Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fires, and the People Who Love Them

We're all busy watching the fires in Southern California this week, right? And everywhere I go, I hear people saying things like "We're praying for those poor people."

This is how I know I'm an insensitive asshole, in case I needed another way to prove that to myself. I can't get past the part where I know that all those canyon homes with their beautiful views, snuggled into the forests... they're all fire magnets. And I know all those homeowners made the decision to live in those homes, knowing that fire sweeps through those beautiful canyons every five years or so. Those people are dumb. And even though I applaud their God-given right to be as dumb as they want in a democratic society, I question our obligation to reward them for it with federal money and FEMA trailers .

Wildland firefighters hate those people. They make the job a million times more dangerous, and they shift the focus from trying to contain the fire to trying to protect their million dollar firetraps. It's not that hard to section off a fire and contain it until it burns itself off. It's practically impossible to do it while defending 100,000 indefensible homes.

About a million years ago I was a wildland firefighter with the Forest Service. When a fire crew arrives at a fire at an "urban interface" area, which is an area where humans cohabit with forests, the first thing they do is triage the area. They start at the end of the road and count the mailboxes. If there are 10 mailboxes, there's usually 10 houses to look for, give or take. Next, they drive down that road and see if any of those houses are potentially defensible. If, for instance, they're wood sided houses with cedar shake roofs, tucked back into the woods with a pile of firewood leaning against the house, they just keep driving. They may stop, check to make sure the humans are out of it, release the pets, mark the house in some way to indicate it's been triaged, and move on to the next house, but that's pretty much all the risk 'most firefighters are willing to take for a house like that.

Those houses, in the vernacular, are "losers." No one's going to even bother trying to defend them. how about a whole canyon full of houses like that? Insurance companies balk at insuring those homes, and if they do, they charge obscene premiums and put a million restrictions and clauses into the contract. It's not like the people who build those homes don't know what they're getting into. These fires happen every few years, and then afterwards they all heroically vow to rebuild. For what? So it can burn again in 10 years?

It's like all those people who insist on building their homes on the barrier islands of the Carolinas. Yes, it's your money and you can spend it any way you want. But no...don't expect us to bail you out every time your house gets flattened by a hurricane.

The residents of Orange County for the most part aren't an impoverished bunch. It's not like they don't have housing options. If they choose to continue to build and buy houses in areas that have a predictable pattern of being wiped clean by catastrophic many times should we have to bail them out?

I guess I do feel sorry for them in the moment, but I also have to shake my head in disgust a little. I'm willing to bet that most of them will be back, building new cedar sided homes with shake roofs with a pile of firewood leaning against the house. And they'll be shocked(SHOCKED!) when they burn again. And they'll expect a check, please. And a FEMA trailer.

Plus, they're mostly Republicans, and I hate Republicans. Maybe they can set up their FEMA trailers on the White House lawn.



As a person living in Seattle, I understand what you are saying. We have homes here built on hills. It is not bad enough that they want their houses perched on that hill, they cut the trees down all around them so they can see their beautiful view, then the rains come. Their houses slide down the hill and they scream, HELP PAY FOR THIS. Why? So you can build another house on a hill that will eventually slide down it? Why should I have to pay money because you are a dumbass?

My question has always been, how did all those really stupid rich people get all that money?

Tim said...

I'll agree with you only if you include tornado alley. Tornados happen every year and keep hitting the same damn trailer parks.

Besides - most of the folks who live in tornado alley are Republicans, too.

Kwach said...

I agree that building multi-million dollar houses in the Malibu hills or on a muddy slope in Washington is sort of like playing Housing Russian Roulette. But, in the case of the current fires in California, nature appears to have had some help from arsonists.

That means a lot more bullets in the gun, and crosses over from suicide to homicide.

As much as wildland firefighters may be exasperated by people who insist on living in harm's way, how much more infuriating must it be to have someone starting these fires on purpose???


Suzanne said...

I'm totally with you on this. I especially hate the people who refuse to evacuate because saving their home is more important than the lives of firefighters who will never be able to afford to live there.

Kwach said...

And speaking of FEMA trailers, I was listening to NPR today and they were interviewing doctors who are now treating all the children with respiratory problems, bloody noses, skin rashes and other assorted ailments from the massive doses of formaldehyde they've gotten living in FEMA trailers since Katrina. In 20 years they'll all have cancer.

Are we really sure the acronym doesn't stand for Fuck Every Motherf***** Alive?