May 23, 2008

Silicon Valley Is Smoking Right Now

That Northern California has the occasional blaze is not new. But a wildfire in Santa Cruz County has burned more than 3,000 acres, destroying 10 homes (as of this posting), and filled the entire Silicon Valley in a gloomy gray haze. (See Google News or KRON 4's coverage) While my Sunnyvale home is well away from the fire, it is definitely disconcerting to have our condo and all of the outdoors smell like a Memorial Day barbeque gone wrong.

While I'd heard the occasional news update yesterday about the Summit Fire, hearing it was a little over 10% contained by yesterday evening, it wasn't until late night when I started to feel the effects. The son of an asthma sufferer, I was lucky enough to be born with my lungs as an Achilles' Heel, as I dealt with my share of bouts with bronchitis as a kid, and can still wheeze after any good exercise. As my wife and I moved furniture around and cleaned out closets in preparation for the twins' near-term arrival, I found myself gasping for breath and coughing, as if I'd just completed a 5 kilometer run, and gotten winded. After weeks of seeing my wife, now nearly 32 weeks pregnant, put her arms akimbo and gasp for breath, the scene was comical, as we both were near images of each other. Given how out of shape I am, I swear we could even have done a belly bump.

This morning, I left our condo only to find the hallway wreaked of smoke. Taking the elevator down to the first floor, I encountered a woman leaving the front door ajar in hopes the first floor's smoke alarm would stop beeping, alerting us to non-existent danger.

And I wasn't the only one noticing the effects. Patrick Barry reported smoke filling downtown Mountain View, while others similarly said Stanford, Atherton and Los Altos were blanketed in the haze. The situation near work, on the border of San Jose and Milpitas, also smelled like a forest campout, only without marshmallows, S'mores and mosquitos.

This minor inconvenience to us is no doubt tiny compared to those directly impacted or fighting the fire. My younger sister, a police dispatcher for Scotts Valley PD, near Santa Cruz, put in a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift last night, helping direct officers who were engaged in the area. A state of emergency was declared and according to the Governator, the best people are on it.

Looking backward 15 years ago, to my sophomore year in high school in Chico, our family was more directly impacted by area fires. The seven of us (My parents, myself, 2 brothers and 2 sisters) had to pack up and evacuate our home two or three times in the space of week, as fires threatened to scale the nearby canyon walls, and take on the town of Paradise, which despite its name, is ridiculously positioned on a ridge between two fire-prone canyons with not much more than two ways downhill and out of town.

(See: Google News archive: "Arsonists who were "inspired" by the spectacular Old Gulch and Fountain fires in August have set dozens of fires, including 35 in Butte County alone" -- San Jose Mercury News)

With an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 senior citizens who drive just like you would expect, the prospect of getting in some massive conga line downhill was not all that inviting. But that didn't stop a firebug or two gaining inspiration from fires that were already burning, and starting more, one of which was set just outside the town limits, raining big flakes of ash on our home, our yard and our car, with CDF helicopters flying over our home, grabbing water from nearby ponds or lakes and dumping it on the flames in an attempt to save the city.

Already having our perceived valuables in the car from the last time we had evacuated, my mom put the rest of us kids in the station wagon, and we headed down to the Valley, not knowing if we would come back to a house or scorched earth. Luckily, the firefighters had done an amazing job, stopping the fire a mere 100 feet from where homes started, and from which there likely would have been no stopping the flames.

Weeks after the fires had died down, we headed to a point looking over the canyon and saw blackened trees in every direction. At my foot, I plucked a blackened rock from the dirt, seeing it divided in two, the top half, permanently charred by fire, and the lower half, protected underground. More than a souvenir, it served to remind us how close the fires had come. Hopefully, when the smoke clears from this week's blaze, we'll learn more stories of near-misses than of tragedy. It'll make all of us breathe a lot easier.