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The Fire This Time

Unlike 1993, the flames raging in Southern California were not seen as apolcalyptic--just a facet of life to be dealt with.

October 27, 1996|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "Endangered Dreams, The Great Depression in California" (Oxford University Press)

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.

No, it was not 1993 all over again, with its traffic-jammed fire trucks, its uncertain firefighting strategies, its constant suggestion of politics. This was something else entirely--something precise, contained, coolly responsive. Best of all: There was no apocalyptic howl, as in 1993; no speculations (gloating even) that these fires represented proof positive that Southern California, indeed all California, was in deep, deep trouble. Remember 1993? Remember the incessant effort by media pundits to construe those fires as burning more than the canyons of Malibu: as burning up the whole idea of California as a compelling American dream. This time around there was no such response. These were fires, pure and simple--not apocalyptic judgments.

What does the absence of such dire rhetoric signify? The more limited nature of the catastrophe, first of all--though one must never minimize the homes lost or the trauma suffered by Jensen and the Los Angeles city firefighters who were seriously burned. Nor did these fires follow a major riot and earthquake--which compounded the temptation to go apocalyptic in 1993. Not only was the catastrophe more limited this time, it was so largely because it was more skillfully fought--from both the human and the technological perspective.

The very technology evident in the new firefighting techniques, in fact, offers a compelling paradigm of Southern California in its post-defense-era reconstruction. Technologies and deployment strategies intended initially for war have now been successfully shifted to peacetime purposes in almost a set piece of technology transfer--virtually a symbol of the new economy.

More important, Southern Californians are growing up, learning to live more appropriately with their environment and its limitations. The disasters could have been worse, but people have pro-actively been taking care of themselves, based on a new respect for the continuing realities of fire, flood and earthquakes in the Southland. Limitation, even tragedy, is becoming part of the psychological landscape of the region; and the coming of age demonstrated so dramatically in the successful firefighting, is conferring new self-respect on Southern California and winning the respect (begrudging perhaps) of those who seem to wish to pounce on every difficulty in this region with incredible glee.

The fact that the San Diego County fire remains of suspicious origin and is under investigation only reinforces this awareness. There will always be trouble in paradise. Yet trouble can be contained--like a raging fire.

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