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Month: October 2007

Nightmare Before Christmas?

Posted on October 31, 2007 in Festivals Strange

square400While running out at the last minute to grab Butterfingers and KitKats, I overheard a Christmasy version of the Munster’s theme at Ralph’s. Yes, that zippy funereal music twinkled with snowflake bells just in time to prime us for the sudden shift in holiday spirit, from jolly fright to merry avarice.

Dying Embers

Posted on October 31, 2007 in Santiago Fire

square399The out of doors smells like a smoldering fireplace when the wind is right or just still. Other than that, I see little sign that the fire which had been such a spectacle is still going. The cough in my throat this morning comes from a cold. Now I catch germs instead of ash flakes.

We’re off the front page. The world will soon forget Portola Hills.

Here’s a map of the fire.

Word is that the Buckweed Fire was started by a boy playing with matches.

In other news, our sheriff has been indicted. Involved in the case as a source of bribe money is Donald Haidl, father of Greg Haidl, a rapist who was nearly acquitted of probing an unconscious girl with a lighted cigarette. What a family, eh?

Was It a Fireman?

Posted on October 29, 2007 in Santiago Fire

square398We may never catch the person(s) who set the Santiago Fire. It is always very difficult to track down an arsonist and in the case of the Orange County blaze there is little to go on except a lead in the form of the driver of a white Ford F-150 who may be nothing more than a witness. Word is that whoever did it knew what (s)he was doing. Could this person be following in the footsteps of a creepy legend?:

A case in point was John Orr, a renowned Glendale fire captain and arson investigator who set dozens of blazes throughout Southern California and was the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s book “Fire Lover.”

In an interview, Wambaugh said Orr was caught after a 1987 Bakersfield fire in which he uncharacteristically left a clue. At the scene, investigators found a yellow piece of notebook paper that was part of an incendiary device. The paper bore a fingerprint. A Bakersfield fire captain, Marvin Casey, who suspected a firefighter was the arsonist, tried to identify the print, but a database in Sacramento could not make a match.

Three years later, the ATF matched the print using a Los Angeles database containing Orr’s fingerprints from a decades-old application to become a police officer.

It didn’t help Orr’s case when an unpublished novel he wrote, “Points of Origin,” seemed to outline how he went about setting fires.

“His character is a firefighter who is an arsonist, and he described in living color what it was like to set arson fires,” Wambaugh said.

Orr was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for setting fires nearly identical to the ones he described in the novel. Six years later, in 1998, he received a life term for a 1984 blaze in South Pasadena that killed four people.

“John was a legend. For him, I think, it was the thrill of being a hero,” said the ATF’s Carroll.

Fire is strange stuff when it burns across the ridges of the brain.

[tags]Santiago fire, California fires, California wildfires, wildfire, wild fires, wildfires, disasters, arson, arsonist, crime[/tags]


Signposts for Humanism

Posted on October 28, 2007 in Agnosticism Compassion Folly Watch

square397The equalizing reality of the fires spreading across the wilderness in my neighborhood prevented me from keeping up with my science reading. As I panned over that net-landscape, two stories stood out as being very similar to each other and having something to say about the behaviors that I witnessed among those who chose to stay.

The first story told of a Duke University anthropologist who spoke of the need for magic as a tool for fending off the feelings of worthlessness and inequality:

People believe in magic for all sorts of reasons, Makhulu said, including the desire to accrue wealth or advance in life, but the belief also says something about a deep-seated human desire for equality.

“When people say they believe in magical forces, they believe in magic that can make the world equal and just in circumstances where it’s not,” Makhulu said. For some, “witchcraft is about recuperating what is ethical, just and moral.”

“We need enchantment in our lives because our world has become disenchanted,” Makhulu said. “We need faith that promises something bigger and better than what we have.”

Unfortunately, many skeptics will find in this more material to deride magical thinking and, by extension, the people who use it. What needs to be conveyed (as Paul Kurtz and others understand) is that the humanist movement considers equality central to its doctrine. And it must deliver, first by avoiding derision and second by educating. I have seen atheists, for example, say in one sentence that atheism does not stand for language which demeans others and then, in the next, crack a joke about religion. Barbs about intelligence are also frequent. This simply has to stop: the need that magic seeks to fill must be granted its own fulfillment within humanism (which is not the same as simple atheism or simple agnosticism). People must be made to feel that by joining the humanist movement that they have become brothers and sisters within a greater cosmos of belief.

Expect this story to be misunderstood and mischaracterized if it gets out to the world, both by skeptics and nonskeptics.

The second story examined “existential dread” or fear of death:

Psychologists Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University ran three experiments to study existential dread in the laboratory. They prompted volunteers to think about what happens physically as they die and to imagine what it is like to be dead. It’s the experimental equivalent of losing a loved one and ruminating about dying as a result.

Once the volunteers were preoccupied with thoughts of death and dying, they completed a series of word tests, which have been designed to tap into unconscious emotions….

The volunteers who were preoccupied with thoughts of death were not at all morose if you tapped into their emotional brains. Indeed, the opposite: they were much more likely than control subjects to summon up positive emotional associations rather than neutral or negative ones. What this suggests, the psychologists say, is that the brain is involuntarily searching out and activating pleasant, positive information from the memory banks in order to help the brain cope with an incomprehensible threat.

This helps explain why my neighbors and I turned the watching of the fire into a party. And it can explain why martyrdom is such a turn-on for many people, why there are so many positive associations among believers in divinely inspired conscience. The question is do atheists and agnostics think of death much? If they do, what positive associations do they make? Or do they simply choose not to think about the inevitable?

I’m not going to attempt an examination here: that’s for someone else to describe. But if atheism and agnosticism do not offer some kind of positive answer for the person struggling with death then they will not gain in numbers by much. Boom! You’re dead! just doesn’t cut it even if it is true.

Here’s a woman who wants to put “In God We Trust” in every California city hall. If we do trust in God, why all the cruise missiles?

[tags]atheism, agnosticism, magic, skepticism, religion, spirituality, death[/tags]


The Tourists Have Arrived

Posted on October 28, 2007 in Photos Santiago Fire

We followed these guys up El Toro as far as the checkpoint below Cook’s Corner. Another day, another media frenzy — houses involved.

The fire as it looked today — it’s moved across three canyons since the photos I took on Wednesday. The mountain peak on the right is Mount Modjeska. Firefighters have been doing their best to keep the flames from affecting the communications stations there and on nearby Mount Santiago. The area that I showed in my earlier pictures is off camera to the left.

While we slept on Tuesday morning, the fire crept up to the very fringes of Portola Hills. The slopes here are planted with fire resistant plants. OCFA threw everything it had to stop the fire at this point and succeeded.

Ginny asked about Whiting Ranch. This is a close-up of the district known as Sleepy Hollow. It appears that the fire half-killed many of the oaks, but there is a good chance that many will survive. The large black clumps on the hills on the right are stands of prickly pear. I am not sure how these will do in the months to come, but there are plenty of plants on nearby, unburned slopes where birds and deer will browse the fruit and bring the seed here.

There’s a good look at the Cactus Trail in this shot, too, which was the site of the mountain lion attack back in 2004.

After I took the last of these shots, I was walking back to my condo when I was stopped by a woman with a camera. “Oh,” she said, “you’ve got to go over there. You’ll get a great view of the canyon if you go that way.”

“I saw it burning,” I replied.

Among the problems facing Orange County’s counterattack on the fire was a lack of planes. Fire officials expected to depend on C-130s provided by the U.S. Navy. The Navy, however, would not allow the California Division of Forestry to control the planes which was necessary to prevent midair collisions. This is one of the ways that Osama bin Laden has reached deep into our lives. There’s no reason to distrust Americans with the use of fire fighting equipment. Our military exists for our national defense. Sometimes our enemies are natural forces. They don’t attempt to steal our secrets from us nor are they engaged in the creation of new weapon systems. A little less military constipation would have saved lives and property.

Here’s the story of a couple who saved themselves by remaining in their swimming pool. Don’t think for a moment that it was fun:

As the house filled with smoke, the couple moved to the garage. Eventually, the heat and smoke forced them into their swimming pool. For the next four hours, they huddled together, trying to keep their bodies warm in the chilly water and their exposed heads protected from the oven-like heat of the fire.

“Wet your hair! Wet your hair!” Dena said she told Roger. “Don’t let your head catch on fire!”

They listened as prized bottles of wine exploded in the house where they were wed 19 years earlier. They were afraid they were going to die.

Shivering uncontrollably and cramping from the cold water, the couple climbed out of the pool just before dawn. The deck railing had melted and looked “like pieces of licorice,” Dena said.

They huddled on the ground for several more hours as the fire burned around them, claiming all five homes on their short strip of mountaintop road. At daylight, they made their way to the main road below, Dena leading Roger by the hand because his eyes were caked with soot.

There’s an audio version of their story at the LA Times web site.

Even though it is not over:


Is It Over?

Posted on October 27, 2007 in Santiago Fire

square396Though a light rain fell earlier this evening, the roads leading into the Orange County backcountry remain closed. About 20 yards south of our infamous biker bar, Cook’s Corner, a coterie of cops redirects anyone to the left into Portola Hills.

Tonight, the sheriffs had a fellow in a torn t-shirt leaning against their squad cars, not with his hands on the paint, but his butt. A rip showed a large slab of his muscle on his right side and didn’t seem fazed by Orange County’s finest. My imagination played games with me. For example, was this the arsonist? Or was he an off-duty fireman? I could only amuse myself. The right to walk up and ask “What is happening here?” did not belong to me.

The C-130s circled overhead after the storm. I scanned the horizon. The cloud cover may be too thick for me to see any last wisps of smoke: I saw no signs of the fire. Is it over? Or is Silverado burning?

UPDATE: They are saying that the fire could be extinguished by Tuesday. Last look I took outside revealed nothing — no glow outlining the hills. The smell of smoke filling the air like a heavy hickory wood box was the only betrayal of its presence. If it comes back our way, it will die.



Posted on October 26, 2007 in Santiago Fire

The fire is now on the other side of the ridge, going like a steam locomotive up Santiago Canyon towards Mounts Modjeska and Santiago.

It would be a good thing if the fire suddenly turned about and headed for us because one leg of the [[Fire Triangle]] would be missing — Fuel.

Ash continues to rain down on us. Yesterday, our local Nissan dealer called us offering to clean the smoke residue from our cars and do a twenty point check — for free.

UPDATE: Strange. The USFS closed down the Cleveland National Forest today. Why wasn’t this done a few days ago when all these fires got started?


Friday Xenartha Blogging – Nine Banded Armadillo

Posted on October 26, 2007 in Xenartha

A little spy-camera work from Florida:


Heroes and Refugees

Posted on October 25, 2007 in Santiago Fire

square395Three Orange County Fire Authority firemen were dining at the local Memphis BBQ and I don’t know why people didn’t just stand up and applaud. I told them that they’d done a fine job. I guess most people hadn’t been watching from the heights like I and my neighbors had.

Portola Hills looked crowded tonight. A steady stream of lights ground up the loma, each one aiming for the home that had survived the conflagration thanks to the foresight of the Fire Authority. The defense of our homes had been well-planned: fire officials knew when they were going to wait while it burned the brush and when they would throw manpower to the line. Those who evacuated just don’t know how masterful the response was.

OCFA did good. It did real good.


Current Santiago Fire Information

Posted on October 25, 2007 in Santiago Fire

The U.S. Forest Service has taken over.


Danger to Itself and Its People

Posted on October 25, 2007 in Disasters

square394There’s no time for finger-pointing after the fires or — is there? The biggest tragedy of the 2007 fires is that the most devastating of them covered territory which was burned over in 2003. The Witch and Harris Fires repeated the cardinal mistakes of the previous fires in San Diego County and it all comes down to this: people in San Diego County don’t want to pay the costs of protecting themselves.

It’s not about planes: it’s about having the basic fire equipment stationed around the county. It’s about not building in areas susceptible to wildfire if you’re not going to tax the people enough. It’s about listening to your experts and following their lead in planning.

When it comes to not paying the price, there’s no one like the Republicans in San Diego County. And for the rest of us who do pay the taxes to ensure that we have adequate fire protection, they’re costing us money. If they were Democrats, there’s no doubt that you’d hear them called dead-beats. I am just going to say “How about getting on the wagon of community responsiveness? How about taking steps to ensure that you are better prepared before you give into the greed of developers who aren’t going to ensure that their unplanned communities are adequately covered?

I live in a Republican county, too. Unlike San Diego, we had enough fire crews and fire engines on hand to keep the Santiago Fire out of our structures (knock-knock). It was close — damned close — but we paid the cost over the course of several years.

Others saw the writing on the wall when San Diego voters turned down a hotel tax to help pay for better fire protection in 2003. If they do it again, the rest of us are in a position like family members of the mentally ill who must keep watching while their loved one keeps not taking his medication and ending up locked up. When is San Diego County going to tough it out like the rest of us? Maybe it is time to require mandatory levels of fire protection throughout the state, especially in urban areas. Or start putting large tracts of San Diego County into open space districts so that city and county planners in cahoots with developers can’t put new generations of citizens at risk.

San Diego — city and county — is a danger to itself and others. When a person is like that, you have a case to put them away.

Citizens of San Diego, I am pointing at you.


White Out

Posted on October 25, 2007 in Santiago Fire

square393The smoke plume from the fire is farther away and we’re getting the fallout heavier than we had when it was only half a mile away. The sky is whited out. Couldn’t meet with my student today because the library was closed. For many public agencies this is the worst part of the fire. Even communities like San Juan Capistrano which are miles from the blazes are shutting down their schools because of the smoke. I’m keeping to the condo and running the air filter.

More photos from the fire.

UPDATE: The Santiago Fire is about to become a problem for Riverside County. I suspect that the OCFA is going to continue to lend support. Keep your fingers crossed for Jane, her husband, and her pig.

UPDATE: As before, you can follow the continuing progress of the fire at the OC Register. The Riverside Press Enterprise hasn’t figured out that they are going to be threatened by “our” fire, but here’s their fire watch page. It should be busy with news of the Santiago Fire soon.

UPDATE: You can keep track of our weather here. The current conditions are listed as SMOKE.

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