California wildfires inflame class division

A crew of inmate firefighters take a break. | Photo: AFP/Getty Images

By Chris Fry

From a Nov. 4 article in the Los Angeles Times:

First, zoom out from the flames. Show the neighborhood where wealthy homeowners, having fled themselves, have inexplicably forgotten to warn their domestic workers not to come in. Pan over the hill that those workers, largely Latina women, must climb from the bus stop.

Give us a closeup of these women’s faces, so that we might understand why, when everyone else is fleeing for their lives, they walk up the hill toward the flames, fearing that they’ll lose their jobs if they don’t show up, fretting over the day’s pay, the night’s dinner, the month’s rent. Show us the homeowners safe in their hotel rooms and the safety net with the enormous holes in it that immigrants and people of color always seem to fall through.

Apparently, the worst part of the wildfire “season” of 2019 is over, but it did leave a path of death and devastation in California both north and south. The government website states that nearly 200,000 acres were burned, with three persons killed and 732 buildings destroyed. The website describes the last three years’ fiery destruction and its roots:

California experienced the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in its history in 2017 and 2018. Fueled by drought, an unprecedented buildup of dry vegetation and extreme winds, the size and intensity of these wildfires caused the loss of more than 100 lives, destroyed thousands of homes and exposed millions of urban and rural Californians to unhealthy air. While wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year. Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire. The length of the fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state.

This year on Oct. 14, 26 million people were placed under a “red flag” warning, to be ready to flee their homes at a moment’s notice.

In 2018, 92 people were killed with 23,145 structures destroyed. In 2017, 44 persons were killed with 11,643 structures destroyed. As the California website states, all of these terrible catastrophes can be traced to climate change, spawned by the capitalist system that puts profit ahead of the environment and the welfare of the people.

Role of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) – payoffs to the rich; shutoffs for the workers

KTVU reported in Oct. 2018 that more than 400 wildfires in California were sparked by PG&E that year. Executives at the utility this year, joined by Southern California Edison, decided to implement waves of electric shutoffs affecting millions of people across the northern part of the state. An article in the Intercept states:

The decision to shut off the electricity services, a precaution over concerns about high winds, raises the question of precisely how PG&E has been spending its rate-payers’ money. And the answer isn’t pretty: While neglecting safety upgrades and investments in its aging infrastructure, PG&E has instead been lavishly rewarding shareholders and buying political influence.

These shutoffs, which affected more than a million people across northern and central California, created havoc among hundreds of communities. An Associated Press article graphicly describe the terrible effects that a two-day PG&E shutoff had on a community of disabled seniors:

One woman in her 80s tripped over another resident who had fallen on the landing in a steep stairwell. Others got disoriented, even in their own apartments, and cried out for help.

At least 20 seniors with wheelchairs and walkers were essentially trapped, in the dark, in a low-income apartment complex in Northern California during a two-day power shut-off aimed at warding off wildfires.

“We were surprised by how dark it was,” said Pamela Zuzak, 70, who uses a walker to get around. “There was nothing, nothing lit. It was like going into a darkroom closet, pitch black, you couldn’t see in front of you.”

Prison firefighters: slaves of the state and wage slaves of big business risk their lives and health

An article from Fortune magazine stated:

As multiple deadly wildfires in California, stoked by dry weather and 65 MPH winds, threaten to destroy thousands of homes across the state, 2,150 prison inmates are battling on the front lines to tame the flames. 

The prisoners earn between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, plus an additional $1 per hour during active emergency for their potentially life-threatening efforts. The firefighters they work alongside earn an average of $91,000 each year before overtime pay and bonuses. 

When progressive activists suggested that all minimum-security prisoners should receive the same time off as these brave firefighters risk their lives for, former California Attorney General and current presidential candidate Kamala Harris provided the cruel answer in a court statement in 2014:

“Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought,” the Attorney General’s office, then led by Senator and 2020 candidate Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wrote. “The extension of 2-for-1 credits to all [minimum security facility] inmates would likely make fire camp beds even more difficult to fill, as low-level, non-violent inmates would choose to participate in the [Minimum Support Facility] program rather than endure strenuous physical activities and risk injury in fire camps.”

This year, as the fire hit wine country in the Sonoma Valley, thousands of farmworkers were forced to harvest the grapes through dense smoke.

Private firefighters for the rich; fire insurance cutoffs for the workers

From their gated mansions, the rich in California hired private firms to add firefighters to the state and local forces:

You can now add fire fighting to the list of the ways that the wealthy are different from the rest of the world.

The rich are not fighting their own fires, for the most part. But they are hiring private firms to supplement the firefighters provided by state and local governments.

But for the workers fortunate enough to own their homes in this very expensive state, giant insurance companies have added a tremendous burden to these families’ finances. After three years of terrible wildfires, an article in the Wall Street Journal reports that thousands of people have lost their home insurance coverages. Others have found tremendous increases in their premium prices:

Kelly McKenzie and her husband moved from San Francisco to Grass Valley, Calif., last year and bought a five-bedroom home. They paid $2,350 for an annual home insurance policy.

“Nobody said, ‘Don’t live there, it’s going to become a nightmare to insure,’” she said.

They received a non-renewal notice from their insurer earlier this year. After shopping around, Ms. McKenzie got an insurance quote for $18,000.

Racist misogynist bigot Boss Trump: “Stop the aid!”

Showing his complete contempt for the workers and oppressed who live in California, on Nov. 4, Trump tweeted:

“Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing-and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help,” Trump said. “No more. Get your act together Governor. You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states.”

In fact, the state of California owns only about 3 percent of forest land, while the federal government owns more than 50 percent, the rest being privately held.  Governor Newsom issued a statement saying the U.S. Forest Service has twice this year reduced its forest management targets on its land in the state. Trump’s 2020 budget calls for more cuts in the hazardous fuels’ reduction account, Newsom added.

The wildfires are indeed a “natural” disaster. But the fact that they are gaining in both intensity and length of time is not. This must be laid at the doorstep of the giant corporations and their political and military minions that, in their greed, pour millions of tons of fossil fuel carbon emissions in the air every year.

And it is no more “natural” that it is the workers and oppressed who suffer the terrible losses of life and property from these catastrophic fires while the rich are safely sheltered counting their stolen wealth.

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