For a disaster as predictable as this week's wildfires, there was far too little of the kind of long-term readiness required to prevent or minimize the worst of the damage.
At the federal level, millions of dollars have been cut from fire protection for communities abutting wilderness, money that could have been used, for example, to clear brush. A June report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office faults various agencies for failing to devise any sort of strategy, or even a list of options, for reducing wildfire destruction, even though the GAO has been calling for such a plan since 1999. President Bush's offer of aid was swift and appreciated, but solace is less helpful than preventing devastation in the first place.
The state of California has moved sluggishly to fulfill the recommendations of a blue-ribbon committee that called four years ago for 150 new fire engines, with a corresponding increase in firefighters. Only 19 engines have been ordered. But then, exactly how much outside help do locals deserve when they operate fire protection on the cheap? Even the disastrous Cedar fire of 2003, which leveled 5,000 buildings, couldn't persuade tax-allergic San Diegans to fund a county fire department. Orange County has been losing reserve firefighters for years, and five years ago moved them from the front lines and into support roles.