THE continuing fires in Southern California again show how much of a threat a small spark can be, and how unprepared we still are to deal with it. But it also shows that, even when things seem to be bleak for many in America, our best nature is ready to emerge.
Because of my work, I live part time in L.A., but spend a lot of time in Pennsylvania and consider it my home. So, last week, I was able to look at what was unraveling in the area as an objective outsider, but also take a deep personal interest in what was happening to the place I spend so much time.
Objectively, it's tough to ignore the effect that two huge issues facing America and the world have had on this natural disaster.
Global warming, as many scientists seem to agree, is beginning to significantly affect temperatures, which affect weather patterns. With less rain and longer Santa Ana winds, the "fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and to property," U.S. Forest Service chief Gail Kimbell said. "Each year, the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer."
But this is far from just a Southern California problem. The U.N. Commission on Climate Change has studied areas that are getting hotter and drier, and predicts similar fires globally. Most scary is how global warming helps fan these fires, which, in turn, fuel global warming. According to one expert, almost 20 million tons of greenhouse gases, the amount from 3.6 million cars a year, have been unleashed by this latest fire.
The other objective finding is that the war in Iraq affected the ability of the state to respond quickly and forcefully. While California does have a significant number of National Guard troops in Iraq, many are at home, and Gov. Schwarzenegger called up 1,700 of them to aid in the firefighting. (Though shortages did mean he had to pull 400 from the Mexico border.) But one hang-up was that equipment that the California National Guard sends to Iraq stays in Iraq.
More than six months ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "As state forestry officials predict an unusually harsh fire season this summer, the California National Guard says equipment shortages could hinder the Guard's response to a large-scale disaster." And so it was, as the state had to request the use of Pentagon equipment because they didn't have enough of their own.
But I put aside policy to think of my friends in the region. At mass the other day, there was a collection to help those in Southern California. We prayed and asked some people to tell their stories. One parishioner whose brother was displaced by the fire asked us to pray for his cat. It's a story I can chuckle at now, but this woman wasn't sure if his pet was alive or dead, burned along with so many houses and trees.
OUR PRAYERS were answered. Despite not knowing if he and his family had a home to return to, while he saw the pain and suffering of so many he was helping (he's a sheriff), his kitty was found, bringing a little happiness to the family at a tough time.
And your prayers need not involve God if you are not a person of faith. Prayer is a chance to take a moment to reflect and feel the solidarity with your fellow Americans, their suffering and their hope.
So write a check, then take a moment to send your well wishes and recall a time when you were in need and would have liked for someone to do the same for you.
In this huge region that's burning, there are very real lives being affected. Some people are not only losing their homes, but also all the markers of their lives: family keepsakes, photos, and, yes, even some pets.
That's why it's so heartening to see such an outpouring of charitable support for these people in their time of need - many of whom I consider neighbors. Donations are flooding into many California charities from across the country. Like we did with Hurricane Katrina and the tsunamis, we're showing our awesome capacity for good when others need it.
So, Philadelphia, even if you don't have friends and family there, join the cause of helping out those in need in this trying time in Southern California.
Charities say the best donation for fire victims is money.
Disaster-response organizations are unable to accept individual donations like clothes, shoes or toys during major emergencies, Red Cross officials say. But agencies like St. Vincent de Paul, Goodwill or the Salvation Army are better equipped to get quality used goods to needy families.
Here are some agencies collecting donations for fire victims:
American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund: 800-HELP-NOW or 800-257-7575 for Spanish speakers, www.redcross.org/donate/donate.html/.
Corporations and businesses interested in making in-kind donations may call 800-746-5463.
San Diego Food Bank: 866-350-3663, www.sandiegofoodbank.org.
Goodwill Southern California: 888-4-GOODWILL, www.goodwillsocal.org.
Salvation Army Southern California: 213-896-9160, www.salvationarmysocal.org.
Governor's Office of Emergency Services: 800-750-2858, www.californiavolunteers.org.
Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: 888-SPCA-LA1, www.spcala.com. *
Flavia Colgan is a member of the Daily News editorial board. Check out her blog, CitizenHunter, at www.citizenhunter.com.