The superior man blames himself. The inferior man blames others.-former NFL coach Don Shula
As San Diego County burned, Jay LaSuer, the deep-voiced, arch-conservative, new-taxes-over-my-cold-dead-body state assemblyman, stood before a crowd of distressed East County residents in an Alpine community center that was relying on a generator for power.
One might have guessed this guy was running for office. But, alas, it was only a phantom race against an already defeated man.
"Do you know what the current governor is going to be for Halloween?" LaSuer barked, eliciting snickers from the audience. "Unemployed!"
Hoots, whistles and applause rattled the rafters and pounded the eardrums, but the euphoria at the expense of California's recalled governor was short-lived. People seemed to snap back into focus-that theirs and many other thriving communities throughout San Diego County had been wiped out or severely damaged by wildfires the likes of which this state has never seen.
From the moment fire began to ravage their East County world, well-entrenched backcountry Republican politicians like LaSuer, county Supervisor Dianne Jacob and Congressman Duncan Hunter have doggedly lobbed verbal hand grenades at outgoing Gov. Gray Davis, taking the local blame game to a new low point.
During a meeting this week, San Diego Councilmember Michael Zucchet even broke with Mayor Dick Murphy's positive-spin protocol to make note of the backcountry backbiting.
"Although the call for staying positive is something I support," Zucchet said, "I do have to express my disappointment at so many... county, state and federal elected officials over the last several days who have chosen to point fingers.... I respectfully don't really care what certain county supervisors have to say about it. I care what our fire professionals have to say about what the facts were. Let's put the facts on the table... and let's deal with them. That's not a complicated idea, but it seems to have been lost on so many in the last several days, and I think that's really regrettable."
As long as politicians have walked the earth, there has been the pointed finger. The late Newsweek columnist Meg Greenfield, a longtime observer of the Washington scene, once wrote, "Ninety percent of politics is deciding whom to blame."
While the quotation leaves unclear what the remaining 10 percent represents, thousands of county residents-displaced from their homes during what one local TV station dubbed "Firestorm 2003"-no doubt hope it has something to do with helping victims get on with their lives and making the tough decisions that reduce the risk of future mega-infernos.
Bob Filner, who cut his teeth in local city politics and now represents the South Bay in Congress, said such disasters tend to lift the skirt on the political system. When the House of Representatives was recently shut down over a gun scare later linked to a Halloween costume, Filner said it took his office an hour and 40 minutes to receive official notification of the security breach. Instead, he got better information from CNN.
"When you have something like this," he told CityBeat, "it shows all the problems in the system. And the wildfires were a real tragedy. It showed us a lot of problems, and we better fix them."
So what can be done to prevent such catastrophe again? Well, as it turns out, plenty. But that "plenty" will come with a hefty price tag, and it will require the full attention and reflection of all San Diego County residents. Public safety will be the rallying mantra for all politicians and the electorate into the foreseeable future.
Filner, who lives in eastern Chula Vista, said he experienced firsthand the kind of societal breakdown that can occur during such overwhelming disasters. His neighborhood lay in the path of the Otay Lakes fire, which received scant news coverage while it raged. Fortunately for thousands of South Bay residents, the Otay Reservoir stood in the fire's way.
"The thing that bothered me the most," Filner said, "was there was no standard way of presenting information so every media outlet-whether it's radio, television or print-could make that information available, say, every half-hour during the emergency."
Filner drove to the airport on the Sunday when the fires really took hold of the county. Intending to head back to Washington, Filner eventually was turned away from Lindbergh Field, which shut down when thick smoke blanketed the county.
"Every rental-car person, every airport employee, said something different, and nobody knew who to believe or what to do," the congressman said. Some airlines were checking in customers, only to tell them later that they shouldn't be at the airport, he added. "I was on this rental-car bus, and half of us were going back to the rental-car place to get a car, and half were coming back to the airport thinking that their flights were going out," Filner said.
When he returned home after the airport ordeal, one TV station told him he was in a neighborhood that had to evacuate. As he flipped channels, the other stations made no mention of such a decision.
"And if I did have to evacuate, where would I go? Who was going to tell me?" he said. "I tried to call the numbers that were given, but I could never get through. Even when I watched the mayor [Dick Murphy] at a press conference, there was not any useful information there."
Without that information, Filner decided to pack his car with valuables. He slept in his clothes like everyone else facing the unknown. But it really irked him that someone as "supposedly informed" as a congressman didn't even know what to do.
When he saw the mayor and other councilmembers dressed in pristine yellow jackets on TV, he couldn't believe his eyes. Monogrammed jackets!
"I said to myself, someone is thinking about that and nobody is thinking about telling me where I should evacuate to?" he said. "At least give us some useful information, instead of just standing there to be photographed."
Firefighters reduced to commandeering city buses to get to fire scenes. Trips to supply stores to purchase fire jackets and other protective gear. Dead batteries discovered in fire-communication radios. The services of a fire-and-rescue helicopter cancelled just days before the big burn. What San Diego witnessed this past week and a half is a culmination of political gambling that came up snake eyes.
As firefighters continued to work north and east in San Diego County to stamp out the struggling remnants of the worst fire ever to erupt in California, the political firestorm has just begun. The coming debates among politicians-and residents as well-will likely touch on every facet of life: the safety of drinking water post-inferno; how to pay for the fire's recent wrath and future fire protection; and, undoubtedly, figuring out sensible approaches to growth in San Diego County.
San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye, whose district served as the westernmost terminus for the massive Cedar fire, said local government could have a big impact on determining public safety in the future, as much of it boils down to planning.
Frye said it's time to get serious about land-use planning. A frequent dissenter on big-ticket development plans from the City of Villages to the downtown ballpark, she said her reasoning typically comes down to the onerous determinations by land-use analysts bearing environmental-impact reports that claim no added deleterious effects on public services, including police and fire protection.
"[San Diego fire chief] Jeff Bowman tells it straight!" she said. "When I ask him a question-"Do you have adequate resources to do your job now?'-and he tells me no, and then I read an EIR or any kind of land-use document that tells me there's no impact from all this new development, it defies logic!"
Added Frye with a sigh: "I know-I know-from dealing with the budget that we don't even have adequate services now. But when I would raise these issues, they just sort of died."
Only time will tell if San Diego falls back into its familiar pattern of sunny pronouncements and unbridled growth, particularly in the county's volatile backcountry. Voters will have a say about that in March, when they'll decide the fate of the Rural Lands Initiative, which, if approved, would significantly throttle down development allowed in recent years by the solidly Republican, pro-growth county Board of Supervisors.
At the Alpine community meeting, more time was spent bashing the outgoing governor than addressing the issue of growth. The Republican politicians seemed more interested in assuring devastated residents that they would be allowed to rebuild their homes unfettered by additional regulations.
Supervisor Jacob, who fought back tears recalling the fire's awful toll, couldn't even bring herself to tell residents that shake-shingle roofs should be banned outright in the tinderbox outback. Instead, she only suggested that residents think twice about using the flammable material.
To his credit, Mayor Dick Murphy this week signaled his intent to get shake-shingle roofs banned for new construction within city limits.
"I, at this point, do not believe we have the toughest codes that we could have, and I think we need to look at that in the next month," he told council colleagues. City Manager Mike Uberuaga has been handed the daunting task of reporting back to the council by early December on a number of potential policy changes for the city, including how better to manage the city's open space and its patchwork communications operation.
The lumbering political machinery will kick into a higher gear in coming months and even years. Many political observers have noted the window of opportunity this tragedy has bestowed upon all leaders. How they handle the coming avalanche of post-fire information and armchair quarterbacking will determine the arc of many a political career, these observers predict.
After all, it's not like our local leaders were unaware of the fire potential. There have been endless stories written with a tilt toward the rear-view mirror. How Proposition 172 monies from a Pete Wilson-era, half-cent sales tax hike designed to improve fire protection never made it into the coffers of many of the county fire agencies in Southern California, San Diego's included.
Politicos had warnings from state forestry officials, particularly after last year's Pines fire, which scorched 64,000 acres in the backcountry and, like the most recent blaze, threatened the beloved town of Julian.
"That was a very clear warning to us... that we had a crisis in San Diego," city attorney candidate Michael Aguirre told the council this week.
Following the Pines fire, the county established the San Diego County Wildland Fire Task Force, which in August issued a prophetic report that stressed the threat. "Presently, almost one half of the vegetation in San Diego County's wildland is over 50 years old. Another 30 percent is over 20 years old," the report noted. "This means that almost 80 percent of the wildland areas in San Diego will burn explosively under typical periods of high fire danger."
More than a year ago, state forestry officials were said to be working with city employees to design strategies to fight fires in Scripps Ranch, a community surrounded by dead and dying eucalyptus trees. According to sources, the highly flammable trees were on the minds of Scripps Ranch residents. A debate ensued in the community, splitting residents into camps both supporting and opposing tree removal. Eventually, a homeowners association vote set fate's path-the trees would stay.
When Gov. Davis months ago requested $450 million in federal money to help manage the overgrowth in California's forest and chaparral-dominated backcountries, the Bush administration dragged its feet, eventually denying the request a day before the San Diego fires erupted. Bush officials claimed the state had already received $46 million to clear brush in California's 17 national forests, an amount viewed by some as woefully inadequate.
Congressman Filner suggested that the denial was the epitome of partisan politics. "I suspect it was because the governor of California was asking was the reason that was ignored," he said. "The governor had seen this in advance, and the Republican president didn't respond, if you want to get partisan."
Since the Southern California fires broke out, the U.S. Senate has approved spending several billion dollars to thin out forests. Environmentalists, who say they've been unfairly blamed for the unchecked growth of vegetation in California's rural settings, argue the bill will simply allow greater logging in state forests.
Last week, the Sierra Club issued a statement, lamenting the political blamesmanship:
"There is no need to sensationalize this tragedy for political gain. We can all agree that removing brush and small trees immediately around homes and communities will help save homes and lives, and we must dedicate the resources needed to do this most important work first. Now the Congress and the Bush administration need the will to protect communities, not the timber industry."
Meanwhile, local agencies, including the county, will be debating the need for regional aerial fire protection and better coordination with the military, currently hamstrung by a law dating back to the Great Depression. Supervisor Ron Roberts, said to be mulling another run for mayor, has called for discussion about purchasing a fleet of helicopters for the region, possibly by charging landowners a small fee for the service. Ballot measures in the past requesting such funding have gone down to defeat, but the political winds have shifted.
"This could happen all over again next year," Aguirre said. "And imagine if that did. God gave us a second chance. Let's not blow it."