If 9-11 is forever known throughout the world as the biggest “emergency” our nation has witnessed (owing to the universally understood 9-1-1 phone number), then September 10th, 2011 will probably hold special significance in Kern County. And that comes from the symbolic meaning of 9-10-11, or predictable continuity. Specifically, “one thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another..”.
It all began the preceding Monday, Labor Day, with computer models suggesting low pressure would form over California the upcoming Saturday. It ended on a Saturday filled with stunning displays of natural beauty in the sky, followed by fires that covered the county with acrid and heavy air, menacing wildfires in places too numerous to accurately quantify and questions about the resources required to fight this new threat.
I noted on Monday that our heat was destined to cool down soon thanks to hemispheric pattern shifts that would bring a large high pressure system to North Dakota. How does that relate to the price of potatoes in Poland? This jet stream rearrangement of a blocking ridge over the northern high plains would strengthen low pressure in the east (with more flooding rains) and, in turn, cause low pressure to develop out of thin air in the west- specifically California. It is one thing to forecast a low that is already spinning, can be clearly seen on a satellite image and whose future location can be extrapolated. However, it is quite another to blindly predict the formation of a low that will dynamically form in the fuzzy future right about … here- where nothing is happening now. That was the situation leading up to Saturday’s event. It appeared to me that the low would slowly form over a 24-hour period near Reno and then dig to the southwest ending up just off the central California coastline. Several computer models agreed with that scenario. But by Friday evening a plume of mid and high level moisture from the southeast had become entrained into the developing low. While winds were generally from the northwest at most levels, in the 10,000-20,000 foot range, winds were blowing from the southeast with increasing instability aloft. This finally led to high-based thunderstorm formation.
Friday night football, and several videographers going from game to game commented that lightning was flashing out east. I saw that the cloud to cloud lightning would likely continue through the night and increase from the east as it became apparent low pressure was developing farther to the south than expected. Thunderstorms of this kind are not like typical electrical storms that occur during the heat of the day. Instead, just like the low itself, they were dynamically formed so the time of day wasn’t as important. Kern County residents saw tremendous lightning bolts skipping across the sky in spider web fashion from about midnight until sunrise. Thunder rolled and rumbled. I was up for hours enjoying the spectacle. Precious little rain was falling and the landscape remained tinder dry from months of hot rainless weather. And as the low strengthened, lightning expanded from the “cloud to cloud” type, becoming “cloud to ground”. Over 600 ground strikes were recorded in Kern County, sparking more than 50 significant wildfires. In one 60-minute period more than 2500 lightning discharges were noted in Kern County on my Lightning Tracker resource.
By morning smoke had already turned south valley skies orange and hazy, casting a ruddy pale to trees and leaves. Smoke was discernable in Bakersfield, like a campfire nearby. And although the forecast was for cooler weather, heat remained with even greater humidity. After a high on Friday of 100, south valley residents still dealt with a Saturday afternoon high of 99 degrees. This was caused by the positioning of low pressure farther south than expected, bringing a significant southeasterly wind into the valley. It was a classic downslope warming scenario. Plus, the cyclone near Los Angeles kept wind velocities up, which worked against Cal Fire and their efforts trying to mitigate the panoply of conflagrations breaking out everywhere. My wife and I traveled up to the Keene area looking for the worst situation of all Saturday afternoon. An army of air support was addressing fires just northwest of Tehachapi. The Incident Command Post (after just mopping up the Canyon Fire) was being re-energized to fight this new series of fires. But as helicopters were dropping water and fire retardant on all these blazes, a fresh complex of thunderstorms moved in from the southeast. More spectacular lightning, several reports of 1” diameter hail and wind gusts to nearly 50 MPH. The operations had to draw down due to weather.
For a moment we beheld flames on the backside of Black Mountain, leaping easily 100 feet into the air consuming trees in an instant, followed by bulbous billows of black smoke rushing upward in a mushroom cloud shape denoting sudden destruction had occurred. Fire was approaching a ridge line with winds that were changing by the moment. And then, in the span of not more than 10 seconds, the ridge line awoke to more huge flames. I remember being amazed at how quickly the fire spread, all the time responding to turbulent wind direction and speed. As we looked around on the way back down to the valley on highway 58, I was struck by the vision of fires and plumes of smoke in every direction I scanned, almost apocalyptic. In the south end of the valley ahead of me- smoke. To the north and northeast- plumes of smoke in the Walker Basin area and up toward Lake Isabella and Mount Breckenridge. Blackened and smoldering land just below Bear Mountain where highway 58 meets the Arvin cut off. All the while lightning was flashing forth in the sky above, as our eyes began watering from the smoke.
Coming down Bena Road to Edison Highway I realized this was much more than a typical September day in Kern County. Due to the severity of the constantly changing weather and fire status, I decided to go in to the station and do the late evening weathercasts, allowing Anthony Bailey to go out and report. In the back of my mind was concern for some friends of ours in the Stallion Springs area. I got to the station and started analyzing the situation. A severe thunderstorm warning crawl was written for a storm in the Taft area. It looked as though the worst was behind us with thunderstorms moving west and away while winds appeared to be diminishing.
But just then my phone rang with an unlikely voice on the other end. It was my sweet wife, Deborah, telling me that the sky was orange and our home was in the path of a fast moving wildfire. We live in far east Bakersfield, about 2 miles from the mouth of the Kern River Canyon. After watching only a couple of hours earlier how fast a fire can move, there was deep concern that even this area where we live might be in real danger. She put together a quick plan- what to take with her in the car at a moment’s notice, just in case: things that could not be replaced, food for the dog and cat, medicine, important papers, etc. A few minutes later I called back to remind her “Don’t forget the computer- just yank it out, that is not an insignificant thing”. In the end, winds died down and a light shower graced our area. Trouble had been averted. There were many calls to the station from people both in our neighborhood and others who had been very concerned about what to do if the fire came too close. For us, it was a dry run- a good drill to bring to the top of our mind what we would need to do if the unthinkable happened.
And, of course, that is probably what we should all be thinking about anyway on this 9-11. The victims of that horrible day 10 years ago didn’t get up in the morning planning to meet their doom. In fact, none of us knows what tomorrow may bring, or today for that matter. But for me, quite personally, the events of 9-10-11 really did cement in my mind that one things leads to another which leads to another- and if you are prepared mentally to deal with whatever that next thing is, you will be alright. I’ve never seen a day in my 21 years in Kern County like Saturday the 10th for all its unpredictability, surprise, splendor and urgency. It was all mixed together and isn’t over yet. These fires will be a target of brave firefighters working long hours and days and weeks to come. These warriors are from many other places, here in Kern County from afar to help in time of need. An unbroken chain of people dedicated to healing the ravages that nature has inflicted upon us- protecting life and property. They are as constant as the sunrise in their determination, as sure as “predictable continuity”- the legacy of 9-10-11.