California Burning

California Burning

The 52nd Congressional District of California, where I grew up, encompasses the eastern suburbs of San Diego as well as a vast hinterland of granite-bouldered mountains and almost impenetrable

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The 52nd Congressional District of California, where I grew up, encompasses the eastern suburbs of San Diego as well as a vast hinterland of granite-bouldered mountains and almost impenetrable manzanita chaparral. In recent years this picturesque back country has been a magnet for trophy homes, luxury estates and horse ranches. Its older, Ozark-like culture of modest cabins and pickup trucks, cowboys and Indians, has been overwhelmed by the new chardonnay and Hummer folkways of stockbrokers and software engineers. Developers and county supervisors, eager to service the soaring demand for luxury living in low-tax unincorporated areas, have paid little heed to persistent warnings from fire officials that 80 percent of the brush was more than twenty years old and thus explosively flammable. Likewise, until the beginning of this year, scant attention was given to the bark-beetle infestation, following in the wake of the driest year in San Diego history, that is killing pine forests in local mountains.

Now nearly 300,000 acres of the 52nd district, including parts of nine Indian reservations, are an ashen desert. (“Hiroshima,” gasped an awed childhood friend.) For a full week, a whirling dervish of a firestorm–flames 200 feet high erupting across a twenty-five-mile-wide front–chased firefighters back and forth across rugged terrain. Started by a lost hunter’s careless flare, wind-whipped flames initially raced westward at high speed, overtaking and burning alive a dozen rural residents. Within a day they were incinerating affluent lifestyles in eucalyptus groves east of La Jolla, as well as more modest homes in Tierrasanta, well inside the San Diego city limits. Making an about-face at the command of onshore winds, the firestorm then returned toward its point of origin in the mountains.

At this writing, authorities estimate that the death toll from the ten great wildfires that swept Southern California will exceed twenty. More than 3,600 homes and businesses are now charcoal. One belonged to GOP Representative Duncan Hunter, the paleoconservative chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Together with his personal megaphone, hate-radio host Roger Hedgecock, Hunter is demanding old-fashioned frontier justice. In their view, the chief arsonist is lame-duck Governor Gray Davis, who, they claim, failed to dispatch aerial tankers and water-dropping helicopters that could have squelched the “Cedar Fire,” the most murderous of the conflagrations. (Fierce Santa Ana winds and darkness, forestry officials respond, made such water drops ineffective.) Indeed, Hedgecock, a defrocked former mayor of San Diego (convicted of criminal offenses in the 1980s), has claimed on local and national radio–where he pinch-hits for drug-addled Rush Limbaugh–that Davis deliberately withheld firefighting resources from pro-recall San Diego County in order to concentrate them on Democratic Los Angeles County. Hedgecock also asserts that the fire tragedy is being exploited by “the left” (allegedly headed by Davis) and unions to raise taxes.

Davis may well share some quotient of culpability (he did, after all, cut the budget of the forestry department), but the White House deserves more of the blame. In mid-April, as the fire danger rose, Davis, supported by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans, urged President Bush to declare a federal emergency in upland areas of San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties. Bush fiddled until California was actually burning, finally denying the request on October 24. But then, with hypocritical urgency, the Administration exploited the tragedy to press its Orwellian “Healthy Forests” legislation, which would allow logging companies to loot undiseased, old-growth public forests.

At least in the case of the Cedar Fire, the ultimate responsibility belongs at home. As local firefighters’ unions have been pointing out for years, San Diego County’s reigning antigovernment, low-tax ethos–precisely what made it the birthplace of the recent recall–has led to critical underinvestment in fire services. Despite one of the worst urban-wildfire problems in the nation, San Diego has 35 percent fewer fire personnel than areas of comparable population and, indeed, is the only large, urbanized county in California to lack a county fire department.

To be fair to San Diego taxpayers, however, they do carry other burdens. As Steve Erie, resident expert on local government at the University of California, San Diego, told me: “America’s so-called ‘finest city’ systematically underfunds vital public services such as fire protection while doling out hundreds of millions in corporate welfare to the owners of our perennially cellar-dwelling professional football and baseball teams.” Former City Councilman Bruce Henderson has calculated that San Diego taxpayers have contributed more than $400 million in the past six years to support the Chargers and Padres, and more than $500 million to subsidize big hotels and theme parks. This is not a connection that Hunter and Hedgecock–or, for that matter, many centrist Democrats–are eager for the public to understand. Moreover, as local environmentalists regroup behind a Rural Lands Initiative that would sensibly limit further development in San Diego’s fire-prone mountains, Hunter and his allies are proposing a techno-military panacea for the wildfire problem: using Navy and Marine aircraft to water-bomb fires at their first detection. This way the trophy homes can keep multiplying in the back country, and the tax subsidies can keep flowing to local big business.

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