California Inferno: A Disaster Fueled by Capitalism

October 16, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

In the early morning hours of October 9, fires burned across Northern California. These are the deadliest wildfires in California history. As of October 14, more than 38 are confirmed dead and hundreds are still missing. Bodies remain unidentified, “nothing more than ash and bones,” as a Sonoma County official reported. Often the only way to identify the victims is by the serial numbers stamped on artificial joints and other medical devices that were in their bodies. Cadaver-sniffing dogs are being led from house to house in the affected areas.

Extreme conditions—including dry, easterly winds of up to 79 miles per hour and highly combustible land—led the fires to grow rapidly. The flames, at times 100 feet high, jumped over a six-lane highway. The equivalent of a football field was consumed every three seconds. People had only minutes to flee the oncoming flames.

By October 13, the fires had burned more than 300 square miles—an area bigger than the city of Dallas; 5,700 structures have been destroyed; and 90,000 people have been displaced and many have not been allowed to return. The largest school district in Sonoma County has been closed the entire week and it is not clear when it will reopen. Patients were evacuated from at least two hospitals.

Smoke from the North Bay fires blanketed the San Francisco Bay Area Friday, creating the dirtiest air ever recorded by the region’s air monitoring board. In San Francisco, 50 miles from the fires, many people wore masks to filter the air.

As of Saturday morning, the fires are only partly contained. More than 3,000 new evacuations were ordered on Friday night. Officials fear that the fires could intensify over the weekend when strong winds are predicted.

Forest fires are a natural part of the environment of the western U.S., and have been happening since before people lived in this land. But what we see with these fires is a human catastrophe which has been greatly intensified by the system of capitalism, both in how it treats people and how it relates to the environment.

Napa and Sonoma counties, where the fires are centered, are famous as the heart of California’s wine industry and much has been written in the last week about how the fires are affecting the famous wineries and wine production. But there is little information in the press about the immigrants who work in the fields or in the area’s service industry. The Migration Policy Institute reports Napa County has 33,000 immigrants, who make up 23 percent of the county’s population. About three-quarters of the county’s agricultural workers and a third of hospitality workers are immigrants. It is estimated that there are 30,000 undocumented people in Napa and Sonoma combined.

When the fires came, many immigrants, fearful of being deported, avoided shelters and slept outside. A Sonoma County supervisor told the Sacramento Bee that she went to an area where immigrants had gathered after the fire. “I saw dozens of families. There are traumatized. They lost homes. It’s cold out there. But they are afraid they will be targeted by ICE (federal immigrations officials) if they go to shelters.”

The heartless immigration policy and anti-immigrant diatribes from the highest levels of government set the stage for the fear that drives people to sleep in the streets and makes them fearful to seek assistance. Just one week before the fires, ICE rounded up 498 immigrants in raids that targeted cities and counties that had declared sanctuary for the undocumented. On October 6, days before the fires broke out, Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, said that he was targeting California in particular, promising to “conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at work sites” in the state.

There were widespread rumors that immigration officials were conducting raids at shelters. This does not appear to have been true. However, it took four days for ICE to say that they would not be carrying out raids in the fire-affected areas.

On top of all this, the federal government prohibits any aid from being used to meet the needs of undocumented workers.

Climate Change, Unplanned Development, and Wildfires

What are some of the causes of the fires and their intensity?

California had been through five years of extreme drought, which killed many trees and left forests filled with dead trees, making the forests like tinderboxes. This past winter, the drought ended with major rains, which led to an explosion of plant growth, including grasses. This then was followed by an extremely dry and record hot summer, and that plant growth got very dry, adding to the tinder and the extreme fire danger.

The New York Times reported that researchers said that climate change had caused more than half of the dryness of forests in the U.S. West since 1979. Parched landscapes can increase fire size and duration, said a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley.

An article from the Union of Concerned Scientists summarized the data linking climate change and wildfires: “Wildfire seasons (seasons with higher wildfire potential) in the United States are projected to lengthen.... Additionally, wildfires themselves are likely to be more severe.”

Another factor exacerbating the impact of the fire is the extent to which new housing is being constructed in areas where wild land connects to urban areas. Construction in these areas has increased rapidly in recent decades—60 percent of the homes constructed between 1990 and 2000 were built in these areas.

Fountain Grove, a hilltop subdivision of homes in Santa Rosa, many of which are priced at more than $1 million, was heavily damaged by the fires. In 1964, fire swept through this area, but there were no houses then. “Planning scenarios devised in the intervening years have often raised the specter of death and disaster if another blaze were to burn along the same path,” wrote the editor of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Yet these warnings were ignored.

Under capitalism, it is profit and anarchic competition that drives housing construction (and everything else). That is why, despite much damage and loss of lives from wildfires over many years, “land use planning for wildfire has yet to gain traction in practice, particularly in the United States,” as an article in a scientific journal put it.

As this is being written, the fires continue to burn and the lives and homes of thousands remain at risk. Many people are making sacrifices to assist those in need. Disasters bring to the fore what is really important: the lives of people more than property. But that is not how this system works. Instead we see the working of a system that values not people but property and profit.

This is not the best that humanity can do. We need revolution to bring into being a radically different and better system that can serve the interests of humanity.



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