Saturday, December 15, 2007

San Diego Wildfires, October 2007

I originally published this on my facebook page and am now publishing it here for your reading pleasure. If I refer to photos anywhere, I didn't bring those over from facebook.

This is a long story that documents some of my adventures and thoughts during the week San Diego country was on fire: 21-28 October. The first part has more information on the fires, since many people asked me about them. The rest is the details (too many for most of you, I'm sure!) about some of the things I did and did not do and the things I thought. I hope someone other than me enjoys this! I've added bold phrases to help you pick out what you want to read.

Starting on Sunday, 21 October, 2007, many wildfires burned in and around San Diego county. Some 500 000 people were evacuated from their homes at the peak of the fires a few days later. Though the fires are not yet out, as of this writing, 7 people have died directly from the fire, and something like 1300 houses (and many businesses and outbuildings) have been destroyed in San Diego county. Soot and ashes have dirtied a lot of houses that were downwind of the fires, so many people who had evacuated but did not lose their house spent this past weekend cleaning up the mess. The exact cause of the various fires has not been established; campfires set by illegal immigrants or other campers, downed power lines and arson are some of the possibilities. Four years ago, San Diego county was severely burned by what is called the “Cedar Fire” and ~24 people were killed and ~2400 houses destroyed in that fire. In 2005, San Diego experienced one of the wettest winters on record (I arrived that winter). That rain spurred a lot of vegetation growth, much of which died and dried up in the years since, which have been a period of drought (we are currently in one of the worst droughts on record in SD… one extreme to another!). Certainly that excess of dry brush fueled the fires, as did the Santa Ana winds that came from the east and brought very dry (less than 10% humidity), very hot (high 80’s (°F)/~30°C…. and this is Autumn), and very strong winds (gusts 30-70 mph/65-112 kph). The wind itself did quite a bit of damage, knocking over trees etc. [By the way, Santa Ana winds are predicted for this coming weekend too, but with lower wind speeds. Will we have more fires?]. The first I knew of the fires was when I went running on Sunday night and saw a giant orange cloud heading our way from the east… I thought it was a dust cloud from the desert until “breaking news” cut into the regularly scheduled TV programs that night. The situation got worse and worse until Wednesday afternoon, when Jesse and I returned from a trip to an ice-cream store to read the first optimistic reports.

I did not have to evacuate, though I had a scare on Monday night: a fire started in Mission Trails Regional Park, one border of which is only a block from my apartment. The fire was in a central region of the park and was extinguished before it ever threatened my apartment complex. That night, before we had heard about the Mission Trails fire, Jesse and I packed our “evacuation gear” in case we needed to leave on short notice at 3 am or something, as many people north of us had to. Our gear included a tent, camping mattress, dried and canned food, toiletries, cash, our important papers (passports, financial records, renter’s insurance etc.), food for the cats, the cats’ carrier, toilet paper, can opener, flashlight/torch etc. The reason for the tent is that, because of San Diego’s “favorable” climate, the major evacuee gathering site was an open-air sports arena, and evacuees stayed in tents there.

All schools and universities in San Diego were closed at least Tuesday-Friday last week, and people were urged to stay home (if our home was not in the path of a fire or otherwise under a mandatory evacuation order) to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles and evacuees and to save our lungs from the smoke and ash outdoors (in addition to the 7 people who died from burning, several people downwind of the fires died from respiratory distress… typically older people or those with pre-existing breathing problems). Jesse and I had our windows closed and the air conditioning/central fan running almost continuously after Jesse started having problems with the smoke (he has allergy/sinus/chemical sensitivity problems) on Tuesday. His symptoms went away, so clearly our air filter on the central fan works (we replaced it after the worst of the fires was over and it was quite dirty).

But what I really want to write about are the things I did and did not do during my unexpected time off. The main reason to me is posterity, and to remember the thoughts I had during this strange time.

Let’s start with what I did do. Note that just about everything took place on my couch (not only do I love my couch, but I don’t have a desk or a dining table). The cushions are noticeably more compressed than they used to be.

- Together with Jesse, I watched the extended version of all three Lord of the Rings movies. That’s something like 11 h of entertainment! We watched it in about 6 chunks. I (alone) also watched the first two episodes of a BBC mini-series called Wives and Daughters and enjoyed that (last two episodes arrive from Netflix tomorrow).

- I edited a scientific review article that Jesse has been working on since the end of July (and he’s been doing little else… very few experiments (“bench work”) at lab, and he works on it evenings and weekends at home too). It took me a day and a half to edit it for a number of reasons: it’s not a topic I was familiar with (for any biologist types reading this, it’s on anterograde and retrograde signaling between the nucleus, chloroplasts and mitochondria in plant, yeast and animal cells… for the biologist types who didn’t understand that, don’t worry… I didn’t know what anterograde and retrograde meant either before Jesse started telling me about what he was working on). Also, I started editing on Tuesday, and since I was still in fire alert mode at that point, I was checking the TV/internet every 15 minutes for updates. And, many kind friends were writing me emails wanting to know if I was okay, and I felt compelled to send off speedy replies to calm their nerves. So, I wasn’t as efficient in my editing as I could have otherwise been.

- I analyzed a whole bunch of my own data and made pretty graphs and sent out data and an analysis to a collaborator in Scotland (this is the email that took me ~1.5 h to write that I talk about below).

- I baked cinnamon-raisin bread. Twice. We have a bread machine so I used that to make the dough. Yum-ee.

- I called the phone company to get reimbursed for a late charge they fined me even though my bill is supposed to get paid automatically. Last time I tried to call them about this, I was on hold for 40 minutes before giving up. This time, I was on hold only for 10 minutes, but then was on the line with a representative for 30 minutes (I counted). It was a bizarre conversation, with a good 2-3 minutes of silence every time the guy looked something up (such as my account information). I am not exaggerating (again, I counted). He also didn’t sound at all like someone employed to be in customer service. He sounded like a guy who would show up at your house to work on a broken telephone line and who would grumble/slur everything he said. I actually thought he was playing a joke on me and that I was being recorded for a Candid Camera-like show (afterwards, I told Jesse that if I do end up on Candid Camera that they hadn’t really fooled me and that I’d known all along). In the minutes of silence, I thought that either he had actually hung up on me and there I was foolishly staying on the line or that he was getting up and walking around the office and giggling with his friends before getting back to me. The good news is that he totally agreed that I shouldn’t have been charged $5.82 and promptly reimbursed me.

- I gave fashion advice. This was one of the strangest things that has happened to me in a long time (apart from the conversation with the phone company 10 minutes earlier… again I thought maybe I was on Candid Camera)… I was walking back to my apartment from getting the mail in my Crocs (I have foot problems, so don’t tease me), roughly-tied-up hair, jeans and T-shirt. I was sweaty from our hot apartment. A clearly-agitated woman asked me if I could help her and my first thought (sadly) was that it was a trick. She was wearing a long brown dress with a lace-up back and asked if I could help her get ready for the Marine Ball since her husband wasn’t around (there are a lot of military people in San Diego). She first wanted me to tie her dress for her, but when I said “sure… lift up your hair,” she asked me to follow her. I thought maybe her Marine husband was back in the apartment and she was luring me there. It was a passing thought. Turns out she just wanted to move into a hallway that was less exposed. So, I gently laced up her dress and tied a knot at her request. It was hard not to pinch her seemingly-delicate skin. Then she asked me if I thought the (brown with turquoise and yellow beads) color of the dress suited her. Why someone wearing Crocs would look qualified to judge this I don’t know. She told me that her husband said the color didn’t suit her and that she should wear her red dress instead. Then she asked me if I would look at her red dress. Now she wanted me to follow her to her apartment. Second minor panic. But, she left me outside her door while she went to get her red dress then held it up for me to see it. It was knee-length and had clearly been attacked by a cat or something and had loops of fabric pulled out. And the poor woman then said that her cat has the fleas and she has flea bites all over her legs and that she didn’t think she should wear the red dress because then everyone would see her messed up legs… she pulled up the ankle-length brown dress to show me her legs, and sure enough they had red marks all over them. I told her that, though I was biased because brown is my favorite clothing color, I thought the brown dress was far more fitting for a ball and that she looked good. Then she asked me how she should do her hair… I’ll spare you the rest of the details because I’ve gone on for too long now, but let’s just say that I was laughing all the way back to my apartment at the absurdity of what had just transpired. I thought about her (she is in her early 20’s, I estimate) a lot for the next day, wondering what kind of a relationship she must have with her husband that she was so worried about not wearing the red dress even though her husband preferred it. How did the ball go, I wonder? I thought about the things I could have said to her, since she was looking to me for wisdom. Should I have told her that the best thing she could have worn would have been confidence?

- I sorted through several of the drawers in one of my dressers. I reorganized them and got inspired by a stack of fabric I had bought from a clearance sale on fabric remnants last year (see next item).

- I made a set of 8 Christmas-colored placemats. They reverse to one of two different colors (four each).
I also got almost all the way done with a set of “trivets” and potholders, some of which match the Christmas color, and some of which match the reverse color.
For those of you who remember the failing grade I got for home economics when we had to sew, you might be surprised to learn that I sew things on occasion. I am too. I still wouldn’t get a passing grade for technique because I am more concerned with being a speedy sewer rather than a neat/perfectionist sewer. But, I do get things made. “A” for effort?

- I hung out with the cats. I think they LOVED having us at home all day. Clara spent her days on the couch next to me. Alice spent a lot of time on my left arm (she’s there as I write this).

- I took lots of photos of the smoky sky and a fire’s glow at night, as you can see on my facebook page.

- I listened to a few tapes of music I recorded from the radio when I was a teenager or from CD’s I’ve since got rid of, chose songs I liked, and bought them on iTunes (I had been given a $15 gift card). Then, I threw away the tapes. I have another 30 tapes or so to go (and only $4 left on my gift card…).

- I whitened my teeth with some of those whitening strips. I don’t at all enjoy having the strips in my mouth. A few years ago, I tried the brush-on type of teeth whitening and that was much more pleasant. I also thought once again how unfair it is that Jesse, who drinks a lot of strong coffee and tea, has very white teeth and I, who essentially doesn’t drink coffee or black tea, get stained teeth. An oral hygienist once graded my oral hygiene so highly, she ignored the check boxes where she was supposed to choose “Poor” “Fair” etc. and made her own box for “Excellent” or something even better. I didn’t know that she thought it was so good until the next hygienist who saw my chart remarked that she’d never seen someone rated “off the chart.” Apart from bragging, my point is that I take care of my teeth. And yet they yellow easily.

- I thought about charity and whether or not I should make an effort to be part of the “relief efforts” related to the fires. Before the relief effort was fully up and running, they were making appeals on TV for tents and blankets to be donated. I have a few blankets. I like them all. Should I have donated one? Should I have taken the tent from my evacuation pile and given it away? Should I have volunteered my time instead of working (note that I did try to keep “work hours” during the day and did the things like sewing on the weekend and movie-watching at night)? At first, they appealed for volunteers, then they said they had to turn away volunteers because there were too many and that they didn’t need anything donated except money. I have carefully chosen the organizations I give charity to every year. I give a percentage of my before-tax pay to them. Should I have given extra money because of the fire? I decided no. Most of the people who evacuated are better-off financially than I am. It wasn’t like they were suddenly cut off from their credit cards and bank accounts. They had their cars, the restaurants were open… did they really need my canned goods? They appealed for blood, but I can’t donate blood because my body doesn’t tolerate it well (the Red Cross told me, after an hour of repeated fainting the first and last time that I tried donating, that I wasn’t a good blood donor). The firefighters get paid and have chosen that profession. I pay my taxes. I have bought renter’s insurance. I have made sure I have savings in case I lose my job or have to take a long leave. If other people have chosen to build in a fire zone, or have neglected to properly insure their property, or have consumed themselves conspicuously into debt, does that mean I should carry them not that their gamble has cost them? I felt bad about my thoughts at first, but I’m at peace with them now. I don’t regret not helping/donating. I know that some people who were affected by the fires probably could really have used my help. There were stories of the manual laborers who kept on cleaning and kept on gardening in neighborhoods that were being evacuated because they were scared they’d lose their jobs if they stopped. I haven’t heard that any of them died or were injured, but they’re the people I feel for the most in all of this. The people you didn’t see on TV. Another thing that helped assuage my guilt is that companies and restaurants ended up donating a lot, and they got a lot of publicity for it. I think that’s fair.

But the things that struck me most last week are the things I didn’t do. Time flew during my days on the couch. On Friday, a work-related email I wrote took ~1.5 h to write and I was just amazed each time I looked up and another 30 minutes had gone by. And I wasn’t just sitting there day dreaming… I was putting concerted effort into that email the whole time. The overall effect of time flying was that I felt so unproductive. I kept feeling that if I knew I was going to get this time away from the lab, I would have planned a long list of goals (science papers to read, emails to write, computer files to sort). But after the first day at home, I realized I was going to be at home for the rest of the week (and so theoretically could still have made that list of goals) and still every night I felt like I hadn’t got much done. I spoke to my mom one day towards the end of the week (she didn’t know about the situation here until I called her on Wednesday night, by the way, and apologized for not worrying about me appropriately) and told her how time was flying and she said that she is finding retirement to have the same quirk. She’d always imagined all the things she’d do if she just had the time, and now that she is retired (she retired in April), time flies by and she still doesn’t feel like she has the time to catch up. Well, that greatly diminished my hopes for my own retirement! But it has also taught me not to long for free time in the hopes that it will let me finally catch up on all the emails I owe people, or will finally let me do all the other things on the to-do list in my head (scan in all my photographs, sort my “To be sorted” folder that grows in size each day on my computer, finish reading the stack of National Geographics next to my bed so I can get started on the stack of books I want to read, write a novel (that’s really near the bottom of the list) etc.). And particularly, to not put my life on hold until all those tasks are accomplished, but to rather realize that life is what is going on right now. I must either decide to tackle those tasks in the small moments I get free each day, rather than hoping for a large chunk of free time, or I must not feel that those tasks are so important that I have to stress about them.

Life has essentially returned to normal for me now, and the thoughts I had during the week the fires raged are slowly fading from my mind. I’ve preserved what I can here. If anyone actually read all the way to this point, I hope my ramblings were somewhat entertaining or thought-provoking and that you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time.

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