Deadly Butte County fire finally contained

NASA map of damage to Paradise, California, from the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the state's history. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA map of damage to Paradise, California, from the “Camp Fire,” the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

As of November 26, the blaze dubbed by the media as the “Camp Fire” continues to burn in Butte County, California despite being 100 percent contained, having charred over 153,000 acres since it began on November 8. The fire, which is the most destructive in the state’s history, has destroyed over 14,000 structures, including homes and businesses, and has left the 27,000 person town of Paradise in complete ruins.

Residents of the town of Paradise had little time to evacuate, with many forced to abandon their homes and vehicles as the fire drew closer. Residents recounted to media their stories of survival, with many recalling escaping down smoke-filled roads as flaming debris fell on their cars, the fire raging on either side. Horrifying images on social media showed desperate attempts to flee what has been described as a firestorm.

The fire is the deadliest in the state’s history, having killed a confirmed 85 people, with the death toll still expected to rise in the coming days. Over 300 remain missing, down from a high of more than 1,000 after people were reported found in shelters and removed from the list. An estimated 300,000 residents remain displaced, as informal tent cities have been established outside hotels, motels, and fast food parking lots while cadaver dogs scour the remnants of burned-out cars and structures.

But fire hasn’t been the only killer in Butte County. On November 15, 48-year old GD Hendrix of nearby Berry Creek was killed after going on a high speed chase with Butte County Sheriff’s that ended in a hail of gunfire. Hendrix, like many displaced by the fire, had been living out of his car in a local parking lot when he was reported as “suspicious.” Recently released dashcam video of the end of the chase shows Hendrix raise his arms with what later turned out to be a metal pipe. Although the incident remains under investigation, as with all police killings, it is unlikely that the deputies involved will see any consequences.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

According to CAL FIRE, the state’s firefighting agency, the fire is now approximately 100 percent contained.

Over 5,400 CAL FIRE personnel were deployed to suppress the Butte County Fire. Statewide, an estimated 3,400 state prison inmates work alongside these firefighters for an average of $1 per day fighting fires in what former candidate for Lt. Governor Gayle McLaughlin has likened to “slave labor” conditions.

An estimated 1,500 inmates were involved in actively fighting the most recent Butte County Fire. They protected homes and lives for sub-minimal wages alongside “real” firefighters that society is sure to later recognize as heroes. Although their contributions often go overlooked, it is clear that these prisoners are a vital aspect of containing California’s wildfires. Prisoners continue to be used as a way to handle natural disasters in the cheapest way possible; a tactic long used by capitalist governments to exploit the incarcerated.

Whether it is fighting fires, digging canals and ditches, or manufacturing goods behind bars for corporations, prison labor is highly profitable. Incarcerated firefighters deserve humane working conditions, a living wage and the same benefits that any professional firefighter would receive. Their heroic efforts should be recognized along with all of those that fought to stop the spread of California’s deadliest recorded fire.

Currently, federal labor laws do not protect incarcerated workers or most farm workers, making it necessary to stand up for the people who many times are forced by necessity to work in life risking conditions.

Smoke covers Northern California

As the “Camp Fire” continued to blaze in recent weeks, surrounding cities throughout the Northern portion of the state, including the capital city of Sacramento as well as the Central Valley and Bay Area, experienced the effects of hazardous air quality from the smoke.

With the Butte County Fire alone being the most devastating and deadliest fire, many in surrounding cities tried their best to avoid the dangers of the air quality by remaining indoors, while many were forced to breath the clouds of toxic smoke drifting in from the north.

When the smoke began to blanket the City of Trees, at the City of Sacramento’s request local fire stations began handing out respiratory masks free of charge. However, people were still highly recommended to stay indoors as much as possible. Part of the reason for this caution was the limited effectiveness of the N-95 masks that were meant to be worn for short periods of time and did not work for those with significant facial hair. For two weeks, residents risked severe respiratory problems by simply walking their dog or checking their mail. At its height, the smoke gave those exposed to it for even a few seconds a light head, itchy throat, and caused coughing or sneezing.

Schools impacted

In the Sacramento area, the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District as well as Sacramento State, UC Davis and the Los Rios Community College District all cancelled classes in the week following the fire. The following week most schools were scheduled to have time off for holidays and are normally closed although an advisory was put out that campuses would remain closed until at least November 21.

On November 26, all campuses had reopened and the air quality had improved significantly with no sign of smoke remaining.

The system is toxic

Devastating fires have become too common in California, and as fire crews continue to make progress towards containment, it is also necessary to continue the fight for workers and oppressed people often forgotten during natural disasters.

While many have avoided the outdoors in most Northern California cities, others unfortunately were not able to. Some workers, such as farm workers, were forced to work in these dangerous conditions regardless of natural disasters. Farm workers are an integral part to California’s agricultural industry and it is their backbreaking labor that puts fruits and vegetables on tables around the world. They continue to fight against unfair wages, wage theft and unhealthy work conditions. Even after the smoke clears, they will once again be forced to breathe toxic pesticides for long hours with few breaks. The land owners have shown once again that they are more concerned about the smoke’s impact on their crop yield than the devastating health impact on their workers.

PG&E is guilty

Although the official cause of the blaze remains under investigation, speculation continues to mount that electric utility company Pacific Gas & Electric was responsible for sparking the fire. According to KCRA 3 News, an NBC affiliate station broadcasting in Sacramento, PG&E reported to the California Public Utilities Commission that their 115 kV transmission line went down in the vicinity of the start of the fire.

Lawsuits are beginning to mount against PG&E, alleging “pretty overwhelming” evidence of the utility company’s culpability, according to an attorney for a group of the victims quoted by CNBC News. Lawyers from the Bay Area are filing a lawsuit on behalf of the victims of the Butte County Fire against the company, saying that the Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation has been negligent in its job to monitor overhead power lines and look for obstructions, malfunctions, or anything that could potentially endanger residents in the surrounding areas. PG&E actually had sent an email to Betsy Ann Cowley, a Paradise resident, the day before the fire,
saying that the company was soon going to work on a power line that ran through her property. Crowley states that while talking with the company, they had mentioned that they were having problems with “sparks,” although PG&E now denies this.

While the cause of the fire is yet to be officially determined, this wouldn’t be the first time PG&E would be to blame for preventable fire outbreaks. The fire comes on the heels of some of the most destructive wildfires to date, including the Carr Fire in Redding, the Klamathon Fire in Siskiyou County, and the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. News outlets reported that PG&E-owned electrical equipment, including power lines and poles, were responsible for 17 out of 21 major fires in Northern California in Fall of 2017. Less than a year before raising its customers’ bills by 11.5% in January 2017 (and thus receiving more money), PG&E was also convicted of not following safety regulations on a natural gas pipeline, which lead to a pipeline explosion in San Bruno, killing eight people.

The utility’s stock price has plummeted by half in the wake of the fire, indicating Wall Street investors are similarly worried about the financial liability that may be borne on the utility. If found liable, it is likely that the utility company will try to get bailed out using our tax dollars. Californians must stand united to reject any bailout of PG&E. Only time will tell of PG&E will face justice or continue getting away with undeserving their communities.

Socialism: the only way forward

Anthropogenic climate change, for which just a handful of multi-national corporations are responsible, is thought to be one of the primary drivers in the increase of the destructiveness of California wildfires. Multinational corporations — and their predatory, destructive activities that are to the detriment of the health and welfare of all living creatures — are given free reign by neoliberal capitalist entities such as the United States and the European Union, as well as by international finance institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In its latest assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that humanity only has 12 years to take unprecedented collective action in order to prevent mass species extinctions, ocean acidification, billions of displaced people, rising sea levels and other attendant consequences resulting from severe warming. Of course, the only way this can be achieved is to transition to socialism, which would reorganize society on a sustainable path rather than putting profits above all else.

Large corporations like PG&E will continue to get away with the killing of people and the burning of property until they are held accountable for their crimes. Instead of accountability, PG&E is able to enter into endless lawsuits that end with them paying fines that amount to a fraction of their billions in yearly profits. The people of California need a system that provides gas and electricity to all residents as a right. Heating and housing are a right, not a privilege. Utilities for all!

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