Among the spectacles swirling around Southern California’s recent wildfires, we had now-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who rose from body-building to movie screens and into politics on the principle of self-reliance, beseeching Washington, D.C., to cushion Californians from the toll of the flames.
There was also California's Sen. Dianne
Feinstein, a Democrat who rose with the support of many
tree-hugging environmentalists, in the Senate chamber holding up a
picture of expensive homes among tinder-dry pines, demanding that
the Senate pass a law to spend $760 million a year on removing such
So the perfect firestorm of
planetary forces -- prolonged drought and global warming, the
natural tendencies of chaparral and forest to burn, a big
accumulation of fuels, the Santa Ana winds swooping in -- will be
followed by the perfect firestorm of political forces.
Property owners who have taken a hit, those who have lost loved
ones and friends -- all will look to lay blame. Their targets are
plentiful, including developers who built in wrong places, dreamers
who bought homes and took inadequate precautions, foresters and
loggers who created thickets by dousing too many fires in the past,
environmentalists who are seen as obstructing solutions now,
politicians who use the fires to push their own agendas,
governments on all levels that will never be able to do enough, and
the firefighters themselves, whose tactics can never be perfect in
the heat of battle.
One desire that most will have in
common, though, is for the war against wildfires to continue.
It’s a war that began in the American West more than a
century ago and still rages today, despite pretenses of reform,
despite reams of evidence that fires are essential in the rhythm of
By now, most should know that wildfire is, for the
most part, natural and impossible to suppress. Yet we seem
incapable of disengaging from our war against it. We have built the
world’s largest firefighting force, an army of many
thousands, equipped with helicopters and planes. We’ve had a
sixfold increase in federal spending against wildfires since 1991,
up to $2.3.billion this year and a planned $2.9.billion next year.
Our National Fire Plan seeks not only to fight almost all wildfires
but also to reduce the fuels over hundreds of millions of acres by
thinning, pruning, raking and other mechanical treatments. The
thinning is touted as reform but really it is more war, in the
sense that fire is still cast as the enemy.
If this were a
Hollywood movie, it would be a sequel, or worse, a tired series.
Fire policy in the form of Smokey and the Bandit #18 -- the series
in which Smokey the Cop, equipped with shiny cruiser, flashing
lights and siren, endlessly pursues the fast-driving,
accident-prone, devil-may-care trickster around the landscape. Only
in real life, the victims are not stuntmen who bounce
Despite so many years of chasing bandit flames, we
continue to fall short of capturing or taming them. The
congressional and White House programs to thin forests and fuels
will likely also fall short. We'll never be able to cut down or
prune enough trees or clean up enough brush, year after year after
year, to control the growth of fuels and outbreak of wildfires,
especially in Southern California’s fast-growing,
We can accomplish other, limited
goals -- creating jobs, temporarily saving some neighborhoods here
and there, re-electing politicians who run for the war or against
it -- but the impact on fire rhythms and behavior will be small.
And glorified yard work will never replace the many roles of fire
in the ecosystem.
There are ways we could break out of
this Smokey and the Bandit scenario. We could act like grownups
instead of like teenagers, expect the people who adopt risky
lifestyles in fire zones to take responsibility for the choice
they’re making. We could end the long list of subsidies that
includes road extensions, fire crews, thinning crews, insurance
rates that don’t reflect the specific risk, even federally
backed fire-zone mortgages. We could get more realistic with
regulations on how the fire zone is built in and
And we could accept wildfires, requiring more
prescribed burns and allowing more lightning-ignited blazes to burn
themselves out, which means more smoke and inconvenience in our
neighborhoods, as the seasonal price of living in the
If we don’t do that, we’re stuck in
sequel after sequel.