BAN #263: Tales from a wildfire near miss (so far)

19 October 2020   Issue #263

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]

Subscribers are the fire in which we burn. (sorry, listening to the “Star Trek: Generations” soundtrack right now and the quote was close enough)


Because my home state is on fire

If you follow me on social media, then you may have heard I had an interesting weekend. After eating lunch, I was writing a blog post Saturday afternoon and got up to stretch my legs. I looked out my office window and saw this:

[A small plume from a fire to my west, seen on 12:45 p.m. Saturday, 17 October. Credit: Phil Plait]

Huh. That’s the direction to the East Troublesome wildfire, which is burning in the Rockies. But it looked different. For one thing it was white, whereas the East Troublesome fire plume had been dark. Also, it was low, hanging over the last of the foothills west of the plains, and not big and thick like the ET fire. I tweeted about it, saying how I wasn’t sure what it was, and within minutes I had replies saying it was a new fire being investigated.

Saturday was windy, warm, and dry. Three hours later that wisp of smoke became this:

[No longer a small plume, the Calwood Fire exploded in mere hours. This was at 3:45 p.m. Saturday. Credit: Phil Plait]

So, yeah. This was the Calwood Fire, which started Saturday just a few kilometers from Jamestown, a small town that was nearly wiped out in the enormous and devastating 2013 floods. That meant the fire was less than 40 km from me. Conditions for growth were perfect, and so it did. I kept a nervous eye on it, wondering how bad it would get for us.

Evacuations were ordered for towns west of me, and got uncomfortably close. I didn’t think we’d have to leave, but just to be safe my wife and I prepared to. Packed a few bags with stuff (food, electronics, cables, computer password book, and so on) and then set the outside animals up in case we had to go for a couple of days — extra water, hay in the barn for the horses and so on.

That last part was tough. We don’t have many trees where we are, but there’s grass. I don’t think a fire burning through this area would be as chaotic as we saw in California a couple of weeks ago, so I think the horses and goats would be OK. We can’t take them all anywhere at the same time anyway. That was not fun to think about, but we’re going to give this more consideration now. A lot of people out here have horses — it’s Colorado —  so there are resources to look into.

[The fire at night from many kilometers away. The long exposure makes it much brighter than it appeared; shortly after I took this it died down substantially. Credit: Phil Plait]

We could see the glowing fires last night maybe 15 km away, but by the time we went to bed the glow was already way down. I set us up online with the Boulder County authorities so if anything happened we’d get an alert on our phones (if you live in an area where natural disasters happen, you should look to see if you can do that as well) and went to bed.

When we woke up we got a surprise: Near freezing temperatures and fog, pretty thick in some places. It even rained a little west of us! That’s helping a lot, I think, though the fog can make it difficult for planes to drop fire retardant. More importantly for us personally is the winds shifted to blow west, so the fire stayed away. That sucks for people in that area and I feel for them, but it also helped, perhaps, in the big picture because as it was the fire was headed toward downtown Longmont, a town of 100,000 people. I’m glad it stopped.

Ironically, I had posted a video just that morning I had made the night before, griping about two enormous plumes I was wedged between; the East Troublesome fire to the southwest and the much larger — in fact, the largest in Colorado history — Cameron Peak fire to the northwest:

Life between the plumes: smoke from the #EastTroublesomeFire and the #CameronPeakFire plumes, to give you a sense of scale. I misspoke on the video, kinda, saying the plumes stretch to the west; I meant from the west to the east.
October 17, 2020

[You might have to click through to see the video.]

… as well as a time-lapse of the Cameron Peak plume from a couple of days before.

I’m not sure what’s next, as the fires is still active and as I write this on Sunday has burned over 8,700 acres. But I’m checking the Boulder Office of Emergency Management Twitter feed, and also keeping an eye on the #CalWoodFire hashtag (a critical eye, I’ll add, as many people are posting clearly incorrect info to it, which is typical in a growing and changing emergency). I also check the Boulder Emergency Operations Center map, which has the fire outline and evacuation zones.

I mention all this so that if you need to for where you live, you can get an idea of how to keep up with information for your own region.

And I keep thinking of all the folks who had to leave in a hurry, all the property destroyed, all the wildlife endangered. It’s awful, and the scale of all this is nearly incomprehensible.

I’ve lived in areas prone to hurricanes, ice storms, earthquakes, and tornadoes. My wife and I used to joke that compared to where we’ve lived before, Colorado doesn’t do natural disasters, but of course we know that’s not true. And with climate change, it’s less true every day. These fires aren’t started by climate change, but it makes them worse. Colorado is in a big drought, exacerbated by climate change. We’ve had very little rain or snow for months, and this is a windy area, so fires are likely… but you may notice that the biggest fires in Colorado history have all been in the past few years. That’s not coincidence. That’s us. The fingerprint of how we’re changing the planet.

It’s real. It’s happening now. And of course, I must add it’s practically a plank of the Republican Party to deny it. We cannot make real change in policy with them in office, so I urge you to not only vote them out but get others to as well. Via Vote Forward, my wife and I sent out 150+ letters to registered Democrats who are unlikely to vote this election, urging them to get up and do it.

My wife wrote letters to 150+ Democrats in vulnerable states who haven't voted in a while, urging them to do so. Last night we watched documentaries while we stuffed and addressed them. It was a very pleasant evening, aided by knowing we're doing something tangible.
October 16, 2020

It’s not too late to literally save the planet. But we have to get up and do it, now. I don’t want to be filled with dread every time I look out my office window. And that’s just one very, very small piece of what’s going on.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[No, that’s not Betelgeuse glaring at us, so close you can almost touch it. That’s the Sun through wildfire smoke. Still, close enough. From Friday’s article. Credit: Phil Plait]

Monday 12 October, 2020: Astronomers get a front row seat to a star getting torn apart by a huge black hole

Tuesday 13 October, 2020: Heavy metal planet brings the heat

Wednesday 14 October, 2020: Pluto's mountains are capped with... methane snow?

Thursday 15 October, 2020: How do supermassive black holes launch powerful jets of matter? With hot gas and magnetism.

Friday 16 October, 2020: Don’t panic! But Betelgeuse may be 25% closer to Earth than we previously thought

Et alia

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