Tragedy is not necessarily compounded by numbers. A Glendale firefighter, Bill Jensen, lies in the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital with burns over 70% of his body. The fact that there are not dozens of others in similar circumstances is a relief. But, for Jensen, there is the pain and the knowledge that, even after recovery, life will never be the same. In San Diego County, meanwhile, 60 families or individuals have had their homes destroyed in the La Costa section of Carlsbad. That five times that number were not lost is welcome news. Yet, each smoldering home site bespeaks a tragedy--a home lost, finances devastated, continuities and memories wiped out--complete and horrible unto itself.
At first glance, it was 1993 all over again. The flames, the fire trucks and firefighters rushing toward the blazing canyons, the angry red against the nighttime sky, the refugees huddled in blankets, the smoking ruins, the people sifting through debris representing all that is left of their once-stable lives. All too recently, Southern Californians had been there and done that. So when the fires broke out early last week, many accustomed to former scenarios expected the worst.
Yet, by Wednesday, Thursday for sure, it was increasingly evident that it would not be deja vu all over again. Firefighting units from throughout the region (and from as far north as Novato in Marin County) converged on the conflagrations with military efficiency. Careful planning, new techniques of containment and, most important, new technologies of firefighting, on the ground and in the air had begun, by late Tuesday and early Wednesday, to gain the advantage. Countless residents, having learned the lessons of 1993, had long since cleared adjacent zones of flammable brush--and kept them cleared. They had also roofed or re-roofed their homes--with safety uppermost in mind. Communications among a score of agencies and jurisdictions showed new sophistication; the political response from county officials, Gov. Pete Wilson and President Bill Clinton was effective, appropriate and, given the coming elections, tastefully understated.