Leading article: The Terminator fights wildfires, too

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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.

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