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Commentary Last Updated: Nov 9th, 2007 - 00:53:43

The California wildfires and right-wing smoke
By Ernest Partridge
Online Journal Guest Writer
Nov 9, 2007, 00:50

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What is a tried-and-true southern California "conservative" Republican to do when a hundred-foot wall of flames comes roaring up the slope toward his private home? Boldly stand his ground, garden hose in hand? Or does he step aside and allow "big government" professionals, paid and equipped by his taxes, to do their job? The attitude of his hero, Ronald Reagan, is crystal clear: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" It�s a hard-case dilemma: stand by your principles and perish, or yield those principles to stark necessity and thus survive.

Kinda like the dilemma faced by a Christian Scientist with acute appendicitis.

And when "big gummint bureaucrats" impose a mandatory evacuation, does our conservative defy the order? When one of our neighbors in Lake Arrowhead did just that two weeks ago, the fire marshall replied, "Very well, but please leave us your dental records, so that we can identify your charred remains when this is all over." Sometimes reality can be a real bitch.

Of course, if the same stubborn conservative is then trapped by the flames, the fire fighters will come to his rescue, thus expending time and resources that would be better directed to a coordinated attack on the fire.

In tranquil moments, when there are no fires, conservative principle prevails. Thus, in wealthy, rock-ribbed Republican San Diego County, "tax reformers" had their way as police and fire department budgets were slashed. And when the fires came two weeks ago, the local and county officials frantically called upon federal, state, and outside municipal fire fighters to come to their aid, which they did. The cost of that necessarily delayed response was thousands of acres and hundreds of homes. Still more acres and homes were spared, thanks to the equipment and personnel paid for by the taxes of others. Thus the proud, "government-free," "self-made" San Diego conservatives became, in effect, parasites.

Blame the enviros -- global warming had nothing to do with it.

The right-wing wasted no time placing the blame for the fires on their favorite target: the environmentalists. Quoth Rush Limbaugh: "The Sierra Club will not let you get in there -- none of the environmentalists will -- and get rid of the dead junk that is at the bottom of these forests that is just like kindling wood . . . In order to thrive, we have to alter our environment, and, if altering the environment means clearing out some dead brush to make fire less of a gigantic possibility than it already is, then we have a responsibility to do that." And Glenn Beck at CNN: "The environmentalists, the same ones that [are] going to tell me it�s my fault because I have an SUV, these same damn environmentalists are the ones that have stopped people in California from clearing brush on their own property."

It's a flat-out damnable lie! Residents of our mountain communities are required to clear brush on their property, and face fines if they refuse. Environmentalist have no problem whatever with these regulations. That's the simple truth of it, as Limbaugh, Beck, et al, could have found out in a moment simply by picking up their phones. But as we know so well by now, the right-wing screech-merchants never let the facts get in the way of a smear.

Didn�t global warming have some role in the California fires? �No way!� the right-wing tells us. At the same time that he told the whopper about brush clearing on private property, Glenn Beck was hosting Chris Horner and R. J. Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

This is what Horner had to say: "Global warming is not a likely suspect for the following reason. The warming that the alarmists are talking about is one degree Fahrenheit over the past 150 years, most of which occurred before World War II. None of which are occurred in the last decade. OK. We can reliably take global warming off the suspect list. Second, it�s not clear that a warmer world would be a drier world."

But here is the plain fact of the matter: southern California is in the midst of a prolonged drought. This year, Los Angeles suffered the driest year in the 130 years of record-keeping. And climate scientists have warned that permanent drought in the southwest United States is one of the likely consequences of global warming. Did climate change cause the drought that led to the California fire storms of 2003 and 2007? Typically cautious climate scientists will tell us, "quite likely but not certain." That�s all the slack that the right-wing deniers require, as once again they equate �not certain� with �certainly not!�

"It's the homeowners' fault, they shouldn't live in hazardous areas."

Because I am one of those mountain-dwelling homeowners, I must take this charge seriously and face it honestly. In the following, I will discuss conditions in the San Bernardino mountains, where I live. I am not qualified to comment on conditions in Malibu, San Diego County, or other fire locations.

When we bought our house 10 years ago, we were, of course, aware of the fire hazards. But it seemed to us to be an acceptable risk. Now, having evacuated in October 2003, and again two weeks ago, we are much less certain that it was a wise decision. But conditions are significantly different now than they were a decade ago. Four to five years ago, hundreds of thousands of ponderosa pine trees in the San Bernardino mountains were destroyed, not by fire, but by the prolonged drought and the resulting bark beetle infestation. Those vast stands of brown ghost trees threatened an inferno, and when it arrived in October 2003, those dead trees intensified it. That fire, "The Old Fire," consumed 91,000 acres and 970 homes, and burned up to our property line, where it was halted by the fire crews. From our refuge at a cousin's home, a false Internet report and the TV news led us to believe for about three agonizing days that our house was lost. Then reassuring news came to us from the Internet. It was a very close call. (See If it Burns, it Earns). Last month�s "Grass Valley Fire" at Lake Arrowhead was contained about six miles to the east of us.

Those who build and buy homes amidst chaparral, which is found on the south slope of the mountain adjacent to the city of San Bernardino, are asking for trouble. Fire is a natural, even a required, occurrence in a chaparral biotic community. Accordingly, there are few structures to be found there. Most of the "Old Fire" took place in the largely uninhabited south slope. It caused the most damage when the Santa Anna winds from the mountain blew the fire into the city of San Bernardino, and then later when the fire approached and crossed the ridge line and moved into the forested communities.

The thriving, century-old pines and cedars in the San Bernardino National Forest testify to the ability of the forest to survive wildfires. Under natural conditions, occasional fires burn away the ground fuel, sparing the trees. If fires are suppressed and ground fuel builds up, then a conflagration can follow that levels the entire forest. The right-wing critics to the contrary notwithstanding, the Sierra Club is fully aware of this and encourages the clearing of brush in inhabited areas.

I don't know when the last fire took place on what is now our property, but it was probably more than one 120 years ago. We know this from the stump of the huge, beetle infested ponderosa that was removed from our property two months before the Old Fire in 2003. That stump has about one hundred and twenty annual rings, and no apparent fire scars. (See Elegy for a Ponderosa Pine Tree).

Today, our house and our neighborhood are safer than they were four years ago. Safer, but not safe. Hundreds of thousands of dead and dying ponderosas have been removed from the mountains, eight of them from our property. Now there are meadows and open spaces where before there were thick forests. My immediate neighbors and I have surrounded our homes with wide fire breaks and, as required, we have cleared the brush away from the structures. Numerous fire hydrants, installed decades ago, are at the ready. Nearby lakes -- Silverwood, Gregory, Arrowhead, Big Bear -- have abundant water available to the firefighting helicopters and aircraft.

Even so, unlike 10 years ago, we now have evacuation lists and evacuation kits, and are prepared to leave at an hour's notice if necessary. More likely, we would have several hours to collect irreplaceable possessions, as was the case in 2003 and again the week before this last fire.

The local media shapes up

In 2003, reporting of the local network TV stations was deplorable, and I said as much in my Crisis Papers essay, If it Burns, it Earns. Too much air time was wasted with uninformative "human interest" stories, and the reporters were appallingly uninformed about place names. The best information, by far, came from volunteers' reports on the Internet, in particular the website

This year, the TV reporting was much improved. The reports were timely and accurate (at least about the San Bernardino mountain fires -- I cannot assess the other reports). The coverage during the first three days was non-stop and without commercials. A commendable public service, but all too brief. On day four, the soap operas and game shows returned. Once again, the best information on "our fire," was at

The upshot

Should people be allowed to build and live in fire-prone areas? Yes and no -- there is no simple answer. It depends.

The libertarians will insist that it is no business of government to tell private citizens where they may or may not live. They should be allowed to live wherever they wish, and face the consequences of their decisions. Sounds fair. But those same libertarians, who insist upon minimal taxes and minimum government, must not expect any assistance when the fires come their way. The defense of their domiciles, like the location thereof, is their own private business. Most citizens do not agree, believing that coordinated action by professional firefighters and heavy equipment (publicly financed, of course) can be counted on to produce better results than the summation of individual property owners with garden hoses.

No one in his right mind should build on chaparral slopes, and, in fact, very few do. Drive up the San Bernardino mountain range on state routes 18 and 330 or along Silverwood Lake to the north, and you will find chaparral and scrub, but not many residences. The residential and commercial areas are to be found in the forested region near and beyond the ridgeline, where strict fire-suppression ordinances are in effect and state-of-the-art equipment is in place.

For the tens of thousands of mountain residents, the fire risk has been an acceptable cost of the delights of mountain living: a moderate climate, lakes and hiking trails, abundant wildlife, beautiful scenery -- the same amenities that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to our mountains every year.

However, as the fires of 2003 and 2007 have brutally reminded us, perhaps a permanent change of climate might make mountain residence unaffordable to many. Property tax increases to pay for fire abatement (including firebreaks and tree and brush removal) and firefighting equipment, along with increased insurance rates and decreased property values might all add to the financial burden faced by the residents.

On the other hand, the increased hazards of a drier climate have been offset in part by aggressive forest management, as hundreds of thousands of dead and diseased trees have been removed and as individual homeowners have cleared safety zones around their structures. Airborne equipment -- helicopters, DC-10 super-tankers, �super-scooper� aircraft -- performed spectacularly well in last month�s fires. But in some cases, not soon enough. The �super-scoopers,� which skim over the mountain lakes and grab thousands of gallons of water in a few seconds, were leased from their owners in Canada. Why Canada? They should be owned by the US Forest Service or the State of California, and ready for deployment within a couple of hours of notice. And some 8,000 California National Guard soldiers and equipment, now in Iraq, were sorely missed.

In the meantime, the right-wing noise machine is no help at all. Unfounded attacks on the environmentalists, combined with denials of climate change and its evident consequences, in FDR�s words, �paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.�

Copyright � 2007 Bernard Weiner

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers. To comment, write

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