Nov 3, 2003
At the end of October, eight separate wildfires swept through outlying areas of Los Angeles and San Diego, with the two largest fires merging into a single forty-mile-long red wall. Within six days, the wildfires consumed an estimated 745,000 acres, causing a devastating toll: 20 people, including one firefighter, were killed, an estimated 2,612 homes were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes. As of the beginning of November, most of the wildfires had yet to be brought under control.
Most news reports immediately blamed these fires on arsonists, real or imagined. In so doing, they covered up the real evolution of these fires.
Southern California has little or no rain in the hot summer and autumn months, leading always to a big build-up of dead trees and bushes. In this environment, fires are a normal part of the natural cycle, clearing out the dead trees and brush, creating the ash that fertilizes the soil, contributing to the flourishing of new plants and trees. But with more and more homes, especially luxury homes with million dollar price tags, being built on the hills just outside major metropolitan areas and suburbs, these smaller fires have normally been put out immediately. So, dead trees and brush have been left to build-up, without anything being done to clear them out.
Despite the warnings of experts inside and outside the government, none of the layers of government – federal, state or local – budgeted even a tiny fraction of the money necessary for fire prevention, that is, first of all, to clear away all the dead trees and chaparral that constitutes the fires' prime fuel.
Just as the government had done little or nothing to prevent the fires, it did nothing to prevent the construction companies and developers from turning these areas into fire traps. The mostly luxury homes may have been put into very pretty locations, but those locations are naturally fire prone. Developers often surrounded the homes with attractive, but highly flammable trees and shrubs, such as the very oily eucalyptus tree, which actually explodes in a fire. They also often made the worst choices in building materials. Especially popular on the roofs are the very expensive and beautiful cedar shake shingles, which also immediately burst into flame when a cinder or ash lands on it.
In October, which is the end of a long dry season, the strong, hot and dry Santa Ana winds blowing in from the desert provided the optimum conditions for the "perfect fire." It only took a spark to set them off.
The fire departments in the surrounding areas as well as the federal fire system for the national forests – hit by one budget cut after another – are so undermanned and ill-equipped, they have trouble dealing with the normal levels of fires, not to speak of the vast emergencies of late October.
The same system which prepared the way for these fires will now try to see that the monetary cost of the fires will be borne by the population of the state, in higher fire insurance premiums, as well as higher taxes, accompanied by further cuts in social programs and public services – like fire protection.