Summit Fire

Five years ago today, I awoke to the ringing phone – “There is a fire in your area. CalFire recommends that you evacuate.”

The sky was clear blue out two sets of windows and in almost every direction outside. But the tower of smoke loomed in the direction of the only road out of here. I quickly packed a few things and got out. I didn’t have any special things organized together.


Long ago, I woke up in a house where the adjacent room was on fire. It seemed a little warm for the morning. I got up and found the adjoining bathroom full of smoke. That really makes a lasting impression. Smoke can kill you even when there are no immediate flames.

The Summit Fire was the first big California wild fire of 2008, a year with far too many fires. With more than 4,000 acres of forest burning, the smoke plume was visible dozens of miles all the way down to the ocean. This is Freedom Blvd near Hwy 1 looking back towards Corralitos:


I read at the time in a firefighter’s blog, that the most gut wrenching thing about fires along the Wildland Urban Interface Zone is triage – some houses just can’t be saved. My house was literally on the front line:


From a few miles away, it looked more like Mordor than the usual sunny deep green:

Luckily near my house it was primarily a ground fire. The winds were quickly shifting direction, so the flames didn’t stay in place long enough to catch the trees. They call the redwoods “the asbestos forest” as their thick bark protects the wood and makes them hard to burn. It was very dry that year. When I mowed the yard the week before and the remaining grass seemed to dry out and turn the color of straw before my eyes. A deep layer of leaves and other flammable detritus was consumed, leaving ash that looked like a thin covering of snow:

A few stumps were still smoldering 3 days later:

These panels, for the water pressure pump, are about 40 feet from the back of the house:

I made a page at the time to commemorate those events:

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Pinnacles National Monument

The Pinnacles formed as a volcano in southern California. Over millions of years, tectonic plate action along the San Andreas fault has moved it a few hundred miles north to its present location.

Some of the last breeding pairs of the endangered California condor were released here. Adult condors weight up to 20 pounds wing spans up to 9 feet across. They nest in the High Peaks area.

There is no road through the park, so you have to plan which side you want to approach. The east side is off Hwy 25 south of Hollister, and the west is on route 146 off 101 near Soledad. Camping is on the east side only.

This is the approach from the west side. The Balconies trail to the left goes north, while the Juniper Canyon Trail climbs to the south and up to the High Peaks:

There are many interesting rock formations and colorful lichens:


The Balconies seen from the Juniper Canyon Trail looking north:


There are lots of caves here, be sure to bring a good flashlight. I got this nice low light shot (1 sec exposure) in the Balconies Caves:


The High Peaks from the east side. At the Overlook on the Condor Gulch trail.

IMG_0858sI saw several large birds up there, circling late in the afternoon, but I don’t think they were condors. I’ll have to go back some day with a longer lens to get better long distance closeups.

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Visiting the Bees

April is often the busiest month of the year for honey bees. They have been building up population since the weather started to get warmer in the early spring, in order to have lots of foragers ready when the flowers start to bloom and the nectar starts to flow. It’s a good time for beekeepers to take a look inside and see how they are doing. If it gets too crowded in the hive, the colony may decide to swarm.

Swarming is widely misunderstood. Rather than just “a cloud of bees”, a swarm is the specific reproduction strategy that an overcrowded colony uses to split itself and establish a new colony. The older foraging bees gorge themselves on honey and they leave the hive with the queen to find another place to live. The younger nurse bees, who tend the brood nest, stay and create a new queen from a one day old egg.

A beekeeper can usually prevent this loss of bees by preemptively splitting the hive. Here is a healthy hive, with activity on the frames in the center:


I use a lot of No Foundation (NF) frames, letting the bees create the wax comb according to their own desires. Most people use plastic or wax sheet foundation. The bees are still building comb on this NF frame towards the outside, where it will be used for honey or pollen storage:


This is a plastic frame from the other end. The colored cells in the middle are pollen storage, and the clear cells on the left and right are nectar that will cure into honey:


The frames near the middle are the brood nest where the queen lays eggs and new bees grow. The nearly complete pattern is an excellent sign of a healthy, productive queen:


This frame has larger drone cells. A few cells near the top edge have white dots visible. Those are new eggs, which means that the queen is actively laying. Some white “C” shaped larvae can be seen along the bottom edge, where the cells that have not been capped yet:


The new split, with 2 frames of brood in the middle, surrounded by 2 frames of honey and pollen:CIMG2477s


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Vermont Sharp Cheddar

This blog started on the way back from my Oct’12 trip to Vermont for the fall foliage season. In the spring, it’s skiing and visiting family for birthdays.

We visited the Cabot cheese factory, in the town of Cabot and took their factory tour. This is the place if you like extra sharp cheddar cheese.


They show a 10 minute video which tells the story of the Cabot Cooperative, started 100 years ago, and now collecting milk from farms in Vermont, Mass and New York state.

Those towers hold a million pounds of milk. Milk is sold at wholesale by the hundred weight, 100 pounds or about 12 gallons. It arrives every day of the year in trucks, 40,000 to 80,000 pounds at a time. The million pounds in the silos lasts for 3-4 days of production, also 364 days per year.

Vermont being a diary and tourist state, has a simple rule to govern the order in which roads get plowed when it snows. It snows a lot in Vermont. Since cows don’t take holidays, the milk routes are first, then the schools, then the skiiers, then the smaller local roads.

Years ago, I took the longer Tillamook tour in Oregon, home the mild cheddar famous on the west coast, so I already had some idea of how cheese is made on a grand scale. They heat the milk, add cheese cultures and enzymes, then stir it in huge tanks as the curds form and separate from the whey. In the old days the whey was just discarded, as no one but a few pig farmers had any idea what to do with it. Now it’s the basis of a new industry making protein supplements, bars, shakes, etc. Once the whey is drained from the tanks, they pull the curds out with an auger in the bottom of the tank, and compact the cheese into large blocks. The blocks are vacuum packed, boxed and sent to the aging warehouse for 90 days to 2 and sometimes up to 6 years. The flavor sharpens over time, so the mild varieties are the 3 to 6 months, and the sharp ones are 18 to 24 months. Over 2 years are extra sharp and special vintage varieties.

I skied one day at Stowe, but no pictures because it was snowing and nearly a white out. The snow seemed much wetter and heavier than the higher elevation (3000 vs 8000 ft) Sierra snow I’m used to. I did get to re-visit the Mountain Chapel on the Toll Road trail – imagine this without the leaves, all covered in white:

Mt Mansfield Mountain Chapel

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Solar Wax Melter

These are used to remove excess wax from the frames that fill honey bee hives.

Most of the links to solar wax melters point to the same design, from some universtiy or Ag Extension. It’s large enough to hold a handfull of deep frames. It’s much bigger than what I needed for occasional old frame cleanup and chunks of burr comb. I’m OK with leaving it out for a few days.

This one is built from a standard medium height 10 frame hive box,a large non-stick broiler pan, and a sheet of glass in a wood frame.


It’s painted black inside and out to promote heat absorption, and has a flat bottom with a piece of foam to insulate the pan. It probably wouldn’t be hard to add a stand, but I just prop it up on a table. The screen works as it is, though it certainly could be better shaped. I had to wrestle a bit to break it loose of the wax.


I took out the collected wax and let the rest bake in the sun. After a few days, there was no more additional yield. Then I washed out the pan and ran the chunks of wax through the same process again to remove the bits that got through the screen. The wax color gets a little lighter each pass.

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Rain and Snow

It almost never rains here in the summer. When it does rain in the winter, we usually get a lot of it all at once. Everything that grows needs the water, so that’s good, but heavy rain also can cause moderate to severe damage to driveways and roads. Mudslides in the mountains can wreck both modern freeways and primitive backwoods roads.

My driveway has number of these culverts made from a pressure treated lumber – a 2×6 on the bottom and two 2x4s on the sides:
This is not a bad design, it keeps the leaves from clogging the pipe, and water will continue to flow even when there are plenty of leaves in the basin:
Unfortunately in a heavy rain the runoff of road base, sand and gravel overwhelms the grate. Then the water just flows over the whole mess to wreek havoc down the driveway, causing deep ruts:

The good part about heavy rain is that the Sierras get heavy snow! Then we get to forget about maintenance headaches at home and enjoy the skiing.

Lake Tahoe as seen from the top of the Upper Ramsey’s trail on Mt Rose:
Looking down to the valley south of Reno from the “Slide side”:

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Signs of Spring

Spring doesn’t officially start until later in March, but I’ve already got things growing outside. My green house has a cover which keeps the hard rain at bay, but the ends aren’t covered, so it doesn’t really provide much heat benefit. It rarely if ever freezes in these parts, but it still needs to be fixed even with warmer weather on the way, because some birds have found the delectable sprouts.

I went away for a week and came back to new pea plants. These are Renee’s Oregon Giant Snow Peas, delicious in stir frys, and they are said to enjoy cooler weather.

The 3 in back were started indoors and have continued growing outside, the ones in front started outside in mid February.

We’ve got lots of newts (Taricha torosa) in the forest. They start out as eggs in the water, and they seem to inhabit every little pool:


There are at least 8 in here, of various sizes:


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Dawn Foam Refill

Here’s a little trick I figured out.

I really like Dawn(tm,c,r,etc) as it tackles grease very well.

The normal concentrated stuff comes in big bottles and gets discounted at big stores.

The “Direct Foam” type is quite handy but only comes in expensive little bottles.

Just putting the regular deep blue concentrate into the foamer doesn’t work. It’s too thick to make any foam. But I thought the product is the same, so there must be a way to use the normal stuff to refill the foamer.

The key is that word “concentrated” – it has to be diluted!

Sure enough, if you mix 1 part of the dark blue concentrated Dawn with 3 parts water, stirred not shaken (opposite of Mr Bond’s martinis) and let it settle to a uniform consistency, it works fine.

The resulting mixture is a lighter blue and refills the foamer very nicely:

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A Couple of Sunsets

The colors and dark silhouettes in one taken near home in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains:


remind me of this old favorite, which I took a couple of years ago near Gila Bend in Arizona:


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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

This was an interesting day trip in southern California last October.

Mount San Jacinto State Park is a wooded wilderness on a mountain top 10,000 feet above the desert. It’s 20 degrees cooler in the summer and like Big Bear it gets snow in the winter.

The cable is a straight shot up to the top, with no more than half a dozen pylons, so you’re hanging on the cable for some pretty long stretches. The tram holds about 30 people which seems to have a calming effect on the folks who were a bit nervous.

View from close to the top:

There are two cars on the line. Here you can see the other tram car going down the other side:

A nice forest on top with lots of trails to hike. But be careful because the altitude sneaks up on you. Hiking at 10,000 feet is not the same as sea level.

The park rangers require a permit to go into the back country and/or camp overnight. That seems just a formality so they know who is up there.

A wide variety of birds and animals are at home in this refuge in the sky. Most of the big ones are probably hiding in the wilderness areas. I found this little guy not too far from the picnic tables:

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