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 presidentâ€™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.