SENT TO Z MAG Nov 6 2003

November 5, 2003

California Hellfire 2003

By RICH GIBSON, San Diego State University

Everyone knew fire was coming. TV weather casters commented on the possibility a week before it happened. The conditions were, as they said, ripe for a perfect firestorm. Yet firestorm preparations were minimal. 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 on a Sunday morning 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 was in part the result of a 177 day drought, in part because of rapacious development, in part because deadly beetles invaded nearby trees, killing them months ago, in part because of 49 mile per hour Santa Ana winds from the east, and in part because some homeowners are dedicated to their explosive eucalyptus trees; but the response to the fire is a combination of politics and nature. The response, which in part demonstrated that people are hardly selfish in character 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 nearly $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 while in office. This meant equipment went idle, as did personnel. Air tankers and helicopters were grounded. For months, firefighters and their allies warned of tragedy ahead. And for months Davis lobbied the federal government for money to clear fire-feeding brush lands, and failed, compounding the combustible mix of nature primed for fire, and people unready.

San Diego firefighters were up north in Riverside and San Bernardino when the San Diego fires began their sweep late Saturday October 25, driven by what was officially a moderate Santa Ana wind to the west. Moderate means 40-50 miles per hour.

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 Bernardino fires. They were not released until the worst damage had been done, coming back on Monday, 36 hours after the fire took power, 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--20 confirmed dead so far, 3/4 million acres. Quick response was also squelched by orders from the National Forest Service which directed California helicopter pilots, on the scene of the initial outbreak at dusk, not to douse the fires because agency rules enjoin airborne firefighting after dark.Curiously, local residents state that they repeatedly called the fire service, beginning around 4:30 p.m., one hour and forty five minutes before dark, but got no response until local firefighters arrived on the ground about eight hours later. Eventually, 14,500 firefighters attacked the fire.

San Diego long prided itself on low taxes, a low police/fire per capita ratio, and local control, what the mayor in a recent election campaigned called, "Our mantra." The mantra resulted in an under equipped department, under staffed, with no regional direction or leadership, and firefighters riding commandeered city busses filled with equipment they had purchased on their own credit cards from Home Depot to fight what fast became the biggest wildfire in state history.

Residents of wealthy Scripps Ranch north of downtown San Diego had no warning of a 100 foot wall of flame approaching their homes. Only the smell of smoke drew people outside. In many cases, they fled through the flames, having collected pets and wallets, arriving on nearby expressways to find themselves in traffic jams, watching the flames tower above trees and buildings.

The Marines at Camp Pendelton set one of the major fires by conducting live-fire bombing practice in the midst of dry underbrush to the north of the base. That fire burned for a week, diverting vital firefighting resources. 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 panicked, failed to act, following his path during the energy crisis. Davis acted out of habit. The man who helped lead the deregulation of the state's energy industry, then appointed deregulation's prime proponent, Steve Peace of San Diego, to be the state budget director on the heels of the disastrous looting of the state treasury by energy criminal cartels, like Enron, 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 one ever saw the vaunted asses and elbows of any group of the tens of thousands of marines and sailors or National Guard people in the county working to defeat the fire until late in the day, on Wednesday, when air tankers began to attack fires near their bases.

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 PETCO park public financing was made possible by a bribe paid to the former mayor who was forced from office when caught. The briber, though known (a top Padres official), was never charged. The Del Mar race track became the fire's lost 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 rank and file firefighters (rightly praised as making a heroic effort) 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.

One resident near the San Diego Mission Trails fire-path, looked for signs of firefighters all day Sunday, the fire's first daylight. The only indications 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 too 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 proved mostly true--but also cost lives.

On Tuesday evening, the air in the city was vile, full of ash and industrial pollutants. The depth of this air quality crisis was only being discussed well after most of the population was poisoned, as it was 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. In some cases, though, San Diego residents were surrounded by fire or traffic jams, stuck to breath the air and hope for the best.

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 burned.

To contrast, however, Mayor Kilpatrick of Detroit boasted that on Halloween weekend, the same period when the San Diego fires came under control, only about 120 fires were set in abandoned homes and cars in his city, slightly up from last year, but well down from the record of more than 500 on Devil's Nights of the past. One towns Hellfire is another's citizen urban clearance.

Residents on San Diego County reservations, in small outback towns like Cuyamaca or Harbison Canyon, and in trailer parks reported they were passed by, their homes sacrificed so one hundred fire trucks could be staged to fight a photogenic last stand at the historic town of Julian, once a mining camp and now a local tourist destination touting hot apple pie and snow just 45 minutes northwest of San Diego. The Cuyamaca firefighters were hard hit. Every person on the small department's squad lost their own home. Downtown Julian was preserved, but nearly everything leading to it was torched. While residents of Scripps Ranch, struck early on by the fire sweeping west, were deluged with official and unofficial assistance, people in poor and completely burned out Crest wondered why even the Red Cross would not help them. Nearby residents from Alpine, victims of a big fire in 2001, remember the performance of the Red Cross whose $400,000 per year boss refused to distribute donations to fire victims and was only pushed out after a storm of protest from public officials. Of those in Alpine who were covered by insurance for that fire, only about half have settled with their insurance companies.

As the fire died, six days after it began, people in Harbison Canyon stoned passing fire trucks and police cars. Looting broke out throughout the county, each incident hushed in local media where the tourist economy, the military economy, and the casino economy (most casinos in the US outside Las Vegas), live on deception--and the locals' willingness to keep the secrets.

Sergio Martinez, a lost hunter who, after a day in the woods alone decided it was too much and sent up a signal flare in the dry brush, was arrested for starting the Cedars fire. He was ticketed and released on his own recognizance. Two suspects accused of starting the San Bernardino fires to the north of San Diego were portrayed in dark drawings on the television, as wanted domestic terrorists.

In recent months, the Moslem community of San Diego was under attack for harboring the terrorists who may have masterminded the September 11 attacks on the east coast. Many in the San Diego area persist in believing that the huge Islamic Mosque on Balboa Avenue, the site of repeated graffiti attacks, is still home to terrorists. In addition, the Earth Liberation Front recently took credit for burning at least two major housing complexes under construction in San Diego. It is notable that neither ELF nor the Moslem community can be charged with taking a spare set of matches to any nearby woods while the Cedars Fire was ablaze, and taking the obvious tactic of setting a blaze that would have easily joined the Cedars Fire with the Paradise Fire to the south, or the other fires to the north, creating a hellfire wall of almost unimaginable proportions.

At minimum, 3500 homes have been destroyed in California. One firefighter is dead. San Diego was closed by official decree for the week, while the bankrupt city coffers emptied into the mouth of the unnecessary fire. The Cedars fire alone, one of three fires near San Diego, is estimated to cost $2 billion in public money.

No city official stepped forward to take leadership as all governmental and official life cracked up. Instead, like Mayor Dick Murphy and Governor Gray Davis, councilpersons, and county officials gathered in what came to be known as "swarms of yellow jackets," groups of officials wearing yellow fire coats, with their names and titles embroidered in red script, holding town forums where the agenda was fixed, public comment minimized, until, at the end, the police began to oust those who persisted in asking pointed questions about why their homes were burned, or why they had no warning of the coming fire. It became clear that the city was leaderless, that at every key juncture wrong decisions (or non-decisions)were issued by officials, who then hid in clusters from the public.

The relief station for firefighters at expansive Gillespie airfield was quickly commandeered by the Church of Scientology whose members, wearing "Volunteer Ministry" yellow tee-shirts just took charge and began to coordinate incoming food donations, medical and counseling services, and free chiropractic to boot.

The local media stood exposed to residents who experienced the fire firsthand. San Diego's National Public Radio and TV seems to have no on-the-ground reporters and relied on call-ins to catch up with the news. The lone paper, the San Diego Union Tribune, until Fall 2003 run by failed President Richard Nixon's former press secretary, Herb Klein, carried governmental press releases uncritically. Some TV reporters performed in the trenches, remaining close to the firefighters, and the fires, at great personal risk, while others stayed well-coiffed, reporting from the swimming pools of charred suburbs, commenting well safe from the passing fires. Only one credentialed journalist, Michael Turko of KUSI-TV, assigned to local consumer advocacy under the rubric, "That Ain't Right!" actually sought to locate the origin of the Cedars Fire, interviewed outraged locals, and began to force the coverage of the many official failures to respond promptly to the fire at its birth.

Governor elect Arnold Swarzenegger toured Harbison Canyon on November 3, while small remnants of the Hellfire still smoldered in east San Diego. He cheered on a Marine unit, just released from the base to help put up a tent to house a church that had burned down. The minister praised god for the Marines and a woman in a nearby photo-op held up a twelve inch plastic stature of the Virgin Mary, the only possession left from her home, and declared her experience a miracle. Asked what he would advise residents devastated by the fire to do, the Governor smiled, drew a close-up, "Hang tough!" He also announced he had decided to set aside the $40 billion California budget deficit by floating a bond-loan for $20 million.

As the heady days of denial and neighborliness pass into the days of hiring lawyers to fight insurance delays and reconstruction scams, the power of a social system rooted in fear and greed will be harshly felt by those who arrived on the scene with the least capital. Home insurance, which in many cases were scandalously tripled in the summer of 2003, will rise again, driving those living on the costly edge of housing in Southern California out of their homes. Those whose homes burned are learning that their replacement insurance does not cover the many new regulations demanding fire-safe construction, meaning rebuilding is now out of the question for people living on the edge. Layoffs in schools, already planned for December, will rise in number and impact on children and school workers. A grocery strike in its fourth week in early November may well intensify as people, cornered more and more by a ruthless economy, will have to resist. When those now made homeless by an needless fire discover that local developers are far more interested in building tract homes by the dozens, rather than single family dwellings to the specific memories of wistful people, the delays will wear thin. Ruin, though, is fuel for capital, as a predictable boom in construction work begins and the war of all on all gets back to normal. Whether resistance can transform structural disunity, build on the heartening hints of community that the hellfire sparked, is unlikely in the near future inside a society dedicated to perpetual war. Nevertheless, the fragility of that cruel system is abundantly clear.


Rich Gibson is associate professor of Social Studies in the College of Education at San Diego State University. He can be reached at:

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