Among the Ruins

As the smoke clears in California, Americans are once again heroes--and agents--of a crisis

Amanda Friedman for TIME

A burned car in a burned neighborhood in Escondido, California. The owner's insurance-policy number is painted on the door.

It's not often that much of a state is hot to the touch. But that's the case this week in Southern California, as the last of the wildfires that burned more than 500,000 acres (about 200,000 hectares) wink out. Even as the blackened landscape still smokes and pops, the nation is sorting through the equal measures of heroism and folly that accompany such disasters.

There is the army of firefighters and other personnel who waded into the flames and slowly beat them back. There is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, adept at both crisis management and showmanship, who moved fast, stayed visible and received a general's...

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