Even as the fires rage, government officials have argued over the success of the firefighting efforts and have blamed others for some failures. Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a Democrat, criticized President George W. Bush for having diverted National Guard troops to Iraq. Such troops could have been used during this disaster. Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, and U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, have criticized the Schwarzenegger administration for delays in bringing firefighting aircraft to the battle. These are legitimate discussions, but the real analysis must go deeper than criticisms of particular delays.

Southern California will always have its share of wildfires. This region is home to about 20 million people, many of whom live near open space. Environmentalists argue that people shouldn't be living in wildfire-prone areas. We'd be against any policies that tell people where they should live. We do argue for more market incentives and disincentives that require people who live in riskier areas to absorb the true cost of their decisions. The insurance industry, for instance, does a good job pricing insurance policies based on risk. Those who live in fire-prone areas pay more for coverage, or sometimes even are unable to get private policies.

Markets don't control government-owned land, which is managed based on political considerations, namely, the influence of special interest groups. Environmental rules and restrictions have leaned in recent years toward preservation of natural habitats, so areas that are left wild have more fuel to burn when lightning, a fallen power line or an arsonist ignites a fire. We'd argue for land management that puts humans and human habitats first and for less government-owned land in general.

Outside of wildfires, there are few fires in Orange County, mostly because of the strong incentives people have to maintain and protect their property. Private ownership reduces fire problems. News reports have found that newer houses built with more flame-retardant materials have fared much better in wildfire areas than older homes. This is another way that the market is reducing risks.

Policy makers need to take a fresh look at firefighting policies, strategies and budgets. For instance, firefighter unions are powerful, and fire budgets in recent years have been stressed as agencies have expanded pensions. The more the agencies spend on salary and benefits, the less will be available for the latest equipment and other capital expenditures. Those who always call for more spending for public safety aren't doing taxpayers a service - no government agency ever has the amount of money it would like to have, and wise public officials understand the need to balance the many demands on the treasury.

None of these points undermine the overall fine job firefighters and firefighting agencies have done in battling these blazes. But after the smoke clears, policy makers would do well to think about firefighting policies in the broadest-possible context.

Environmental rules and restrictions have leaned in recent years toward preservation of natural habitats, so areas that are left wild have more fuel to burn when lightning, a fallen power line or an arsonist ignites a fire.