Hamburg and Paradise

The other day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire, for short — caused a little bit of a ripple when it issued a report that likened the conflagration that recently consumed most of the town of Paradise with the World War II Allied bombing of the German city of Hamburg.

The comparison was included in a Cal Fire green sheet — a preliminary report the agency does to review the circumstances surrounding firefighter deaths and injuries. I’ve become a regular reader of the reports mostly because I’ve been editing stories by a colleague in the KQED newsroom who started getting them several years ago.

The green sheet on the Camp Fire — the blaze that killed 86 people, by the current count, and destroyed 14,000 residences in Paradise and two nearby communities in Butte County — came out late last week. The bulk of the report recounted how five firefighters suffered burns during the first 24 hours of the blaze. But in setting the scene for how the injuries, sustained in two separate incidents, occurred, the report also sets the scene: the drought, the high winds, the low humidity that helped the fire become so monstrously destructive so rapidly.

The green sheet drops this remark about the fire’s character:

“When the fire reached the town of Paradise, an urban firestorm began to spread from building to building, independent of the vegetation, similar to the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. … It is evident in many areas occupied by high densities of residential and commercial structures that the heat from the fire was transferred horizontally to other structures and ground vegetation by strong winds. “

I like a striking historical reference as much as the next human. But the Cal Fire offers no further context or detail about “the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943.” Maybe it was a super-bad wildfire.

Of course, the year “1943” suggests a connection to a major historical event that’s known even to most ahistorically minded Americans: World War II. Even if you’re not a historian, you may be familiar with the heavy bombing that took place throughout the war and several noted incendiary bombing attacks, mostly by U.S. and British air forces against targets in Germany and Japan.

Thanks to Google, a couple of pretty good accounts of what happened in Hamburg pop up when you search the name of the city along with the word “firestorm.” One of them comes from the BBC, which describes the relentless British and American bombing that touched off the inferno, the winds that accompanied it, the appalling casualty count, and the harrowing stories of survivors.

“I struggled to run against the wind in the middle of the street. … We couldn’t go on across [the road] because the asphalt had melted,” one witness is quoted as saying. “There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the roadway without thinking.”

Several months after Germany’s May 1945 surrender, the U.S. War Department published an exhaustive review of the air war in Europe. “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Over-all Report.”

The survey’s purpose was, in part, to measure the effectiveness of the Allied bombing strategy, which had aimed to achieve “the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

In a passage cited in “The Oxford English Dictionary” as an early use of the word “firestorm” to describe the effects of aerial bombing, the survey mentions in brief, clinical detail what happened in Hamburg and the tactics behind such attacks.

For residential areas … fire was the chief cause of the damage that resulted from bombing. … The principal weapon for setting fires was the incendiary bomb. This weapon was most effective in causing destruction in city residence areas. …

Many German cities presented partial areas of vast devastation. Perhaps the outstanding example was Hamburg, where a series of attacks in July and August of 1943 destroyed 55 to 60 percent of the city, did damage in an area of 30 square miles, completely burned out 12.5 square miles, wiped out 300,000 dwelling units, and made 750,000 people homeless. German estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 persons killed, many of them in shelters where they were reached by carbon-monoxide poisoning. The attacks used both high explosive and incendiary bombs as it was thought by the Air Forces and later confirmed that the former created road blocks, broke water mains, disrupted communications, opened buildings, broke windows, and displaced roofing. Most important, they kept the fire fighters in shelters until the incendiaries became effective. But, of the total destruction, 75 to 80 percent was due to fires, particularly to those in which the so-called fire-storm phenomenon was observed.

Fire-storms occurred in Hamburg, Kassel, Darmstadt, and Dresden. Differing from an ordinary peacetime conflagration which begins at a center and then spreads, these storms occurred when incendiaries started many fires within a relatively short time over an extensively built-up area. It was estimated that, in Hamburg, within 20 minutes, two out of three buildings were afire within a 4.5-square-mile area as the result of incendiary bomb strikes. The intensity of the bomb fall was so great that fire-fighting efforts were fruitless. As the many fires broke through the roofs of buildings, there rose a column of heated air more than 2 1/2 miles high and 1 1/2 miles in diameter, as measured by aircraft flying over Hamburg. This column was turbulent and was fed at its base by inrushing cooler ground-surface air. One and one-half miles from the fire this draft increased the wind velocity from 11 to 33 miles per hour. At the edge of the area the velocities must have been appreciably greater, as trees 3 feet in diameter were uprooted. In a short time the temperature reached the ignition point for all combustibles and the entire area was ablaze. In such fires complete burn-out occurred; that is, no trace of combustible materials remained and only after 2 days were the areas cool enough to approach.

The evidence is that the bombing served not only to destroy much of Germany’s second-largest city, but also, as intended, to shock and demoralize the population.

In one sense — the scale and meaning of the events — the parallel between Paradise and Hamburg is all wrong. But in others — the physical characteristics of the fires, the way they consumed whole communities and left survivors with little or nothing of their prior lives — maybe the comparison is fitting.

‘Individual Acts of Hospitality Are Not the Answer’

I think a lot about homelessness, about what it represents in our society, about our responses to it collectively and individually, about the many encounters — with a man named Charles, instance, and with Eric, and with Perry — with the destitute and down and out I’ve had over the years. And about the meaning of personal gestures.

The New York Times just published excerpts of the prison letters of Nelson Mandela. One, to his son Makgatho, talked about effective responses to poverty:

I have been reminiscing a great deal … Those were the days when you lived a happy life free of problems and fenced from all hardships and insecurity by parental love. You did not work, grub was galore, clothing was plentiful and you slept good. But some of your playmates those days roamed around completely naked and dirty because their parents were too poor to dress them and to keep them clean.

Often you brought them home and gave them food. Sometimes you went away with double the amount of swimming fees to help a needy friend. Perhaps then you acted purely out of a child’s affection for a friend, and not because you had become consciously aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized our social life. …

It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. …

This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. The man who attempted to use his own possessions to help all the needy would be permanently ruined and in due course himself live on alms. Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.

Reading: ‘A Thousand Illusions’

A chinook salmon, having returned up the Mokelumne River to spawn, leaps against the closed gates of the fish hatchery at East Bay Municipal Utility Districts’s Camanche Dam.
“Civilization creates for me a thousand other worlds that have little to do with my senses, a thousand illusions among which to choose. It is one of the functions of much of contemporary education and politics to convince me that my choices are limited to these creations. Were there a television in my home, it would spend twenty-four hours a day convincing me that life is either a series of dangers and disasters or an endless series of shallow and banal encounters with uninteresting people. Magazines and newspapers tell me the same story. Shopping malls connected by broad paved highways are filled with objects presented as the rewards of existence–the flesh of the world converted to doodads. Big Science has had a good deal to do with the creation of this deadly alternative reality, and science has willingly lent its hand to the great effort to to convince me that the evidence of my senses and the intuitions that arise from their use are illusory.

“But there is a scientific practice that precedes Big Science, a devotion to patient and scrupulous observation of the world and its creatures. I have come to love this discipline, now known as natural history, which delves ever more deeply into the physiological and behavioral differences between my species and others. There is an explosion of this kind of knowledge accumulating in our era, driven by an increasing awareness that many species are disappearing and that we know desperately little about them and therefore little about how to save them. …”

–Freeman House, “Totem Salmon”

Post first published May, 2, 2015

Watching Oroville as Storm Approaches

A graphic depicting California-Nevada River Forecast Center precipitation outlook for Feather River basin above Lake Oroville (the reservoir is at lower left, just upstream from the town of Oroville). White shading indicates areas forecast to receive more than 7 inches of rain between Thursday and Sunday morning. (Click to expand image.)

Not so long ago — through late February, say — the news about California’s “wet” season was how dry it had been. But that changed last month, when a series of late-season storms pulled the state back from the brink of a return to deep drought.

As the last March storm departed, I heard people asking, “Is that it? No more storms?”

But model-watchers saw a return to wet weather late this week, and those supercomputer prognostications have been borne out in the form of a very warm, very wet storm that is forecast to dump huge volumes of water over the northern two-thirds of the state.

One of the regions forecast to get the heaviest deluge is the Feather River watershed, above Oroville Dam and Lake Oroville. That’s news because the California Department of Water Resources, which owns and operates the dam, may be forced sometime in the next few days to release water down the dam’s half-completed spillway.

The image above is from the California-Nevada River Forecast Center, and it depicts a precipitation forecast for more than 7 inches of rain in parts of the Feather watershed over the next 72 hours. (There’s an interactive version of the map on the CNRFC site, here.) DWR has, without a doubt, modeled the expected runoff from that much rain falling so quickly, how fast the lake will rise, and when it will reach the “target” elevation at which the spillway gates will open and water will flow down the 3,000-foot-long concrete chute.

As of this morning, the reservoir is about 20 feet below the lip of the spillway inlet and about 37 feet below the target elevation of 830 feet above sea level. From outside, it’s hard to guess how quickly the lake might rise — that’s a function of the total precipitation, how saturated soils in the watershed are, how much snow might melt off in the watershed’s upper reaches, and how much water is released from the reservoir through the only currently available outlet, the dam’s hydroelectric plant. But given the rate of the lake’s rise during the last round of heavy rain, it would appear that it would be late next week before that 830 foot threshold is reached.

Here’s the current DWR statement on reservoir conditions and prospects for a spillway release.

Eclipse!

Well — the clouds held off, and the smoke wasn’t a factor. What a lot of anxiety for … maybe nothing.

But the eclipse itself? Overwhelming. I’ve already used that word on social media.

First, watching darkness steal across the rolling terrain across the west from our viewing point, a ridge above the Casper city golf course.

Then the last sliver of sun vanished behind the edge of the moon.

I was puzzled — couldn’t see anything through my viewing glasses. When I pulled them away, the sight was dazzling. The moon, a jet-black disc surrounded by brilliant halo of pure silver light. I have nothing I can compare it to. Just writing that brings a jolt of emotion.

I looked through binoculars to see if other details were visible. There seemed to be flares and flashes of iridescent colors all around the rim of the moon.

Around us, the city’s streetlights had all come on. On the golf course below us, a herd of pronghorn antelope that had been grazing in two and threes quickly gathered and began running down a fairway.

The eclipse lasted almost two and a half minutes here. Boy, did that 150 seconds fly by. The first light had the same pristine silvery quality as the corona around the moon.

The moon has finished crossing the sun’s disc now, and sometime later this afternoon we’ll be heading south, toward Denver. But what a day. I’ll remember Casper for as long as I’ve got a memory.

One last note: I didn’t attempt to photograph the eclipse itself. Didn’t have the gear, really, and there are a lot of great photographers out to capture the event, including one who was sharing our ridgetop perch. I’m hoping to get an image or two from him to share.

I did record some sound, though, since I had my phone in hand. Beyond my bellowing, it’s cool to hear the sound of people cheering in the distance. Here’s 20 clean seconds:

Memorial Day Meandering

Poring over some doleful but absorbing statistics on U.S. military casualties in our wars going back to the American Revolution, I’m led astray from whatever purpose I had for early Memorial Day morning.

First distraction: It doesn’t seem right that most statistical roundups of American service personnel killed in our wars — like the one linked to above — exclude those who died in our many inter-war military operations. Here’s a separate Pentagon accounting of soldiers, sailors and Marines killed during operations between 1980 and 1996. The list includes:


Second distraction:
I reflect, as many have before me, that there’s hardly been a year in my lifetime — I go back to Eisenhower’s first term — that U.S. troops haven’t been active somewhere in the world. Here’s someone who’s come up with a politically loaded list of U.S. military-related actions, at home and abroad, going back to Wounded Knee.

Third Distraction: In exploring various sets of statistics on U.S. military casualties, I came across the Department of Defense accounting of fatalities among active-duty personnel from 1980 through 2010. (Unfortunately, I can’t find more recent definitive numbers.) In those 31 years, which span “peacetime” (there was just one death attributed to hostile action or terrorist attacks in 1980-81) through the height of the Iraq War (2007), the Pentagon says 48,834 active-duty personnel died. Here’s a breakdown of how they died:
Accident: 25,073 (51.3 percent of total).
Illness: 8,579 (17.6 percent).
Suicide: 6,911 (14.2 percent).
Hostile action: 4,814 (9.9 percent)
Homicide: 2,329 (4.8 percent)
Terrorist attack: 420 (.9 percent)
Cause undetermined or pending: 708 (1.4 percent)

The numbers look a little different if you isolate fatalities from ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent Congressional Research Service report broke down the causes of death for those two conflicts (including all phases of the Iraq War to date). Some 5,362 (78.5 percent) of the 6,830 deaths were sustained in hostile action; 1,041 (15.2 percent) were attributed to accidents or illness; 350 (5.1 percent) to suicide, and 52 (.8 percent) to homicide (about 25 deaths are listed as “undetermined”).

I find the “self-inflicted” death count most stunning, especially the fact it appears to be so much larger than fatalities suffered in combat. If you follow this issue, you know the number of veterans who take their own lives each year dwarfs the number of service members who kill themselves while on active duty. A Department of Veterans Affairs study published last year found 7,400 veterans committed suicide in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available.

Fourth Distraction: While embarking on my military casualty StatsQuest, hours and hours ago, I came across one particularly startling number in a VA document titled America’s Wars. Page 2 of said document includes a table of veterans and veterans’ dependents currently on VA benefits rolls (“currently” as of April 2017), listed by the war(s) in which veterans served.

The table shows there’s one person out there still getting monthly benefits related to service in the Civil War. Really? Is that possible?

Yes — it turns out it is. The recipient is Irene Triplett, daughter of a man who fought on both sides in the war. She reportedly gets a monthly VA check for $73.13 that goes toward paying for care in a North Carolina nursing home. The Wall Street Journal did a long feature on her and her family a few years ago. Irene Triplett had a very tough life; the piece is well worth reading.

National Geographic followed with its own story on the “fewer than 35” surviving children of Civil War veterans and details a couple of their life stories.

Conclusion of the foregoing.

End of Year-Start of Year Color

Ginkgo leaves and unidentified purple petals on a West Berkeley sidewalk, Dec. 31, 2016.

An end of year image: the golden fans of spent ginkgo leaves — my favorite Berkeley street tree, at least in deep autumn — and some unidentified purple petals.

Nothing profound intended, but: The gold leaves signifying the departure of one year. The splashes of purple perhaps signifying there is something beautiful in the season as we turn the page into a year that many already see as inauspicious.

Happy new year, whatever comes. We’ll have lots to think about and talk about.

San Francisco Street Homes, 2016

San Francisco Homeless 2016

My colleague and friend Pat Yollin had me look at some pictures an artist named Judith Cohn has taken of impromptu shelters devised by San Francisco street residents — here and here.

The pictures are mostly from a part of the city I’m familiar with — the area just to the north and west of Potrero Hill. In fact, I recognized several of the shelters and beaten-down RVs and trailers she’s taken pictures of because I’ve photographed them myself.

Above, without any further comment, pictures of San Francisco street homes I’ve taken in the last 12 months.

Trump and Life in the Reality-Based Community

I’ve been thinking about a moment I think presaged the rise of Trump — whose latest non-reality-based utterance is here:

Ford says Trump’s right. That’s because the company had no plans to move the plant to Mexico.

I don’t think Trump’s thinking big enough here. There’s a lot more he could be taking credit for.

“Just got a call from the man in the moon. Since I won, he no longer plans to smash into Earth. Will join cabinet. Huge! #MAGA”

We here in the reality-based community mean that as an attempt at humor and comment — not a report of something that actually happened out there in the perceivable world. You know, suggesting something absurd as a way of casting light on someone else’s grandiosity and distortions.

That phrase “reality-based community” came to mind recently when thinking about our soon-to-be commander-in-chief’s frequent non-fact-based pronouncements. He’s got a talent, and many of us who thought we grasped what was going on underestimated its power and appeal.

Here’s the origin of that saying, “reality-based community,” which comes from a 2004 feature by journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind’s piece was examining how George W. Bush arrived at his instinctive certainty that the disastrous course along which he had launched the nation — the war in Iraq — was true and correct.

Along the way, Suskind reported, he met with a Bush aide who gave a glimpse into the president’s and the administration’s approach to governing:

“… Then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Of course, there’s an unspeakable arrogance to that dismissal of those imprisoned in the world of “discernible reality” — not least because of the implicit contempt for the hundreds of thousands of men and women deployed again and again to confront the deadly violence of that reality.

So now, we’re confronted with a similar but much more directly expressed arrogance and dismissal of discernible facts. I think the challenge is to keep your eyes open, to believe what you’re seeing, and to call out the illusions we’re encouraged to see as reality and the reality we’re urged to think is just talk.

Fighting Faiths and the Marketplace of Ideas, Redux

So, I’ve mentioned Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919) before. More than 11 years ago, in fact, not that I’m particularly proud of that.

Holmes’s dissent is to fans of the First Amendment as Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” is to opera buffs, except Holmes didn’t take his act on the road. It’s a brief, tour de force exposition of the idea that governments should only in the most exceptional circumstances interfere with speech and expression.

Why does it come to mind now? Maybe it’s a light in dark, uncertain times. Although these are times, too, when the central premise of Holmes’s dissent — that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” — is contradicted by the recent triumph of unashamed bullshit.

Anyway, here’s the oft-quoted passage from the dissent:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

One of Holmes’s coinages there — “fighting faiths” — has always thrown me a little. My own clarification, after a little reading: He’s referring to ideals — freedom, for instance — that one feels compelled to fight for.