Calgary Rocked by Storm: Flooding, Lightning and Fires

Last night (June 5th) around 7 pm, a fierce rain came pouring down from the clouds, and within an hour the sky was alight with flashes from lightning. The thunder was booming, and I working on editing some photos from a recent exotic car event I photographed on Sunday. We had a brief power outage, and I expected my three UPS units in my office to do their jobs. When the power outage was over less than one second after it started, only one of my computers was left standing. Hrmph. What went wrong? They say there’s nothing like an emergency to test how ready you really are, and this certainly proved that I wasn’t ready for a power outage from a technology standpoint. I sat on the floor and started to examine which power cables went where. Much to my surprise I had accidentally connected two PCs to the same UPS, and it couldn’t handle the load. While this was going on, another two outages happened. I re-wired things so that two of my UPS’ only had one PC and one monitor connected to it, and my main workstation UPS (a brand new APC XS 1300 with a slick LCD display telling me current load levels and power draw) had the guts to take two PCs and two 24″ LCD displays.

I turned on the other two PCs and sat back with a satisfied grin thinking “Ok, bring it on, I’m ready now!”. I didn’t have to wait long, because the next outage hit a few minutes later. This time only one of my PCs blinked off, but I was expecting none of them to shut down. I took at look at the UPS it was connected to and it turns out that I bought a wussy one that could only handle 200 watts of draw – and I bet I was pulling just over that, around 250 or 275 watts. I turned off that PC and resumed work on my main workstation. Four more power outages happened, but all of my back-room gear (cable modem, WiFi router, switches, etc.) were all holding up because they were split up among two more UPS units. I have six UPS units in my home.

The thunder continued to boom, over and over, and the lightning strikes blazed in the sky. I started to notice the odour of smoke, but I didn’t think anything of it (idiot that I am). Ashley told me that there was a house on fire down the street from us, and I couldn’t believe it! I looked out my walk-out basement window and sure enough, amidst the sheets of falling rain there was thick black smoke rising from a house just a few homes down from us. When you see something like that, it’s a strange sensation. I thought “Ok, fire in the rain, this can’t last long, we’re not in any danger.” (Well, actually, I think my first thought was “HOLY CRAP, WHAT THE HELL?!?”). I grabbed my Canon SD800 digital camera, put on a jacket, and went outside with Ashley. There were already police and fire trucks on the street (why didn’t they turn on their sirens so we’d know there was something happening?) so that was a relief that help was already there. That meant though, of course, that the lightning strike that started the fire occurred at least 20 minutes prior. It’s a bit scary to think that there was a blazing fire a few hundred feet from my home and I had no clue.

Since the fire was on the back side of the house, we walked to our back yard to get a better vantage point. Boy did we ever!


Our neighbour two houses over, only two houses away from the fire, was out on her balcony and she told us that the three people living in the house were ok, they got out safe, and they were across the street in another house. Once I heard that, I felt free to take pictures of the fire – I felt that if someone was hurt or killed in the fire, me snapping pictures would be insulting (even if the people in question never heard about it). Some might argue that the loss of personal property is also an injury of a sort, but property damage pales in comparison to the loss of a human life.

There are a few more pictures of the fire in this photo gallery. We watched the fire fighters spraying the fire from the ground with a single hose for a while, and it only seemed to be getting worse. I don’t know much about fire fighting, but what they were doing didn’t seem to be doing much good. At that point it might have been more about containment than actually trying to put it out. What’s amazing of course is that it was still pouring rain, and the fire was blazing. Our neighbours (Ken and Adrian) on the opposite side (away from the fire) came out and we were discussing the situation with them. When he heard about the fire Ken wisely moved his work truck – which is full of compressed gas – down a block, just in case. I didn’t think we needed to worry about evacuating yet, because it would take a strong wind and a cessation of the rain to make things more dangerous. I noticed that someone had parked a car on our driveway, so I pulled my other car out onto the driveway just in case we needed to drive out of there. Here are a couple more pictures of the fire fighters:



Did I mention the insane flooding? Below is a picture of the green space behind our house – and no, it doesn’t normally come with a lake. There are storm drains there act as a pressure release for water being drained in other parts of the area, so it comes slamming up fast and in 30 minutes it was full. Our house is thankfully about 20 feet above this, so there’s little fear of flooding.


This morning I went out to see what the house looked like, and thankfully it didn’t look like it spread or did enough damage to collapse the roof in. I can’t imagine what the house looks like on the inside though, I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire inside was destroyed by fire. I know nothing about building repair, so would damage like this be repaired with a new roof? Or would they rip the house down to the foundation and build a new house? Calgary is undergoing a massive boom right now – house prices have doubled from what they were five years ago – so I hope the family in question can get the help they need and fast.


Oh and remember the flooded green space above? Here’s what it’s supposed to look like (photo taken this morning at 6:30 am):


How did my fair city fare elsewhere? Well…not so good. The amount of water caused all manner of problems (note that I didn’t take any of these pictures below):




See that yellow truck under the bridge? It’s free floating – I bet the water was 20 feet deep. Now, to be fair, this was no Katrina-level disaster. On the other hand, Calgary is remarkably unable to deal with water problems because we have so many low-land points and little to no drainage – so even a moderate water problem causes problems. Kind of like when five snowflakes fall in Seattle. 😉 We can deal with six feet of snow easier than 12 inches of water.

Last night Ashley and I had some good discussions about what we’d do if our house caught on fire. Given that all of our photos, music, and data is backed up off-site (via Carbonite) we decided we’d grab our dog, my laptop, and a few important documents and that’s it. Everything else can be replaced. Although now that I think about it, I don’t have an inventory of our DVD collection, and those aren’t ripped to a digital format, so replacing all of them might be difficult. A flaw in my plan! Emergencies like this sure do make you think though…

Be sure to check out the full photo gallery for all my pictures of the fire and collected images of flooding around Calgary – I’ll be adding to it as I find more images of what our city went through last night.

UPDATE: I thought it would be worth pointing out that I no longer use Carbonite because, frankly, they suck. Here’s an article why (short version: they don’t back up all your files). I was quite happy with Mozy for a while, then they jacked my rates by 1390% and I left them in a hurry. I’m currently using Crashplan and their pricing and service level is great.