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California Wildfires: Disaster on Top of Disaster



Once again, California is ablaze. Over the last week, wildfires across California have burned more than 1 million acres, or 1,500 square miles. More than 119,000 people have been evacuated, hundreds of homes have been destroyed and at least 6 lives have been lost. Many old-growth coastal redwoods, some of which may be close to 2,000 years old, were damaged or killed.

The fires have gotten worse year after year. The amount of area burned by wildfires in California has increased five-fold since the 1970s. All of the 10 largest fires since records were kept have occurred since 2003. And each of the last few years has been horrendous. 

This is one more expression of the raging global environmental disaster driven by capitalism’s anarchic competition and drive for profit (see the special page Capitalism-Imperialism Is Destroying the Planet... Only Revolution Gives Humanity a Real Chance to Save It). The increase in fires in California comes largely from climate change stemming from this system’s consumption of fossil fuels. As the climate has warmed, fire season in California has increased by 78 days over the last three decades. 

The intensity of these fires is giving rise to new features that make them more destructive. One example of this is the “fire tornado” that was part of the current Loyalton Fire. It produced a smoke plume that towered 30,000 feet high, produced winds over 60 miles per hour and itself produced lightning strikes. The fires are also causing pyrocumulus clouds, which form when the very hot temperatures from the ground quickly warm the air and produce instability that make it dangerous for fire fighters.

These wildfires are happening in the midst of a pandemic, posing further sharp challenges. Due to the threat of COVID, shelters for people escaping the fires cannot hold as many evacuees, and many of those displaced are fearful of the virus in the shelters. N-95 masks, which are needed to prevent the breathing in of small particles released into the air, are in short supply. Firefighters can’t be close to each other when fighting fires and can’t live in communal camps. 

Further, the smoke from the fires will likely impact the spread and damage caused by the virus. “We know that people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are at higher risk for both acquiring Covid-19 and having more severe symptoms if they do become infected,” Dr. Jeanne A. Noble, an emergency medicine doctor and the director of the COVID-19 response at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center’s emergency department, told the New York Times. “Adding smoke inhalation into the mix will further increase the vulnerability of everyone to COVID-19, but particularly for those with respiratory problems.” 

A Spreading Fire and a Fascist Response

In the days before the fire started, California was in the midst of a heat wave. This followed a winter with little rain. In the Central Valley, Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento all broke their all-time heat records for the month of August, reaching temperatures of 111, 112 and 113 degrees. Death Valley hit 130 degrees, which may turn out to be the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet. At the same time, large tropical storms with high levels of moisture were aimed at the state from the Pacific. These combined to produce a rare summer dry lightning storm, which produced 12,000 lightning strikes. The heat, the dryness, and the lightning sparked 585 fires across the state. 

Both the increasing intensity of tropical storms and longer and hotter heat waves have been linked to climate change. 

As of Sunday, August 23, the five largest fires in California were all less than 20% contained. "The worst is not behind us," the chief of Cal Fire, the state's firefighting agency, tweeted. A new round of dry lightning and hot weather is predicted for early this week. On Sunday, parts of Alameda County were evacuated and people in the Berkeley Hills were told to prepare to evacuate “with or without warning.”

All this is taking place BEFORE the regular fire season in California, which usually starts in September and October when Santa Ana winds blow hot air from inland over the forests dried out over the summer.  

As the smoke from the fires expanded, the San Francisco Bay Area had the worst quality air in the world on August 19. Many parts of California had AQI (Air Quality Index) readings of more than 400. Readings between 151 and 200 are considered unhealthy for everyone, anything above 200 is very unhealthy, and over 300 is hazardous. Yet farmworkers were being forced to continue to work in these conditions. There are reports that smoke from the wildfires is reaching Idaho and Colorado.

In the face of the fires, the first response of Trump was to threaten to deny emergency aid to California. His excuse for this was ridiculous—that California didn’t sweep the forest floors and was therefore responsible, even though sweeping the forest is idiocy and more than 50% of California’s forests are controlled by the federal government. Everyone knew that he intended this as punishment for the state whose main elected leaders oppose him. Denying lifesaving aid to a region because its leaders disagree with them is part of the Trump/Pence regime’s fascism. And even though Trump has backed down and offered some aid, his fascist threat still lingers and sets the tone for what is to come if he remains in power.

Drive Out Trump AND Put an End to This System!

The wildfires are one example of the horrors that climate change is bringing at an ever-accelerating rate across the globe. Sea-level rise inundating cities, hundreds of millions driven from their homes by famine and heat, massive extinctions harming the very biodiversity of the planet, and much more. 

Neither climate change nor devastation of the environment began with Trump. They come from the capitalist-imperialist system. But the Trump regime is throwing gasoline on already raging fires. He has packed the government with people who reject science in the name of religion and/or profit and are accelerating changes which pose a threat to the environment and even human existence. 

Human beings on this planet confront unprecedented challenges. Driving the Trump/Pence regime from power would in itself be an immense contribution to the people of the world, would increase the options for humanity at this point in history, and would open up real possibilities for revolution, which is the only solution to the fundamental problems, including the environmental catastrophe, that we are up against on this planet. 

The future is not settled. The protests that Refuse Fascism has called for on September 5 across the country are crucial to seizing on this moment when history is turning. We must draw forward a growing movement of people, ultimately millions, who will not accept a fascist America. 

Trump/Pence Out Now! 


Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires leap above Butts Canyon Road on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, in unincorporated Lake County, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Wildland Fire Map from the San Mateo Fire Department.

New Horrors for California Prisoners

The people in California state prisons, which have already been ravaged by COVID-19, are facing new horrors due to the fires: unbreathable air, unendurable heat, failure to evacuate, and fears that policies due to the fires will lead to a new surge of COVID-related deaths.  

The LNU Complex fire, the largest of the fires, spread within miles of two state prisons—California Medical Facility (CMF) and Solano State Prison. In Los Angeles, a separate fire has grown near the Lancaster State Prison. Despite the prisons’ being inside the evacuation areas, prison officials have refused to evacuate the prisoners. 

“They are breathing in fire and smoke, and they have nowhere to run,” Sophia Murillo, whose brother is incarcerated at CMF in Vacaville, told the Guardian. “Everyone has evacuated but they were left there in prison.” 

The virus has spread across the California prison system, infecting more than 9,700 people and killing 55, due to negligence and criminal policies. Prisoners with COVID-19 have been unable to talk to loved ones. Inmates have reported being reprimanded for wearing face coverings. Prisons remain vastly overcrowded.

At CMF, which imprisons terminally ill people in hospice care and the elderly and medically vulnerable, 80 prisoners had been moved to outdoor medical tents to prevent the spread of COVID. Now these prisoners are being moved back inside because of the fires, increasing the possibility of COVID spread. 

“It’s disaster on top of disaster on top of disaster,” said Kirsten Roehler, whose 78-year-old father is imprisoned in Lancaster, where more than 140 people have contracted COVID and is doing what he can to protect himself from the nearby Lake fire.



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