Friday, May 16, 2014

The Price of Paradise

No matter where we live in the U.S., we pay a price for our home. And I don't mean real estate values.

Firefighters battle wildfires -San Diego North County - May 2014
I'm referring to hurricanes and blizzards, tornadoes and floods across the Northern states, the Midwest, in the South, and on the East coast. On the West coast, we live with the overarching threat of earthquakes. Earthquake preparation is part of our psyche. But a far more real and regular natural disaster plagues us--wildfires, or as they are often called, firestorms.

When I first moved to California, these events were called "brush fires," because there was little housing development on the open hills and valleys the flames ravaged. But today, homes, schools, hospitals, and whole communities stand in the path of almost every wildfire.

I've lived in Southern California for 35 years, and I love it here. For roughly 50 weeks every year, our weather is perfect. Blue, sunny  skies, mild temperatures, low humidity, cool breezes--a meteorological paradise. I call myself a "weather baby"--I don't think I could ever deal with miserable cold, stormy, or wet weather again. Yet every few years in recent decades, the brush fires of old have morphed into terribly destructive firestorms sweeping through our county. In the early fall of 2003 and 2007, the wildfires took a dreadful toll.

When the Santa Ana winds blow, it is usually September through November. May is most often a cool, overcast month--"May Gray," we jokingly call it. But this past winter was warm, with less than five inches of rain. The first heat spell struck in March; the second came early this month. There has been virtually no "May Gray." Vegetation is dry and crisp, ripe as kindling for the smallest spark. Then, when a rare springtime Santa Ana came roaring through early this week, the raging fires burst out seemingly everywhere.

Television coverage has been mostly non-stop. The region has learned the difficult lessons of 2003 and 2007, and fire and law enforcement agencies work seamlessly now as one huge, united team to evacuate threatened neighborhoods and protect lives and property. Most frustrating for me to watch are the foolish residents who refuse to evacuate their homes and stand armed with fire extinguishers and garden hoses to "protect" their houses. Really, idiots? You're going to stop a 1,500 acre wildfire, moving in 50 mph winds, with your backyard sprinkler hose? Police and firefighters often need to circle back to rescue people who refused to leave when first told to do so, taking precious time away from fighting the fires and safely evacuating other residents--not to mention risking their own lives because these selfish fools were stupid and uncaring of anything but their own wishes.

Our first responder teams have been courageous and heroic; stubborn homeowners, a senseless roadblock to their success. I think those residents who refuse evacuation orders should be subject to prosecution for endangering the lives of police officers and firefighters. And I think the penalty should be searingly harsh.