Burning Blame

Firefighting continues in California, but the most recent news is that there is hope the raging wildfires are being brought under control.

Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press:

The fires have destroyed 1,500 homes and caused at least a half-million people to flee – the largest evacuation in state history. At least 1,200 of the damaged homes were in San Diego County, and officials believe that number will rise.

“Clearly, this is going to be a $1 billion or more disaster,” Ron Lane, San Diego County’s director of emergency services, told reporters during a news conference.

The announcement of San Diego’s staggering losses came as President Bush signed a major disaster declaration for California in the wake of the wildfires that have charred about 426,000 acres, or about 665 square miles.

I’d say “Let the finger pointing begin,” but people didn’t wait for the fires to die down before beginning the Blame Game.

Frustration over the firefighting effort began to emerge Tuesday when a fire official said not enough had been done to protect homes.

Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather told reporters that firefighters’ lives were threatened because too few crews were on the ground. He said a quick deployment of aircraft could have corralled a massive blaze near Irvine.

The director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection disputes that. Yet there is grumbling. Kirk Johnson and Jennifer Steinhauer write in today’s New York Times,

Some fire officials were congratulating themselves on having avoided extensive loss of life, even setting dates for when the biggest fires might be brought under control.

But the second-guessing that comes with any natural disaster was already beginning. Questions were being raised about how the fight against the fires had been coordinated, how resources had been deployed and whether Southern California had become smarter after the 2003 fires that ripped the region and its psyche, or if it had just become lucky.

Some fire chiefs and elected officials said that they were angry with the state government for not adopting recommendations made by a blue-ribbon panel after the fires in 2003, in particular those that called for more firefighting equipment.

“There were a lot of calls for equipment and resources,” said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, who represents a district in Orange County. “When you have a finite amount of resources, you have to prioritize life and property first, and so we didn’t get water dropping until we started to lose structures.”

I’m watching from the other side of the continent so it’s hard to tell, but my impression is that Governor Schwarzenegger has been visibly active throughout the crisis. Jill Serjeant of Reuters writes,

… the California governor seemed to cement his transition from action movie star to serious politician with his unflagging crisis management of the worst wildfires to sweep the state in 100 years.

In the four days since some 20 blazes erupted across Southern California, burning hundreds of homes and sending half a million people fleeing, Schwarzenegger has been everywhere.

He has mobilized state funds, deployed National Guard troops and staged up to four news conferences a day at different venues.

Yet the reviews aren’t all positive. This is from an editorial in yesterday’s San Diego Union Tribune:

The response of local authorities to the horrific San Diego County wildfires has been a sharp improvement on what was seen during the 2003 Cedar and Paradise fires. But we’re not sure the same holds for state and federal officials.

It first became apparent last Thursday that the expected Sunday arrival of hot, windy Santa Ana conditions would put drought-stricken Southern California at grave risk. Sure enough, wildfires broke out in many areas. Why weren’t U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard planes already at nearby airfields and ready to drop water or retardant, by prearrangement of the Pentagon and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Instead, The Associated Press reported that the Pentagon’s OK of the governor’s request for such planes to help in San Diego County did not come until yesterday morning. The planes won’t join the fight until this morning — six days after experts first warned of a possible Santa Ana-fueled conflagration and nearly three days after the Witch Creek blaze began its rampage from Ramona west to Rancho Santa Fe and south to Poway. This is inexplicable.

Fingers have also pointed at Iraq, which has soaked up California National Guard troops and equipment that might otherwise have been deployed to fight the fires.

Today President Bush will visit California. Spencer S. Hsu writes for the Washington Post:

President Bush embarks this morning on a tour of the wildfires ravaging California to showcase his administration’s ability to respond better to natural disasters than it did after Hurricane Katrina two years ago. Yesterday, he pronounced the federal government’s actions “well-coordinated” after a Cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis.

Federal and state emergency managers say, however, that the two disasters can hardly be compared. Katrina’s floods and winds wreaked havoc on a far larger scale. California’s local responders lead the nation in training and coordination, while Louisiana’s rank near the bottom. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s responsibilities for battling wildfires are far more limited than its role in dealing with hurricane damage.

“FEMA is not getting a real test in putting direct federal assets on the ground,” said George W. Foresman, undersecretary of preparedness for the Department of Homeland Security in 2005 and 2006.

By contrast, even some Democrats say Bush has mastered the political response to the wildfires, a not-insignificant achievement that both fosters hope from the victims and spurs close coordination with local officials, starting with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Californians are lucky they have a Republican governor. Had the governor been a Democrat, the White House would have worked overtime thinking up ways to use the disaster to make him look bad. And if the past is any guide, whatever promises Bush makes to California today will be promptly forgotten as soon as he returns to Washington. On the other hand, California’s 55 electoral votes may inspire keen interest in follow-up among other Republicans in Washington, if not Bush himself.

The California fires are “Not Another Katrina,” declares the Washington Post. Give it time, I say. Ain’t a pooch born that Dubya can’t screw.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson writes for New American Media:

Bush was in a rush to get out front on the wildfires for good reason. He still reels from the big hits that he took, and continues to take, for his comatose response to the Katrina disaster. Charges of racism, insensitivity, bungling, incompetence, disdain for poor people, and Republicans playing politics with poor blacks’ lives were only a sampling of the digs that were hurled at Bush for fiddling while New Orleans and the Gulf region sank. Bush has barely a year left in his White House tenure. His domestic and foreign policy initiatives are in shambles. He has a pack of Republican presidential candidates screaming at him to do something, and do something fast, to rescue the flagging fortunes of the party and their candidacies. In short, to look and sound more presidential.

The California wildfires give him a chance to look like a strong, caring and decisive leader in a time of crisis, and to atone for his Katrina fumble. It also helps that the hundreds of homes that were wiped out were not in a poor, ramshackle, crime-plagued, inner city neighborhood such as the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, but are in middle and wealthy, suburban, resort and semi-rural neighborhoods and areas. A speedy offer of bushels of federal dollars and personnel is a win-win guarantee to draw public praise and applause. …

… But despite Bush’s speedy response, as terrible as the wildfires are and the suffering and damage that they have wreaked, they are no more horrific than the towering suffering and damage Katrina wreaked. Two years later, thousands of hurricane victims are jobless, homeless, stuck in trailers in distant cities. The hard hit, mostly black and poor Ninth Ward in New Orleans still looks like a ghost town. New Orleans officials still shout at the Bush administration to do more to speed up the glacial pace of the rebuilding process there.

As for the causes of the fire — you probably heard that Faux Snooze claimed a link between the fires and al Qaeda. Rightie bloggers picked up that ball and ran with it. I’m surprised they also didn’t blame illegal immigrants, although maybe they did and I missed it.

Arson is suspected in starting some of the fires. However, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, last year there were 86,184 “wildland” fires in the United States, burning 9,396,011 acres. Of those, 307 fires were in “protected” forests, according to the United States Forest Service. Of those 307 fires, 89 fires were caused by “debris burning,” 58 by lightning, 34 by campfires. And 22 were “incendiary,” which I’m assuming means they were deliberately set.

In other words, wildfires started by many means, including arson, are not exactly rare. The more interesting question is how the current fires got so out of control. I assume Osama bin Laden wasn’t personally fanning them.

Michelle Malkin was quick to blame environmentalists for the fires (this was before she picked up the arson angle). “Lawsuits have tied up the president’s Healthy Forests Initiative passed in 2003,” she said. I don’t know about the lawsuits, but it’s pretty much universally understood that the HFI intitiave, if fully implemented, wouldn’t have done a dadblamed thing to stop wildfires. Glenn Hurowitz writes that, among other things, the HFI “subsidizes the logging of fire-resistant old growth trees.”

Environmental groups claim that if the real purpose of HFI is to reduce forest fire hazzard, the initive would call for thinning of forests and underbrush on the edges of forests, near residential areas. Instead, HFI actually is more about allowing the cutting of big trees deep in national forests. According to the Environmental Protection Information Center,

Congress’ passage of “healthy forests” legislation marks the triumph of a propaganda campaign to change the debate over public forest policy. Though sold as a compromise by politicians and press, the bill gives the Bush Administration–and the logging industry–pretty much what it asked for (see The Legislation sidebar). Thus, the law adds force to a radical program of forest policy changes already underway, and already sweeping in its implications.

The law conflicts with sound science and common sense, failing to provide increased protection from fire for human communities. However, in the Senate, all but 14 environmental votes abandoned forest defense in the furor over huge fires in Southern California. Those fires burned primarily in windswept, fire-adapted chaparral invaded by suburbs, miles from any National Forest. They devastated places where the “healthy forests” bill, tied to National Forests, could never and will never have any effect at all. Human tragedy, death, and property destruction were used as political props to pass a law that will pry open our remnant backcountry forests to industrial logging and development.

The Sierra Club, October 2003:

The current fires in California are a clear example of the importance of prioritizing the prevention efforts near where people live. Along with the Malibu fires of a decade ago and other more recent fires, there is no shortage of evidence indicating the essential role that clearing brush near communities plays in protecting homes and lives. In these areas, the risk of wildfires always exists, and there are steps we can take to help protect homes and lives. The Forest Service’s own fire scientists found that the best way to protect communities from fire is to thin brush and small trees within 500 yards of where people live. But that’s not where the bulk of attention is from the Bush administration and Congress. Instead, they focus on thinning in the backcountry and across the landscape.

Bryan Walsh writes about the current fires in Time:

More than 8.6 million Western homes have been built within 30 miles (50 km) of national forest since 1982; in California, where the population has more than tripled since 1950, in excess of 50% of new housing has been built in a severe-fire zone. That’s risky for obvious reasons: if more people choose to live in areas threatened by fire, more people will be in harm’s way when disaster finally strikes. But those houses, especially if owners fail to prioritize fire safety, are often more sensitive to fire than are untouched forests, and just a few scattered houses in the woods can amplify a wildfire. “Isolated homes surrounded by natural vegetation are probably the most dangerous combination for fires,” says Jon Keeley, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geographical Survey (USGS).

The current fires, Walsh writes, were born of a wet winter in 2004-05, which encouraged tree and shrub growth, followed by extremely dry weather since, which turned all that growth into kindling. Add “Godzilla” sized Santa Ana winds, and you’ve got a heckofa fire. Unless al Qaeda has figured out how to control weather, they can’t take credit for the devastation.

What about global climate change? Some people are stating confidently that global warming is not behind the southern California fires, but it seems to me they are jumping the gun. What was behind the prolonged drought? What was behind the unusually high Santa Ana winds (except perhaps huffing and puffing jihadis)? I don’t think there’s proof that global climate change was a cause of the fires, but I don’t see how it can be so glibly ruled out.

Peter Fimrite writes in today’s San Francisco Chronicle,

The 16 wind-blown fires that forced the largest mass evacuation in California history may or may not be the result of climate change, but studies have shown that the hot drought conditions that fed the flames are becoming more common.

“Fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and to property,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said. “Each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer.”

The flames stretching from Malibu to the Mexican border struck during the driest year in Southern California history. Measurements taken by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection detected less than 10 percent moisture in the region’s vegetation. The moisture level in kiln-dried lumber is generally 12 percent.

“They got less rain than they’ve ever gotten,” said Hugh Safford, a Forest Service ecologist. “Any time you have a dry year like this one, you are going to get fires.”

It is so dry that state forestry officials said a newly shod horse started a fire earlier in the year from the sparks it created running on the pavement.

Hey, that might have been a Muslim horse.

15 thoughts on “Burning Blame

  1. “Ain’t a pooch born that Dubya can’t screw.”

    Someone should write a book about our Republican Government, entitled “The Wrong Stuff.”
    These evil clown’s, whether it’s the war, the environment, Katrina, these fires, have the reverse of the Midas touch. It’s not just that what they touch that turns to $#!T; it’s anything they even gaze upon.
    Reverse the term Midas touch. Call if the Sadim touch. Hey, Sadim, it sound’s Muslim!

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  3. …a couple of things that I wish would go away in this whole post-fire blame game are “Where was the National Guard” and “is it the fault of environmentalists or the misguided Healthy Forest Initiative”…

    …most of the early resource need during these fires was for structural protection using engines, which the Guard doesn’t have all that much of. The Guard is a valuable tool because of its transport, communications, and logistics capabilities, but without a couple of days of required training on basic fire-fighting skills and safety, it isn’t always a readily available force for direct suppression activities…

    …regardless of whether it’s Malkin or some other set of flapping gums making points and counterpoints, the fact remains that many (not all, but many) of these large fires ignited on land other than that managed by the Forest Service and in areas that the Healthy Forest Initiative wasn’t targeted for in any case. There is plenty of discussion to be had about habitation and fire safety on the urban interface, as there is about reducing the risks from real live forest fires in places like Arrowhead and Big Bear Lakes, but some of this other chatter is just useless noise…

  4. There is no doubt that forest mismanagement, and not environmental regs, has led to increased fires. The quote above from the Environmental Protection Information Center nails it. Under the guise of protecting forests against fire, logging companies use that as an excuse to get into old-growth forests and get the big trees that are fire-resistant, leaving the small, highly flammable brush and thin trees (which they charmingly call “pecker poles”).

    We’re talking big money when it comes to harvesting old-growth trees: in some areas a single tree can yield $100,000 or more on the market. Until the penalties for illegal logging are increased, they, and the destructive consequences which logging companies externalize to the public, are just a cost of doing business and will continue apace.

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  6. California isn’t the Gulf Coast, and being something like the ninth largest economy in the world, we’ll pull through this disaster with or without Bush or the Federal Government, or for that matter Arnold Schwarzenegger. And so it’s kind of ready made for Bush to appear, play Commander Guy, make all kinds of magnanimous but empty promises, and presto – the state will regenerate itself. See, Republicans can be competent afer all.

    The rebuttal to this is Katrina – it’s easy for a wealthy state like California to pick itself up by itself. We therefore need to keep the attention on New Orleans, where Republican incompetence and indifference will be the sharp contrast to California’s rebuilding.

    At some point, someone is going to publicly connect the dots between this disaster and all the fires the west has suffered in recent years, and despite what the rightards are bleating today, the evidence will point toward global warming. So let them bleat and be foolish.

    I do appreciate the exposition here of the orwellian Healthy Forest Initiative and how this had little to do with the current disaster, because I know I’m going to have to defend environmentalists at some point.

  7. ‘No one could have predicted that a very wet season, followed by extreme drought would have led to such conditions …”

    Oh, wait. Yeah, they did.

    Cunning of al Qaeda to have traveled back in time and inspired a fossil-fuel economy to promote the global warming which would bedevil the infidels of the West.

    I find myself thinking that many of those new houses built on the wildland boundary were built with technologies best suited for relatively wet suburban settings, not chaparral and desert locations. The images I’ve seen on TV don’t feature many homes built of adobe or concrete, for example. You’d think that, by now, we’d have gotten a little better about realizing that you can’t fool Mother Nature. I guess it isn’t in the economic interest of developers to build tracts of “odd” looking houses that won’t sell easily, even if they would be able to withstand the inevitable fire season.

  8. One of the hardest hit areas is my hometown – grew up in Poway, have friends in Ramona, and knew most of the street names I saw on TV in nearby RB where hundreds of houses burned down. So here’s my two cents:

    First, there’s a lot of BS showing up on the internet from a bunch of sidewindin’ Bush-wackin’ hornswaglin’ cracker croakers trying to make something out of this that it isn’t, particularly anyone remotely associated with pajamas media and their ilk.

    This emergency is fundamentally different than Katrina – the hurricane and floods took out a big chunk of the city and its infrastructure all at once, leaving a much higher level of immediate human desperation in its wake. Large brush fires like this are visible at great distances, and most people living in these areas have seen fires before, know what to look for, understand the weather and lay of the land, and have a pretty good idea when its time to get out of dodge – for every person you see on TV evacuating at the last minute, there are dozens that planned ahead and got themselves out of the way before the danger was immanent.

    My interpretation is that these fires result from a rare combination of over-development, known-to-be-insufficient local resources, and an extraordinarily bad set of weather conditions that has precipitated a disaster like this for several years – lots of rain one year followed by several dry years, etc. Al-Qaeda aside (bwahahah!!), California has plenty of homegrown crazies – how about the Manson family or the SLA? Otherwise, most of these fires seem to have been started by events I would call “man-made yet accidental” such as power lines downed by the wind, or the construction site welding sparks that apparantly started the fire by Stevenson Ranch.

    Seems reasonable to me that if you allow enough development and human activity in fire prone areas, eventually you reach a critical mass for fires started by man-made yet accidental events – maybe we’ve reached that point. Fires around here usually occur periodically throughout the season, but it’s unheard of to have so many burning at the same time. During the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego, resources were available from surrounding counties to help out, but not when 18 fires are burning in the 7 surrounding counties simultaneously, and one of those fires is in and of itself unprecedented in size.

    I wouldn’t dismiss global warming out of hand, but it seems minimally relevant here – as a native southern californian it seems consistent with local weather patterns that Santa Ana winds as massive as this would occur from time to time here even before the industrial era, and would have caused fires like this if the same areas were as densely populated and exposed to as many power lines, construction sites, or lit cigarettes tossed out of car windows.

  9. Much of Australia is the same type of climate and landscape as southern California. Do they build wooden homes with wooden shingles?

    No. Because wildfires are a constant problem there. Newer houses are concrete, with metal roofs. And many survive the fires.

    We should learn from them, espcecially if global warming persists, and people insist on building in fire zones.

  10. “I’m surprised they also didn’t blame illegal immigrants, although maybe they did and I missed it.” – Maha

    Looks like they actually are blaming illegal immigrants. I was reading the comments at Atlas Shrugged, which you linked to above, and I guess they think a certain percentage of forest fires in the area can be attributed to illegal immigrants, and that they might have also caused these. Islamo-phobia sites really are on the cutting edge of paranoia.

  11. I have to weigh in on a couple of issues, since I was raised in CA. Building codes in CA reflect the earthquake risk. Masonry, adobe and other fireproof materials are rigid, which makes for huge structural damge, even in a small quake. Wood frame is preferred, because it will flex, Several of my siblings own homes within miles of the Loma Prieta quake (88, I think) and the damage to their homes was minimal.

    The Sierra Club was right; the best protection is a buffer of undeveloped land; they suggested 500 yards. As a defense against the Santa Anna winds you only need that much buffer on the eastern edge. But folks, in case you had not heard, land is EXPENSIVE in CA. 500 yards is 5 football fields end to end to end. The plan would work if & only if the planning boards banned any development upwind of the buffer – (or had the owners admit the risk and accept the liability). Unfortunately, planning boards are usually as spinelss as jellyfish. The mayor and supervisors want to get reelected and the developers will contribute to campaigns so the ashes will be swept under the rug before they are cold.

    Some of these fires were arson, and I am willing to bet even-money it’s a domestic firebug.

    I worked for a logging company, years ago. Theres a few things to understand. Hardwood grows slow; 25, 30 years oak acorn to kitchen cabinet. It does not need to be an export item, and the total harvesting we allow should be offset by hardwood planted with a reasonable chance the groves will reach maturity. Softwood, pine for example, is good for 2 x 4s and plywood and grows faster; it can be harvested in as little as 5 years. The national parks system was intended to preserve the natual beauty of the USA, not be gutted by greedy companies for export to Asia or Europe.

  12. I live where I can smell the smoke and am unable to offer intelligent comment regarding anticipatory placement of planes or the number available. However, I can say that Californians take the fires seriously and have nothing but appreciation and respect for firefighters. If the firefighters cite lack of support that would carry a lot more weight and demand immediate attention as opposed to a politician expressing the same.

    I know firefighters and will no doubt talk to some eventually after they finish and rest.

    Malibu is an interesting situation. Most of SoCal is desert and without irrigation, little of it would be green. The San Fernando Valley is ringed by mountains that prevent the circulation of winds. When winds come from the east across miles of desert it gets very hot in the valley, sometimes 115-118. The beaches are cool due to Pacific water temps (65 summer, 58 winter). There is a Canyon that leads from the valley to Malibu, mostly rock with steep walls.

    Given the relationship between hot and cool air, when the Santa Anas start and the valley heats up the hot air is sucked through the canyon to the coast reaching high velocities. Spark, lightning, downed power lines, car exhausts, a lit cigarette but tossed out a window, or arson and there can be a huge fire within a few minutes. Add 50mph winds blowing towards Mel Gibsons house and there is almost no way that a response could be fast enough.

    Last Sunday at 5:30am I was sitting with a friend in the parking lot at El Porto in Manhattan Beach, CA on the southern end of the crescent formed by the Santa Monica Bay. As we looked to the hills on the finger of land extending into the Pacific on the north end of the bay we saw the glow of flames that would grow and shrink. Given distance and scale it was clear that there were 40-60mph wind gusts fanning flames hundreds of yards into the air.

    Just 25 short miles away where we sat waiting on the sun to rise before going surfing the winds were calm. The next few days were uncharacteristically warm, wonderful beach days with rare balmy evenings that led people to favor t-shirts over the standard equipment — hooded sweat shirts or jackets. We felt guilty enjoying it because of what came with it and the costs paid by so many.

    UCLA professor of history, Mike Davis, has an interesting take on all this. He suggests that, given the unique incendiary geography of Malibu, that the fully aware, wealthy who build there, are in effect being subsidized by city and insurance companies. He has spoken on the radio and his interviews were ongoing during the fire.

    I can’t say I agree with his take but I’m not sure what liberties insurance companies have to increase premiums for those who, by choice, assume greater risks.

    One blogger seems to side with Davis (whose book and further reviews of it can be found on Amazon):


    It should be noted that not all areas afflicted by the recent wildfires have the same peculiar geography as Malibu does. It has just been very dry here for the last year…record low rainfall, and a La Nina pattern is setting in for the coming year by which high pressure ridges tend to ward off the storms that bring much needed rain.

  13. Re: “my impression is that Governor Schwarzenegger has been visibly active throughout the crisis. ”

    Don’t forget the old saying “Behind Every Good Man is a Good Woman”. I’ll bet Maria is behind Schwarzenegger’s presence.

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