Saturday, October 27, 2007


It figures that it takes a trip to Italy to inform me about what's going on in America (at least according to the televised media). I don't subscribe to cable, so I don't have the "benefit" of knowing how news is spun on our 24-hour cable networks. Last night, during the inevitable insomnia that occurs at about 3 a.m. due to jet lag, I turned on the television and was forced - forced, I tell ya! - to watch CNN for a few hours because, alas, I can't understand the Italian on the cheesy Italian networks (how I wish that they didn't dub the cheesy American and German shows that seem to be ubiquitous - at least I could understand those...).

Among the CNN programs I suffered through was Larry King Live. According to this program, the fires of California provide yet another in an endless line of "human interest" stories. Bathetic portrayals of families who have lost their homes are punctuated by uplifting expressions of their faith in the future, the gung ho American spirit that we can rebuild. Nary a word is mentioned about the larger set of circumstances that went into the formation of this "disaster." Indeed, it's exactly the same news sequence that took place after Katrina: horrible disaster; government ineptitude; human spirit will prevail. A morality story between commercial breaks.

Well, for anyone who is interested, here's some background. In the case of both New Orleans and California, it may be news that people are living in places where disasters are waiting to happen. If you've never been to New Orleans, you won't have had the unique opportunity of looking up to see a river. Yes, New Orleans is not only below sea level, it's below river level. And it sinks a few inches more every year. CNN might actually report something worthwhile by inviting John McPhee on Larry King Live!, since McPhee discusses the ways in which government policy and our belief in the unlimited human ability to control nature have combined to create a city that was bound to be submerged by a hurricane at some point. But, in case - like me - you don't have cable, you could consider picking up McPhee's book The Control of Nature, which might even be more edifying than listening to Larry praise the positive spirit of the victims of nature's wrath.

The case of California is far worse: in their desire for a McMansions of their own, approximately 55,000 people knowingly have moved into fire prone areas in the past several years. No one thought to raise the "inconvenient truth" that buying a wood-and-plaster home in a desert environment, one prone to regular and periodic wildfires, was a recipe for disaster that we would all end up paying for (your tax dollars at work, to the tune of an additional 2 billion in increased fire-fighting costs). As a culture we've become accustomed to ignoring any feature of nature that might be seen either as a benefit or a detriment to where we erect these flimsy structures: neither readily available sources of water, temperate climes, or the availability of local building materials, on the one hand, nor hostile environments like the deserts of California, on the other, encourage or dissuade us from building the same pre-fab houses everywhere they can possibly be slapped together and sold for ridiculously inflated prices.

The "news" focuses on the human interest story, and I am truly sorry that these many people lost their houses and possessions. But there is a bigger morale of this particular story, which is that perhaps people shouldn't be living in disaster areas waiting to happen, or if they do, that they shouldn't be surprised when disaster happens. Among the people who lost their houses are undoubtedly some people who on a day to day basis curse the interference of government in their freedoms (of which there is probably too little actual interference, given that there are no laws against building in these areas), and then who curse the government for not doing more to prevent the disaster when it happens. It's a bit like watching NBC news from time to time: one regular segment is entitled "The Fleecing of America," invariably followed by a consumer news story which concludes with the broadcaster moralistically opining that government should be doing more...

And now, CNN tells me (yes, on in the background, just to get the juices flowing), the hunt for the arsonists is on. When we catch the bad guy we can rest content that justice has been done. This part of the morality tale - "the laying of the blame" on an evildoer - reminds me of the James Cameron movie "Titanic," in which we find out that the sinking of the unsinkable ship is due to penny-pinching of the engineer Ismay and the vainglory of the ship's captain, and not to the fact that humans were steering a big metal ship through a part of the ocean known to contain many icebergs.


Oengus said...

Patrick: "The case of California is far worse"

I grew up in SoCal, living there for forty plus years. I can tell you that this disaster was bound to happen. The hills in So. Calif. are covered with the kind of chaparral brush that was practically designed by God to burn. The wood is actually somewhat oily, and when dry it is exceedingly flammable. The Santa Ana winds are not some sort of abnormal weather condition. Instead they are routine and seasonal. You can bank on them coming every year. And man, can they blow.

I remember San Diego country. It's a good example since it's covered with exactly this sort of hills. Now what happened is that back in the 90s, the greedy developers went completely berserk, and started creating suburban sprawl up in those hills, which earlier had been largely unpopulated. But if you build there, you absolutely must clear the brush out to an adequate safety perimeter, and you absolutely must build your house in every way to be highly fire resistent. Otherwise, you are practically begging to have your house burned down the next time the wind kicks up.

I feel sorry for the people who lost their expensive home, but nobody is pointing out the obvious fact: this disaster was entirely man-made.

Anonymous said...

Hey Patrick, Carl Scott here. I grew up in Rancho Bernardo, the SD suburb that was one of the hardest hit--my parents' home was barely saved. A lot of ignorance in your post, but if you're having to rely on CNN for your info, perfectly understandable. The SD Union site "Sign on San Diego" and the blog "And Still I Persist" are the best sources.

The houses that are most "irresponsible" in terms of fire-protection are exurban ones, which in SD County are really quite beatiful, the sort of places that allow one to keep horses, cultivate avocado or olive trees. Those that want a more rural lifestyle, to live like the Californio Spaniards of old in ranch houses, take a higher fire risk. Or, they can buy a house in a suburban development. I wonder which a Wendell Berry would choose? Rancho Bernardo is a suburb, with lots of asphalt between the houses. RB has been threatened by wildfires countless times since its existence from the 1960s. This is the first time it got hit hard. Some of the homes destroyed were at its exurban fringes, multi-million dollar, even ten-million dollar homes...but the worst losses came in my classic suburb, Westwood, where the houses have been there thirty years without suffering hardly any losses. Thanks to the nutty market the houses that perished in the Agualmiel and Duenda area of RB were worth at least a million, but their intital market price was probably around 125,000, and they're basically 3-5 bedroom homes.

Some inconvenient truths for the simplistic narrative of the USA Today piece. First, the sort of development I and most enviromentalists favor, which demands wildlife corridors b/t developments, is precisely that which can allow fast moving wildfires from the higher hills into suburban neighborhoods. The fire that harmed RB, the Witch Creek fire, might have been stopped earlier if developers had not been kept out of certain lands surrounding Lake Hodges and the San Pasqual river. In other words, as greedy and tricky as many developers have been in SD County, they have been half-kept on a leash that did not allow them to pave over the land. The tastes of So Cal McManshion lovers, incidentally, also factor into this. The more exurban the feel of the development, the more valuable the homes in it are, even if they are more fire-prone. My point is, if you really let the developers off the leash and let them suburbanize all of the county up to the mountains, the fire risk would decrease substantially. I prefer the risk to such land-rape.

Second, we now know that the Indians of So Cal did extensive burning of the brush, something which current enviromental sensibilities frown on, probably too much.

Finally, as to your commment about this being comparable to Katrina, well, all I can say is despite my many fears about govt. in my home state, that local agencies did a fantastic job in this disaster. Half a million evacuated w/ few hitches. Effective, suburb-saving, fire-fighting in the face of unprecedented 50-70mph winds. We'll see what FEMA does or doesn't do, but dealing with 2,000 or so homeless owners of consumed million dollar homes is a very different situation than that faced by New Orleans.

Robert said...

"Among the people who lost their houses are undoubtedly some people who on a day to day basis curse the interference of government in their freedoms (of which there is probably too little actual interference, given that there are no laws against building in these areas), and then who curse the government for not doing more to prevent the disaster when it happens."

It's not just bad luck that San Diego is the worst affected (again). The county is majority GOP, and the majority of Republicans there are the quasi-Libertarians you describe. The fires are the fruit of their philosophy: their anti-regulation, anti-tax political philosophy has made them the most at risk and the least prepared region in So Cal.