Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fires start during a trip back east, and returning means joining the displaced

By Tibor R. Machan

When the Southern California fires began, I was in Alabama, ready to drive to Atlanta to give a talk at Emory University's School of Law. My adult daughter was back here in Orange County but didn't have the means for removing much from our house – my vehicle was in the shop!
Obviously I was extremely apprehensive. Living as I do in funky Silverado Canyon unavoidably leads one to think about the prospect of major fires, especially during as dry a year as 2007 has been. But I have lived around in California since 1962, and fires are fairly routine threats. I recall a major blaze in Santa Barbara, for example, which, if memory serves me right, nearly burned down half the city. Next to earthquakes, it is fires that most frighten Californians.

Because I travel a lot and for good spells of time, I am likely to be caught unprepared for the task of moving stuff out of my home, and that was true this time as well. So I tried very hard to keep abreast of the fires from afar, to learn as much from TV and radio as possible. But, to my frustration, all the news programs seemed to have in mind were indifferent spectators, not so much the direct participants. Of course, news organizations need to make a buck with what they decide to showcase but, still, it was a bit of a shock that they gave viewers so few specifics.

The world is made up of specifics, not generalizations, even if generalizations are vital for planning and such. But what I wanted to know is whether the fire had burned near my home, how near, how likely to be nearer soon, how soon, etc. And I am sure that thousands of others had those kinds of concerns.

Instead, what the news reports have kept stressing are "large" facts, such as how many hundreds of thousands were evacuated, how many major fires were burning, how many homes had burned, how many fatalities had occurred. After the 14th time I heard and saw that 13 major fires were burning in Southern California I wanted to shake the person on TV and implore him or her to list where these major fires were burning. But no, never mind such specifics. It seems only the magnitudes mattered; the details could be kept to the minimum.

It occurred to me that the news aimed to please spectators of spectacular events, not people who had a stake in those events. That's not really so surprising – within the audience relatively few would have a direct interest in the fires, whereas millions across the country would go gaga seeing all the huge flames and hearing the huge logistical numbers given out by reporters.

When, after I flew back to Orange County late Tuesday and had had a bit of rest at a friend's place, I called the Orange County Fire Authority, I was told the firefighters at Silverado Canyon – which wasn't engulfed in flames – might let me fetch some stuff from my home. Alas, when I arrived in the area to do this, a police officer gently and firmly told me, "No dice," or words to that effect. I was told I had to wait until the Fire Authority canceled the evacuation order. When was that likely to happen? No idea at all, none.

It occurred to me, though I am not confident about it, that perhaps some more hands-on help could have been provided at locations where the fire was only a threat, not yet an actuality. Why not lead a group of people back in to get some of their valuables, and then lead them out, if no imminent threat of being hurt existed?

But never mind. I cannot claim to have expertise about this issue, so I just speculate what could work better than simply shutting down places indefinitely.

For now I just wait, as do thousands of others. I may turn out to have been luckier than many but that, also, is too early to know.

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