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LAST WEEK, AS NEARLY ONE-QUARTER of California’s length blazed, the state’s residents were treated to an eerie replay of the October 2003 firestorm that wiped out 3,631 homes and killed 24. From the self-congratulations of big pols to finger pointing over a lack of air support, one of the most troubling aspects of the tragedy — despite the claims of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — was how little government has changed in response to the lessons of 2003.
With 1,155 homes in cinders on October 24, a cheery Schwarzenegger had gathered with politicians to let Californians know that, “Everything has been, so far, going really well.” In fact, much was not going well. Although communication between agencies appeared to be going more smoothly than during the mishandled Cedar Fire disaster, and lives had clearly been saved by a reverse-911 evacuation system, a political blaze was getting under way.
TheNew York Times reported the feds had accused Cal Fire, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, of failing in the first critical days to seek federal firefighters and air tankers. Furious San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter sparred with Cal Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva over the state’s view that “fire spotters” had to accompany military aircraft, and hours passed before the feud was resolved. In Orange County, Fire Chief Chip Prather bitterly pointed to a lack of air support, state Assemblyman Todd Spitzer accused a blue-ribbon commission of punting rather than building up the air fleet, and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher went on KNX News Radio to accuse the Department of Defense of dawdling on adapting C-130 aircraft for fire-fighting.
Yet all week, powerful politicos downplayed the need for more aircraft, including the governor himself. Christine Kehoe of San Diego, the Legislature’s point woman on wildfire response, insisted that a dramatic buildup in air support was not the post-2003 answer to saving vast tracts of wildland-adjacent housing, and accused some critics of “grandstanding.”
“We are spending as much as we possibly can on aircraft,” Kehoe insisted to the L.A. Weekly. Schwarzenegger went even further, complaining, “For someone to complain about aircraft not being available, I think is ridiculous.”
Schwarzenegger, Cal Fire bureaucrats and pilots and many politicians insisted the culprit was not equipment shortages, but the wind. In interview after interview, officials said the Santa Ana winds were often too stiff to use available aircraft, even during the critical “initial attack” phase in which tankers and helicopters can drench fires while the slower-moving ground crews and fire engines race in to respond.
Tension over the issue was extreme. In San Diego County, a near-shouting match broke out between news reporters and a San Diego County supervisor after Cal Fire officials resisted divulging the actual number of aircraft currently aloft over the San Diego County fires. Those who blamed the wind often did so without actually knowing conditions in the specific ravines and hills left without air support for hours at a time, such as in the 200,000-acre Witch megafire that destroyed 1,040 homes near San Diego, the persistent 28,500-acre Santiago Canyon Fire in Orange County and the fast-moving Slide and Grass Valley fires that wiped out communities near Lake Arrowhead and Green Valley Lake.
The wind was clearly a factor. But frequently last week it became an excuse to paper over looming problems: a shortage of helicopters and tankers; continuing mis-communication between counties, the state and the feds; and, perhaps most importantly, Cal Fire’s and the fed’s reluctance to fly after dusk or during high winds — conditions in which other pilots often do agree to fly.
Testimony in the 2003-’04 state blue-ribbon hearings focused on, among other things, the need for a much-improved air fleet to fight fires in California’s so-called Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI, where a staggering 5 million homes have been erected. Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman insisted, “It’s going to probably take some extraordinary actions and some extraordinary recommendations from this commission in order to deal with future fire sieges.”
Yet the blue-ribbon commission, under pressure from then-director of Cal Fire Andrea Tuttle, and retired state senator and commission chairman Bill Campbell of Hacienda Heights, failed to pass fiscal recommendations to dramatically upgrade the air fleet, putting forth a series of incremental reforms. Very few were related to air support, which got a modest nod in “State Recommendation 5,” to fix and replace Huey helicopters with “extreme structural fatigue,” some of which saw duty in Vietnam. The commission did, however, eagerly approve this: a recommendation to spend money on PR to persuade the public not to overanticipate or overdemand air support during the next fire disaster.
Since 2003, San Diego County has built a helicopter air fleet of just two aircraft. And the city of San Diego has only “Copter 1.” Both have put money instead into a far less costly reverse-911 system that kicks in largely once a fire is threatening and is heading for homes. Michael Archer, a columnist for www.military.com who weighs in on ways to improve aerial support such as by using more effective gel retardants, says, “You want to kill the fire, not have to run away from it. Running is the new strategy?”
It was hard not to compare the frustrating events in San Diego, Orange and San Bernardino counties last week to what unfolded at the windswept fire scene in Malibu. In Los Angeles, county and city officials have created a far better-prepared pilot force than probably any jurisdiction in California — hardcore fliers who know every canyon, are adept at flying at night and have the equipment to do so, and utilize a local air fleet that does not rely on the bureaucratic Cal Fire.
Amid howling Santa Ana winds, Los Angeles County pilots worked through Monday night on multiple blazes, at the very time when Cal Fire and federal pilots grounded themselves in San Diego and San Bernardino County in part due to those departments’ aversion to possible crashes — a stance observers say grew more strict after crashes of firefighting air tankers in California in 2002 and 2005.
Back and forth recriminations began to fly. In Orange County, critics pointed out that Assemblyman Todd Spitzer and Orange County Supervisor Bill Campbell, who last week slammed the lack of air support, had themselves fought successfully to stop Measure D — which could have quickly paid for two more helicopters for Orange County firefighters. In San Diego, in the months after the Cedar and Paradise fires of 2003 destroyed 2,400 homes and killed 18, critics noted that taxpayers twice refused to approve a hotel tax — a tax largely on outsiders — that would have upgraded that area’s fire protection.
Tony Morris, an advocate of greater air support who runs the nonprofit Wildfire Research Network, recalls how, after the Cedar Fire disaster, he met with an aide to Dianne Jacob, a San Diego County supervisor, who told Morris that the county, which, unlike the city of San Diego, has no fire department and relies in part on an old-fashioned volunteer firefighters system, had no plan to fund a modern fire department. “They’re going to have to do something,” Morris says. “They’re too vulnerable.”
Perhaps more vulnerable than anyone imagined. According to forest ecologist Volker Radeloff of the University of Wisconsin– Madison, “5 million California homes are in the WUI — and last week 125,000 of those homes were within one mile of the fire.”
While the media focused on the upbeat story of the successful reverse-911 in dramatically reducing loss of life, the greater truth seemed to be this: California didn’t learn the lessons of 2003 very well, leaving gaping holes in its system. The fire season is only half over, California is in a nasty drought, and weather experts say we could have more terrible Santa Ana winds — which, despite media hype, did not break records last week.
“The fires are a precarious thing,” says Bill Patzert, a respected climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, “and we’re not done yet.”
ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 21, L.A. County firefighters were returning to Station 125 on Las Virgenes Road near the 101 freeway after a false alarm at a house off of Malibu Colony Drive when another call came in at 4:56 a.m. — a brush fire in twisting, parched, overgrown Malibu Canyon near the Malibu Canyon tunnel just northwest of the old Sheriff’s Honor Rancho turnoff.
The firefighters — suspecting 14,000-volt lines had snapped from intense winds, sparking the blaze — called in a “second-alarm brush response” for five additional fire engines. And with the super-dry red flag conditions, humidity below 15 percent and winds gusting to 40 miles per hour (the ragged edge in flying, when risk escalates dramatically), they reached out to the state’s mutual-aid system, calling in backup from Ventura, Orange and Riverside counties, Beverly Hills and Redondo Beach and others, seeking another 45 fire engines.
At 5 a.m. Tony Marrone, chief of air ops with the L.A. County Fire Department, sent one of the fleet’s 10 helicopters to suss out the scene. The heliport landing at Pepperdine University was smoked out, so they used Malibu Creek State Park to dispatch an entire fleet including the county’s helitanker and two huge Super Scoopers.
“We called the Super Scoopers and woke them up at 5:15 at the Burbank Holiday Inn,” says Marrone. “I told them ‘Get ready. We have to go!’?” The scoopers, based at Van Nuys Airport, were soon aloft, piloted by French-Canadian experts who live in Southern California during the fire season. Even with the high winds, Los Angeles “never had to ground the aircraft,” says Marrone.
These first moments are what fire experts call the “initial attack” mode, in which helicopters with fire-suppression crews are followed by water and retardant drops that support ground crews and bulldozers. “The real issue is in the first hours of the fire,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “If you want to make a difference and you have a fighting chance till your ground personnel gets in, you need an overwhelming response, and that takes aircraft, and it has to be your aircraft.”
Although Cal Fire says it can respond almost anywhere within 20 minutes, the time lost in contacting Cal Fire, as other jurisdictions were doing back in 2003 and continue to do today, means “the state [has] to put the call out and valuable time has passed by,” Yaroslavsky says.
By first light, city and county helicopters were dropping water on flames spreading in two directions: toward Pepperdine and the nearby Hughes Research Laboratory, and toward multimillion-dollar homes along “Billionaires’ Beach” in Carbon Beach and the exclusive Serra Estates. Also in the path of the flames was a historic monastery and the $17 million Castle Kashan, a private home containing a supposedly priceless collection of Elvis memorabilia.
By 7 a.m., two helitankers and two Super Scoopers with 1,600-gallon capacity were dropping retardant and water. In dramatic swoops, the helitankers refilled in the Pacific Ocean, while the Super Scoopers used more placid Lake Sherwood. Meanwhile, students at Pepperdine were moved to the cafeteria and given gauze masks as homeowners were evacuated. Among them: Kelsey Grammer and Sally Field, and 18 patients at Promises, the rehab center for stars like Lindsay Lohan.
By 1 p.m., county firefighters were tackling a fire near Agua Dulce, assisting U.S. Forest Service firefighters near Castaic and fighting a fire near Stevenson Ranch. “We were stretched. We were asking for help,” says Los Angeles County fire investigator Sam Padilla.
Battling blazes in the rough Santa Monica Mountains isn’t new to Los Angeles firefighters. Fourteen years ago, the Old Topanga Fire raced to the Pacific Ocean, gutting 300 Malibu homes, killing three and blackening 17,000 acres — and demonstrating how the canyons that spill out near Pacific Coast Highway can act as treacherous funnels for superheated air and flames.
Firefighters put down last week’s blaze after it scorched just 4,565 acres. Unlike other parts of the state, “We didn’t have to ground the planes,” says Sam Padilla. “We have some of the best-experienced pilots in the world, and they will fly in any conditions.”
In January 2004, Cal Fire official Michael Padilla told the blue-ribbon commission that local agencies — especially San Diego — needed to create an “initial attack” program focused on air power, “like L.A. County and what they do. Look at L.A. city and what they’ve got.”
That never happened.
SAN DIEGO’S TRAGIC EXPERIENCE last week was dramatically different from events in Malibu. Four and a half hours after the Canyon Fire in Malibu started, a blaze of unknown origin was spotted at Harris Ranch Road near Potrero, 45 miles east of San Diego. According to a Cal Fire official, ground and air crews were immediately dispatched to the so-called Harris Fire at 9:30 a.m.
“We were out the door and up in the air in a matter of minutes,” says Jim Barnes, an air tanker pilot and 25-year Cal Fire veteran. Barnes flew an aircraft capable of dropping 1,200 gallons of water. “We encountered severe turbulence right off,” says Barnes. “It happened 10 times a minute.”
He completed four or five “circuits,” or water drops, even as a few Cal Fire planes were diverted to Malibu’s Canyon Fire. According to press reports, more than 300 firefighters battled the Harris Fire on the ground and from the air, with five air tankers, five helicopters and 45 engines. But just three hours later, the Witch Fire broke out in north San Diego County near Santa Ysabel. The county government relies on a mishmash of volunteer and professional firefighters, and the area was quickly overtaken by a massive inferno that ate up acreage as two air tankers, 60 fire engines and 350 firefighters responded. Four more air tankers attempted to drop water, Barnes says, but “they just couldn’t make it.”
Sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., he says, Cal Fire air tanker pilots grounded themselves. While many L.A. pilots view 40 mph winds as pushing it, Cal Fire often cites as its limit 35 mph — a speed that the Santa Ana winds often exceed. But, “The pilots make the call,” explains Barnes, noting that “smoke” and “poor visibility” were the deciding factors in flying back to base in Ramona. “If you crash an airplane,” says the pilot, “it’s just another fire for someone to deal with.”
As Cal Fire air tankers sat on the tarmac for two hours, the Witch Fire built in size and strength. For San Diego city’s Fire-Rescue Department Deputy Chief Brian Fennessy, the situation brought back bad memories: “There just wasn’t enough equipment to go around,” says Fennessy, who heads the Special Operations Division and runs the three-man single-helicopter crew for the city.
Although the massive Santa Ana winds that so preoccupied Schwarzenegger and other politicians were a “significant factor,” Fennessy says, the midafternoon Sunday wind currents in the Witch Fire “weren’t at full speed yet.” It was not until well after Cal Fire grounded itself that the Santa Anas reached 40 to 60 mph, with gusts up to 80 mph, later that evening, Fennessy says. That fact was substantiated by the National Weather Service and Accuweather, the world’s largest private weather service.
“It was a big event,” says JPL climatologist Patzert, but the winds were “not unprecedented.” He adds, “This was not the Santa Ana of the century.”
That left San Diego Fire-Rescue’s locally operated Copter 1 alone as it dropped its 375-gallon loads on the Witch Fire that night. The busy Bell 212-HP copter transported a burned state firefighter and a critically injured teenager whose father was killed, and identified the direction of the blaze, zipping through gusts of more than 60 mph, slipping under huge smoke columns and flying through darkness. According to Fennessy, “Copter 1 was the only aircraft in the air that night and [early Monday] morning.”
Unlike San Diego County — which does not fly its two copters at night — or Cal Fire, which despite Schwarzenegger’s praise has not yet outfitted its pilot crews with night goggles, special equipment and night training, San Diego city’s tiny one-helicopter crew was equipped with “night vision” capability. And pilots Chris Hartnell, Mike Moore and Eric Connell were willing to fly. “You can see so well [with night-vision goggles],” says Fennessy. “It’s like seeing during the day.”
It was a good thing too. On early Monday morning, he says, it was Copter 1 that spotted the Witch Fire heading toward San Diego’s city limits. By 11:30 a.m., thousands of evacuees began arriving at Qualcomm Stadium.
Jim Forbes of Escondido received a reverse-911 call and was told to leave. “I figured I didn’t own anything I couldn’t replace,” says Forbes, a former reporter for PC Week and Mac World. He gathered his long-haired Chihuahua and two cats and took off, seeing five houses already aflame just down the street. He spent the night at Calvin Christian Academy, where “people were sharing cell phones, sharing dog food and water bowls.” His home was saved, and he later joked, “I was glad they stopped the fire spreading to Hawaii.”
On Monday, crack Cal Fire air tanker pilots flew nonstop circuits from dawn to dusk, “bending the rules,” according to aviator Jim Barnes, and working past the hypercautious Cal Fire regulation that they must stop a half hour before sunset, when darkness is still more than an hour away. “We worked as long as we could,” says Barnes.
By that day, however, public criticism had already begun, just as in 2003, that little air power was evident in the skies — and politicians began to blame the wind. But wind was not always the key problem in several huge firefights. Near Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County, where the Grass Valley Fire erupted before dawn on Monday, Tim Sappok, assistant county fire chief, says one of the biggest problems was plumes of acrid black and brown smoke that grounded a Cal Fire-leased DC-10 at a bad time. Later, the plane made 27 missions throughout Southern California.
Sappok was pleased with the air response, mostly from the U.S. Fire Service, but said, “We always wish we had more, and sooner, but aircraft is just one of the songs on our iPod .?.?. You always want to have aircraft and you want them there sooner and you want more.”
But by Tuesday, Orange County joined the angry debate over air power. There, an arson fire set Sunday evening near Silverado Canyon and Santiago Canyon roads quickly spread, and the Orange County Fire Authority had to initially rely on a ground crew. Two Fire Authority helicopters could not combat the massive, 32-square-mile blaze because they are not equipped to fight after sunset. And unlike Los Angeles County, Orange County depends on other agencies including the state to pick up its slack during wildfires. Says Dan Young of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, who attacked Campbell and Spitzer for opposing the fire-equipment-funding Measure D, “The only resources you can control are your own.”
Orange County Fire Authority’s Prather criticized the state’s initial air response, saying the fire had consumed more than 18,000 acres before the first aircraft arrived. In a widely quoted criticism, he added, “We were here in 2003 .?.?. It is an absolute fact, had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire.” And, he angrily dismissed the state’s assurances that the response had dramatically improved from 2003, saying, “Yadda, yadda, yadda. All I know is, I had 12 firefighters deploy their shelters yesterday, and they shouldn’t have had to do that.”
Prather was joined by Assemblyman Spitzer, Supervisor Campbell and San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter, all repeating the claim that helicopters and airplanes that could have dumped water and retardant in the early stages of the fires were nowhere to be found.
At about the same time, Schwarzenegger held a Tuesday-evening press conference in Santa Clarita flanked by State Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, Los Angeles County supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Mike Freeman. Politically, it was the perfect move — he surrounded himself with winners from the one county that handled the fires with aplomb. After several rounds of mutual back-slapping, Schwarzenegger addressed a journalist’s question about Spitzer’s comments that the state has failed to implement recommendations put forth by the blue-ribbon committee.
“Well, I respect Assemblymember Spitzer very much,” the governor said, “but I happen to disagree with him on that.”
Schwarzenegger later added, “I have heard, for instance, stories today that they have more than 90 aircraft that are available, but not all of them can fly because of the wind conditions. So for someone to complain about aircraft not being available, I think is ridiculous, because aircraft are available, but we have to wait for the right weather conditions.”
The next day, Wednesday, Schwarzenegger’s PR team shifted into overdrive, sending the media 25 press alerts, most of which emphasized what a great job the government was doing — an overkill that prompted the Daily News to editorialize that his “spin doctoring serves to cheapen” those things that were being done right.
Yet even as the winds began to back off, eyewitness accounts persisted of aircraft that never showed. From a high point on his ranch, blogger Stuart O’Neill at The Democratic Daily watched a finger of the Santiago Fire sweep across obscure ravines and ridges at dawn on Wednesday. He wrote: “I watch the fire crawl over the top of a ridge line that threatens the community of Hamilton Trail. There was no air support. The fire .?.?. could have been effectively attacked by air tankers. Orange County again had no, or too few, air tankers to make the effort.”
Schwarzenegger’s spin machine appeared to engulf Orange County Fire Chief Prather, who stood at a morning press conference a few hours later with Schwarzenegger and praised him for “inspiring” him. When a journalist reminded Prather of his criticisms just 24 hours earlier, Prather offered an almost gymnastically convoluted explanation: “My remarks yesterday didn’t have to do with yesterday,” he said. Rather, he had been referring to “developing a long-term strategy” for future disasters.
But Spitzer told the Weekly, “Prather changed because he got a lot of heat. There’s a lot of pressure coming down. A lot. The politics of it is that nobody wants to be criticizing the response in a massive disaster. Present a united front. You’re going to see a lot of people not speaking up.”
THE DIVISIONS SERVED TO HIGHLIGHT the fact that fire officials and politicians in California have yet to agree on where best to spend the money to avert tragedies like those last week. On one side are officials who say air support is overrated, and is too dependent on weather. On the other side are officials, including L.A. County’s Freeman, who told the blue-ribbon commission of the need for a significant air fleet to quell fires in an era of “WUI” blazes — megafires in the wildland-urban interfaces.
Certainly the public was demanding air support, with AM radio talk jocks and TV nightly news stations airing story after story of angry citizens watching the skies for absent helitankers. On the San Diego Union-Tribune Web site, an angry, tooth-and-nail debate over the lack of air power generated 47 pages of online commentary. One reader commented, “Too risky to fly? Give me a break. Thousands of boots on the ground were risking their lives. Now comes the CYA.”
California has made progress since 2003, but those improvements have been largely incremental. Costs are steep — a Fire Hawk helicopter can run $17 million, and a Bell 412 costs $10 million. A 120-day lease of an Erickson Air-Crane helitanker costs $2.5 million. L.A. County leases two super scoopers for four months annually — for $2.5 million.
Cal Fire did spend money refitting its ?S-2A airtankers in 2005 with powerful turbo-prop engines that can carry a larger retardant payload. But in the years after 2003, Schwarzenegger was on a budget-cutting mission to reduce the Gray Davis–era $25 billion deficit. In Sacramento, a massive battle over the crumbs broke out in the spring of 2004, at virtually the same time that Andrea Tuttle — a marine ecologist with no background in firefighting, who former Governor Davis appointed to oversee Cal Fire, the third-largest firefighting force in the U.S. — pooh-poohed the debate over air support.
Tuttle and Cal Fire had come under brutal criticism in 2003 for botching key decisions during the Cedar Fire, including dithering over a deal struck by Congressman Hunter in which Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would send huge C-130 aircraft to make drops. In the days that passed while Tuttle thought over the federal offer, Hunter’s home burned to the ground — like hundreds of others.
Stung by the slams she endured, Tuttle used the blue-ribbon commission forum to lecture the California public over its “misguided .?.?. assumption that the fire is not being fought unless planes are in the air,” and downplayed the effectiveness of air drops, citing everything from dangerous high winds to retardant that can blow away.
Instead, she trumpeted her own “conversation with San Diego over the need for an additional helicopter” — an exceedingly modest idea for the huge region.
The blue-ribbon hearings set up by Davis before he was ousted had begun with gusto and big ideas in November 2003. They wrapped up with a whimper in March 2004. One casualty was the notion that California should dramatically boost its local and regional air fleet. One recommendation — “Multi-Jurisdictional Recommendation 2” — sounded like a demand for air support, stating that the ability of aircraft “to drop large quantities of water or other fire retardants on otherwise difficult-to-reach areas, and areas in immediate danger, is difficult to duplicate by other means.” But the recommendation was toothless — a mere suggestion that various agencies try to create a plan for air support. It did not even seek funds for the planning process.
At a commission meeting just two months earlier, in response to a question from a local fire chief about how to build up the air program, Cal Fire’s Chief Padilla had answered, “Well, I hate to say money.” Padilla was instantly interrupted with a “Let me answer that!” by commission chairman Campbell, the retired Hacienda Heights state senator, who promised that the body would indeed address the funding issue.
But the commission had trouble keeping its word. Perhaps its most telling recommendation was the one to spend money on a public-education campaign to convince angry Californians that the use of aircraft to fight wildland fires is overrated, and partially a media creation. “Better public understanding of the appropriate use of aviation resources during wildfires is needed,” the commission found.
Today, Assemblyman Spitzer — who fought funding Measure D in Orange County — slams the commission for recommending “more study” of expanding California’s air support. “This was a real ‘wow’ move on the commission’s part,” says Spitzer. “You have got to be kidding me! More study of air support? These guys were supposed to say what California should do on air support, what we should do about the major problems out of 2003. One of the major problems was poor air support, lack of air support, confused air support. They avoid it. Wow. Just wow.”
IT’S STILL ABOUT the money — and that is a delicate matter. Potentially thousands of lives could be put at risk in California if the existing Wildland-Urban Interface, now hundreds of miles long, cannot be defended. Los Angeles County Supervisor Yaroslavsky, calling air support “extraordinarily valuable,” says the cost of leasing or buying more planes and helicopters “pales by comparison to the cost of not having it at the first sign of the Santa Anas. Look at what transpired [last week] in the communities that don’t have that kind of air response.” But so far, few political leaders are willing to find the money. Many are focused on less expensive policy ideas, such as training homeowners to create defensible space, urging smarter land use by cities approving new housing and other measures that will save property and lives — but don’t address how to fight fires racing toward existing communities.
Already, political leaders have promised that “hearings” will be held, again, to seek changes in how California deals with wildfires in the fringe communities. “I am not sure people are going to be able to have patios, gazebos. We will need lifestyle changes,” says Kehoe. Schwarzenegger, still riding his positive press on October 27, said “We’re going to analyze everything — how perfect of a job we have done.”
But no matter what these leaders do to change future behavior, millions of homes are already deep in the hills and ravines. And the lesson of 2007 seems to be that they are more vulnerable than ever.
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