All burned up

October 30, 2003

SOUTHERN California's rampaging inferno, which has now claimed at least 600,000 acres, 1,800 homes and 17 lives, may inspire a wide range of reactions. But one of them should not be surprise.

The lost properties, so many of them dream homes intended as a retirement reward, were built in harm's way: in thick forests and brush-carpeted arroyos, on hilltops and high desert plains, places with names like Rim of the World. Most years about this time, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds pick up a spark somewhere and send a channel or two of flame throughout this region.

This time, several years of drought and a beetle infestation that stripped bare nearly all the pines in San Bernardino National Forest provided enough kindling to feed at least eight separate fires, creating what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst disaster in California history.

But much like the earthquakes that also occasionally wreak havoc on the Golden State, periodic fires of some magnitude are to be expected. The damage total would surely have been substantially lower if so many people had not put themselves at risk.

Were they aware of the danger? Interviews suggest many were, but in denial. They were refugees from more urban parts, often transplanted from the East Coast or Midwest. Some were wealthy, but perhaps not at the stratospheric level required to buy homes near the ocean. Instead, they went inland, to sprawling new suburbs in the fire belt, not only endangering themselves but putting more strain on the local governments called upon to protect them.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in other parts of the Southwest, spreading suburbs through the mountains of Colorado and the deserts of Arizona, both ravaged by fires in recent years. A landmark water compromise reached this year is likely to accelerate the process, as water from the Colorado River is diverted from California farmers to feed the ever-growing demand for new housing in the scenic region.

As California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger works the halls of Congress for federal disaster relief expected to exceed $4 billion, he should be required in return to reverse the foolhardy policy of encouraging development in areas unsuited for it.

Maryland has a similar problem with dream houses built along the waterfront, where they are vulnerable to storms, such as last month's devastating Isabel. Building restrictions need to be tougher here, too.

Curbing growth may not be the most popular course, but the forces of nature don't respect political decisions. If Californians, or Arizonans or Marylanders, choose to ignore obvious dangers, why should everyone else have to bail them out?

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