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Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

Using Fires to Blow Political Smoke

October 29, 2003|Steve Lopez

For several days in the nation's capital, there's been lots of fiddling on fire-prevention policy while California burns. Actually the fiddling has gone on for years, which is one reason we can't see for all the smoke.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out how to prevent the kinds of roaring fires that are currently swallowing homes and taking lives. If we're going to be dumb enough to continue building in high-fire-danger areas, brush needs to be cleared to prevent the spread of killer blazes.

But we don't do it, because our attention spans are shorter than the time it takes to eat a bag of Cheetos. Someone can be burned out of house and home, only to move straight back to Tinder Box Boulevard as soon as possible and wait for history to repeat itself.

Finally, though, we've got Washington's attention. Not long after the first house went up in flames last week, various elected officials and Bush administration surrogates said it was time to cross the Ts on the president's Healthy Forests fire-prevention initiative. For my money, the most spirited cheerleader was Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), who sent out a press release with the title:

"Wake Up and Smell the Smoke"

"Given the devastating effects" of the fires, Pombo wrote, "it would be irresponsible not to act on this bill."

Nice work, Pombo. But wake up and look at the facts.

The Healthy Forests initiative wouldn't have done squat to prevent our fires. In a more splendid irony, critics argue that it wouldn't even do much to create healthy forests.

Essentially, the forests would become "healthier" by cutting them down. The initiative would give loggers greater access to federal wild lands as a means of thinning them, thereby lowering fire risk. (You'll be shocked to learn the White House's point man on forestry is a former logging industry lobbyist.)

Healthy Forests would do zero to address fire hazards where suburbs meet wild lands, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein has argued in trying to broker a compromise. I'll get to that in a second, but first, I'd like to let a couple of folks conduct a Healthy Flogging.

Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity called proponents of Healthy Forests utterly shameless for exploiting Southern California's tragedy. Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society was even more riled.

"It's searing in its ruthlessness and irresponsibility," he said. "The Healthy Forests initiative would have nothing to do with chaparral fires in Southern California, because no money is being made available to treat that or do brush removal near threatened communities."

Feinstein is trying to correct that. And by the way, she owes us. Southern California got only a tiny fraction of the state's 2003 U.S. Forest Service fire prevention funds. That's partly because Feinstein backed timberland clearing in remote areas up north, while we got stiffed down here. Last time I checked, we had a few more people, and greater risks.

Does it sometimes appear to you that there's a conspiracy to see Southern California burned to a crisp?

We might see a vote on Feinstein's plan as early as today, but despite months of negotiations with the White House, it's a tossup. On one side, environmentalists accuse Feinstein of making a deal with the devil, and they support a tougher bill by Sen. Barbara Boxer. On the other side, Healthy Forests supporters see Feinstein as too much of a tree hugger.

"We're hopeful," said Feinstein flack Howard Gantman.

Sure he is. But history tells us the whole thing could go up in smoke.

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