Feature

California in flames

California in flames

Wildfires swept across Southern California this week, reducing hundreds of square miles to smoldering charcoal and forcing as many as a million residents to flee their homes. Dozens of separate fires were ignited in brush left tinder-dry by months of drought, and were driven through the region’s heavily populated canyons by unusually strong Santa Ana winds blowing at gale force off the Mojave Desert. At least 425,000 acres were blackened from Santa Barbara down to the Mexican border, with more than $1 billion in damages. There were dozens injured, but only one reported fatality. In Malibu, the celebrity enclave just north of Los Angeles, some 200 homes were evacuated, but hardest hit was San Diego County to the south, where at least 500 homes and 100 businesses were destroyed. “The issue this time is not preparedness,” said San Diego City Council President Scott Peters. “It’s that the event is so overwhelming.”

The scenes of displaced residents streaming into San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium recalled those in New Orleans two years ago, after Hurricane Katrina, and the White House was keen to demonstrate a less sluggish federal response to this latest emergency. Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff flew to the scene and assured reporters that “we’ve been monitoring the situation continuously. The president’s been on top of it.” President Bush declared the state a disaster area.

This won’t come as much consolation to those who have lost their homes, said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial, but natural disasters are the price Californians pay for living somewhere so beautiful. When these fires are over, we’ll ask the usual questions: “Have we built too far into nature, too high in the canyons? Was this catastrophe inevitable or the price of hubris?” But let’s not lose sight of the big picture: As long as people live “at the intersection of civilization and wildlife,” these things are going to happen.

Maybe, though, this isn’t just another natural disaster, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. We’re having more and more of these attacks of “weird weather”—prolonged droughts, killer hurricanes. Yes, I know: No single meteorological event can be blamed directly on global warming. But while California’s been ablaze, temperatures in Washington, D.C., have climbed into the 80s, in late October, and Atlanta has announced it has a mere 90 days of water left. If these extremes persist, we’re in real trouble, though the brunt will be felt—initially at least—far more by the poor people of the world than by the “bronzed and Botoxed citizens of Malibu.”

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