Oct

13

 Here in Shangri-La, aka the SF Bay area, the air is full of the smell of oak. Burned oak. What you might smell if you're downwind of your neighbor burning oak logs in the fireplace to warm a house in winter (the few times one needs to do so in these environs) as I do. It can be a pleasant enough smell. Except in this instance, it's the smell of communities dying. Or at least undergoing significant body blows. The concentration of particulates in the air south of San Francisco is high—among the highest recorded in the SF Bay area. Ever. My wife tells me that trying to run in it is at best challenging. She gave up after a half mile. I don't run, but I can attest to the effects based on how sore my eyes have felt when I've been outside for more than an incidental period for the better part of the week.

This invasion of particulates has its origins in the North Bay, with those particulates noted (and impactful) 80-90 miles to the south in the South Bay. In the North Bay, the area is known as Wine Country. One of the tourist Meccas of California. Fire. Lots of fire. We have such fires on a regular basis across the state. When I lived in San Diego a few years back, we had such fires just northeast of the city. At their height, the fires were moving a football field every 5-10 minutes. We were about 7-8 miles from them—you could smell the burning wood but no vision of the fire. That didn't mean there wasn't concern. Sometime one afternoon, the local authorities concluded that with the breezes would push the flames across I-15, where a last ditch effort was being mounted to staunch the spread of the burn. Evacuations were ordered.

It's one thing to see an evacuation like that in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. It's another to be part of one. In this case, 750,000 plus persons evacuated. Going up I-5 near Camp Pendleton. Something I can't recommend as one of those life experiences to be savored.

In the North Bay, there are a variety of fires with lots of evacuations. Some are for communities likely familiar to enophiles—particularly those of Napa and Sonoma wines. For instance, Calistoga, a quiet community of 5K or so persons. There are wineries all around it, some award-winning, most not. Lots of vineyards. Only 15 or so wineries are known to have burned to the ground, but it seems likely there are others still to be found. An energetic effort is being mounted to staunch the flames from jumping across State Route 29. With 40 mph winds expected tonight, I have my doubts about the chances of success.

A friend of mine lives (or at least lived) in Santa Rosa. She's at least 10 miles from any forested area. According to the last appraisal (about 3 years ago), she had an art collection worth $8-9 million. Past tense. One of her neighbors snuck back into the neighborhood before being noticed by the MPs and escorted out and told my friend that her house no longer exists. Her husband's prized XKE that he was restoring was still in what had been the garage, its tires melted into the concrete floor, the green body now covered with acidic ash. He doesn't know how disfiguring the ash might be, but he's hopeful that there's something left to work with. My friend is prepared to find otherwise. They left the house with about 5 minutes before the fire hit—and they weren't cavalier. But it's hard to know to evacuate to avoid a fire moving 3 football fields every 5 minutes. Or least thought to be moving that fast.

The areas of the fires are still off-limits because of concerns of re-burning or simmering embers. We'll see soon enough, I'm sure. As the number of wineries impacted goes up, so do the lost jobs. I guess the rebuilding will generate jobs too, just not those that the employment-displaced have the requisite training. Then there are the hotels and restaurants and the rest of the now no-longer functioning tourist industry. Gone. At least for a little while. Long enough that many of those in those communities living from paycheck to paycheck are already assessing where to move to be able to provide for their families.

Once the fires have been extinguished, the assessments of the damage will begin. Expect those estimates to rapidly climb. An estimated 5+ percent of the housing stock in Santa Rosa is now gone. Scenes of those neighborhoods look like pictures of Berlin after WW2 (or Hiroshima after the appearance of Little Boy). If the winds fulfill their feared effects, other parts of Santa Rosa will also cease to exist. The current estimate is that there's at least $1.5 billion of damage just in Santa Rosa, but an insurance adjuster who lives in the area opined on the radio this morning that that amount is "way low." How low? He paused and said that while it wasn't Harvey, it would be "significant just in Santa Rosa." He refused to speculate on other areas. Lest you think that the damage is limited to Calistoga, Santa Rosa, or Sonoma, consider: the eastern side of Napa (the city) has been progressively evacuated. There's still many residences between the fire and downtown, but the country fire chief said at a press conference this afternoon that if the 60 mph winds predicted for tonight, downtown Napa will be at risk. He's not sure how to stop the fire from moving west after that. There's too much wood housing stock available to burn on the west side of the city.

How will this end? Possibly over the weekend. Possibly not. While the winds are forecast to return tonight, the temperature is expected to warm into the upper 80s/lower 90s on Sunday/Monday. Perfect burning weather. Perfect for re-ignition. Maybe the firefighters will get at least enough of a respite to catch some sleep before again take on an earthly form of hell. So even if you hear that the fires have been controlled and the worst of it has now passed, don't be surprised if those statements turn out to be off the mark.

Shangri-La indeed.

Jim Sogi writes: 

My theory is the smoke and ash will block the sun, cooling the air down, and seeding the clouds resulting in more snow, and cooler temperatures this year. While its good for skiing, I wonder if it will affect agriculture and commodities in Western US?

Anecdotally, there have been early snow storms across the West this year. One ski area in Colorado is opening today.


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