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October 29, 2003

NATURAL DISASTER

CALIFORNIA FIRESTORM

Southern California wildfires cover labs with ash, close universities and companies

ELIZABETH K. WILSON, C&EN WEST COAST NEWS BUREAU

In the smoky aftermath of the wildfires still ravaging Southern California, chemistry professor Shenda M. Baker may have to replace the fine filters that keep her surface chemistry experiments free of particulates. But she's still got her house.

Speaking from her office at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Baker describes how she, her husband, and their two children nearly lost their home in the hills of San Antonio Heights as the fire swept through their neighborhood on Saturday night.

Their savior was a neighbor who refused to leave despite being ordered to evacuate. Instead, he sat there with a hose, soaking their yard. The fire destroyed seven neighboring houses but only blazed through Baker's backyard.

"He saved our home," Baker says. "I'm thrilled because I have a house to clean."

The hot offshore winds that whipped the giant clusters of fires through large sections of Southeast California, from Simi Valley to Mexico, are finally dying down after four days. Even so, fires continue to burn out of control, spreading through canyons and mountains. As of Oct. 29, more than 600,000 acres had burned, more than 2,000 homes had been destroyed, and 16 people had been killed.

Once the fires started, they went out of control, says Mark O'Neil-Johnson, senior director of scientific development at Sequoia Sciences, a natural products drug discovery company in San Diego. "I don't care what type of technology [firefighters] had, there was no stopping this thing."

The San Diego area was particularly hard hit, with at least 12 fatalities and around 1,000 homes lost. San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy asked all companies to close on Monday because of bad air and clogged freeways. San Diego-based Diversa set up a toll-free telephone number to keep its employees apprised of conditions. The company changed its air filters on Monday and will probably change them again next week, says Sean West, senior environmental health and safety manager. So far, no particulates have filtered into sensitive areas. "The lab environments are still clean," he says. "The only area where we had any ash is the front lobby." Diversa's large-scale manufacturing operations are elsewhere, so customer support wasn't interrupted, says Edward T. Shonsey, executive vice president.

On Oct. 27, University of San Diego chemistry professor Tammy J. Dwyer observed, "There is ash covering everything, blowing inside when doors are opened. Most people outside are wearing dust masks or wet cloths over their faces."

Dwyer, who has family members and colleagues whose houses were in danger, added, "Flames got only as close as a mile and a half from our home. We are very fortunate."

Baker, who was returning from Toronto on Sunday, saw the fire's giant thumbprint on the atmosphere from her airplane window. "We looked down and it was just pitch black with smoke," she says.

Farther north, fires threatened California State University in San Bernardino. Chemistry professor Kimberley R. Cousins sat in her office on Tuesday (Oct. 28), though the campus was still officially closed, and took stock of the fire's impact. "The campus is largely unscathed. We lost some temporary classrooms and a temporary recreation center at the back of the campus," she says. But the physical sciences building that houses the chemistry department, "other than being sooty and smoky," escaped.

"There are still fires raging all around us, but since the chaparral nearest campus is already burned, it's highly unlikely that the fire will return here," Cousins adds.

An eerie stillness settled over the Sorrento Valley area of San Diego on Tuesday, O'Neil-Johnson says. Though he and his colleagues at Sequoia continued their usual work schedule despite the mayor's suggestion to close, the smoke hung in the air. "You can smell it, you can see it. You look outside, and the outside lights are on because it's dark," he says.

Smoke damage to lab equipment has yet to be assessed, researchers say. Baker is concerned about the small-pored filters that protect her lab and could be clogged with ash. Cousins doesn't yet know of any damage to her lab, but "the two computers in my office are still functioning," she says.

But most of all, with the immediate fire danger passing, researchers must now simply wait for the smoke to dissipate. "I think we won't approach normalcy until the air clears substantially," Dwyer says.

BURNING BRIGHT This natural color image from NASA's multiangle imaging spectroradiometer highlights plumes of smoke from wildfires near the California-Mexico border, San Diego, Camp Pendleton, the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, and in and around Simi Valley on Sunday, Oct. 26.

NASA PHOTO



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