USA — Firestorms raged across Southern California on anepic scale for a third day yesterday, with flames as high as 100 feet stoked byextremes of wind, heat, dryness and – on the suburban frontier where some of theworst blazes roared – the human impulse to live just a little farther out.
Brush fires still beyond the control of firefighters forced the largestevacuation in modern times, officials estimated. The orders called for vacating350,000 homes, affecting 950,000 people. In San Diego County alone, where thelargest fire more than tripled in size over 24 hours, evacuation orders went tomore than half a million people without reports of major hardships.
“It’s going very smoothly,” said Republican Gov. ArnoldSchwarzenegger, touring the area with federal officials who dispatched militarycargo planes and helicopters to bolster the fleet dropping fire retardant on theblazes.
President Bush, who was sharply criticized for his sluggish response toHurricane Katrina in 2005, declared a federal emergency in seven SouthernCalifornia counties yesterday a move that will speed disaster relief, and hesaid he will visit the region tomorrow.
From north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border, intense and unpredictablewinds kept 6,000 firefighters scrambling not to defeat fires but to push themaway from homes. Officials said that 1,300 dwellings were destroyed throughmidday yesterday, in a burned area totaling 600 square miles.
The fires also caused a second fatality, when an unidentified motorist wascaught in flames outside Santa Clarita, a city north of Los Angeles.
That boundary defined the topography of the unfolding disaster. Two of thefour counties – San Bernardino and Riverside – burning most fiercely this weekare among the fast-growing in the United States, bedroom communities that pushwhat ecologists call the “urban/wildland interface.”
The move into the hills is for homes that are more affordable but also morevulnerable. An inventory by University of Wisconsin researchers found that abouttwo-thirds of new building in Southern California over the past decade was onland susceptible to wildfires, said Mike Davis, a historian at the University ofCalifornia at Irvine and author of a social history of Los Angeles.
“It gives you some parameters for understanding the current situation,”Davis said. “Another way to look at it is you simply drive out the SanGorgonio Pass, where the winds blow over 50 mph over a hundred days a year andyou have new houses standing next to 50-year-old chaparral.
“You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans.”
Some of the areas hit hardest by this week’s fires were near Lake Arrowheadin San Bernardino County. The area is thick with vacation homes, a sore pointfor advocates who argue that federal taxpayers foot the bill for firefightingefforts in the national forests that the houses are nestled in.
“These smoke jumpers drop out of the sky miraculously to fight the firefor you, so there’s incentive for county commissioners and land use departmentsto withhold the permitting of homes,” said Ray Rasker of HeadwatersEconomics. He was reached in Washington, where he was presenting a study showingthat 50 to 95 percent of Forest Service firefighting costs went to protectprivate property.
Another study indicated that the cost could balloon to as much as $4 billionif development continues. California has the most homes built next to publicforestland, though many jurisdictions enforce laws requiring brush and othercombustible foliage be kept away from structures.
Yet even huddled in evacuation centers and fast-food restaurants, displacedhomeowners declared that they would not live anywhere else.
“We watched the neighborhood burn,” said Jean Sanders, sipping aDiet Coke in a Subway restaurant in Escondido, as shifting winds pushed acrescent of flame around the city in San Diego County.
“It was coming so fast. It just went shhhh – so fast, so fast. Acrossthe street from us, two houses went.”
Her husband, Richard Sanders, added, “We were watching, going, ‘God, Ihope that’s not our house.’ ” It was recently renovated, on half an acrewith a pool and a spa. It escaped damage in the 2003 and 1990 firestorms andthey were hoping it would again.
“We have always thought the area is safe because of the way the propertyis kept,” with manicured lawns instead of highly flammable brush, saidRichard Sanders, 70. “You don’t anticipate having winds blowing 90 miles anhour, blowing fire in front of it. You don’t anticipate a drought.”
“We’ll stay,” he said. “We will stay. We like the community,we like the area. The people are nice. Where we live I still think is a perfectlocation. Near the beach, near the desert, near Mexico, near the mountains.”
Holly and Mike Friedman echoed that determination. They had left their homein the nearby San Pascual Valley early Monday morning and evacuated three times,as fire threatened each place they went. That shook Holly, at least for a moment.
“When she had no sleep in 36 hours, she said ‘We are moving,’ “said Holly’s mother, Betty Cincanelli. But the urge to move “disappears asfast as it comes.”
“Every place has something: wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes,earthquakes,” Holly Friedman said. “There’s no perfect area of thecountry to live.”
She was calling her answering machine every few hours, to make sure it hadnot burned. So far it was still answering, she said.
“We won’t move,” she said. “If our house burns down, we’llmove in with (my parents). If their house burns down, they’ll move in with us.We won’t leave.”