Cue Disaster, Cut to Schwarzenegger

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William Foster / Sipa

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gives a press conference after touring the Lake Arrowhead fire zone

It's hard not to conclude, at this point, that Somebody Up There is a Schwarzenegger fan. How else does a muscle-bound guy with a heavy accent become a major movie star and then governor of Cauleeforneeah? And now, with wildfires raging from Simi Valley to San Diego, Someone dials down the wind and cranks up the humidity just in time to hand Arnold another triumph.

The California Governor is drawing praise from across the political spectrum for his leadership as the fire emergency forced the largest evacuation in the state's history. An early critic of the state's fire response, Orange County fire chief Chip Prather, had nothing but accolades for Schwarzenegger on Wednesday. His "personal attention" to firefighters battling the blazes "is inspiring — knowing the guy at the top is there with them," Prather said at a news conference near Los Angeles.

California's National Guard Commander Maj. Gen. William Wade extolled the "coordination and cooperation" in the Schwarzenegger-led effort. L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said the fires were a reminder that "this state requires the gubernatorial leadership that you provide."

But the most striking testimonial may have been the one delivered by Senator Barbara Boxer, one of the Senate's most liberal members. She said she had feared that the war in Iraq left the National Guard so depleted that California would be unable to handle the disaster. But "the Governor's swift action" in pulling guard members away from a mission to patrol the border assured that sufficient boots were very quickly on the ground, the Senator allowed. It's not every day a Republican gets a shout-out from Boxer.

Things might have been different if the harsh, hot Santa Ana had kept blowing at gale force, because the inferno came close to pushing Schwarzenegger's system to the breaking point. Last May, a Los Angeles Times investigation found a number of unfilled gaps in the state's firefighting capacity, despite the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission set up in the wake of disastrous fires in 2003. Big-ticket items, like more manpower and trucks, new communications systems and a modern fleet of water-dumping helicopters and planes, went unfunded by the legislature and the Schwarzenegger administration.

But if it's true that the Governor was lucky, it's also true that luck favors the well-prepared. Schwarzenegger was able to move those National Guard troops quickly because he had a plan in place to redeploy them in an emergency. The obvious competence of the emergency response — in stark contrast to the debacle of Hurricane Katrina — was the product of years of training, planning and drills.

And the Governor was ready for his close-up. He had planned to be with his wife, Maria Shriver, at a major conference on women's issues sponsored by his office, but when the emergency escalated, he rushed to the front lines with camera crews in tow. With squinting eyes and frowny mouth, he greeted firefighters and surveyed the ruins of incinerated homes. Schwarzenegger explained his philosophy of being a Governor with his customary candor in a message beamed by satellite to the 14,000 conference-goers back in Long Beach. "The most important thing is you jump into action as quickly as possible," he said. The public needs to see "that you are a hands-on Governor," that you "take care of the firefighters" and feel the pain of people who have lost their homes.

Martin Kaplan, a former Democratic strategist and speechwriter who now directs the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, says Schwarzenegger has been on local television almost constantly, projecting calm and reassurance. Kaplan's daughter attended the women's conference, he said, and she heard widespread murmurs of approval when the Governor explained his thinking. "I'm also struck by his focus on the human dimensions of the disaster," Kaplan said. "He steers clear of the bureaucracy and lasers in on the personal."

With weather forecasters calling for moist ocean breezes on Thursday to further dampen the fires, and hundreds of thousands of Californians returning to their homes, Schwarzenegger's crisis appears to be ending the way many of his movies wrapped up: with a lot of smoke and wreckage, but with the hero stronger than ever. This is one time, however, that Arnold would prefer not to star in a sequel.