James Heartfield The San Diego Wildfire, 2003
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1. New York Times, editorial, 30 October 2003

2. Los Angeles Times, 31 October 2003

3. Mike Davis, 28 October 2003, and posted on

4. Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Vintage Books, 1999, p 107

5. Susan Straight, 'Young Men and Fire', New York Times, 29 October 2003

Gloating as suburbs of San Diego burn

There is a bitter lesson to be drawn from the San Diego County fires of 2003. By the start of November the fires had taken seventeen lives, burned a thousand homes, and required the evacuation of one hundred times as many. For many gloating commentators the fires represent a kind of justice or retribution for San Diego's suburban hubris.

From the Eastern seaboard, the New York Times editorialised that '... unless humans set limits on development, nature certainly will'. (1)

The San Diego Wildfire, 2003

Chiding San Diegans for leaving Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times for their part warned '... you can withdraw into nature as protection from humanity if you like, but there is no changing the underlying character of nature itself'. The LA Times aired the view that the burnt out homes in the Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear communities '... should never have been built'. (2)

The brilliant and acerbic commentator Mike Davis found it difficult to contain his schadenfreude at the 'politically ironic' firestorms: '... as I watch San Diego's wealthiest new suburb, Scripps Ranch, in flames, I recall the Schwarzenegger fund-raising parties hosted there a few weeks ago'. (3) Like the NY Times, Davis saw the basic problem as development, since '... tens of thousands of new homes have pushed their way into the furthest recesses of Southern California's coastal and inland fire-belts'. Radical Davis has cause to gloat: back in 1998 his best-seller Ecology of Fear warned of the '... lethal mixture of homeowners and brush'. (4)

In Young Men and Fire Novelist Susan Straight used the San Diego tragedy to script a question from her innocent daughters, '... horror quivering in their voices,"Why?"' Straight's girls were posed as too young to understand the perverted drives of '... some males (because I have only known men or boys to do this)', 'neighbor boys, teenagers', 'friends of my brother's' or 'homeless men' (5). 'Terrorists couldn't plan anything easier,' she says, and just in case anyone was feeling any sympathy for the men risking their lives to stop the blaze, '... once a serial arsonist in this region turned out to be a seasonal firefighter'.

The record indicates that the residential push into the already fire-prone regions, baked dry by the Santa Ana winds, limits ordinary deforestation through controlled burns, and does so in an area that has not seen systematic logging for decades.

Davis is right to show that the individualistic ethos has led to woefully inadequate investment in fire precautions. (4)

'The San Diego Fire Department has roughly 35% fewer firefighters per 1,000 residents than average for large cities nationally'. (2)

But that does not make firestorms poetic justice, 'politically ironic', or nature's revenge against man's hubris.

The San Diego Wildfire, 2003

As populations expand into new areas sustaining the myth of a pristine wilderness is not worth risking one human life, let alone a score of them. Decades of fire suppression have left forests that could support 40 trees an acre packed with 568 per acre. In the 820 000 acre San Bernardino National Forest there has been no logging for more than a century. The Santa Ana wind and the flames have consumed the surplus wood that men no longer want.

If residents want to keep their homes, they have to control the growth of trees in San Diego County.

James Heartfield 02.11.2003

The San Diego Wildfire, 2003

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