News reports about California wildfires often seem to focus on horses, celebrities and schadenfreude. Sometimes fire victims suffer a second time from the crazy news coverage.
There is a mandatory evacuation now in my neighborhood in Montecito, California, as the huge Thomas Fire creeps closer, filling the air with acrid smoke and dusting everything with ash. The evacuation order is expected to last through the week. The fire has already claimed over 700 homes.
I’m a political cartoonist and my house is filled with my own art and a big collection of cartoon artwork from my colleagues. My son and I got back into the house Monday to grab more family photos, papers and artwork. I saw that many of my neighbors had the same idea. I took the opportunity to water the yard, clean the rain gutters and move things away from the house - things that probably made little difference, but relieved my stress. My house is still filled with artwork as the fire bears down.
I was raised in Montecito. I inherited the house my schoolteacher mother bought in 1964 for $28,000, an amount that seems ridiculous by today’s standards. Montecito is filled with normal working people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades as property values soared, helped by the low property taxes of California’s Proposition 13. It was a normal place in my childhood, now Montecito is expensive, known as the place where Oprah Winfrey has a house, along with a long list of other Hollywood notables. I don’t know where those celebrities live. They don’t come by to say “hello.”
In 1977 my mother’s house burned in the Sycamore Canyon Fire that claimed around 250 homes; she chose to rebuild. Why do people rebuild after a fire? Because it is home, and after a disaster we see mistakes with what seems to be clarity. The house had a wood shake roof, and the 1977 fire seemed to claim only houses with wood shake roofs. Now the house has a concrete roof, no attic vents and a concrete yard. We have regular inspections by the local fire department and we follow their advice, but today’s superfires seem to claim anything in their paths, no matter what roofs are made of, and no matter what advice is followed.
I was a college student, living at home when the 1977 fire suddenly swooped in. I watched as the news media was filled with reports of horses in danger and rich celebrities fleeing their homes. I remember a segment sometime later, on Britain’s popular “Spitting Image” TV show, a cartoonist’s favorite, where screaming celebrity caricatures were running around, engulfed in flames as the audience roared with laughter.
The media’s trivial obsessions had a tangible effect in 1977. President Jimmy Carter refused to declare Santa Barbara and Montecito a federal disaster area, noting that the people here are wealthy and can take care of themselves. A disaster declaration would have meant that my mother and I could have lived in a FEMA trailer for a year, while our house was being re-built.
A few months later there was a similar fire in Malibu; for some reason, the media didn’t focus on celebrities that time and Carter declared a federal disaster area, even though the average income of the Malibu fire victims was higher than the income of victims of our Montecito fire. Media coverage made all the difference with Carter.
I fear we’ll see the same international media response if the wind shifts in the next few days. The dry brush of celebrity schadenfreude is ready to burn ... along with my mother’s house.