Print 15 comment(s) - last by feraltoad.. on Oct 29 at 1:32 AM

Finding out that your home is still standing means the world when you're an evacuee.

The phone rang and we heard a recorded voice telling us to leave home immediately, and bring only what we could carry. It was the dreaded call that hundreds of thousands of families like ours have gotten since the mass evacuations of San Diego County began on Sunday.

So we loaded up our “family”  – a combination of children, dogs, cats, horses, and a lone rabbit -- and made our way to a nearby horse ranch that lies just outside the immediate evacuation area. Here we sit, breathing the fumes of the fires and the stables, wondering about everything we left behind.

That wondering, as it turns out, is worst thing about being an evacuee. Ironically, the one item that has brought the most solace to the families gathered here has turned out to be a little gadget about the size of a pack of gum: Novatel's cellular USB data modem, sold by Verizon Wireless as the USB720 NationalAccess Broadband device.

Even with the radio and TV broadcasts we can receive, we were soon frustrated by the lack of specific information on our plight. Local stations focus only on the biggest fires ravaging our area, and have no time or personnel to report on our tiny blaze, which has consumed only 7,500 acres, 200 homes, and evacuated a mere city of 40,000. Public agencies are too busy fighting fires and saving lives to update their telephone information lines. While our community newspaper publisher has valiantly updated her lead story every few hours, it hasn’t been enough to satisfy the refugees, each one hungry for details on whether their own homes and loved ones have survived the ordeal.

In the end, we have relied on three main sources of information: two are online, and one is decidedly low-tech:

1.    The California Highway Patrol’s real-time incident log (
The log is designed for CHP officers logging on from their cruisers, reporting their activities in the field. The information is full of police jargon and traffic-related minutiae, but occasionally it contains references to where the fire is erupting or being extinguished. Because the data is all recorded in real-time by first responders, it’s a godsend to information-starved evacuees.

2.    Impromptu user forums in the comments sections of articles published by our local “rag,” the North County Times (
The articles themselves were nominally valuable, but readers interacting spontaneously in the comments sections were priceless. For example, I came across a post last night where a woman mentioned that her elderly mother had just broken the evacuation order and returned home. I recognized the lady in question as my next-door neighbor, and the post confirmed that my home was also still intact.

3.    A 10-year-old fax machine.
About as low-tech as you can get, the fax machine sits in my home office. Every so often I call it from my cell phone, just to reassure myself that the house is still there. As long as the machine picks up and screeches back at me, I know we still have a home to return to.

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Fax machine...
By jskirwin on 10/25/2007 9:48:26 AM , Rating: 3
Apparently you aren't the only one checking the fax machine...
Mark Huettinger was relieved when he called the fax machine at his Abra Place home in Rancho Bernardo on Tuesday and it answered. Then his brother brought him down to earth.

“You might come back to a chimney and a fax machine,” his brother said.

Actually, fax machines, answering machines or any electronic equipment that can be remotely accessed and issues a response can tell you a lot about the state of its surroundings.

Huettinger's brother is wrong. For any of these things to work they need power, and in a fire that's usually one of the first things you lose if the house itself is burning. However keep in mind that no response from this equipment does not necessarily mean your home is gone. SDG&E's lines may be down or one of their substations may have shutdown.

What you really need are UAVs circling in the area and broadcasting live pictures that you could use to see what's up in your neighborhood. Getting accurate information to disaster victims should be recognized as critical to the overall success of the relief effort.

Regardless, best wishes to you and yours from the other side of the country. You are in our hopes and prayers.

RE: Fax machine...
By omnicronx on 10/25/2007 11:19:04 AM , Rating: 5
Peoples are dying and you propose they use UAV's?
I feel bad for those that lost their homes, but right now the focus should be on saving lives and saving the properties, not checking to see who's house was spared, and who's house was not.

RE: Fax machine...
By clovell on 10/25/2007 11:53:58 AM , Rating: 2
Great point. In other situations, though, UAVs would be great - I wish we had those after Katrina rolled through...

RE: Fax machine...
By Master Kenobi on 10/25/2007 1:26:18 PM , Rating: 4
All these wildfires are the result of Environmentalists preventing the use of "Controlled Burns".

RE: Fax machine...
By Reignfyre on 10/25/2007 8:49:20 PM , Rating: 2
I agree 100% and have been saying the same thing for years.

Don't get me wrong, I have environmentalist tendencies in my way of thinking; but even I know that you need small burns every now and again to clear out the under brush or you get what is going on now. Add to that the fact that the ash from the small burns is good for the soil and the trees in long run you your setting up for a slightly less fire resistant forest by not setting or managing the smaller burns.

My two cents any way.

RE: Fax machine...
By feraltoad on 10/29/2007 1:32:11 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah, fires are natural; look at the ponderosa pine. I thought controlled burns were back in favor since the Yellowstone fire that was so destructive from the years of accumulated undergrowth/debris. Why aren't foam fire suppression systems available for houses by now? Personally, I can't wait for forcefields so we can have climate controlled camping style living spaces with HDTV home theater setups of course.

RE: Fax machine...
By Griswold on 10/26/07, Rating: 0
RE: Fax machine...
By Master Kenobi on 10/26/2007 8:15:34 AM , Rating: 4
If, a hundred years ago, humans would not have extinguished every little fire that started by natural causes, we would not be in this situation to begin with - and we keep it up to this very day and the result is what we see now.

If we didn't put out all the fires we would end up with more big fires that torch several houndred thousand square miles of land, this is the natural cycle of things.

Blaming "treehuggers" now is of course the easy way and what people like you often do, but do you know for sure that it is not the forest service that blocks controlled burns because they cant guarantee to control them anymore?

I'm putting the blame where it belongs. We are developing these lands into communities. The brush needs to be burned off to prevent mother nature from doing this sort of thing naturally. We chose to build there, now we need to choose to control how and when these sorts of things happen to the best of our ability. Your also grasping at straws here. Nothing is 100% Controlled, no matter what your doing, but its within acceptable risk ranges. Controlled burns are a reality, many other countries do it (Australia for instance), but we heed too much environmental advice, more so than most other civilized countries.

Now, after these fires, we shall see how they proceed once vegetation is coming back. Will they do the right thing and not jump every little forest fire in the future or will they make the same mistakes as usual - so you can blame environmentalists?

When they don't jump on a little fire and it becomes a big fire and causes a swath of devastation I bet you will be right there screaming why the Fire Fighters didn't respond and put out the fire when it was small, that their negligence allowed it to grow and cause massive damage, then sue them for not doing their jobs. Yea I don't see them allowing these things to grow, it's too easy to make a case if one does get too big. Your argument might be valid if you can provide civil and criminal immunity for any decisions they make. Until you can, not going to happen.

RE: Fax machine...
By jskirwin on 10/25/2007 1:29:52 PM , Rating: 2
Peoples are dying and you propose they use UAV's?

Death. So far exactly ONE person has died from the fires, killed by the Harris fire on his property on Sunday.
Before you criticize someone else get your facts straight.

In the meantime several hundred thousand people are standing around at shelters, schools and sports stadiums waiting to see if they've lost everything. They're not dead, but they are suffering.

It takes a crew of 16 to fly a single UAV, and some can stay aloft for days. I don't know if they have them at the Marine corps base at Pendleton, but it would be nice if they did and they could fly over the neighborhoods taking low-altitude recon pics.

By your logic, the jugglers entertaining children at Qualcomm stadium should be at the fireline with shovels and picks.

It's all part of helping people out.

RE: Fax machine...
By GaryJohnson on 10/25/2007 8:43:33 PM , Rating: 2
I think the AP is saying the number of people who have perished do to flames is up to 7 and the number of deaths attributed to other aspects of the fires is also up to 7, so 14 dead.

I'm sure there's plenty of aerial reconnaissance going on, probably including unmanned aircraft.

RE: Fax machine...
By Reignfyre on 10/25/2007 8:52:00 PM , Rating: 2
Well said.

And for what it's worth I believe if the military UAV's aren't flying recon yet then Governor "Ahnold" should ask for them pretty quick.

RE: Fax machine...
By GaryJohnson on 10/25/2007 10:44:21 PM , Rating: 2
There's some irony here: apparently some plants where they build UAVs (among other things) have been out of operation because of the fires (due to road closures).

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