Leading article: The Terminator fights wildfires, too

Share

In times of peace, a natural disaster is the ultimate test of a government's effectiveness. And while it should not have taken a genius to understand that contingency planning for forest fires should feature high on southern California's agenda, the scope of the plan that has been put into effect in and around San Diego in recent days must be one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind.

Almost 900,000 people have now been ordered to evacuate. More than 1,500 houses and businesses have been destroyed; an area the size of New York City has been scorched. For all the destruction, however, the human casualties can be counted on one hand. At last, one US state seems to have done more right than wrong in response to a catastrophe.

Both Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina two years ago precipitated responses that were initially chaotic and fell lamentably short of what was needed. In New Orleans, some of that chaos continues, disgracefully, to this day. Such disasters have a knack of exposing the downside of the small-government, low-tax, self-help philosophy that spurs so much individual American achievement.

It can be argued that the long dry summer and forecasts of gale-force winds gave fair warning of the fires that have roared through the outer reaches of San Diego and points north. It can be argued, too, that residents of those – mostly new – districts had transport and money at their disposal that the victims of other disasters lacked. New Orleans was unique in that the city administration was completely disabled by the flood.

While the parallels are not exact, California's response seems to reflect lessons learnt from that disaster. Its state government did not stand on ceremony; an emergency was declared promptly, which released federal assistance and federal funds. The state governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was visible, in his shirtsleeves, early on, and articulated the same no-nonsense message as his officials about precautions and evacuation. The Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego seemed orderly; appeals for help brought more offers of food, shelter and medical assistance than could be used. President Bush visited the stricken region yesterday.

There will be a time for inquests about the wisdom of development in fire-prone countryside at a time when the Earth is warming. The complexities of evacuating large numbers of elderly and ill people will merit study, too. In the end, the quality of the operation must be judged also by the speed with which people can be rehoused and businesses revived. But for a country and a state long distinguished by superlatives, this is a disaster that could, with less adequate planning, have caused even more damage than it has.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: NON-CONTENTIOUS (0-2 PQE) - A rare opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Financial Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Financial Analyst is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Recruitment Genius: Secretary

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This major European Intellectual Propert...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Benedict Cumberbatch race row: Calling black people 'coloured' removes part of their humanity

Yemisi Adegoke
 

Dippy the Diplodocus: The great exotic beast was the stuff of a childhood fantasy story

Charlie Cooper
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness