Burning Questions About the California Fire
by Steven Greenhut
by Steven Greenhut
I'm not a psychologist, so maybe some LRC reader who is can explain to me two types of behavior that I've watched on full display during the ongoing wildfire crisis that is turning an area in Southern California the size of Rhode Island into charred ruins.
The first is the worshipping of the government officials who supposedly are protecting us. The second — often done by the same people who engage in the first behavior — is to blame greedy humanity for the not-quite-apocalyptic tragedy that's engulfing us.
Both things make me ill — more ill than the bad air and stench of smoke that permeates everything these days.
I've watched a lot of TV news about the fires. I'm not a news junkie, and I usually eschew watching such 24-hour news-a-thons. But I love the San Bernardino mountains. When the smog gets too thick, or the heat gets too much, or the traffic-clogged freeways take their toll, I take my family 55 minutes from home to the banks of Lake Gregory, where the air is relatively fresh and cool and the mountain pines are lovely.
As the Old Fire rages up from the San Bernardino suburbs toward the mountain resorts, I want to know what's going on. Is Crestline still there? Has Running Springs been obliterated? Are the places I know and love nothing more than charred remains?
The newscasts offer little real information. Lots of blather about shooting flames and about how some hotdog pretty-boy newsman ignored fire warnings and got his TV van turned into an inferno. Mostly, the LA newspeople, who don't know Green Valley Lake from the Valley of Enchantment, just go on and on about the heroics of the firefighters.
These heroic men and women have given of themselves to come here from northern California and Nevada and Arizona to risk their lives putting out fires. These are terrible fires, and the firefighters are doing everything they can to put them out. Funny, they seem to be getting worse rather than better. But never mind. The brave firefighters are trying to win a tough fight. They are succeeding, even though the film shows 250 or more homes east of Lake Arrowhead burning away.
Then there are those interviews with firefighters, with their officious mock humility. They are willing to make the sacrifice for "the citizens," as one Sacramento area firefighter told the news crew. The sad death of a Marin County firefighter has turned up this sort of rhetoric to a level of intensity only matched by the fires themselves.
Why the worship?
I am not trying to demean the firefighters. If my home were endangered — and I do live in a canyon susceptible to these sorts of fires — I would want the firefighters there doing everything they can to save my property. I would be thankful and respectful, and do whatever I could to show my appreciation to them.
But, really, long hours and danger is part of the job during a fire. Mostly, firefighters have little to do. That's why they are paid so well when there are no fires. This is their chosen profession. The lines are long when firefighter jobs are available.
The firefighters rushing to Southern California live for this stuff. They train for this stuff. They enjoy testing themselves. Remember the fire last year in which an unemployed firefighter started the fire to give himself work? That was an oddity, but it is a reminder that these guys are doing a job.
Firefighters receive retirement packages and benefits that many CEOs would envy. Their unions always take the moral high ground whenever there is a contract dispute with a city. You can't deny firefighters anything they demand, you see, because they keep us safe and sound. It's true to a point, but only to a point.
The TV news anchors go on and on about how hard the firefighters are working and what a good job they are doing. How do we know this? All I know is the fire seems to be winning. I have every reason to assume the firefighters are working hard and risking their lives implementing an excellent fire-stopping plan. But I know nothing about firefighting. I have no way of testing that thesis without a lot of research.
So how can I know that what I am being told about their hard work, great plan and heroics is true? I don't know the answer. But I do know the TV people don't know either. They are just filling time by doing the easy thing, yet no one questions their biased hero-worship.
Only Bill O'Reilly, on his often annoying Fox News interview show, raised questions about the effectiveness of the firefighting strategy. The firefighter union rep instantly turned the question into a slight against firefighters, but this shows how hard it is to talk honestly about what's really happening.
But it is easy to go on and on about heroics, real or phony. Notice also during the interviews that the firefighters always say how willing they are to risk everything on behalf of "the citizens." They see themselves as separate from us, not part of our communities. They bask in their self-sacrifice. I could almost see one of those New Soviet Man posters.
The second form of behavior is almost as weird as the first one. One national news anchor (I forget which one; I mix up all of these liberal dolts for some reason) did a feature the other night blaming the wildfires on Californians' insistence on building in dangerous areas around mountains and foothills. He interviewed someone from the Sierra Club who echoed that view. It's evil, unsustainable development that is to blame. The TV anchor interviewed a code inspector who showed the great things his department is doing requiring people to use materials less likely to catch fire. The government is always good.
Surely, when one builds in low-density areas in Southern California, where it can go eight months without significant rainfall, there will be a higher fire risk than building in densely populated urban areas. Basically, the enviros want us all to live in high rises in cities, and they want to preserve all the remaining open space as government preserves. That's what such thinking reveals. It never gets questioned.
Excuse us for liking to live where it is pretty rather than ugly. Excuse us for wanting to take vacations in the mountains. Far better to live in some ugly high rise and only get to look at the hills and the mountains on the rare days when the smog isn't thick. Nature must be preserved for nature's sake. Mankind is nothing more than a parasite. That's the thinking.
Why don't journalists ask about whether the government's management of national lands has something to do with the crisis? We know the government doesn't do a very good job managing anything. We know that forest managers have allowed dead tinder to build up, which has provided the fuel source for the big fires. Almost all the land in the mountain forests is government owned. Yet why does the government escape blame?
We know that the Endangered Species Act and other nutty, property-rights-destroying environmental laws have made it difficult to clear out trees and brush and to build necessary firebreaks, and have put trees and bugs above people. Why not ask the Sierra Club jerk a tough question?
We also know that government employees rarely are the most productive and effective employees. Yet somehow and for some reason the nation's opinion makers want to blame us, the victims of these fires, for the fires themselves. They want to celebrate the men and women who fight the fires, beyond all sense of proportion.
I'm not saying not to think about where we build our homes and what risks are involved. Private insurance companies and private decisions are best able to sort through those choices. Far better if we had private land and private firefighters, with the costs of firefighting borne privately by those who choose to live in the canyons.
But when we choose to live near lands controlled by the government, and the government does a bad job managing them, why are we supposed to feel guilty when our houses burn down?
I'm all for thanking the firefighters for doing their job to the best of their abilities, but why do we need to treat them like heroes rather than simply like regular men who do a sometimes dangerous job. (I appreciate my roofer, who does a sometimes dangerous job, but I don't treat him like a hero.)
These are good questions. Really, where's a good psychologist to provide the answers?
October 31, 2003
Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.
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