Oregon is reeling from devastation caused by over 30 wildfires that have collectively burned nearly one million acres of land in the state. As a result, 500,000 residents — over 10 percent of Oregon’s population — have been forced to flee for their lives as the fires approach their homes.
While wildfires in general are not an uncommon occurrence in the state, the scale of this crisis is unmatched. Oregon’s governor Kate Brown warned that “This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state’s history.” And a spokesperson for the state Office of Emergency Management remarked that she “can’t even fathom what’s happening”.
Portland, the largest city in Oregon and home to about 15 percent of its population, is now seriously threatened. Two of the largest fires burning in the state are about to converge — the Riverside Fire in Clackamas County and the Beachie Creek Fire in Marion County. Both counties border Portland.
Western U.S. in flames, workers hit hardest
Conditions caused by climate change have contributed greatly to not only a historic outbreak of wildfires in Oregon, but devastation across the western United States. As Liberation News reported Sept. 10:
“The majority of fires were triggered by a rare weather anomaly. A tropical cyclone off the California coast clashed with a prolonged heatwave, causing an atmospheric disturbance and over 11,000 dry lightning strikes within 72 hours beginning on the night of Aug. 18. This came while the state is in a drought with vegetation prime to ignite. The frequency and severity of tropical cyclones and heat waves in the region is growing with climate change making a repeat of this weather anomaly likely. Currently, there are 89 large fires burning throughout the western United States.”
Natural disasters of all types bring to the fore the deep inequalities of the capitalist system. Already, large numbers of people in Oregon and in many other states have had their homes destroyed by the wildfires. This compounds the grave threat posed by the Coronavirus pandemic. Quarantining and social distancing becomes next to impossible without a home.
People with the resources to secure alternative housing can get out of harm’s way faster and more easily. For workers living paycheck to paycheck or without reliable means of transportation, the pressure to stay in a dangerous area can be immense. As hazardous smoke from the fires approach, the more deeply oppressed layers of the working class don’t have the option of staying home and missing a day of work.
The Oregon wildfires are a clear example of how a profit-driven society is incompatible with the preservation of human life. A socialist system that prioritizes the needs of the people and the planet would be able to carry out swift evacuations in which everyone is accounted for. When housing and other essentials of life are treated as rights and not luxuries, displacement does not automatically mean destitution. And the underlying, existential threat facing the planet — climate change — could be tackled in a coordinated and planned way that sweeps away the oil & gas industry and all other corporations that profit off of the destruction of the environment.