Capitalism’s burning house: California wildfires put system on trial

By all measures, 2018 was the most devastating year for wildfires in California’s recorded history. Some 8,527 different fires burned over 1,893,913 acres throughout the state, causing billions of dollars of damage, and leading to over a hundred fatalities and thousands of destroyed homes. The Mendocino Complex fire of July was the largest fire in California history, and the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California in November was the deadliest. Degraded air quality led to public health emergencies in the state’s two largest population centers. According to air quality indices, the Bay Area was for weeks the most difficult place on the planet for human beings to try to breathe; Los Angeles County was menaced by radioactive smoke from the wildfire that burned through a nuclear waste site in Simi Valley.

The physical toll of California’s fires has been borne almost exclusively by poor and working people. Workers unable to take off of work or temporarily relocate were exposed to poisonous air, day after day. Farm workers, construction workers and people performing low wage work outdoors during the fire season  were subjected to punishing conditions far beyond the occupational health hazards they regularly face. California’s enormous homeless population, unable to shelter indoors, was perpetually at risk. Undocumented migrants living in the state were unable to access government aid for fear of deportation. While media fixated on political football between the Trump White House and the California Democratic establishment, ordinary Californians were confronted with the cruel reality that neither state nor federal government agencies were able to protect them from the statewide inferno.

The 24 hour news cycle escorted the California wildfires and their mismanagement out of the public view almost as soon as the last sparks had been put out. However, a recent report from the Los Angeles Fire Department has thrown into relief the massive scale of the negligence and criminality involved in the response to the wildfires. According to the LAFD’s April review paper,  leading California politicians hampered the firefighting efforts in November by overwhelming the department with requests to check on and ensure the protection of their private homes. As the fires burned through over 1,600 homes and buildings in the county area, scarce resources were devoted to those with connections and power. “Living in the city of L.A. … we have to understand we probably have some of the wealthiest communities in America, and with that comes a certain amount of political power,” said Assistant Chief Tim Ernst to the Associated Press, revealing criminal abuse of power at the very top of the government’s response to the wildfires.

2018 was certainly unprecedented. But it was not unexpected. While wildfires are a perennial part of California ecology, scientists had already observed that the contemporary fire season has grown 78 days longer than it was in 1970, affecting twice as much land in the state. Knock-on effects from climate change are well-understood to spur wildfires. Drier, hotter conditions in a state coming out of one of its longest periods of drought, caused an insect species known as the Mountain Pine Beetle to multiply. Mountain Pine Beetles weaken and eventually kill healthy trees, more susceptible to death anyway because of increased temperatures. Dead and dying trees burned far more easily than living ones. While this ecological crisis has been somewhat mitigated with the most recent cycle of drought ending, forestry officials counted over 18 million dead trees in the state – a giant tinderbox vulnerable to human negligence.

Understanding the problem is not enough

Recognizing the precariousness of the situation is one thing; being able to meaningfully redress it is another altogether. By July 2018, scientists were predicting an annual worsening of the wildfire situation due to global warming. Forestry experts and ecological engineers can diagnose the threat of wildfires with impressive precision and advocate for responsible individual practices, but an economy based entirely around manic pursuit of quick profits will continue to let fossil fuel industries and militarism run rampant, leading to devastating climatic shifts that make uncontrollable wildfire practically inevitable. California, despite its liberal self-branding as a “green” and “environmentally conscious” state, remains a hub for military contractors and the energy industry – the two biggest culprits in climate change. The state is simply reaping what it sows, when it comes to wildfires.

This is the base reality. But in California, private profit-seeking threatens public safety in even more complex and violent ways. It is now accepted that the Camp Fire that killed 85 people in Paradise was started by a collapsed power line owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the state’s largest private utility provider. Outdated, decrepit power lines are endemic to PG&E, with the company choosing to fix lines only once problems arise, as opposed to proactively performing risk-assessment and electric tower replacement, which would eat into profits of shareholders and executives. No one was truly surprised by the disaster that this greed has caused – half out of the last ten-most destructive California fires since 2015 have linked back to the PG&E grid. The company is currently in the process of filing for bankruptcy from lawsuits that name it liable for the damages caused by the Camp Fire. But victims have no idea when, if ever, they will be compensated. PG&E’s CEO, Geisha Williams, recently walked away from the company with her $8.5 million yearly salary.

The circumstances of the Woolsey Fire affecting Los Angeles and Ventura counties are perhaps even more scandalous in terms of corporate corruption and gross negligence. The Woolsey Fire began on the same day as the Camp Fire, in an area known as the Santa Susana Research Laboratory. This is a now-defunct joint Department of Energy, NASA, and Boeing-run facility for the development of nuclear energy and jet propulsion that operated throughout the 1950s and 1960s which has since been cordoned off as a public safety hazard. Radioactive waste from an incomplete cleanup still covers many acres surrounding the lab. Reports of uncontrolled runoff have been widely circulated.

A protracted legal battle has been waged to try to get the aerospace and military defense contractor, Boeing, to fulfill its legal responsibility by cleaning up the site. But the company has dragged its feet in attempt to try to shift cleanup costs onto the public. Having grossed over a hundred billion in revenues for 2018, Boeing was still trying to allay cleanup costs when the Woolsey Fire began. The Los Angeles branch of Physicians for Social Responsibility has warned for many years of the dangers of run-off and ground contamination. PSR-LA was one of the few organizations  to raise immediate alarm over the prospect of burning brush and soil laden with harmful radioactive materials. Airborne radioactive smoke is of course an extreme public health crisis for all of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, but shockingly little attention was paid to this prospect when the Woolsey Fire broke out. Media instead fixated on the burning estates of the super-rich in Malibu and the apocalyptic novelty of for-hire private firefighters dispatched to celebrity mansions. Couple this with the images of incarcerated men, women, and minors paid a dollar a day to fight the same wildfires, without the chance of working in a fire department after release, and one has a truly dystopian vision of 21st century capitalism.

Chronic deficiencies in the capitalist state’s disaster planning

Aside from shocking corruption and malfeasance, the 2018 wildfires showcased chronic deficiencies in the capitalist state’s disaster planning. Wildfires in the U.S. are fought by local municipalities, state governments, and the federal Forest Service, working in cooperation. The Forest Service’s annual budget has been slashed every year since 2016, with wildland fire research glaringly underfunded. This federal agency has also been forced to cut its large air tanker fleet and to decommission almost half of its contractual planes in recent years.

California fared hardly better at the state level. By midsummer, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, had all but depleted its annual budget, spending $432 million in the summer months alone. The previous year the state had only budgeted $427 million for fire prevention. More disconcerting still, Cal Fire suffered from acute staffing shortages at the peak of the wildfire season, forcing it to ground six of its 22 firefighting planes due to lack of pilots trained to fly them. Aerial firefighting, so critical for containing wildfires, was not given the requisite resources by the state. Cal Fire deems it too expensive to own and operate what are classed as “Very Large Air Tankers” – crucial for the largest wildfires. These aircraft are instead rented from private companies, usually based out-of-state, on Call-When-Needed or Exclusive Use Contracts, complicating rapid deployment. This penny-pinching approach to public safety essentially relegates aerial firefighting to anarchic market forces, with a whole host of companies hawking competing tankers to state and federal agencies. The result has been total lack of consensus as to what types of aircraft are best deployed across the state’s varied topography, with for-profit companies jostling to pitch their different products to underfunded state agencies.

Disaster preparedness should not look like this. Socialist nations like Cuba have shown the superiority of centralized research and planning coupled with full-scale societal organization in averting environmental  catastrophes. No Californian should accept the excuse that there are insufficient funds for managing wildfires. While the Pentagon has sequestered literally trillions of dollars from the public purse by to develop the F-35 fighter jet, the state lacks a fleet of effective planes to save lives in California. We need to fight for a socialist system where science and technology can actually be used in defense of public health. Until then, California will remain emblematic of a global capitalist menace that cannot put out its own fires.

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