Arizona is Burning

Arizona is Burning

...and so are New Mexico and Texas. I live in Bisbee, Arizona, and the wildfires are everywhere around us. Bisbee is relatively safe, but much of the surrounding area is going up in smoke. Friends have been evacuated, one of the Mexican restaurants near Hereford is gone, as well as a number of other buildings and quite a few residences. Some of them built by hand by local people who began by putting their savings toward the acquisition of a piece of land, then started building as they could afford time, effort and the purchase of materials.

Even the big ugly church between Palominas and Sierra Vista, with its obnoxiously oversized cross visible from miles away, burned down. Several towns nearby have received mandatory evacuation orders. I understand the fire is moving in the direction of Tombstone -- The Town Too Tough To Die! -- and away from Bisbee. (We need Wyatt Earp and his crew, now! Actually, the firemen, and they have come from everywhere, are doing a great job. They work like dogs. They don't complain. They are, as far as I am concerned, a special breed. Lord they are tough! I know, I saw some on my way out of town, when I was driving highway 80 North, which cuts from South Arizona into New Mexico. There is smoke everywhere, and there are these guys and quite a few women, loaded with gear, smudged and visibly tired, going at it with all they got.)

I am currently traveling, but friends keep me up to date via Facebook and email. It really hurts to see properties burning, and the realization that many of them represent the accumulation of decades of hard work is upsetting. For many of these people this is a disaster that will be very difficult to overcome. And some of them are friends of mine.

Building your own house, out in the boonies and off the grid, is pretty much every Arizonan's dream, or so it seems. A few years ago, the county decided to bring building codes to the countryside, meaning that in the future if you wanted to build anything bigger than a shed, you had to have permissions and build by code. The response of the locals was beautiful and loud; it almost cost some of those county-geniuses their jobs. So they changed it to be applied only to commercial properties. God save us from the day when bureaucrats and politicians take charge of everything, no matter how far of the grid.

Oh, right, they are already constantly working at it, like rats chewing on electrical wires. One day it will be lights out for all those dreams that hardworking, creative people have, to build the home they want, instead of some generic cookie cutter home like those we see in suburbs all around this country -- built to code to guarantee depression, frustration and a complete lack of individuality. Not to mention the fumes given off by some of our modern building materials, the lack of airflow as all the windows are kept shut and sealed to save a few bucks in heating and cooling -- yes, I am big on building green, but not on stifling air and trapping odors -- and a general attitude that the dollar comes first, people's health and happiness is way further down the line. Just another minor side effect of our gloriously unrestrained free-market politics.

Here is an example of good and bad governing: After WWII, so many houses in Holland and Belgium, and all over the rest of Europe, had been bombed to smithereens, that housing shortage was a serious problem everywhere. In Holland, the government responded by putting all these laws together. You could build here, but not there. You could use these materials, but not those. I actually worked for a city planning office as a draftsman back in 1973 or '74, and I remember that in meetings my drawings might take up a few square meters on the wall, but the print-out with all the rules and regulations was about 8 inches thick. I think they had twice as many lawyers as planners and draftsmen on the staff. Just ludicrous, down to the color of your front door and the square footage of glass allowed in the facade was regulated. It used to bother me to no end, and I was definitely the odd voice in the office, even if I was only a lowly draftsman.

In Belgium, on the other hand, they basically allowed everything. If you had a piece of land and a bit of money, go for it, build something. Get yourself a roof over your head.

A decade or so later, Belgium had pretty much solved its housing shortage problem. Holland is still plagued with that today. Not only that, when you drive through Belgium you can see all kinds of houses, some pretty bizarre, but people's creativity is everywhere. It's just fun to see what people came up with. In Holland, most of what was built between '45 and '75 is ugly, generic and depressing. Although in the last couple of decades Holland has supported some very original and smart architects.

The moral of the story, and this from a die-hard liberal: less is better, certainly when it comes to governing!

Arizona, thanks be to the powers of individuality and the frontier mentality still alive and well around these here mountains and valleys, is still fairly loose and unregulated, at least in the rural parts. Not for long, I imagine, as the aforementioned rats are at it while we speak.

I ended up in Arizona in a roundabout way. Born in Amsterdam, traveled around a bit, settled in Houston, TX in 1979. Traveled a bit more, found Bisbee, AZ. Fell in love with that quaint little mining town full of artists, eccentrics, and other somewhat off-beat folks. I liked the liberal feel and the general tolerance (our best selling bumper sticker: Bisbee, A Liberal Oasis in a Conservative Desert). There may be a bit too much tolerance perhaps, as even the lower ranks of society are treated like sacred cows.

The funny thing is that when I was a kid I read a ton of books, like all introverted little geeks, and one of them I remember made a big impression on me. It was called "A Dutch Boy in Arizona." This book was about a kid my age who was orphaned and henceforth shipped off to an uncle in Arizona. Once there, he has all these adventures with Indians and cowboys. I even remember the cover. It was a hardcover book with a stiff paper wrapping on which a colorful illustration showed a cowboy on a big brown horse in midair, jumping a ravine. He was being chased by dozens of Indian warriors shooting arrows, but none of them brave enough to jump the ravine. I didn't blame them, their horses seemed much smaller. The cowboy had a big red bandana and a colt revolver, a true hero.

Thank God, there are still plenty of those around. Fighting fires, protecting other people's properties, eating on the go, and facing extreme dangers every day. Men and women, earning not a whole lot of money, doing their jobs because it is the right thing to do.

Let's hear it for those men and women, shall we?

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