Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Letter from California-November 4, 2003

Josef Stalin once said, “one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” Numbers can be a little numbing, but I’ll put one out there anyway: since a week before last Friday, 750,000 acres in Southern California have gone up in flames. For reference, that’s more area than Sumter and Lee counties put together. That’s what is technically known, I think, as a Really Big Fire.

Thanks to some good old-fashioned heroism from firefighters around the region and a change from 105 degrees and bone dry to 2 straight days of rain and cold, the fires are almost completely out. In response, runway models, aerospace engineers, software designers, coffee bar baristas, movie extras, and factory workers across the region have offered up thanks to the Almighty, even the ones that haven’t seen the inside of a church in years or ever. The timely rain and snow has put an end to a week of second hand smoking a forest the size of a small Eastern state.

Yet as united we are in gratitude for the end of the fires, the embers of political battle are glowing. Part of the reason, some say, that these fires burned so quickly and grew so big is that we have greater “tree density” in our urban forests now than at any time in the recorded past. With more trees per square foot, and by the way, more people living next to that forest, forest fires will tend to be bigger events. Fires feed on fuel, and the mountains of Southern California have apparently become so heavily forested in recent years that it made what would have been simply a Pretty Big Fire and turned it, alas, into a Really Big Fire.

Some are charging now that political correctness has caused our forests not to be thinned of their excess trees, causing what we saw last week. To be sure, California is the home of a significant “Trees good, people bad” movement. Probably the most famous recent episode is the two-year “tree-sitting” of Julia “Butterfly” Hill, a woman who built a small treehouse in a redwood up in Northern California that was due to be cut down. She went up into the tree to save it from the chainsaws, and ended up making it her home for more than 700 days. She said, “I know that to some people, I’m just a dirty, tree-loving hippie, but I just don’t see how you could take a chainsaw to this,” referring to the tree that she had named Luna.

California Redwoods, if you’ve never seen one, make a strong argument in favor of a Creator. They are beautiful and majestic, and when you consider that some of them are more than 3000 years old, you really can start thinking about what a mess that we humans have made of nature with our desire for 4 bedrooms and a bonus room with views overlooking the water.

On the other hand, you can hardly begrudge someone for wanting to stop his or her home from going up in a big fireball and burning the Little League trophies and heirloom china. What’s the point, after all, of saving trees if by saving them you are dooming not only the forest’s human neighbors, but also the trees themselves to destruction?

The issue is simply this: either tree thinning will or will not make it less likely that forest fires will spread and cause more damage to trees and people. If it is a helpful policy, then trees and people benefit directly because the forests don’t burn down. If it’s not a helpful policy, then trees are cut down unnecessarily and logging companies make out at the expense of the trees. It seems like everyone should be in favor of tree thinning if it’s beneficial, but they aren’t. By the same token, some don’t want the facts about tree thinning and just want to blame the “environmentalists” for the fires.

After the bitterness of the Recall election and the general nastiness of the political atmosphere in the country today, I’d like to suggest that we have a chance here to establish a new way of dealing with things that affect us all in the same way. It sounds crazy, but I’m going to put it out there. I hope it doesn’t freak out the political partisans too much.

Let’s do the thing that works best and not worry about who gets blamed for what happened.

It’s radical, I know, but let’s give it a shot. In a week that started with triple-digit heat and ended in snow and saw Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger working side by side and paying each other compliments, maybe there’s something unusual in the air.

Other than all the warm gray ash, of course.

By the way, if you’d like to support the fire victims financially, you can do that by going to www.kabc.com, where you can learn about Operation Lend-A-Hand that is rounding up supplies and cash for the many who lost homes and loved ones in the fire.


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