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Commentary: No time to take advantage of tragedy

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Opportunists get political mileage from the fire disaster
  • Some on the left blame global warming, say more fires coming, columnist says
  • Others imply illegal immigrants behind fires without citing any evidence, he says
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- What turned out to be a life-changing week began, interestingly enough, with a lesson about misplaced priorities.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: The people of San Diego, California, have lost so much this week.

On Monday, at about 7 a.m., I was headed out the door to the nearby city of Escondido. I was going to monitor a police checkpoint intended to crack down on unlicensed drivers as part of a backdoor attempt to ferret out illegal immigrants. Other checkpoints have ensnared hundreds of illegal immigrants and resulted in the impounding of more than 1,000 vehicles.

I never made it to Escondido. Instead, the phone rang. It was an automated "reverse 911 call" -- in which the police department calls you, instead of the other way around -- advising me that, due to fires in the area, it might be a good idea to prepare to evacuate and await further instructions.

Suddenly, I had better things to do than harass illegal immigrants. And so did the Escondido Police Department, which called off the checkpoints and deployed officers to help evacuate residents and perform other fire-related duties. After all, what's another couple hundred illegal immigrants -- give or take -- when your city is about to burn?

Nearly 500,000 acres did burn throughout Southern California in one of the most damaging firestorms in U.S. history. Nearly 1 million people evacuated their homes in what is being called the largest evacuation of U.S. civilians since the Civil War. More than 1,000 people lost their homes, and at least seven lost their lives.

When I was a young and gung-ho reporter, I would have headed toward the action with notebook in hand. Having kids changes everything. By late Monday morning, when flames got within 10 miles of our home, my wife and I -- and our two small children -- evacuated.

We grabbed clothes, diapers, water, baby formula and family photos and sought refuge in a hotel about 30 miles away that quickly filled up with other runaways. The desk clerk later told me that, over the next several hours, he must have turned away another 200 people from the San Diego area.

We returned home Wednesday, after the fire changed course and spared our house and those of our neighbors. When we arrived, smoke filled the air, and ashes were falling from the sky.

And yet, the really shocking part was still to come as opportunists from across the political spectrum tried to get political mileage from the tragedy. Some on the left blamed global warming and implied that more fires could be on the way; some on the right suggested that the fires had been started by illegal immigrants with no evidence to back up the claim.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, traveled a low road when she suggested that the state might not have enough National Guard troops to fight the fire, control crowds and prevent looting because of -- wait for it -- the war in Iraq. For Boxer, all that human suffering was just another opportunity to take a poke at President Bush.

It's not fair. The people of San Diego have already lost so much this week. And now they may lose their lunch.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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