By Jim Miller
It was a little bit of hell on earth. With searing heat in the triple digits replacing May gray and fires sprouting up all over the county, San Diego’s mellow vibe turned menacing last week. As many of us, this author included, worried about the safety of friends and family members in harm’s way, it was hard not to be struck by a painful sense of déjà vu. We’ve been here before—three times in a little more than a decade. But not everybody felt that way.
The immediate response from County Supervisor Bill Horn was to raise the specter of arson when he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years, and I’ve had one or two fires but never anything like this.”
Upping the ante on Horn’s uninformed speculation, the far right fringes of the Internet jumped straight to conspiracy mode, sounding the alarm that our most recent firestorm could be the act of Islamic terrorists.
The terrorist firebug narrative on one site was accompanied by an “editor’s note” predicting the response of the liberal media: “Of course, [if] the culprits are caught, and have names like Mohammed or Abdul, CNN and other leftist media will quickly bury any references to them, and find some way to blame it all on global warming.”
As of this writing, investigators questioned and released one man, caught two teenagers in Escondido trying to set copycat blazes and arrested another man (not named Mohammed or Abdul) not for setting but for adding fuel to a fire in Oceanside. Meanwhile, Cal Fire has determined that the first big blaze, the Bernardo fire, was accidentally sparked by “powered equipment use”.
As arson speculation captured the imagination of a good number of folks on the TV news and across social media, the Voice of San Diego published a solid piece noting that 95% of wildfires are not the product of arson. Nonetheless, the tendency to focus on the criminal investigation rather than the bigger picture persists.
Indeed, it may be easy for most reasonable San Diegans to dismiss the paranoia of the far-right when they posit a terrorist conspiracy to burn our county, but the arson narrative in general is attractive because it allows us to escape the far more disturbing possibility that San Diego burning is not an aberrant condition brought upon us by the malice of a few pyromaniacs but rather our new normal.
If we can track down and arrest these bad people, we can evade the facts we hate–that the fires are the very logical consequence of climate change, ill-advised urban planning, and our aversion to funding the infrastructure we need to fight the blazes effectively once they start.
Some of San Diego’s institutionalized cognitive dissonance was captured nicely in one moment of live TV news I watched during the first day of the Bernardo fire during which the anchor in the studio comforted the audience with the unfounded assertion that San Diego has been trying to improve the infrastructure needed to respond to the fires. This was then was immediately followed by the reporter on the scene who informed viewers that the firefighters all said that they just didn’t have enough engines or other assets to fight the fire as effectively as they could.
Needless to say, they just left that uncomfortable contradiction hanging rather than debunk the anchor’s Pollyanna-ish happy talk. The fact is that we have not done nearly enough to improve our ability to prevent and fight fires. As the VOSD reported last week, even Republican County Supervisor Ron Roberts laments the resources lost when the public failed to pass a countywide parcel tax to fund improved wildfire prevention and firefighting support.
It is also hard not to marvel at the magic of how our firefighters, the very same unionized public sector employees that the San Diego right loves to hate during campaign season (whether they are calling for taking away their pensions or just bashing their unions in commercials to elect our current mayor) are seamlessly morphed into noble heroes when they are putting their lives on the line to save their fellow citizens’ well-being and property. It is a wonder to behold.
So is the incredulous stance of Roberts’ colleague, Bill Horn, who can actually claim to be surprised at the outbreak of multiple fires in San Diego County when, as the New York Times reported:
More than half of the largest fires in California history have occurred in the last 10 years, according to state statistics. “It’s clear that climate change is playing a role,” said John Laird, the state’s secretary for natural resources. “We are in the middle of the three driest consecutive years since records were kept. We’re in extreme drought in 100 percent of the state. There is no part of the state that is not vulnerable.”
Indeed, in the last several weeks before this most recent spate of fires, NASA, the U.S. Government, the military, and other scientists have all released reports confirming the dire consequences of climate change. And, other than rising sea levels, the most troubling effect for us here locally is the increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Bill Horn may have missed this but:
Across the western United States, wildfires grew bigger and more frequent in the past 30 years, according to a new study that blames climate change and drought for the worsening flames.
“It’s not just something that is localized to forest or grasslands or deserts,” said lead study author Phil Dennison, a geographer at the University of Utah. “Every region in the West is experiencing an increase in fire. These fire trends are very consistent with everything we know about how climate change should impact fire in the West.“
Thus, the relevant and disturbing fact is that even if we are faced with a mythical army of arsonists bent on doing us harm, they can only do so because climate change has made a region already subject to drought and fire an even more dangerous tinderbox.
But Horn’s myopia is nothing new. This has been the San Diego way for a long time. As Mike Davis noted in the wake of the last set of catastrophic fires in 2007, in addition to drought and climate change, our politics are also contributing factors to the hot mess that is now upon us. It goes back to the days of Pete Wilson:
[T]he Wilson legacy also includes an important, if more complex, responsibility for the pattern of urban growth in the San Diego region that now collides so catastrophically with wildfire. As a so-called liberal Republican, even “green” San Diego mayor during the 1970s and early 1980s, he was the chief architect of an enduring system of trade-offs, elite alliances, and sleights of hand that has simultaneously gentrified the downtown area at the expense of the poor and overrun much of San Diego’s countryside with pyrophiliac gated suburbs and elite estates — all the while winning accolades for state-of-the-art “growth management” . . .
More recently, on the very eve of the new firestorms, county supervisors endorsed a so-called “shelter in place” strategy that will permit developers to build in the rugged, high-fire-risk backcountry without having to provide the secondary roads needed to ensure safe evacuation. Instead residents would be encouraged to stay in their “fire resistant” homes while fire-fighters defended the perimeter of their cul-de-sac. As scores of fire experts and survivors have pointed out in angry op-ed columns and blogs, this is a lunatic, if not homicidal, scheme that elevates developers’ bottom-lines over human life. Those who have actually confronted 100-foot-high firestorms, driven by hurricane-velocity winds, know that the developer slogan — “It’s not where you build, but how you build” — is a deadly deception.
Meanwhile, the new fire cataclysm seems to be rewarding the very insiders most responsible for the uncontrolled building and underfunded fire protection that helped give the Santa Ana winds their real tinder. While conservative ideologues now celebrate San Diego’s most recent tragedy as a “triumph” of middle-class values and suburban solidarity, the business community openly gloats over the coming reconstruction boom and the revival of a building industry badly shaken by the mortgage crisis. And the Union-Tribune — like London papers after the slaughter that was the battle of the Somme in 1915 — eulogizes the very generalship (all Republicans, of course) that led us into disaster.
Thus, while one would hope that the silver lining of yet another disastrous week of San Diego firestorms would be a wake-up call to start acting on climate change, rethink our brain-dead addiction to over-development in areas historically prone to wildfires, and realize that we need to overcome our tax phobia and really invest in the infrastructure needed for what will inevitably be a future of ever-more-dangerous fires, that seems unlikely.
San Diego voted down a reasonable ballot measure aimed at restricting development in the fire-prone back country after the 2003 fires, failed to pass the ballot measure that would have funded increased prevention and firefighting after the 2007 fires, and seems averse to coming to terms with the fact that it is not arsonists that are our biggest threat, but our unsustainable way of life.
John Lawrence says
We are at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to these wildfires. First a lack of rain turns all the brush into tinder. Then excessive heat and winds supplied by the Santa Ana makes it virtually impossible to control the fires or put them out till the weather cools and the winds die down. The firefighters did an amazing job, however, in saving whole neighborhoods. They lost a house here and there, but whole neighborhoods didn’t go up in smoke with the exception of Harmony Grove.
One of the houses that did go up was probably a result of the fact a window was left open. One thing I learned is that, if you have to evacuate, make sure all windows are closed. Even though a tile roof and stucco exterior will fend off embers, if one gets in the house through an open window, the whole house will go up. It’s a good idea to unplug TVs, computers and other appliances too.
Bill Horn’s comments about arsonists were uncalled for. It just shows his ignorance to deflect the discussion from climate change to arson. In fact there was very little discussion of climate change throughout this ordeal. The media seems averse to discussing it. We were just lucky that the Santa Ana only lasted 3 days. If it lasted 2 weeks, we’d really be in trouble.
John Gallup says
Thanks for pointing out that regularly-occurring fires are a result of land use decisions, and that attempts to blame the fires on arsonists are wishful thinking. Every single-occupant SUV buzzing up and down I-15 daily adds a little fuel to the fire.
bob dorn says
Much of San Diego has a taste for what is called “back country,” so long as it’s a massive house on a hill with a lawn and Eucalyptus trees far from I-5 but close to I-15. One of my earliest jobs here was county reporter for the old Tribune, owned, like the Union, by the Copleys. I was keeping my eye on a proposed amendment to the then-General Plan that would have blown a huge hole in a preserve and allowed acre parcels somewhere south of Escondido. On the day of the hearing, after planning staff had strongly advised against the development, I called city desk and told them they could expect something from me for the next day. The city editor told me, “That happens all the time,” and asked me what was the story.
I don’t see how the arson theory is incompatible with the climate change and land use theory. No matter how abnormally hot and dry it has been, a fire still needs a spark – literally – to start.