Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Socal Fires Point Up Need For Local Ownership

Written from Toronto--

Even in Eastern Canada, the fires now wracking Southern California, burning hundreds of thousands of acres, destroying hundreds of homes, forcing evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, are the biggest story of the week.

And they are definitely seen here as exacerbated by global warming. A dryer Southern California, a longer summer, led, it is written this morning in the Toronto Globe and Mail to the most severe fires in the state's history. But global warming is a local story here too. The temperature in Toronto when I arrived by train yesterday afternoon was close to 70 degrees, very rare at this time of year, and there have been stories here that evaporation has increased in the Great Lakes with higher temperatures. Lake Superior accordingly, is at its lowest level ever, and this means less water is flowing into the lower lakes.

I have no question that the L.A. Times is doing a great job covering this story, because the paper always does well with disasters. The staff rises to the occasion.

But I wonder whether Times coverage has been properly focused on the danger in the years and months leading up to the fires. My impression is that the answer is no.

The 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego revealed that that county had inadequate fire fighting capability and that, because it was at the extreme south end of the state, it could not count on all that much aid from outside counties. The trouble was that when fires are burning in San Diego County they are likely burning in Los Angeles and San Bernardino too. Oftentimes, these counties consume their own resources, and absorb most of the aid from the north, and San Diego is left to cope pretty much on its own.

But I found, as an earthquake and sometimes fire reporter for the Times that attention languished when the disaster was over.

This is where a locally-owned paper probably would be doing better. Under the Chandlers, the newspaper kept up with state issues, such as air pollution, water pollution, fire fighting budgeting, and so forth much more comprehensively.

My strong impression is that under the Tribune Co., not so much lasting attention is being paid.

I don't think the Times has kept up well with just what was happening in local, county and state government to get ready for the disastrous fire than had now occurred. After all, David Hiller and his Eastern comrades don't really know California;. They are not sufficiently aware of the fire danger here, and they don't, therefore, have reporters working this beat full time. I can't remember a useful story this year on just how ready the state was, even though this was the driest year in Los Angeles history, and the state clearly had budgetary shortfalls.

We need local ownership, now more than ever. Getting rid of these outsiders would mean the paper would take better care of the people's business, and the people, realizing that, would have more support for the paper.

I'm leaving by the Canadian transcontinental train for Vancouver in about two hours, and am not sure whether I will be able to borrow a wireless computer on the train to write in the next two days, but will try.

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