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Ruminations on the San Bruno Fire

By       Message Siegfried Othmer     Permalink
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It is strangely difficult to get a society to come to grips even with extreme hazards if the threats are not imminent. One might include in that category such concerns as the impact of a large bolide, global warming, and the likelihood that San Francisco may be destroyed in a replica of the 1906 fire following the next big earthquake in that area. We have just had a foretaste of what might occur in the San Bruno fire, where a gas explosion led to the destruction of many homes that successively set each other ablaze. There have been other such warnings, as entire neighborhoods were consumed by fire progressively.

Looking back at the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, we recall that fires broke out in a number of places due to ruptured gas mains. In contrast to the San Bruno fire, there was fortunately no wind. Had there been a strong wind blowing at that moment, these fires would not have been containable. In the heart of San Francisco the town houses are built close to one another, with the space between them serving as an ideal chimney. By the same token, it would be impossible to fight a fire in that space. These houses should be seen as a set of dominoes in which each one will take down the next one as the fire progresses, and man can only stand by and watch helplessly.

Why am I motivated, one might wonder, to call attention to one such hazard faced by our society, when in fact there are so many others? Perhaps it all traces back to my having witnessed our own street burn down in Berlin in 1942. We were all safe in an air-raid shelter in the basement, but at one point during the evening, two people went upstairs to take a look, and I followed them. With the photographic memory that children sometimes possess, the image of the whole street on fire has stayed with me.

Many years later, I was sightseeing in Hamburg, Germany. The City Hall is a magnificent old building, and I commented to a security guard on the care that must have gone into its reconstruction after the war. "Oh, no," he said. "It was not destroyed in the war." Yet everything around the City Hall had had to be rebuilt. The difference was that the City Hall was set apart on the plaza, whereas all the buildings surrounding it were sufficiently close to each other that the fire spread to each in turn.

During the fire-bombing of Dresden and of Tokyo, there was a deliberate strategy of creating a firestorm. Under such circumstances, no counter-measures are adequate. But in the case of earthquake-caused fires, preventive measures could indeed be very helpful. Just as fire breaks are built into every wall of every home, firebreaks are needed between the closely stacked houses.

In the larger scheme of things, it is infrastructure investments such as these that will lead our economy out of the doldrums. There are many that should be given urgent consideration. It is pointless to hope for a replication of the past era of debt-fueled consumption. It cannot happen, and it shouldn't be hoped for.

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 28 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles.

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