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Ecology of Fire 

Why the empire wanted to burn so badly

Thursday, Nov 6 2003
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Photo by Joshuah Bearman

No one ever talks about the psychotic beauty of a fire when the horizon’s turned inside out like a dusky satin lining and the smoke fills the air and the smell is there and you know that you might die but you’re also in the presence of something bigger than you and where you came from.

Surfers riding the waves last week under a burnt lowering sky had it right; everything runs together in a weird mix of adrenaline and guilt and mourning and “you might as well go for it.” You wonder if this is the irresistible cocktail to the sociopathic losers who throw the match down. Maybe they regret it afterward. Maybe they don’t.

It doesn’t seem quite right to call this great fire of 2003, or any similar event, a disaster. Rather, it was a great shaking of nature, a course correction that hurt a lot of people but might be seen as a return, however violent, to the days when the hooded valleys of Hesperia and the Santa Susana Mountains lived by their own rules. The rules kicked in at the expense of million-dollar homes and BMWs and cabins and trucks and family photographs and wedding rings and 20 lives. Sixty thousand people fled. Photographs of women clutching their cats and children’s round faces framed by tents resembled nothing so much as an earlier migration in the 1930s. Thick-knuckled, farm-raised workingmen and -women of the Dust Bowl hadn’t taken the vagaries of nature into account either, or couldn’t afford to. A seven-year drought combined with new mechanized farm equipment tore up the soil, and it flew past their heads like money disappearing. There was no Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) then; only handbills announcing jobs in California.

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Hucksters are as eternal as the chaparral. Everyone acknowledges there is a “fire problem” in the West. Decades of fire suppression and scattershot suburban development have created a tinderbox — well, you saw the results. Some scientists argue about whether these conflagrations are really any bigger than the ones that came before, but nobody disputes the idea that controlled burning and brush clearing can reduce the likelihood of wildfire.

The Bush administration is trying to step up logging in the national forests, arguing that doing so will help pay for fire prevention. Environmentalists say that the Bush plan, which surfaced in a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but was rejected by the Senate, is nothing but a Trojan horse for industry. They argue that 65 percent of the land that burned in Southern California was private or state-owned. The conservationists say funding should go to interagency fire councils made up of federal, state and county officials responsible for the patchwork called “the urban-wildland interface.” This includes quaint towns like Julian as well as the Aguirre, Wrath of God–like suburbs now conquering California’s remaining open country: Scripps Ranch, Stevenson Ranch, Parker Ranch and the recently approved mega-development of Newhall Ranch.

Nobody in his or her right mind wants to see these horrible subdivisions built, but they are coming and there is no point in paying billions of dollars to rebuild them once they’ve been immolated.

FEMA doesn’t see it quite this way, and neither, apparently, does the Bush administration. Governor Gray Davis, in a phoenix-like ascension from the ashes of recall, suddenly looked like a hero for his efforts to persuade FEMA officials to ante up $430 million to clear fire-prone trees in almost half a million acres of bark beetle–infested forest. The governor’s request sat unanswered for more than six months. Ironically, FEMA sent a letter refusing aid just as the San Diego hills ignited.

A similar request from Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, whose state experienced a major fire last summer, met with a similar lack of enthusiasm from FEMA. To be fair, FEMA has traditionally responded to crises rather than prevented them. But it also may be significant that Napolitano, like Davis, is a Democrat.

This problem should not be impossible to solve. Last week, California’s power broker in the Senate, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, moved a compromise bill authorizing more than $760 million for fire prevention in the national forests and in surrounding areas. The Feinstein bill is a true compromise: To speed timber cutting, it streamlines some of the environmental review so reviled by Republicans.

The Bush administration offered lukewarm support but criticized the bill for being too costly.

Egregious and irresponsible, yes. But hardly an aberration. Nobody is even discussing the real problem. Since 1980, the proportion of the federal budget devoted to natural resources — national parks, forests and wildlife refuges — has dropped by more than 50 percent in real dollars. The slash-and-burn began in the Reagan years. Over the next decades, Congress became increasingly hostile, refusing to adequately fund anything to do with parks and forests — or, even worse, endangered species. The fact that these parks and forests and animals belong to the citizens of this nation, just like the Smithsonian and the National Gallery, seems to elude both the politicians and the electorate that should be riding herd on them.

Society’s disregard for the natural world extends to communities bordering the dark wood. The administration’s disingenuous maneuvering on forest legislation gives the bizarre impression that the people who run the country want the West to burn. And no part of the West is more vulnerable than Southern California. The region’s ubiquitous chaparral, those lion-colored hills of chamise, oak and manzanita, is an incitement to fire. When it burns naturally, chaparral drives out competitors and re-establishes itself. When fire is suppressed, the chaparral refuses to give way to forest or flower. It is climax vegetation, an evolutionary dead end of sorts; it just stays there. That is, until someone lights a match.

For thousands of years, Indians burned hell out of the chaparral and killed the rabbits that fled the fire and ate the grasses that grew back. Maybe the burning channeled a pyromania that exists in everyone but is usually dormant. Perhaps lighting fires is not aberrant behavior; humans may react almost maternally to the absence of fire in a landscape that craves it. Whatever the reason, until recently fire was everywhere in California. In a flash of lyricism now rife with echoes, the 16th-century Spanish explorer Cabrillo called the Santa Monica Bay “Bahia de los Fumos,” or “Bay of Smokes.”

Southern California’s propensity for melodrama makes it tempting to think in biblical terms. Fire, flood, locusts, mudslides, that sort of thing. But imperium is a better analogy than apocalypse, as it has been for most political events since 9/11. The U.S. has spent more than $82 billion in Iraq so far, with the eventual cost of “victory” projected at more than double that amount. The Web site www.costofwar.com estimates that the country is spending $1,000 a minute to maintain the occupation. Yet the United States balks at paying for schools and health care and parks and forests for its own people.

Although health care may seem more pressing, national parks and forests are not frills or indulgences. Landscape is the objective correlative for the fundamental idea of America: freedom. The notion that landscape has meaning, once the stuff of John Ford movies and purple-mountain grade school mythology, has begun to seem antique and irrelevant in the face of contemporary disregard for nature. It’s hard to tell how this ideal of freedom, one that is flawed and naive perhaps, but as indigenous to America as jazz and the yeoman farmer, will survive if the physical ground that gave it substance continues to be abused and neglected.

California, as always, tilts ominously on the edge of history. The upscale Joads packed their belongings for a quick escape last week. But there was a crucial difference between Steinbeck’s fictional family and its real-life descendants. Like the governor-elect, these Joads will be back. Insurance checks will be sent, fire retardant will be splashed on wood-shingled roofs, fears will be forgotten. But in the long run, it’s hard to tell what the future holds in its closed fist. You might find yourself with a tinge of the uneasiness felt by the original Mrs. Joad as her family crammed their possessions into an ancient Hudson.

She said, “Tom, I hope things is all right in California.”

He turned and looked at her. “What makes you think they ain’t?” he asked.

“Well — nothing. Seems too nice, kinda.”

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