Friday, November 2, 2007

The Fire This Time

As California fire fighters continued fighting to put out the final bits of the terrible fire season of '07, prosecutors in LA grappled with whether to bring criminal charges against a 10 year old whose admitted playing with matches apparently started one of the major blazes last month. Another option is to hit the parents with a massive civil suit for the millions of dollars the fire consumed (although since they lived in a trailer on a ranch its not likely they are loaded). According to the reporting of Jean-Paul Renaud, Andrew Blankstein and Megan Garvey, in the Los Angeles Times, fire officials think charges against a 10 year old are unlikely, but in Orange County, a twelve year old has been arrested for an October 22nd blaze.

The fact that criminal charges against children would be pending for these fires shows how much fear of crime has twisted the way Americans think about risk. Arson ranks in the top 3 or 4 causes of California's wild fires, and clearly deserves criminal punishment when committed by people capable of criminal responsibility, but does anyone who lives near the reach of wildfire (and that includes me, although this year early rains brought an early end to the Northern California fire season) believe that they could stop worrying if 100 percent of arson could be deterred? (Let alone the far smaller percentage than could actually be deterred). Most such fires are set by accidents, sparks from welding, a badly put out cigarette, or by downed electrical lines (perhaps we can prosecute some of those people for criminal negligence or just invent a new strict liability crime). Most essentially, wildfire is a natural feature of the California landscape that development has largely overlooked.

The fact that from the beginning of this fall's major wildfires, press reports focused on the question of arson, is a demonstration of how much crime grips our imagination of disaster. Just as in the coverage of the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the California wildfires confront us with a terrifying new kind of threat the combines natural and social disaster to produce potential catastrophes. Trying to fathom this staggering threat to all of our futures, the American collective eye seizes upon the familiar figure of the criminal as the central pivot around which to frame disaster.

But what Katrina and the southern California fires challenge us to do is make major reinvestment in infrastructure and undertake far more vigorous governance of land use in our metropolitan areas. But such steps require the confidence in government and the social trust that fear of crime erodes.

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