I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it is flat-out insane for a nation to spend billions on a missile defense shield while leaving itself defenseless against the damage that any nitwit, domestic or foreign, can do to us with a single match. A great many experts will tell you a missile defense shield simply won't work and that, moreover, none of the terrorists we regard as a threat have a missile that could pester us. Meanwhile, the threat of arson is so palpable that I could instead be writing this article in big letters in the layer of ash blanketing my neighborhood.

Why even mention the missile defense shield at this charred moment? Because we have only so much money and resources. We have only so many scientific minds. We have only so much civic will. And we are frittering it all away on a bunch of fearmongers' hardware instead of on programs that might ever conceivably do us some good, particularly in weeks such as this.

Do you know how many nuclear warheads the U.S. has? As of February, we had 10,729 operational nukes, and Bush wants to build a pricey new generation of treaty-busting ones.

Do you know how many firefighting tanker planes we have? Thirty.

We've spent nearly $4 trillion on nuclear-weapons programs in the U.S. since 1940. We can destroy the world as many times as we'd like—I'd stop at four myself—with fully funded cutting-edge technologies to help us do it with ever-improving precision and finality.

Yet when it comes to that wall of fire threatening to engulf everything you know and love, the best we can come up with is the same fireman-and-a-hose we relied on two centuries ago? Early fire hoses were sewn out of leather, and the trucks were drawn by horse, but otherwise not much has changed. Did you see the footage of firefighters on the Rim of the World Highway this week, of scattered guys with hoses facing flames that were roiling up higher than six stacked fire trucks? It's like sending a soldier to war armed only with spit wads.

Fire is scary. It is even scarier than Saddam Hussein. Though I live in Costa Mesa, miles from the Laguna fire that darkened our days a decade ago, it was still scarier than hell to see its smoke, like a billowing movie screen flickering with the red of the fire, and then the bright, electric signature of flame cresting the hills. You feel helpless because you are.

As I wrote here months ago, the San Bernardino Mountains have become a tinderbox, where the effects of four years of drought on the forests were compounded by bark beetle infestations that in many areas left half the trees dead and brown. It was a firestorm waiting to happen, and everyone knew it, including the Bush administration, which had been asked for help in clearing the dead timber.

That help wasn't forthcoming. They were busy tackling the “imminent” threat of Saddam Hussein, who had, you know, all those chemical and biological weapons he could deploy in 45 minutes and the advanced nuclear program and all that other stuff he has so fiendishly hidden. Yes, Bush floated his “Healthy Forests” initiative, but it's a sop to the timber industry that experts say would have done little to alleviate the conditions that caused our fires. One of the tricks to divining the real intent behind these happy-named initiatives is to interchange some words: take “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests,” and you get “Clear Forests.”

What is it about us that makes so many of us willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of American lives to defeat a guy who was only a threat in some neo-con's most fevered wet dream, yet leaves us so unwilling to address the probable—and now realized—threat of California flaring up like a campfire marshmallow?

Part of the answer might be evident in the monster flicks that abound on TV this Halloween week. A veteran firefighter was quoted on CBS news as saying the fire was worse than any horror movie. But fire is rarely the focus of such films. Movie magicians can come up with giant spinning turtles, comet collisions and firestorms, but it's always the human, or almost-human, monsters that scare us the most. Brain-eating psychopaths are creepier than giant ants any day of the week.

Since the start of the Cold War, America has been addicted to fear, and the pushers who profit from that addiction have always made sure there was no shortage of bogeymen to scare us: Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Manuel Noriega of Panama, drug lords, an Ayatollah or two. Nicaraguans were going to attack Texas. Hussein was going to supply terrorists. The Mummy was going to sacrifice you to Set.

Those fears have shaped the national will. Even the space race to the moon was fueled by the fear that some Russian might get there first. We do take care of some real business, but it always seems to take a back seat to monster-fighting. Sure, we have a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but did you know that the “stand up for America” Reagan administration had diverted a sizable chunk of FEMA's budget to technology that would only be useful in a nuclear war, leaving us that much less defended from floods, hurricanes, fires and other workaday disasters? It's like we weren't as worried about losing something as we were afraid that someone else might win it.

To make another filmic reference—we are heading into the Schwarzenegger years, after all—it's sort of like The Magnificent Seven in which the village kids idolize the hired gunmen instead of their parents, who are the ones doing the genuine long, hard slog of raising their food, fetching the water, making their clothes and houses, and the other mundane daily things that make life possible.

Men love mischief, and men love empire-building. To be always pushing and expanding, always playing with guns and missiles, is more exciting than preserving and nurturing what we have. But we've reached, if not long passed, a point in our history where brutal, impersonal forces—the changing climate, population growth, economic realities—should be forcing us to grow up, to come out of the spook house and shape priorities that aren't based on fears and thrills but on what will make this nation better for us and our children.

More than 200 homes burned, 600 homes, 1,100 homes, 1,500 homes; every time I turn on the news, it's some galling new figure. At this writing, there are another 30,000 homes threatened, a half-million acres burned, 16 people dead, billions of dollars in damage and an ecosystem that may never be repaired. Doesn't that qualify as “mass destruction”? Yet I don't see the president leading the charge to spend $87 billion on fire prevention. (On Monday, he did issue this reassuring quote showing he's on top of things: “This is a devastating fire, and it is a dangerous fire.” Did he mention it was hot, too?)

While we've been racing off into one adventure after another, the world around us has been changing. Whether you believe human activity is a contributing factor or not, there is daily evidence that dramatic climatic change is taking place in our lifetime. Look around the planet: when there are record heat waves, record floods, record windstorms, record glacier melts, and on and on, something is afoot, and it's only good news for the people who make record books.

The delicate interactions of nature are being disrupted in ways that are changing our lives: the bark beetle was only able to attack healthy trees because four years of drought had dried their sap; the smoke from the west's massive fires is expected to contribute to more global warming, meaning more drought, meaning more infestations, meaning more fires and so on.

Last week, I attended the dedication of John V. Croul Hall at UC Irvine, the new home of the campus' Department of Earth System Science. I mention this so that we might end on a positive note here. There are people—still underfunded and underappreciated and still unheeded in Washington—who are doing the serious work of understanding the complex interrelations of the natural world. Through systems of glass pipes that could make Tommy Chong green with envy, through an accelerator mass spectrometer the size of a dog kennel, they are filtering particles of our world in order to understand the changes taking place before they overtake us. That's where the real fight is, not chasing some bogeyman in the sand.

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