tomorrow normal life will continue. Which, for me, means dealing with the technical aspects of our upcoming observations of the Hubble Space Telescope. Our proposal to search for moon shadows on Santa was accepted on Thursday, and observations will start in 2 weeks. That's what meant to write about today, before being interrupted by smoke and helicopters and fire.

1 comment:

  1. And I was just thinking about Hurricane season and dodging tornados here this morning, stocking up on hurricane water and Farraday flashlights.

    Life on Earth really is all about contingencies. May you be free of any need for mitigation.