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Watching the Car Tax at Work on Fire Lines

I don’t suppose this idea will ever get me elected governor, but after watching battle-weary firefighters save a cluster of houses near Stevenson Ranch, I’d like to propose a quadrupling of the car tax.

Let’s face it -- we live in the one-disaster-after-another state. No sooner did I leave the fire than a 3.7 earthquake rattled Simi Valley, and floods can’t be too far off.

Cops and firefighters are spread thinly enough, even without simultaneous disaster. And if Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger keeps his vow to stamp out Gov. Gray Davis’ tripling of the car tax, they’ll have to go begging for alternative funding.

Don’t do it, Arnold. Or if you do, come up with another way to pay for public safety.

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As Southern Californians cheer firefighters in the wake of killer infernos, tell us you’ll still put a lid on spending and maybe even slap Democrats around, but you might have exaggerated when you promised “fantastic jobs for all” and good government on the cheap.

In San Diego County, where people break out in hives at the mention of taxes, critics are pointing to a history of underfunded fire protection and volunteer crews. Sixteen people are now dead from the worst of the state’s fires, including one firefighter. One thousand homes are destroyed.

Excuse me, but I’m happy to pay my car tax. If we’re going to continue to grow the state’s population exponentially, particularly into high-risk fire zones like those in northern L.A. County, cut-rate fire protection ain’t the way to go.

When I got to the Stevenson Ranch area near Santa Clarita, the sky was a pumpkin-colored storm of smoke and choked sunlight. Helicopters disappeared into the haze, lugging water and fire retardant into battle.

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Before chasing the smoke, I headed to nearby Newhall Ranch. The same day I said it’s crazy to keep building houses in fire belts, the 20,885-home Newhall development finally got a green light, and I wanted to have a look at the terrain.

Charred hills smoldered around me and power lines were down as I headed into the lunar landscape. Roughly 20,000 acres had burned, Newhall spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said, mostly in high elevations rather than where homes will be.

Before they hammer the first nail, they ought to go have a look at my next stop -- Southern Oaks Manor near Stevenson Ranch. There, a combination of brush clearance and greenbelts, and experienced firefighting crews, saved 1 1/2-year-old homes that go for $600,000 and up.

Some residents had evacuated when fire raced toward them early Wednesday morning, but crews lit backfires to meet the blaze and save the day.

“These guys are terrific,” said Dwight Wolfe, one of the grateful residents who cheered firefighters and kept them fed while awaiting the next flare-up.

L.A. County Fire Department Capt. Bill Hyink, who hadn’t slept in 36 hours, pointed out the brush clearance and greenery that formed a 100-foot moat around the development. The tile roofs and stucco walls helped too, he said.

“I’ve got to go to work,” Hyink interrupted. The fire was back, headed down the canyon along the edge of the homes. Hyink wasn’t too worried this time, but flanked his 20-person crew atop the ridge in defense.

Residents retreated as the heat from crackling 50-foot flames closed in, and a swooping helicopter dropped streams of retardant. A Santa Ana would have blown embers over houses festooned with Halloween decor, but this was a lucky wind, and the threat passed.

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When it was safe, Capt. Hy-ink came up to me and said:

“You hear we just lost a firefighter in San Diego?”


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