Russell's Blog

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Up in smoke

Posted by Russell on October 23, 2007 at 5:12 a.m.
The upper atmosphere was pretty think with smoke today, though I don't see any ash falling in Pasadena or near UCLA. 500,000 people have been ordered to evacuate from what may be the worst outbreak of fire in California history. A constellation of fires are burning from Santa Barbara to the US-Mexico border.

There aren't enough firefighters, and, as has been the case for a long time now, much of California's National Guard is in Iraq. The Guard that is still here is also missing a lot of vehicles and equipment, because the equipment is in Iraq now, or because it was destroyed in Iraq. The Guvonator had to order 200 guardsmen away from patrolling the US-Mexico border, and people's homes are still burning without a firefighter or a guardsman in sight.

For those readers outside of California who are chalking this up to the various "natural" disasters for which California is famous, I'd like to offer a little explanation. Southern California is a desert. Specifically, it is biotic system called chaparral. Normally, it looks sort of like this :

The land is loosely covered with scrubby sagebrush and small, knotted trees. Small clumps of grasses or wildflowers grow here and there, but mostly the surface is exposed rock. There is almost no water whatsoever. One of the peculiar features of this kind of land is that it is supposed to burn. Chaparral plants evaporate volatile oils -- turpentine -- into the air to encourage fires. This is why Chaparral smells so nice, and why it fucking burns all the time.

So, the problem is this: What kind of idiot would build a house in the middle of a place that is supposed to burn to the ground every four of five years? The answer is that it isn't the idiots, it's the assholes. The people who built those houses (and whole towns, in many cases) knew exactly what was going to happen. But they slapped the houses together and sold them to regular folks looking for a place to live. They've been doing this for a hundred years.

For the New Englanders who read this blog, think of it this way. Rivers are supposed to flood periodically, usually into special areas called floodplanes. These areas have plants and animals that are adapted to life in a place that floods from time to time. In fact, many of them would die if there weren't floods. We know all this. Nevertheless, people still build houses in floodplanes. Usually, though, the home owner isn't the one at fault. They just moved in, and then one year, their house floods, and everyone says, "You idiot, you built your house in a floodplane."

Well, chaparral is sort of the same thing. Instead of a floodplane, it's a fireplane. It's a really, really stupid place to build a house.

But of course, the homeowner didn't build anything. Usually, a gigantic multinational corporation, like KB Home, is responsible for developing the site. No, you say, no developer would knowingly build in a floodplane, or in a fireplane, or some other obviously dangerous place. Allow me to direct your attention to one of their developments in Arlington, Texas :

According to plaintiffs' attorneys, the land that KB Home developed into the Southridge Hills subdivision was once owned by the U.S. government and was part of a naval training range. Commonly known as Five Points Field, it was used as a military practice bombing range during World War II, the firm said.

The government sold the property in 1956. Lawyers said in its deed to the purchaser, the U.S. government acknowledged that the property was subject to contamination by the introduction of unexploded bombs, shells, rockets, mines and charges. The government recommended that the target impact area be restricted to "above surface" use only, the firm said.

They built homes on top of fucking bombs, and then sold them to people without telling them. So, do you think they have any qualms about selling people homes in floodplanes, chaparral, and hurricane highways?

Now, I'm not against building homes or against multinational corporations building them. However, it is worth noting that if my IBM ThinkPad exploded and burned into a cinder because the battery charging circuit was defective, no one would be shocked or surprised if I expected IBM to replace my laptop with one that doesn't explode. Houses placed in unstable locations are defective. Whoever built them should be expected to replace them with houses that aren't defective. If we held companies like KB Home to the same standards we hold Apple and IBM, then we wouldn't be evacuating 500,000 from regions that are naturally supposed to burn.

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