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Won't Be Water but Fire Next Time, Lord

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Santa Barbara, CA - The smoke from the fires to the south made it hazy here, and folks with asthma were having a hard time breathing. But by this morning the weather had cooled, the Santa Ana winds were petering out, and mail service had been resumed in San Diego.

There are some pretty clear lessons:

First, we still don't get preparedness. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff conducted a faux press conference with his own staff as reporters, in which he attributed the federal government's improved performance to two and a half years of preparation since Katrina. To be fair, the federal response here was much better than after Katrina, but that doesn't mean our leaders have been doing their jobs. By not having a real press event Chertoff avoided some potentially awkward questions, dealing with such topics as these:

- San Diego County has refused to create a true fire department -- because for its leaders, the ideology of small government trumps the reality of millions of people living in a chaparral-brush ecosystem which will unavoidably go through periodic high-intensity fires.

- California state experts had recommended that the state buy 104 new fire trucks. Actual number ordered? 19.

- The US Forest Service has once again been steadily shifting its budget from fire prevention investments to subsidizing timber sales. Since the 2001 fiscal year, federal funding for state and local community fire protection programs declined from over $148 million to $85 million proposed in fiscal 2008. (For comparison, back in 2001, the Sierra Club calculated that what was really needed was $2 billion a year!)

Second, we need to rethink our urban forms; that is, how we live on the land. Unlike, say, the pine forests of Lake Tahoe, which properly managed would have low-intensity, manageable fires, Southern California's brushlands are designed by nature to burn, and to burn hot. For the chaparral, conflagration is destiny. Yet our current practice is to build houses the livability of which depends on using that very chaparral to shield us the from our neighbors, along narrow winding roads where fire trucks can't maneuver and evacuation is perilous, across as much fire-destined landscape as we can.

Third, all of the estimates of the costs of runaway global warming, with the possible exception of the Stern Report, simply fail to take into account non-linear costs like those associated with increasingly severe fires. This week was a multi-billion dollar event. We can confidently predict that such events will occur in different parts of Southern California almost every year, but we can't predict where, or when, which makes it very expensive both to prepare for and respond to. Furthermore, parts of the country which historically haven't faced catastrophic wildfires will begin to as the climate heats up and soils and forests dry out. So we need to get serious about prevention -- about implementing the solutions we have to global warming -- faster, harder, more boldly.

It's not that we can't afford to; rather, we can't afford NOT to. Inaction will carry a heavy price: just look at this week's bills.