Monday, July 28, 2008

"big burn"

By Guy McCarthy

It's no secret that "big fire is big business," and that the costs of fighting ever-larger blazes in the West are "out of control," as the Los Angeles Times noted in A-section headlines Sunday for its first installment of a five-part series titled "Big Burn."

The Times also billed Sunday's package with centerpiece subheds: "Drought. Overgrown forests. Runaway Development."

There's not much news in the packaging. These themes have been reported many times before by newspapers across the West.

But if the rest of the series does anything to shed more light on the supercharged costs of rampant development in obvious danger zones, it will have been worth the space and effort.

Borrowing a phrase from D-Day architect and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower, some critics of the Forest Service several years ago began referring to beneficiaries of the annual blank-check spending spree in our war against fire as the "fire-industrial complex."

Local, state and federal agencies, along with private contractors, who reap the lion's share of taxpayer spending on firefighting in the West are among California's largest employers. The building industry is viewed by many economists as a primary barometer for the state's financial well-being.

So the Times, in undertaking "Big Burn," has targeted two major entities that sometimes enjoy the sort of favorable press coverage reserved for sacred cows - especially in recent years, as the imploding newspaper industry staggers toward an uncertain future.

One reason I'm writing about this is that four years ago I co-authored a series at The Sun newspaper in San Bernardino that foreshadowed a good deal of what "Big Burn" implies.

Titled "Unnatural Disasters," much of the work remains accessible online. A link is listed below. Conceived by a team of editors and reporters in the wake of catastrophic fires and floods in 2003, the series took its name from a statement made by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

After an estimated 19,000 people died in Venezuela flash floods and debris flows in December 1999, Annan dismissed descriptions of the carnage as a "natural disaster." The term was all but obsolete, as more and more people chose to live in obvious danger areas.

"The term 'natural disaster' has become an increasingly anachronistic misnomer," Annan was quoted in a U.S. Geological Survey report on the Venezuela devastation. "In reality, human behavior transforms natural hazards into what should really be called unnatural disasters."

The NASA photo above was taken Oct. 27, 2003, as the Old Fire left Del Rosa and north San Bernardino in smoking ruins and made its way towards Lake Arrowhead and Crestline. That fire contributed to six deaths and burned a thousand homes in less than five days. Sixteen more people died in Christmas Day post-fire flash floods.

Combined eventual costs of October 2003 fires in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains exceeded $1.2 billion, according to the Forest Service.

Fire seasons since then have remained noteworthy for their destruction and escalating costs, and last year it seemed to cover all 12 months of the calendar. In October 2006, five Forest Service firefighters died in a firestorm trying to protect a vacant home in the San Jacinto Mountains. In October 2007, more fires across Southern California contributed to a dozen deaths, destroyed more than 1,500 homes, and scorched over 750 square miles.

Authorities say the Esperanza Fire was the work of an arsonist. They said the same about the Old Fire and several other destructive fires since 2003. Some people say accountability for these events has more to do with where we live and how we live.

Hopefully nothing else burns for the next 25 years. But we all know that's fantasy.

In the meantime, maybe people will read "Big Burn" and get more out of it than just a few cheap thrills. The overriding question is whether we take these matters seriously enough to craft realistic land use policy.

Until we do, sit back and enjoy the air shows. October and the Santa Anas are just around the corner.


Unnatural Disasters, The Sun

Big Burn, Los Angeles Times

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