The Fires of October

IMAGES of soot-streaked faces, charred homes, and snaking fire hoses have replaced flooded buildings and breached levees as the Midwest's summer floods have given way to California's October wildfires.

To date, 13 fires, driven largely by hot, dry winds off the Mojave Desert, have burned a combined 80,000 acres and destroyed more than 600 homes. Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has declared five counties disaster areas, opening the way for state and federal disaster aid.

As did the floods, the fires taking their toll on communities from Sonoma County to the Mexican border are highlighting individual instances of courage and sense of community that, if sustained, will help the stricken areas rebuild.

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As rebuilding takes place, another quality will be in demand: The wisdom that comes from understanding the climate cycles that make brush fires a regular feature of the region and the need to factor the prospect of fires into building codes more effectively.

Such efforts can have an impact beyond fire season: The state's rainy season will soon follow. Reducing an area's vulnerability to fires can have a secondary effect in reducing its later vulnerability to mud slides in areas that fires have stripped of vegetation.

Unfortunately, such efforts also can meet with stiff resistance.

After a fire in 1991 that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,500 buildings in Oakland and Berkeley, the Oakland City Council proposed a package of revised building codes.

They included the use of fire-retardant materials for roofs and siding, and vegetation management to keep homes and open space free of overly dense brush and trees. One discussion centered on the need for straightened, wider streets to allow easier access for firefighters. The plan ran into stiff opposition from residents concerned in part about the costs - financial and aesthetic - that the revisions would place on reconstruction.

Yet, just as with earthquake codes, the issue is the safety of lives and property.

Red Cross chapters in the stricken areas are appealing for donations of food and other supplies through local chapters nationwide. Such aid can help ease the acute crisis. But faced with the chronic nature of California's fire season, residents should be as receptive to long-term efforts to reduce the fire hazard as they are to short-term help in meeting their immediate needs.

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