By Thomas K. Arnold
(page 1 of 4)Just when you thought you’d heard all there is to hear about the wildfires that ravaged San Diego County in late October...
According to a column in WorldNet Daily, an on-line newspaper that describes itself as “a free press for a free people,” the fires could easily have been an act of terrorism, with editor Joseph Farah writing that “it would be a mistake” to rule out Islamic militants.
“Here’s what we know,” he writes. “Arson is suspected in at least some of the blazes; al-Quaida was planning, according to one captive and an FBI memo last June, to torch forest land in the western United States as late as last summer; al-Quaida is believed to have practiced for such a mission in the Australian bush country; al-Quaida has taken inspiration from Palestinian terrorists, who have torched hundreds of acres of Israeli forest; and the fires [are] the worst ever to hit the state.”
Farah concludes, “To me that adds up to a strong circumstantial case. ... No one has the motivation to resort to this kind of terror like Osama bin Laden’s agents.”
Farah’s column triggered a tremendous buzz in Internet chat rooms—and a concession from Roxanne Provaznik, public information officer with the California Department of Forestry, that initially, nothing was ruled out.
“I spoke with the investigators of all three fires, and that was one of the things that came up,” she says.
Also taking the blame for feeding the flames: the county’s dismantling of its honor camp system that was dedicated to clearing brush in the back country. Nonviolent prisoners had been deployed on such missions since the 1920s. Indeed, half a century ago eight firefighters from the Viejas Honor Camp died fighting a raging inferno about a mile south of Santa Ysabel.
Twenty years ago, the San Diego County Probation Department operated five honor camps, including two dedicated “fire camps” run as a joint venture with the California Department of Forestry. Inmates were charged primarily with fire prevention, which involved clearing brush and cutting breaks.
But as the county began pinching pennies in the late 1980s, the camps were closed and converted to other uses. The last camp, Camp West Fork, at the base of Mount Palomar, was shuttered in 2001.
Robert Billburg, a former county probation officer, is incensed. “Those camps were crucial to fire prevention,” he says. “Just look at the videos [of the recent fires] and you’ll see brush 3 and 4 feet high by the side of the road. How does a fire start in Ramona and go all the way to Tierrasanta? It spreads because there’s so much brush.”
County supervisor Dianne Jacob defends the closure of the honor camps. She calls Camp West Fork, which was shuttered under her watch, a “costly facility that was operating well below capacity,” adding that “not a single fire safety official opposed its closure.”
“If one had,” she says, “my decision would have been different.”