23 October 2007

Disaster Purgatory and Other Random Observations About Our San Diego Firestorm


What follows are some odd observations about our fires here in San Diego County. Things seem to be gradually returning to normal. Well, as normal as one can expect in the wake of a fire that raged through about 150 square miles of the county, destroyed perhaps 1,250 homes, and made evacuees of 300,000 residents (10% of the county's population). Some communities are still threatened, but the number of people now threatened has plummeted in the last day or so. Chula Vista (my city) called off evacuations, as have Solana Beach, Del Mar, and parts of Poway. This is the best news we've had since the bad news began.

I saw the national news tonight - both Brian Williams and Katie Couric were broadcasting from San Diego. Based on that, I would have thought that things were getting worse instead of better. In fact, the situation was really precarious yesterday and has considerably improved today. Apparently, considerably improved doesn't make for interesting news.

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The biggest difference in the fires today didn't seem to follow from the governator's trip here, Bush declaring it a disaster area, the military helping out, fire fighters from other parts of the state and country coming to help, or even the hard work and good planning of our fire fighters and local officials. All that was commendable but would have been of little consequence if not for the winds dying down. The night before last the winds were incredibly intense - howling in uncharacteristic ways for our region. Today was calm and that seemed to make all the difference. Most of the fires are only 0 (that's right - zero) to 10% contained, so the fact that property is not being consumed at the same rate as yesterday seemed largely attributable to wind speeds and directions.

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In his new book, Daniel Goleman shares studies in which people play a "take it or leave it" game. You have a partner. You have $100 to split. The partner offers you some amount and keeps the rest. You take it or leave it. If you take it, you at least get something. If you leave it, neither you nor they get a dime. Economists might suggest that you'll take whatever is offered - anything is better than nothing. As it turns out, if people aren't offered some amount they consider reasonable, they will penalize the selfish person they're playing with by leaving the entire amount. Everybody loses when one person gets selfish. Further, if they track heart rates and stress levels, they'll find that people get very stressed when they are offered some paltry sum. Unless they think that they are playing a computer program, in which case they don't take it personally and just shrug off the low ball offers.

Why is this relevant to the fire? Although it has been little reported, it appears that arson is responsible for at least some of the numerous fires. If so, post-traumatic stress disorders are likely to be more acute. Because of the different levels of stress that accrue from the exact same outcomes administered by chance or evil intention, people recovering from natural disasters are less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress. Earthquakes, fires, floods, and hurricanes are terribly stressful, but people recover from them better than if they suffered a comparable level of injury or property loss due to the actions of other people. If indeed this is arson, levels of stress will go up and long-term complications will be worse.

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Most evacuees went to Qualcomm Stadium, where the Chargers play. About 10,000 people were there. They asked people to STOP bringing donations at a particular point because they had more than they could use or store. Also, I heard one rumor that they had about one volunteer for every evacuee.

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I was touched that four different households - four different couples - offered to take us in should we have needed to evacuate. It's odd how such a stressful event gives a person a chance to feel less alone.

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Friends of ours built a place up in Tahoe - a place they intended to eventually retire to, toggling between San Diego and the mountains until then. This summer, they lost the Tahoe home to fire. Today, they lost their San Diego home.

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Once we learned that the evacuations in our city had been reversed, we felt a huge sense of relief. This evening we went to the grocery store for comfort food - ice cream. We stood in a line of people about 12 wide in front of the freezer. Apparently, we weren't the only ones seeking relief in something cold and comforting.

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Today we ate lunch at a little taco shop nearby. 6 fire fighters walked in. In response to compliments for their good work, one said, "We aren't doing anything. We're not out on the line. We're just on call for the normal problems here in the city." He sounded disappointed, like the younger kid who had to stay home when his older sister got to go to the aunt's wedding.

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An estimated 300,000 people evacuated - about 10% of the county's population. This is partly caution, partly conspiracy of "how bad can we make this?" (And I'm not belittling how it bad it was for many people - I've heard estimates of up to 1,000 homes destroyed. That's a very big deal.) I hadn't realized before that the evacuation numbers make it seem worse and thus better (as a story) for the media, make it worse and thus better (for the careers and recognition) for the city officials, and make it worse and thus better (for the story telling and sympathy) for us residents. In a sense, everyone involved is game to make it seem worse in order to make themselves look better.

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On the first day of an evacuation, it seems like an adventure. The poor folks who won't be able to get back into their homes for weeks are likely to go through stages of anxiety, depression, anger, and disbelief as the days drag out and life does not return to normal.

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For nearly two days, we were in disaster purgatory - neither safe nor sorry. We weren't really safe because we knew that the fire could continue to come at us and we'd need to evacuate. We had to be ready. We weren't sorry because we got to stay in our home. This is an odd state to be in - the emotional equivalent of leaning back in your chair and catching yourself at the last second, again and again.

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There is some talk already about how silly we San Diegans are to live in such a combustible community and then plan to rebuild in the same potential paths of future firestorms. This is similar to the chatter about how simple are the folks in New Orleans to build in a flood plain. I remember looking at a map of the US years ago - a map that showed the disasters likely to hit different regions. Tornadoes in the Midwest. Hurricanes in the Gulf. Earthquakes north of us in LA and San Francisco. Blizzards in the north. San Diego not only has great weather, but it stood out as a place with no legends indicating the disaster de jour for that area. Yet no one is immune. To be alive is be living in the path of some potential disaster and the reason we rebuild is not because we believe the last disaster will be the last disaster but because all of life is lived in the gap between disasters - personal or regional. The only option to building in the zone of a potential disaster seems to be homelessness.

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I’m digging in the closet for my kilt now and plan to perform the Scottish dance of high relief (an emotional antonym to high anxiety). The neighbors have already gathered to watch, so I feel obliged to finish this posting and move on.

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My dancing could quickly change into nervous movement. The fires that have died down and no longer threaten us are not really contained - just relatively dormant. It got better on its own. It could once again worse on its own. Life is like that sometimes.

7 comments:

ThomasLB said...

I'm glad you're safe.

I think I learned more from reading this post than I did from hours of coverage on the news. (After I heard Tony Harris ask, "Just how smoky is the smoke? 'Cause it looks pretty nasty," I gave up on professional journalists and switched over to SpongeBob.)

One question I still have- and forgive me if you've already been asked this too many times- why doesn't California do more to clear the brush? Fires seem to be an annual problem, and clearing brush would be cheaper, I think, than fighting fires.

Ron Davison said...

Thomas,
Thanks. That's actually a great line - "how smoky is the smoke?" And how wet is that water they're putting on the fire?

People who live at the edge of the wilderness are instructed to clear the area around their homes - and quite a few heed that advice. But there are at least two problems with this. One, San Diego County is huge. The fire alone covered about 150 square miles. There is no way that we could or would want to denude that much land. Two, even if a person were to clear the area around her house, the embers float - particularly in the strong winds we had earlier in the week. When wind gusts are regularly up to 50 mph, the embers can travel as much as 2 miles, spreading the fire downwind. And when the winds are as strong as they were, there just isn't anything fire fighters can do to stop the fire.

LET'S TALK said...

Great read and I hope that you all are safe and move to a safe area if need be. I heard today that the Military base was evacuated as well.

I was there in the 80's, stationed at El Toro but I never saw it as bad as what you all are going through now. Be safe and take care.

cce said...

So glad that you are, at least for now, not required to evacuate. Having lived "below the ridge" in Miami, I have too many bad memories of evacuating from our home before hurricanes. Luckily, while we lived there, no big storm made landfall and caused the kind of flooding we were afraid of.
I think you nailed the sort of remarkable community building that happens during and after a disaster such as flooding or fire. Neighbors who have never spoken are suddenly sharing batteries and generator power and chain saws (at least that's how it is after a hurricane.)
But I especially like your line, "All of life is lived in the gap."
So true. Be well, stay safe.

Dave said...

CCE stole my comment. "All of life is lived in the gap." Eloquent.

Ron Davison said...

let's talk,
Thanks for stopping by R World. This area has gotten drier since when you were here in the 80s.

cce,
thanks. We do feel consciously safe these last couple of days - as opposed to unconsciously, as it was last week.

Dave,
and the good news is that we're back into a gap. :)

exskindiver said...

hey ron--
hope you are still well.