Richard Reeves

The Fires of October

LOS ANGELES -- Well, they are finally saying some good things about Gray Davis. He is having a "Giuliani moment" commanding firefighters and comforting the afflicted as the largest wildfires in recorded history sweep through the mountains, hills and canyons of Southern California. More than a million acres were burned out and thousands of homes were gone by this weekend. At least 20 people have been killed.

Gov. Davis saw it coming. Hell, everybody in California knew it was coming. The southern part of the state is essentially a continuing fight against nature. God has been trying to take all this back for a very long time. This time higher forces had three evil allies: four years of drought; a bark-beetle infestation that had already turned more than 400,000 acres of pine forest into big kindling; and the greed (and hope) that makes men think they can build homes where angels fear to tread, on canyon rims, beaches and flood plains.

The first European who passed through, Father Juan Crespi, a Spanish explorer-priest, wrote in 1769 of the beauty of the place he called "Los Angeles," but said there was evidence everywhere of past drought and fire, flood and earthquake. Southern California then was home to tens of thousands of Indians, the number nature could support in what was (and would be again if the sprinklers were turned off) almost a desert. Since then we have changed the number to tens of millions, importing water, food and conditioned air to make the place a very crowded paradise.

Davis, the recalled governor who will turn his title over to Arnold Schwarzenegger in a few days, is now the man energetically rallying the troops trying to hold back nature for another little while. He has reminded his few friends that New York's Rudy Giuliani was a disliked lame-duck mayor when he became the rallying point on Sept. 11, 2001. There has to be a dark angel in Davis that wakes up in the middle of the night and says, "If only ... if only this had happened a month ago."

It might have. Last March 7, Davis declared a state of emergency in California because of the dry weather and trees and brush piled up in the woods and hillsides near homes and towns. Years ago, a Los Angeles fire chief named Ernie Hanson calculated that 100 acres of "brush" -- gnarled little trees and dry little bushes -- piled 5 feet high had more latent explosive power than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Then, last April 16, the governor wrote a letter to President Bush, requesting $430 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to clear the deadwood and attack the beetles. The answer -- No! -- came back from FEMA in Washington on Friday, Oct. 24, about when the fires began. The feds said they were already spending $40 million to attack bark beetles in the national forests of California. FEMA added, in its own words, the thought that its job is to help clean up after emergencies, not try to prevent them.

(Bark beetles, by the way are dark, brown or black, quarter-inch-long uglies that lay eggs in tunnels they bore between the live wood and bark of pine trees. Their issue then survives by eating the bark until they reach daylight and fly away to look for their own trees. Healthy trees can kill the buggers by suffocating them in pitch. But many California trees are not healthy because fires have been suppressed and small trees and brush have not been cleared. It is fire that clears and provides the room and fertilizer for healthy trees. Along come men, who build houses and towns and put out small fires -- then, eventually, there is a big fire. Welcome to sunny California.)

Truth be told, if Davis had had his way and Washington had sent the money, it could only have postponed the fire storms raging in four counties here. The burned area is larger than Rhode Island and is moving in on Delaware. And no matter how much or how little burns, the fires of October will be followed by floods and landslides this winter and spring. Without trees and root systems in place, the snow melt and winter rains from the mountains will create a slippery slope to the sea, passing over more towns and homes on the way.

Then life will go on until the next one. Californians will rebuild with houses and towns just a little bigger. That is how the home of thousands of Indians became the homes of 30 million Americans. The White House will pour hundreds of millions, billions perhaps, into California. The president and the new Republican governor will tour the devastated areas amid signs of new growth, and Arnold will say that his friend George Bush saved California. This has nothing to do, of course, with the fact that it is virtually impossible for a Democrat to win the presidency without carrying California, a strongly Democratic state in recent national elections.

Where, oh where, will the federal government get all that new money? Oh, did I forget to mention that the feds added $500 million last Thursday to the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan? Now, California can be rebuilt, too. Until next time.

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