Nov 5, 2007
A week after 15 wildfires tore through Southern California, police announced that a 10-year-old boy had confessed that he set off one of them, the Buckwood fire in Santa Clarita while playing with matches. Days later, the district attorney’s office announced that it was still weighing whether to prosecute the child. They also said they would soon decide to try to make his parents – his father is a local caretaker – liable for all the damage caused by the Buckwood fire, which destroyed 38,000 acres and hundreds of homes.
Real estate developers make big profits building thousands of mansions, luxury vacation homes and housing tracts in regions where fire is a part of the natural environment. The government gives its blessings and doesn’t even demand that precautions be taken to reduce the threat of a bad fire. It doesn’t make sure that the land is cleared of the wood and brush, because contractors say it’s too costly, and besides, it looks pretty. It doesn’t require fire departments to set small, controlled fires to burn off the accumulating dead wood, grasses and chaparral, that fuel fires, because wealthy residents don’t like the smoke.
The government also doesn’t prepare properly to deal with fires when they do break out. After the last big fires swept through San Diego just four years ago, a state commission recommended that the state buy 150 new fire trucks. So far, the state has ordered only 19 of them, none of which will be delivered for at least another year. At the same time, the fire departments in both San Diego and Orange counties are both extremely undermanned. When smaller brush fires did break out, there was no way to deal with them before they got out of hand.
But what the government does is find scapegoats, whether they are 10-year-olds and their parents – or immigrants.
As soon as the fires broke out, news reports began to blame immigrants for setting fires. Never mind that as the wealthy fled the fire areas in their Lexuses and Mercedes, they left immigrants behind to continue to work in their mansions and fields. It was not an accident that the first four charred bodies found were those of immigrants.
If history is a guide, the wealthy who lost their homes will use all their insurance money to rebuild structures that are bigger than those they lost. That is what happened both after the Berkeley fire in 1993 and the San Diego fires in 2003. And while the middle class and poor won’t be able to afford to rebuild, the developers and contractors will buy up land cheaply, and make another financial killing and develop even more. And of course, it will all be paid for out of tax dollars and insurance premiums paid by the working class and poor.
A disaster for working people turns out to be a profitable opportunity for the wealthy, the developers, real estate agents ... and the politicians like Schwarzenegger, who make high profile appearances on the scene to further their own careers.