Living through California’s fire nightmare

November 19, 2018

Ragina Johnson writes from California on the root causes of the state’s deadliest wildfire — and how it is causing suffering far beyond the areas where the blaze continues to rage.

“RED MOON. Red Moon.”

These were the words of my 18-month-old, describing the sky in the late afternoon on November 8 as we walked out of his day care center. Choking back a deep sadness, I said “Sweetie, that’s the sun. The sky is dark from smoke.”

I tried to not think too hard about the world he is growing up in, and how his little lungs were getting inundated by polluted air from raging fires that had already killed so many people.

That morning, Paradise, a city of 27,000 people just 165 miles northeast of San Francisco, was nearly obliterated by a wildfire.

By the afternoon, the air smelled like a campfire across the Bay Area, and since then, air quality has become worse than anywhere in the world, beyond China and India. Schools are closed and people have been forced to wear respirators. The toxic air has seeped into our workplaces and homes, creating a health crisis.

The Bay Area is enveloped in smoke from the catastrophic Camp Fire
The Bay Area is enveloped in smoke from the catastrophic Camp Fire (Melinda Stuart | flickr)

Evacuated residents of Paradise struggled to find shelter while enduring the noxious polluted air. A vacant Sears department store in Chico has been transformed into a disaster recovery center, and hundreds of people line up every day, hoping for aid in rebuilding their lives.

Others camped out in a dirt lot next to a Walmart in Chico, where a volunteer operation hosted food trucks, clothing and showers for evacuees. But those services were closed down on Sunday afternoon, pressuring fire victims to move on — but to where, many had no idea.

Known as the “Camp Fire” — a name which doesn’t do justice to the wall of destruction and death faced by residents — the wildfire in Northern California has spread to more than 150,000 acres and is only 55 percent contained.

As this article was being written, the death toll is 76, and it hasn’t stopped rising. Nearly 1,300 people are missing.

People are providing DNA in the hopes of finding their loved ones’ remains, and officials are already saying it may be impossible to locate everyone, even though they are searching with teams of cadaver dogs. This is the deadliest fire in California history and the deadliest in the last 100 years nationwide.

IT’S BEEN a deadly two weeks for Californians. Another fire in Southern California — the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, which started at the same time as the Camp Fire — killed three. Some of the evacuees of the Woolsey Fire had just survived a terrorist shooting in Thousand Oaks country bar, and had to flee the fires after attending a memorial.

All the while, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke continued to peddle an ignorant line of argument about the cause of the disaster — building on Donald Trump’s sickening sick tweet about “gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Popular Science and other media outlets refuted the claims about forest management — in fact, the area where the Camp Fire struck was thinned out by controlled burning 10 years ago. Meanwhile, the angry response on social media called out the cause that Trump and Zinke don’t want to talk about: climate change.

A minority of people believe the nonsensical claims of the climate change-denying right wing, but most understand that the increase in deadly fires has everything to do with the warming of the planet.

In California, one chief effect of climate change has been an ongoing cycle of droughts for years now. State authorities say that drought conditions prevail over 85 percent of California, and the coastal regions of central and southern California, from San Luis Obispo County to the U.S.-Mexico border, is in “severe drought.”

Overall, the cycles of drought, then rain, then more heat and drought means any vegetation that grew quickly during the wetter phase turns into starter fuel during the drier one.

Furthermore, climate change has lengthened the fire season. Coupled with the intensely hot Santa Ana winds blowing through California right now, the state has become a tinder box.

ANOTHER SCANDALOUS fact revealed by this disaster is that the people of Paradise, like the fire victims in Santa Rosa last year, didn’t have an effective emergency alert system. Officials decided to use a staggered alert system to avoid road congestion, but the blaze spread too fast, propelled by the 50 mile-per-hour winds.

A shocking report in the Los Angeles Times details how the evacuation orders were sent using a phone system called CodeRed, which covers landlines and cell phone numbers voluntarily submitted by residents. In Paradise, that only included about 25 to 30 percent of residents — many of whom weren’t, in the end, given notice of the fire at all.

Many more residents survived the fire through their own efforts for their families and neighbors, not any state help. Amazingly, a 10-year-old is being credited with organizing a phone tree that alerted neighbors and friends that they needed to evacuate.

Despite these facts, the familiar victim-blaming that comes with every climate disaster — in this case, that residents didn’t listen to state officials and alert system — could be heard in the media.

In some ways, the contrast between the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire show how economic and social inequality plays out in not-so-natural disasters. The image of Hollywood stars hiring personal firefighters to protect their mansions while people burned to death escaping trailer parks is very much a tale of two cities.

Both fires started under similar conditions and were intensified by 50-mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds. But over 12,000 structures burned to the ground in Paradise, while just over 1,000 were destroyed in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.

One major difference is economic. The median income of Paradise is around $30,000, while the Woolsey Fire struck more well-to-do areas.

DEMOCRATIC GOV. Jerry Brown rightly condemned Trump’s insulting talk about forest management and pointed to the reality of climate change that is creating “a new abnormal.”

But Brown’s inaction in stopping the extraction and refinement of fossil fuels in the state has contributed to climate change. Political leaders of both parties have refused to put more resources toward infrastructure that’s needed to prevent disasters and help when they happen, such as Cal Fire.

Meanwhile, Brown bears special responsibility for one awful truth: He has become the state overseer of modern-day slavery in firefighting. As WBUR reported, prisoners now make up nearly 40 percent of California’s firefighters when it comes to wildfires.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection operates over 40 conservation camps statewide that use both children — referred to as “juveniles” — and adults who are nonviolent offenders to battle fires.

Prisoners are paid $1 per hour — but only when fighting active fires. Women prisoner firefighters are paid even less than this! These low wages save the state $100 million per year. And despite their pay, prisoners are given the hardest jobs in the worst conditions.

Brown and the state government are culpable in another way: They have given a pass to Pacific Gas & Electricity (PG&E), which has been at fault in many recent blazes.

Earlier this year, fire investigators found that PG&E’s equipment was responsible for starting at least 16 fires last year, including the 2017 Tubbs Fire that nearly wiped out Santa Rosa and killed 22 people. According to reports, in 11 of the fires, investigators found evidence the company broke state safety laws.

Yet Brown and the California legislature voted to bail PG&E out of $17 billion in fines by allowing the company to pass them on to customers.

And now it’s looking like PG&E will likely be found at fault for helping start the Camp Fire.

A PG&E worker said in an interview with SW that the company’s CEO admitted fault for the Camp Fire at an all-hands company meeting last week:

There was a distribution line failure — one of the small electric lines on wooden poles. These residential lines can’t handle high wind, and the winds got up to 55 miles per hour in Paradise.

The company isn’t answering the question of how it’s hardening its system, so these failures are happening. PG&E puts lots of resources into updating the infrastructure in the Bay Area, because Silicon Valley and tech companies are located there. Outer areas are put on the back burner because they don’t have big capital projects.

This means high-fire areas are less developed. Substations are old. In some places, the equipment is from the 1950s and 1960s. Cheap and dirty is the philosophy of PG&E. This was expected. This isn’t out of the blue. Some of us saw this coming.

The worker, who asked to remain anonymous because of the company’s history of retaliating against whistleblowers, said employees face the brunt of frustration from customers and the public, but workers don’t have control over the situation:

Bad management is making decisions, not the 22,000 employees. The company has used the explosion in San Bruno in 2010 that killed eight people to push back pay raises and benefit increases, and they’re looking for more concessions from workers. We are highly understaffed and overworked. PG&E keeps the grid running for 24 hours, which means everyone works very intense and weird hours.

Safety culture was instituted after San Bruno — this created a speak-out culture in PG&E, but management isn’t using this to increase safety for employees and the community. Instead, they’re using this policy to keep workers in check.

OVER THE last two weeks, my son has viewed many “red moons” during the day.

But he isn’t the only one. All over Northern California, we are seeing red — from the air quality peaking at “very unhealthy,” “dangerous” and “hazardous.”

Our minds and hearts are also seeing red with anger at the priorities of this system that continues to poison and kill us. We feel red in our hearts that tens of thousands of homeless people can’t find shelter, nor masks to protect them from the pollution, as they struggle on sidewalks and in tents, in RVs and cars on the streets, all in the wealthiest state in the US.

We see red with a feeling of disgust at bosses and CEOs that don’t cancel the workday with pay when the air quality is classified as “hazardous” — and instead make people commute to work and, even worse, stay outside in the toxic air, doing heavy labor.

The solutions offered by political leaders — when they offer anything at all — aren’t nearly enough. Their position as representatives of the capitalist class and corporations skew their priorities against the planet and ordinary people.

Solutions will have to come from those of us at the bottom — PG&E workers, firefighters, educators, people fighting homelessness and ordinary people of all kinds enduring climate change that they aren’t responsible for.

For now, we are all taking care of our health and the health of others. Tomorrow, when we can breathe, we need to continue to fight against the madness of this system with solidarity in our hearts.

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