Fighting the fire

Debra J. Saunders

11/4/2003 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

First the flame, then the blame. That's the politics of fire in California today.

Early last week, as wildfires began to ravage Southern California, GOP partisans were quick to hammer Gov. Gray Davis for not getting military C-130 planes to douse forests with water or flame retardant. Roger Hedgecock, a radio fill-in host for Rush Limbaugh, argued that Davis "should be indicted." "It is stunning that anyone could try to use this horrifying disaster as a political platform," Dan Terry, president of California Professional Firefighters, said in a statement. "But it's even more insulting when it happens while more than 10,000 firefighters are still pouring out their blood and sweat on the front lines."

Besides, as Carroll Wills of the same labor group noted, "The planes couldn't have flown anyway because of the winds." Hedgecock and others fanned the political fires by inferring that Davis was slow to get around a federal law that prohibits the use of military planes when civilian planes are available. One problem: "We don't have the flexibility to ignore the law," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Matthes.

Before the fires started, Reps. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., and Joel Hefley, R-Colo., had been pushing to change federal law and allow for the rapid use of military equipment to fight fires. That constructive work will do a lot more good than finger-pointing press conferences.

I was set to write a column defending His Grayness, except then Team Davis engaged in the same blame throwing -- as it tried to pin the blame for the fires on the Bush administration. What bunk. (Indeed, now the California Professional Firefighters are angry at Davis. Every time people try to defend the guy, he does something to make them regret it.)

Who is to blame? The arsonists and fumblers who started these fires, of course. Expect the newest scapegoats to be developers of homes in the "urban wildland interface." I'm not of the school that says it's unnatural to live in the woods, and I don't believe in blaming people for living in the country. Still, there might be ways to ensure that developments near forests are safer.

On a more partisan level, some conservatives are hitting Congress for not having enacted the Healthy Forests Initiative, which would allow for selective cutting of small and medium-size trees. But, with both the House and Senate passing versions of the bill, what's important is that a good bill pass.

Besides, even proponents admit that if Healthy Forests had been in effect for a year or so, the California fires still would have raged. It will take years to make up for years of bad logging policies that left behind the debris that fueled California's fires.

The best part about Healthy Forests: It would allow loggers to clear branches and brush on the ground -- and their payment for the work would be small or medium trees, not taxpayer money, which is unlikely to appear.

The Forest Service's Matthes said the bill isn't the brainchild of President Bush; the impetus "came from field people of the U.S. Forest Service," who found that as logging decreased, fires have been getting "bigger and hotter." It makes fire sense. Scott Stephens, a University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor of fire science, wants more explicit language in the bill requiring loggers to clear downed branches and brush -- not that he's enamored with the status quo.

Before the fires, Stephens saw workers using chipping machines on trees near Lake Arrowhead and then leaving the chips on the ground. Why? Because there was no sawmill or biomass plant nearby. It didn't pay to transport the logs to a distant sawmill.

The downed trees, he said, made the Lake Arrowhead area safer when the fires hit -- but they were a colossal waste of good wood. It's an odd country that is so environmentally sensitive that it risks devastating fires by limiting selective cutting but permits wasting the same trees.