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The Politics of an Inferno


Everyone knew this fire was coming. TV reporters commented on the possibility all over the state a week before it happened. Yet preparations were minimal. For example, San Diego has long had extensive planning for terrorist attacks and has gone through city-wide drills against the possibility. But, when the fires arrived and the evacuations began, no one knew where to go. Finally, Qualcomm stadium with a huge parking lot traditionally used for tailgate parties, was set up as an ad hoc meeting place. People were urged to go there. But no one thought of setting up a clinic, so there was no medical care, no plan for food, nothing. Only the spontaneous work of a volunteer Navy corpsman caused a clinic to be set up, staffed only by volunteer docs and nurses, who brought their own supplies, while neighbors were good enough to show up with food, blankets, cots and other supplies.

The fire is in part the result of a 177 day drought, in part because of rapacious development, but the response to the fire is a combination of politcs and nature. The response, which in part demonstrated that people are hardly selfish by nature, as neighbor risked house and health to help neighbor, and people opened their homes to strangers, and donations poured into a variety of spontaneously organized charities (Channel 10 TV took in about $1 million in a quick eight hour fund drive in wealthy San Diego, which keeps its poor on the other side of the militarized fence at Mexico); the response also demonstrated that every natural disaster also has a political side.

The political: Governor Davis cut the California Forestry Department budget by 55 million dollars early this year. This meant equipment went idle, as did personnel. Air tankers and helicopters were grounded.

San Diego firefighters were up north in Riverside and San Bernadino when the fires began their sweep early Sunday morning, driven by a moderate Santa Ana wind to the west.

California’s state firefighting bureaucracy refused to release the San Diego firefighters to return to their homes to fight their home fires, keeping them on the San Bernadino fires. They were not released until the worst damage had been done, coming back on Monday in most cases. Key to fighting fires like this is a quick response, as a small brush fire can be quashed, before it burns hundreds of thousands of acres, as these fires did, and cost lives—12 confirmed dead so far.

The vaunted anti-terrorist forces of the military simply retreated to their bases, never to come off, despite repeated requests, even demands, from public officials like Dianne Jacobs who pleaded with Governor Davis to take the requisite action needed to call out the military, or at least use their equipment. According to Jacobs, Davis naturally panicked, failed to act, following his path during the energy crisis. However, Davis did act out of habit. The man who helped lead the deregulation of the state’s energy industry, then appointed deregulation’s prime proponent to be the state budget director on the heels of the disastrous energy crisis, continued to honor the gods of privatization: sticking to the letter of a law designed to protect private gain that requires every potential private contractor who might have a tanker plane to be called, and by-passed, before the military can be activated. No ever one saw the vaunted asses and elbows of any group of the tens of thousands of marines and sailors in the county working to defeat the fire.

While emergency shelters for people were poorly organized by state and local officials, shelters for pets did pretty well. San Diego, after all, has parks dedicated to dogs, while the city cops torment homeless people wherever they try to lie down. The new baseball park, built with public funds, is now named PETCO Park, a name purchased with the millions from a pet supply store. The Del Mar race track became the pet center, and had to issue repeated announcements that they did not need any more hay.

The main thing that stopped the fires from doing greater damage to the urbanized areas nearer the coasts was not firefighters, but the fact that the moderate Santa Ana winds just did not have the power to blow any further against the power of the weather patterns created by the sea. When the winds ran into opposing weather, the fire slowed and died.

As one who lives near the Mission Trails fire-path, I looked and looked for signs of firefighters all day Sunday. The only indications I saw were red lights on the trucks, late Sunday night. Having interviewed several reporters, this was their experience as well. The firefighters weren’t having coffee. They were spread far to thin. This distinguishes them from the police, who for the most part did nothing of much value during the fire, other than to announce the need to evacuate, which many people ignored, knowing that if they stayed to fight small fires, they might save their homes. This, indeed proved mostly true.

Now, on Monday evening, the air in the city is vile, full of ash and industrial pollutants. The depth of this air quality crisis is not being discussed, as it was not following the attacks on the World Trade Center; New Yorkers only later learning that their government risked their lives, and lied to them, about the deadly nature of the air they breathed.

The fire itself knew no class lines, though it may be those who directed the firefighters did. The fire, at some points a 100 foot wall of flames racing across the landscape, burned some of the richest new homes in the county, exploding them as it passed by. But no casinos were burned, spawning rumors about the location of those missing firefighters who may well have been assigned to protect slot machines rather than the hundreds of rural homes that are burning right now.

Presently, the fire is rushing east, devouring the Cleveland National Forest, and the many homes in the outback areas, as people still are forced to flee. At minimum, 700 home have been destroyed. San Diego has been closed by official decree for Monday and Tuesday, while the bankrupt city coffers have emptied into the mouth of this unnecessary fire.

RICH GIBSON is associate professor of Social Studies in the College of Education at San Diego State University. He can be reached at: rgibson@pipeline.com

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