We Love Our Heroes!

July 1, 2012 at 11:01 am

Signs from around Fort Collins at the end of June 2012.

There’s another collection at the Coloradoan: Thank You Signs For Fire Fighters.

The High Park Fire
Started: June 9, 2012 by a lightening strike
100% Containment: July 1, 2012
Burn Area: 87,284 acres (137 square miles)
Highest Number of People Fighting: 2,037
Estimated Cost: $36.4 million dollars
Homes Lost: 259
Lives Lost: 1

High Park Fire Update: Mop-Up Efforts

June 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm

It’s been about two weeks since I wrote about the explosion of the High Park fire, just west of our Northern Colorado town. In that time, it has burned another 30,000 acres, and most estimates of the burn area are near 90,000 acres (which is 140 sq miles or 3.9 billion square feet if you want to re-carpet it). There have been 259 homes lost and one person killed by this huge fire, which put it as the second worst in the history of the state of Colorado… for a while.

For the last few days, though, the smoke plume has dissipated and the skies have begun to cloud over for evening rain showers again. Our hopes and our saving graces are in the hard work of the amazing fire fighters we have out here, and the summer rains that should start coming again in July.

A rainbow means RAIN!

While we, in Fort Collins, spent most of the month of June watching smoke plumes fill the skies, the rest of Colorado was watching us with anxiety. This week, the tables have turned and terrible fires are spreading through Estes Park, Colorado Springs and even parts of Boulder. As our fire reaches towards containment and people are returning home, thousands are running from the flames in other parts of our state.

Having seen it all first hand, it’s hard to watch it happening again.

Just another smokey Saturday in Fort Collins

We’ve learned a lot from our monster fire. I’ve been driving past the incident command post every day on my way into work, and I’ve seen military vehicles, heavy machinery, and many huge helicopters up close and personal. I watched helicopters fill up with water from the reservoir and try to save homes. I had to stop and let a HEMTT make a wide right turn in the middle of the road yesterday. I’ve seen firefighters covered head to toe with black ash, standing outside of their tents, and staring up at that huge, ever-present plume of smoke.

High Park Fire Incident Command Post view from my office

We’ve all been reading about daily progress fighting this fire, and learned about how to fight and when to let it burn. We’ve learned the difference between direct and indirect firelines, about back-burning, retardant slurry and mop-up. We’ve learned the difference between containment (a fire is unlikely to spread, but still burning) and control (the fire is considered “out”).

Helicopter pulling water from Horsetooth Reservoir

Taking off with a full load!

We’ve had an “in flux” of wildlife in town, including several moose. One swam all the way across Horsetooth reservoir and wandered down into the forests near my office. Another was found foraging in a parking lot near Mark’s office 25 miles away!

So, here comes the end of June and the beginning of July! Our fire is at 85% containment, but the mountains west of town still smolder and burn. Now that one firefight is over, the crews are starting to head south to face the next one head-on. People in Colorado Springs are facing even more fear and devastation. Our hearts go out to them.

Orange glow at sunset from distant smoke plumes

Breaking Blogging: OMG FIRE!

June 15, 2012 at 6:56 am

Remember back in May when I was complaining about a little 7,000 acre fire? Ah, those times seem so quaint and naive. In the last week, our worst predictions have been put to shame by the High Park Fire, a 52,000 acre monster that has devoured the forest just west of our town.

Map of the High Park fire from Thursday Morning 6/14

On Saturday afternoon, Mark and I put together our summer container garden and watched a huge plume of smoke rise over the distant foothills. Since then, we have had a week of hot, breezy days with no possibility of rain in our forecast, and the fire just keeps growing and growing.

Smoke from the High Park Fire on Saturday night

Smoke from the High Park fire on Sunday night

There’s no real way to tell what damage has been done to homes, trails and lives until the flames die down and people can return. So far, estimates are at well over 100 homes burned and one confirmed fatality – a woman died as her mountain cabin was consumed by the fast moving fire on Sunday.

A lot of houses in danger and full view from my office

Fire fighters have been working to save these homes for three days straight

The view of burnt hillsides on Monday morning

This time around, it’s not just the smell of distant smoke that is aggravating us. There is the devastation of watching your local hillsides burn to a crisp, and the ever present fog of dense and unrelenting smoke. My office is just below the reservoir, less than a mile from one part of this fire, and the smoke there is so terrible sometimes that it makes me ill. This morning, I woke up with a sore throat and clogged sinuses and determined I probably won’t be going back into my office to work until next week.

How close the fire is to my office at the Foothills Campus

It’s now Thursday night, and there are over 1,300 people working on containing this fire. They announced 10% containment on Wednesday morning but have barely been able to increase that. There are helicopters and heavy air tankers flying over town all day long, a huge tent city of firefighters across the street from my office, and we’re hearing things about how “we’re in this for the long haul.” “This is just the beginning.” and “We know that more area will continue to burn before this fire is put out.”

The wind kicks up a bit and the fire takes off

I’m not sure how to wrap-up this post because it seems we are completely in the middle of this disaster. Mark, G and I are all thankful that our own home is safe, but our hearts break when we look out into “our” mountains and see our second, metaphorical mountain “home” going up in smoke. Hopefully, this fire will leave enough behind for the forests to recover quickly, and hopefully it will rain soon. Hopefully.

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blogging for… FIRE!

May 18, 2012 at 5:46 am

Greyrock mountain is on fire. So far, more than 7,300 acres have burned, and only 5% contained. Luckily, few homes are in imminent danger, and only a couple neighborhoods have been evacuated. But, this fire is HUGE.

Hewlett Gulch Fire Map - 05/17/12

Don’t worry, we’re not in danger here at ColoCalders HQ. All we’ve had to deal with so far is the smoke – and there’s plenty of that. We’re under air quality warnings this week, and keeping G inside when it’s so warm and sunny out is not fun! But, I’m very thankful that the smoke is all I have to complain about.

View from my work building on Wednesday, 05/16/12

The CSU atmospheric Science Department, where I work, is much further west, though. It sits just below Horsetooth Reservoir at the edge of the foothills. And the views of the giant smoke plume were incredible yesterday. Today, there’s so much smoke and haze in the area that you can’t see up into the plume. And every time the wind shifts to a more northerly direction, it gets dark down here below the smoke.

Watching the smoke cloud in the foothills

As a student climatologist, I have to get a bit geeky here. Every year, we have wildfires sprout up in the mountains, and it is a natural process that actually helps keep the forests healthy. But, we have a few other issues this year.

US Drought Monitor Map - 05/16/2012

Wildfires in May aren’t unheard of, but it is pretty early in the year for it. The US Drought Monitor Map shows that much of the western US is back to drought conditions, and this fire is located in a tiny blob of severe drought area in extreme north central Colorado. We’re also at 18% of normal snow-water equivalent in the Front Range drainage, and we’ve had a dry, warm winter and spring.

Basin Snow Pack Percent of Normal

Drought stressed plants are crispier (that’s the technical term, I’m sure), and more easily catch fire, but there is ANOTHER issue on top of that. When snow has disappeared and the rains have diminished, there’s less water on the surface to evaporate and moisten the air. Plants that are experiencing drought conditions also tend to release less water into the air (through transipration), which reduces the low level moisture content. This creates a difficult feedback loop, and drought leads to more drought. And we’re definitely seeing dry conditions in the atmosphere and the surface around here.

Relative Humidity This Week

When relative humidities get low, our afternoon rain tends to evaporate on the way down, reducing the amount on the surface and increasing gusty downdrafts. Drier air leads to less rain and more wind, perfect conditions for fire weather.

We’ve got drought, we’ve got a missing snow pack, we have warm and very dry weather, and we’ve got one MORE fire danger to worry about on top of that. The Bark Beetle.

Pine trees have been dying off in huge swaths over the last few years. In some parts of Colorado, all you can see for miles and miles are dead pine trees. So far, the northern Front Range has escaped the worst of this, but we have started developing patches of beetle-killed trees on all of the local hillsides. It’s a terrible thing to see, and really scary when you imagine what could happen if these dead forests dry out and catch fire.

Lots of dead trees - near the CO/WY border in July 2009

So, we’re keeping a close watch on fires this season. And since the beetle epidemic isn’t getting better, and western droughts are more likely due to climate change, it’s likely that our mountain ranges are heading for a major transformation in the next few decades.

You can find up-to-date information about the Hewlett Gulch Fire at the following sites:
InciWeb: http://www.inciweb.org/
The Coloradoan: http://www.coloradoan.com/
Larimer County Health: http://larimer.org/news/

A few days in La Jolla

January 14, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Each winter for the last few years, my group at school has had a meeting at a joint institution in our big project. We’ve had meetings in Kauai, Los Angeles, Manhattan and this year, La Jolla, California.

Sunrise and palm trees

It was a really great meeting, and my first chance to explore Scripps and the La Jolla area. It’s very nice. The kind of place it would be easy to get used to.

View from the hallways of our hotel

We spent most days in meetings and presentations, but there was a little bit of time to enjoy views of the beach and a little bit of splashing in the water.

Our meeting venue at Scripps

Water ruffles

Handstands on the beach

The San Diego Supercomputer Center

January 12, 2010 at 6:45 pm

One of the highlights of our meeting in La Jolla last week was a quick tour through the computing room at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. WARNING: The following post includes some serious geekery! Those who aren’t turned on by massive parallel computing prowess might want to stop reading now.

Kate at the San Diego Super Computing Center!

My research group is known for their innovative approaches to global circulation modeling, and if there’s anybody in the world who uses a lot of cycles on big computers, it’s definitely us. So, it made sense for a few of us to go check out the big computers at the UC San Diego center where our research has run more than a few trillion calculations.

The control station for all of those big-ass-computers!

The building and computer rooms are always in a state of flux in this kind of facility. There’s new machines brought in all of the time, new groups form to study new projects and new people come and go. Last week, when I walked into the building, the first door on the right was for a Neural Network (Artificial Intelligence) in-house research group. If anybody is going to create a computer that takes over the world, it would be these people.

Christina checks out the Triton

We wandered through the computer room, looking at huge supercomputers, both old and new. The newest, biggest machine was the Triton Resource. This computer has 256-nodes with 8 processing cores on each node, which gives it a processing power of more than 500x that of the most powerful desktop computers. This certainly isn’t the most powerful supercomputer in the world today, but it has some unique features. Each of those 256 8-processor nodes comes with 24 GB of memory, which makes this computer very, very good at shifting through huge amounts of data very quickly.

A ginormous storage array

This is the specific challenge of supercomputing that UCSD has decided to tackle: the overwhelming tsunami of data that results from these huge model runs. The image above is of a room-sized harddrive array. These people don’t even really know how much storage they have, the numbers are too big to wrap your brain around. But it’s what we need right now. With climate models doing 200-year runs, and saving the state of the entire world 4 times a simulated day, the trick is not having the cycles to run the model, but having the space available to store all that data. And UCSD’s Supercomputer Center has it all!

“If you don’t like the weather…”

January 7, 2010 at 7:37 am

it must be winter. This is one heck of a temperature swing…

Temperature Change 01.07.10

After a high near 45F yesterday morning (helped a bit by down-slope winds), the temperature just kept falling. It hit rock bottom a little over 24 hours later at -15F. Yep, that’s a drop of 60F in 24 hours.

It’s cold out there right now. Cold over most of the country. My family in St. Louis have been sitting in frigid temps for the last two weeks or more, and it’s not looking to warm up any time soon for any of us.

Temperature Change - Forcast is cold! - 01.07.10

That’s -30C, -22F air spilling across midwest! Point of reference… -40C (-40F) is the “convergence” temperature, where the two scales meet up. And it’s really, really, really cold.

i thank you God for most this amazing

December 22, 2009 at 6:38 pm

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
wich is natural which is infinite which is yes

Calm, clear, winter evening

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)


how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

The Finale

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

E. E. Cummings