Monday, October 17, 2005

Hail all hail!

My buddy emailed me this video (3MB), and this video (2MB) of the hailstorm. At Stonehill News we have now heard reports of similarly large hail ranging from Old Town Pasadena, to JPL, and to Hastings Ranch. If anyone has a report farther flung than that, please let us know.

Most old-timers seem to agree that these were the largest hailstones seen in this area for as much as 60 to 90 years. One ornery, senile old-timer says no way man, he's seen hail almost the size of golf balls, big enough to dent a car. But he lives out of state now, so I guess we can give him his fish story for old times' sake.

Hail stones

Hail videoWe just had a fierce downpour with 3/8" to 5/8" dia. hailstones. It only lasted a few minutes in total and I was so stunned by the intensity, it took me a few extra moments to even think about the camera, much less to get it out. By the time I made this video (3.5MB), it had started to taper off a bit. Take a look at the pictures too

As of this minute we've had over two inches of precipitation since midnight. The season total so far is 2.87" at 1552 feet.

Rain begins in earnest

Saturday night and last night we had our first real rains. We already had a third of an inch on Sept. 20, but this system has delivered five times that already. Sunday it didn't rain much during the day, but it was consistently overcast with intermittent thunder storms.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

First Hand Report from the Topanga Fire

My friend Russel Kohn wrote a fantastic essay about his experience in the Topanga fire area. It includes lots of excellent background information about wildfire. With his permission, I am republishing his essay which he posted to a newsgroup we are both on.

On 9/30/05 10:12 AM, "Russell Kohn" wrote:

Some background:

Fire is a normal part of the ecosystem here.

The Chaparral plant biome consists of a wide range of drought-tolerant shrubs and bushes and grasses. The plants contain oily chemicals that make them endure the heat, resist insects, and avoid being salads to birds and mammals. When the plants die, they do not decompose very quickly due to these same chemicals. Therefore, a fire is required every 7-15 years to burn out the old dead-wood and allow a new generation to thrive.

The fire season is in late Sept through the first real rains, usually in November. It is worst when the winds are blowing. Our usual prevailing wind is a gentle breeze generally from the Pacific ocean going inland. When a high pressure moves to our East over the Great Basin desert of Nevada, and there is a Low in the gulf of Alaska or off the West coast, then the pressure differential causes a large wind event that starts from the North, progresses to the East, and then bounces all over the place until the normal flow prevails. These "Santa Ana" winds can cause any fires that start to spread a dozen miles or more in a 24 hour period. The wind can be blowing from different directions in different parts of a large fire due to different micro-climates that arise, as well as to the focusing effects of valleys.

The best way I've found to think about these fires is that they are indeed "brush fires" or "grass fires". They will consume all the fuel they can, until it is gone. The "fire" is not in a single place; there are often multiple fronts at the leading edges. In a mature fire the fronts can be substantially disconnected so that it appears as though there are several separate fires, even though they started from the same place. Everything is smoldering.

The complex mountainous topography makes for interesting fire shapes as the fire lines crest ridges, go around knolls, and otherwise "flow" through the combustible material. If the wind is strong, you can general predict the rough direction of the fire because it will be "pushed" in that direction. In the most dangerous circumstances, large burning embers (or entire burning bushes!) will be blown up to 1/2 mile ahead of the main fire line and start spot fires ahead. This is called "spotting". When a large spotting fire is on the move, it can cover over 10 miles overnight. When the wind is not blowing, then the fire spreads only based on the available fuel.

All homes in fire areas here now have fire-resistant roofs, and must maintain adequate clearances around their homes ("defensible space"). In this way, when a front of the fire approaches the residences, the firefighters can simply make sure that the fire does not progress any closer to the homes than the defensible space. The fire will then "turn" and move laterally along the line, and work its way back against the wind using the fuel that is left and try to seek another path.

Firefighters generally don't try to "stop" the fire; they simply try to control the direction when it gets near homes and expect it will do whatever a force of nature tends to do. This works quite well.

Here's what happened on Wednesday:

Around 2:15pm I went to pick up my sons from school and as soon as I parked the car I could smell the distinctive smell of a brushfire. The weather was perfect for a fire - hot, dry, Santa Ana winds - but I could not yet see the smoke. About 15 minutes later I saw the smoke coming from the Chatsworth area, about 10 miles from my home. Since the smoke cloud was small at that point, and I could already smell it, that was a good indication that the wind was blowing in our general direction.

As the afternoon progressed, and the fire grew, I knew that there would be a fight to prevent it from moving into Box canyon, because once it got into there, there was really nothing to stop it in the Cheseboro state park. If you go to and enter 91301, then zoom out one level and grab move the map slightly so that Agoura Hills is closer to the bottom of the screen, and the 118 is near the top, you can see that the fire started at the upper right corner on the 118 near the train tracks.

I live near the 101 in Agoura hills. Once the fire moved into Box canyon in the mid afternoon, I felt it was probably only a matter of time before the fire works its way to the Oak Park area, which is about 3 miles north of me. I also felt it would inevitably work its way down Cheseboro and Palo Camado canyons to my East, and then approach Calabasas and Hidden Hills.

My main concern was if the fire would cross Kanan to my north and progress down the large ridge in the middle of Agoura because that gets rather close to my house.

As an aside, I've learned over the years that the media much prefers tight shots of flames and lots of blah-blah but rarely delivers solid or useful facts that residents can rely upon. Sensationalistic news rather than informative. "Wow, Bob, did you see that flame! Guess those bushes sure are flamable". And NEVER a wide shot that would allow any real locational references. Couple that with the fact that for nearly the whole night they kept referring to everything as "near Chatsforth" and bluring the names between the different small cities and residential communities near where I live and it was a complete mess trying to figure out where the fire really way.

So, around 10:30 at night I took a drive around my area to some high points to see what I could. I spoke with the firefighters at the station on Deer Hill, which I estimated would be first area in Oak Park impacted and we agreed things were on track for a "big show" but not a lot to worry about. There were no planned evacuations at that time for Oak Park, so I figured I had some time.

I then drove home and planned to sleep for a few hours, then take another drive, and then decide what to do as we had many hours before the fire would be close, and chances were remote that my house would be directly impacted. I was inclined to have my wife take my kids to her Mom's for the day just so they could get out of the worst of the smoke and stress, but thought I'd see what the morning would bring.

I woke up around 4:00am and got dressed and was just getting in my car to take another drive, when "WHOOOP WHOOOP WHOOP ... THIS IS THE COUNTY SHERIFF.....THIS AREA IS NOW ORDERED FOR IMMEDIATE MANDATORY EVACUATION ....WHOOP WHOOP". And sure enough, there were several squad cars going through the area, with personnel on foot pounding on doors.

I'm thinking to myself, what the F**? There is no way the fire got this close that fast. But I don't have time to check it out for myself and have to rely on the authorities. The officers going through our area were from far away: Bellflower, Garden Grove, Lynwood etc. as part of a large inter-agency "incident task force".

So, I happened to have my computer on (because I had been trying to find an updated fire map before leaving), so dashed off a quick message to some friends, proceeded to wake the family, get the photos, kids, dogs etc. in the car and got out of there. The whole time I was stressed because of the lack of useful information about where the fire really was and why were were being evacuated (not knowing). We had no trouble getting to my in-laws in Camarillo, about 20 miles away.

After my family was settled, I decided to come back to check things out. I had talked with a friend who stayed and all seemed quiet. While the main road into our area was closed, all the side routes were open and I had no trouble getting back. Very weird having so few people in our neighborhood, and absolutely no police presence. Total over-reaction on the part o the authorities.

I did a little more prep-work around the house (moved some flammable stuff as far away from the house as possible), cleared the yard to make it easier for Firefighters should they need to come in, set up a ladder to my roof and some long hoses. My thought was if the wind picked up and embers flew, I'd want to at least try to slow them down until the cavalry arrived.

The rest of the day I spent watching the fire from different vantage points, visiting with neighbors, etc. We were very lucky that the wind become much calmer. As predicted, by mid-morning the very mild wind was beginning to shift from the east to the west. The wind was very conflicted for most of the day but by around 4:30pm became distinctly moister and from the west. This was exactly what the weather and fire people had been saying all day. It meant that the fire would tend to move back on itself in some cases, and zig/zag further to the South (closer to the 101) near Calabasas...which is why some of those areas were voluntarily evacuated the day before. All very much as predicted. The news of course reported this all as being surprising and unexpected and extra worrisome.

Last night I retrieved my family from my in-laws, and this morning have been unpacking the car and trying to get organized.


Watching television the feeling is that everything is on fire everywhere. That is not generally the case. There can be areas of intense burning, and the smoke gets everywhere, but in general the fire is localized to specific fronts that move/change evolve in complex patters. The word "fractal" comes to mind.

There is no up to date fire map that people can refer to, so we are left to use our judgement about what is going on based on what we see and estimate. The television news is nearly worthless. When you are close to the fire, the smoke can be too thick to know what is really going on; it is hard to know what is happening behind ridges. I understand LA County Fire is updating their website to try to include updated fire maps and projections. That would be very helpful.

In the absence of solid information, the mind plays terrible tricks and builds up images of the worst possible scenarios. I found this great vantage point where I could see exactly what was happening nearby, and only then did I relax from the extra-induced stress of our early morning evacuation. The only people I saw near this spot were some neighborhood boys who rode their bikes and had the sense to move high to see what was going on.

The air is still very smoky here, and all over S. Cal for that matter. There was this satellite picture showing the smoke cloud going dozens of miles out over the ocean when the wind was blowing that way. Now all that smoke is blowing back over the city and other parts of S. Cal.

The exercise of having to grab what you can in 20 minutes and leave is interesting. I am not nearly as prepared as I should be in this regard.

Once again, thanks for your kind wishes.

- Russ

Russell Kohn , Chaparral Software & Consulting Services Inc.
FileMaker XML/XSLT Experts - Products, Consultation, Training
FileMaker 7 Certified Developer

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

First Rain Measured

The first millimeter of rain for the season was measured at 2:56AM Tuesday, September 20th, 2005.

First Rain

The roofers finished up Sept 9th. Not a moment too soon. It remains to be seen if the rain we are receiving right now will amount to enough to register on the rain gauge, but it is most definitely raining here tonight. The rain guage resolution is 1mm (.04"). While the rain we have had so far tonight has not been enough to register, I am awake listening to gentle rainfall and distant thunder. There is water running off our brand new roof. I couldn't be happier.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

A Close Shave

We were woken up at 2:30 this morning by thunder! Our roof looked just like you see here. There was intense lightning half a mile away, but we have a huge tree above, and we decided in the heat of the moment that the tree was likely to work as a pretty effective lightning rod. Norah and I scaled the roof under surprisingly bright skies and laid spanning lumber and rolled out plastic in the middle of the night. I guess that the excellent visibility was due to the city lights reflecting off the clouds. We were finished by 3:30 am. It only sprinkled on us for less than a minute, and was so light that it didn't accumulate anywhere. Even still, I had no way of knowing we would get off that easy. As soon as I felt the first drops, the 2x6 lumber I was hauling became feather light. I had reports on Sunday and Monday from people only a few miles away who saw "significant downpours" for up to half an hour. We got off easy this time. Needless to say, we picked up the pace on finishing the roof :)

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Hip to be Square?

Pasadena Star News
Well maybe it was all the rain we just had that sparked the interest, but it seems that reporters have locked onto the personal weather stations in Altadena. A couple months ago, we were interviewed for an article in the Altadena Heritage Foundation newsletter, drawing attention to them, and just today we made the front page of the Pasadena Star-News under the headline "The Weather Underground". I take it as a badge of honor that the story ran side-by-side with the headline "Revenge of the nerds" featuring a picture of a hottie sporting a tiny-t emblazoned with the slogan "I [heart] Dorks" :)

Friday, July 01, 2005

End of the rain year

In Southern California, the official rainy season ended last night at midnight. Here at Stonehill News we measured 61.61 inches for the season. This total is closely corroborated by nearby personal weather stations.

Eric Malnic, Staff Writer for the Los Angeles Times, complained yesterday, "The epic 2004-05 rain season comes to an end at midnight tonight, and downtown Los Angeles missed the all-time record by a measly 0.93 of an inch."

He goes on to note,
This rain season, which ran from July 1 to June 30, ends with 37.25 inches falling at the National Weather Service monitoring station at USC. The wettest season on record was 1883-84, when 38.18 inches fell in downtown Los Angeles.

But the rainfall was actually much greater in other cities in Southern California, especially in hillside communities.

Pasadena had 56.06 inches of rain this season, almost 10 inches more than the previous record of 46.62 in 1982-83. Burbank had 44.64 inches, compared with the old record of 39.39 in 1977-78. Canoga Park, with 41.50, squeaked past its old record of 40.19 in 1997-98.
With no long-term historical data to compare our readings too, I think we will have to conclude that the rain season of 2004-2005 is the season to beat at Stonehill News.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Quiet Dog :)

I had a very productive conversation with the owner of the dog who's barking has been at issue recently. His name is Mohan Chhabra, and he was extremely understanding about the issue. He was also extremely frustrated and annoyed that the issue had been allowed to get out of hand, with leaflets being distributed and Animal Control being contacted, before he was given a chance to do anything about it. From my phone call with him, I can attest to the fact that Mohan is a rational and level headed individual. Mohan told me that a missive in his mailbox on May 9th was the first contact that had been made with him or his family on the subject, and that the leaflets went out around the neighborhood on May 11th, hardly enough time to do anything about it. I will again attest that given his level-headed-ness and willingness to resolve the issue, I find it utterly credible that, despite other neighbors expressing facts to the contrary, he and his family were utterly unaware that there was an issue until after things had escalated unnecessarily.

I deeply regret that the facts got distorted in our little neighborhood game of whisper-down-the-lane. There was a great deal of unnecessary distress inflicted on the Chhabra family. I personally recommend that if you were involved in the "campaign" to abate the barking dog, you contact me for their phone number, or visit them in person and express your gratitude for promptly addressing the problem and your condolences for the un-neighborly manner with which the problem was handled. Mohan indicated that he would greatly appreciate the sentiment if people would call and offer an apology for escalating the issue in an impersonal manner without doing him the courtesy of talking to him in person or even leaving an anonymous note in his mailbox, for those that might not cherish the idea of a possible "confrontation" with him. I can tell you, however, such a fear is utterly groundless, as he is an utterly civil and understanding person, who is completely motivated to be a good neighbor, despite feeling a bit put upon at the moment.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

New speed limit?

The new crop
As you are most likely aware, a new generation of children is growing up amongst us. We have at least half a dozen children of pre-school and kindergarten age living on Stonehill Drive, and another handful of grand-children in that same age range who visit and play here on a regular basis.

Why the new sign?
You probably noticed the home-made sign that went up on Stonehill Drive recently. For those of you who hadn’t heard, a car accident occurred on Stonehill Drive not too long ago. One of our neighbors was backing out of his driveway, and was hit by a gardening truck that was traveling down the hill. There was major damage to the vehicle. Thankfully this time it was a car that was hit and no one was hurt.

Speeding downhill?
It is easy to forget how steep our street is. On a flat road, stopping distance is proportional to the square of the speed. Translation? Doubling your speed quadruples your stopping distance in the best of conditions. When traveling downhill, as on our street, stopping distances are more than quadrupled when speed is doubled. With summer on the way and so many children (and pets) in the neighborhood, combined with the steep hill and numerous “blind” front yards due to tall shrubs, etc, it is a good time to take a moment to remind your guests, visitors and workers to keep their speed in check. Please remind them that even mid-day during the week, there is a good chance that children might dart out from behind a hedge.

Pedestrian/car accidents
Pedestrian fatalities are the second-leading cause of motor vehicle-related deaths, following occupant fatalities. Pedestrian-related fatalities account for about 13% of all motor vehicle-related deaths. On average, one pedestrian in the United States is killed in a traffic crash every 101 minutes.

Who is at risk for pedestrian Injuries?
Children 15 years and younger represented 23% of the total population and accounted for 30% of all nonfatal pedestrian injuries, 11% of all pedestrian fatalities, and 18% of non-traffic related fatalities (this includes incidents in drive-ways and other non-public roads). Among children between the ages of 5 and 9 who were killed in traffic crashes, 25% were pedestrians.

Speeding Accidents
Speeding is defined as traveling faster than the posted speed limit, or traveling too fast for the road conditions even at speeds under the posted limit. It's a major road safety problem because it dramatically increases braking distance and significantly increases crash severity.

Prima Facie Speed Limits
The 2005 California Vehicle Code states:

  • 22352. (a) The prima facie limits are as follows and shall be applicable unless changed as authorized in this code and, if so changed, only when signs have been erected giving notice thereof: […]
  • (2) Twenty-five miles per hour:
  • (A) On any highway other than a state highway, in any business or residence district unless a different speed is determined by local authority under procedures set forth in this code. […]

Basic Speed Law
The 2005 California Vehicle Code states:

  • 22350. No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.
  • Amended Ch. 252, Stats. 1963. Effective September 20, 1963.
  • 360. "Highway" is a way or place of whatever nature, publicly maintained and open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel. Highway includes street.

Common Sense
Despite the fact that California law defines the prima facie speed limit to be 25 mph on Stonehill Drive, given the Basic Speed Law, it might be argued that the prima facie speed limit is not “reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway,” or that the prima facie speed limit is “a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.” As such, common sense suggests that 15 mph might be the “reasonable or prudent” speed limit on Stonehill Drive.

Thanks for helping out :)

Monday, January 10, 2005

We Love Netflix

Try We love it so much we dumped our cable, have no satellite, no TiVo, nothing else (except broadband of course). Just Netflix. We have 5 DVDs out from our cue of hundreds of DVDs we are interested in. When we finish watching one, we put it back in the prepaid mailer and stick it in our mailbox. As soon as they get it back, they send out a fresh one. If you click on the link, you will get a free trial. Netflix is way better than Blockbuster or Target because it has far more titles and a "Friends" feature that lets you see what your friends like and recommend DVDs to them too. When you sign up, make sure you get on our friends list.