Wildfires are raging across the southern half of California for the fourth day after driving a half million people from their homes—the largest evacuations on record in the state. At least 1,000 homes have been destroyed, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office estimated that economic losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Orange County Fire Chief Chip Prather said a lack of resources put firefighters’ lives at risk. “It is an absolute fact,” he said, “Had we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire.”
What the commentators said
The authorities blew it this time, said The San Diego Union-Tribune in an editorial. Everybody knew drought conditions and high winds were a recipe for disaster, so why weren’t Air Force and Air National Guard planes on standby to drop water or fire retardant? “Given the increasing frequency of catastrophic fires,” maybe it’s time for California to appoint a “fire czar” to make sure firefighters have all the resources they need next time.
Fires in California are predictable, said The New York Times in an editorial (free registration). They come every year, and everyone has known since January that dry conditions would make them bad this time around. But “while the fire cycle in Southern California is natural—an inevitable and necessary part of local wildland ecology—its economic impact is not. The fires burn where they always burn,” but the damage has grown more costly only as humans have built in its path.
Our insistence on putting out every little fire has only made matters worse, said Daniel Jones Brown in the Los Angeles Times (free registration). The practice lets brush and other fuel build up, creating a store of fuel for unbeatable conflagrations. But there’s something else at play here: Global warming. It is undeniably “raising ambient temperatures, promoting drought in already drought-prone regions and lengthening our fire seasons.”