Cubs Win! Holy Cow!

Okay, all you 8,000 blog readers out there, listen up. I deal with a lot of serious subjects on this blog, but I also like to have fun. And I’m also a big baseball fan. In Chicago. Right now that combination adds up to something slightly dangerous, as Chicago fans are entering uncharted waters.

They may well have a winner in the Chicago Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908. At the risk of my nonexistent reputation for sports prognostication, I say they are going all the way.

There are times in the affairs of men and women when all the stars line up, and the omens all point in one direction. Consider the following:

  • The Cubs, who had a mediocre first half of the season, came roaring out of their obscurity after the All-Star game to secure a wild card spot, just three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, the team with the best record in Major League Baseball this year.
  • They did this in large part with the help of a pitcher who was not even in the All Star game, Jake Arrieta, who was 11-1 after the break with a 0.75 ERA. I mean, who does that?
  • They used Arrieta in the one-game wild card playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, where he iced the team that was just two games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central Division with a four-hit shutout. The Cubs then moved on to St. Louis.
  • The Cubs lost game one in St. Louis, roared back to take game two, then finished off the Cardinals in two games in Wrigley Field, the first time in a century they have clinched a playoff series in their own stadium.
  • Despite the fact that Jake Arrieta finally had an off night, his first since July, his teammates picked up the slack and hit six home runs to carry him to an 8-6 victory. Those home runs broke an MLB record for the most by any team in a playoff game. Ever. Granted, it was a windy night on the lakefront, but it was just as windy for St. Louis.
  • And then—and then . . . . this is the topper, the one clue that marks a team of destiny. Late in game four, with the Cubs already ahead but happy to take out some insurance, Kyle Schwarber swatted a four-bagger that appeared to top the towering Budweiser sign in right field. But what happened to the ball? No one saw it land on Sheffield Avenue behind the stadium. No one claimed to have caught it. But photos revealed a ball sitting on the platform supporting the sign, and a Cubs worker indeed found it there, with the distinctive markings of a postseason ball.

Indeed, the Schwarbomb, as it is now known, a 419-foot monster launch, managed to fall onto the platform and stay there. The Cubs have encased it in a glass box to protect it from the elements and plan to leave it there until the playoffs are over. Think of it as a potent of good luck. Our time has come.

Now, I am going to upset half of Chicago with my unorthodoxy. I can root for the White Sox or the Cubs, and as the White Sox are not in the playoffs—in fact, they had a very mediocre season—I am perfectly happy to cheer on the Cubs. They are the best thing happening in Chicago, at the very time when the former Chicago Public Schools CEO has pleaded guilty in a bribery case for steering a no-bid contract.

You see, I grew up in Cleveland, where we had to suffer with the long-suffering Cleveland Indians, stuck with a name and logo that still brings discomfort to many Native Americans, a team that took a 41-year break in World Series appearances after 1954, when the winningest team in Major League history lost four straight to the New York Giants, who included in their ranks one Willy Mays, who made what is perhaps the most famous catch in Major League history of a Vic Wertz would-be home run ball. Events sometimes foretell destiny. Mays produced one in 1954; Schwarber may well have produced one in 2015.

Coming to a city with two teams, I failed to do what native Chicagoans do between the Cubs and White Sox: pick sides. Instead, I thought, double the chances, double the fun, what a blessing to have two teams in contention. Until I found out that, most years, neither one was in contention. And then there was that foul ball caught by fan Steve Bartman in the 2003 playoffs. He was blamed for the Cubs’ collapse, but really, a team so easily rattled did not deserve to move on. The 2015 Cubs are poised, not rattled, confident, not jittery. They are going to win.

Besides, I am a fan who never had any dreams of being on that field myself. As a child in Little League, I had about a .100 batting average after getting glasses for myopia and astigmatism. I didn’t learn how to compensate for all that until I was an adult and occasionally played intramural softball. One night, laying into a pitch that was just too good to be true, I drove one deep into left field, so far that I was crossing home plate before the other team got the ball back into the infield.

Damn, it felt good. Ever since, I have understood what it feels like to really park one. Even if mine came from an amateur against other amateurs. And I know when a really big home run is an omen of things to come.

And if my sixth sense about the Cubs turns out to be in error? I can always go back to writing about urban planning and disaster recovery. Lord knows, the Cubs have provided some lessons on the latter topic over the years. But not this year. They’re taking the World Series.


Jim Schwab

That Burning Smell Out West

IMG_0224Although plenty of other issues have competed for our attention in recent weeks, astute observers of the news, in the U.S. at least, have probably noticed that wildfires have been charring much of the landscape in western states, most notably along the Pacific Coast. Both California and Washington are struggling under the burden of numerous fires triggered or helped along by prolonged drought and a hot summer. While some may jump to the conclusion that this is another harbinger of climate change, and it may well have some connections to climate change, it is important to know there are other historical factors that are even more significant. We have seen them coming but not done nearly enough to forestall the outcome, which may grow worse in coming years.

Ten years ago, in Planning for Wildfires (PAS Report No. 529/530), Stuart Meck and I noted that, in the 2000 census, the five fastest-growing states all had a high propensity for wildfires. Not much has changed. Texas, which suffered significantly from wildfires during its drought in 2011, made the largest numerical gain in the 2010 census, though it was fifth in percentage gain, behind Nevada (35.1), Arizona (24.6), Utah (23.8), and Idaho (21.1). Of course, many of those people move into larger cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. More to the point, many people continue to move specifically into more rural areas with weaker development restrictions and building codes. As their numbers rise in what fire experts call the wildland-urban interface, the area where the built environment interfaces with fire-prone wildlands, so does human and structural vulnerability to wildfires. Why do people choose to live there? Social scientists, including some who work for the U.S. Forest Service, have been examining this question for at least two decades. We noted that the reasons include a desire for proximity to wildlife, privacy, nature, and the love of a rugged lifestyle.

These desires spawn problems, however, if not accompanied by considerable prudence in both how and where homes are built, as well as in landscape maintenance once a subdivision exists. Firewise Communities, a program of the National Fire Protection Association, has since the late 1990s sought to educate communities and homeowner associations on the realities of life in the wildland-urban interface, including the need for noncombustible roofing materials, eliminating a wildfire pathway to homes and other structures by maintaining a perimeter of “defensible space,” whose radius largely depends on terrain and forest conditions, and other best practices to reduce the impact of wildfires on homes. Still, we live with the legacy of prior development in many areas, and one result is that firefighters are increasingly exposed to lethal risks in trying to protect these homes when wildfire approaches. Every year some lose their lives, 163 over the past 10 years. There is a point where some homeowners must be told that more lives cannot be risked in protecting every remote structure at any cost.

And those costs are rapidly growing. Just 20 years ago, in 1995, the Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget on fire management. That has climbed to 52 percent today, and the trend is ever upward, squeezing a largely static $5 billion budget of funds for other functions. About 90 percent of the firefighting expenses involve protecting houses. It would be a far simpler matter to let some fires burn, or to use prescribed burns to reduce flammable underbrush to prevent or mitigate future fires, if fewer of those houses were in the wildland-urban interface. But part of that fire management expense is for thinning the forest to scale back a problem the Forest Service itself created over the past century, and which modern fire managers have effectively inherited. Put simply, most of the western wildland forest is much denser than it was prior to the 20th century. Not just a little bit denser, but several times denser in many cases. The result is more intensive, longer-burning wildfires in those cases where the Forest Service is unable to suppress the fire at an early stage.

Full-scale suppression, however, is what brought us to this pass. Toward the end of an era Stephen J. Pyne has called the “Great Barbecue” (1870-1920), which saw some of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history starting with the nearly simultaneous ignitions of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which killed about 1,500 people, and the Great Chicago Fire, which had more to do with hot weather and conditions in the lumberyards that processed the products of the upper Midwest forests than with Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, the Forest Service secured its role as the nation’s wildland firefighting service. One can learn more about the Peshtigo firestorm in a great book, Firestorm in Peshtigo, by Denise Gess and William Lutz. That era was drifting toward an end in 1910, when the Big Burn killed 78 people and scarred 3 million acres and a pitched effort to fight them put the Forest Service in the limelight and won it this new role. Timothy Egan tells that story in The Big Burn. But the collective works of Pyne, an Arizona State University environmental historian who has specialized in the history of fire, can deliver more depth than you may ever desire and fill in the blanks between those two episodes and beyond into recent times.

What we have learned is that over time, as the policy of all-out suppression of wildfires took hold in the federal government, the smaller fires that historically and naturally had served to thin the forest were no longer allowed to do their job. The gradual result was a denser, thicker forest that, when it did catch fire, produces far more dangerous fires than ever before. When drought and bark beetle infestations begin to kill some of that dense forest, the result is that there is simply far more kindling than would otherwise be there. Yet, as Forest Service Chief Tim Tidwell notes, the Forest Service currently simply does not have the resources to undertake more than a fraction of the forest restoration work needed to achieve healthier, less fire-prone forests. The problem will only grow worse with a warming climate, of course, but did not arise primarily because of it, but because of past firefighting practices and a more recent history of development in wildland areas. But climate change can be counted on to produce increasing average temperatures that will vary depending on location, but possibly 4 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. California’s Cal-Adapt has been tracking these changes and producing a stream of research and temperature maps that provide significant perspective on the extent of the problem we face moving into the future. It’s a sobering picture we would all do well to consider.


Jim Schwab