What fueled the inferno?

October 20, 2017

Ragina Johnson and Nicole Colson describe the man-made backdrop to the deadly fires that caused terrible destruction across wide areas in Northern California.

THE DEADLIEST wildfires in the state's history ripped through large areas in Northern California this month, terrorizing residents, causing mass evacuations, and leaving behind catastrophic destruction.

Described as a "hurricane of fire," the web of interconnected blazes, centered primarily in Napa and Sonoma Counties, north of the Bay Area, had killed at least 41 people--many of them elderly residents who could not escape--and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate as this article was being written.

The wildfires have burned more than 220,000 acres across wine country, but what distinguished this disaster from others is that the flames didn't stay in the "wild." Hot winds whipped the fires back and forth, sending them a mile or more into urban and suburban areas. At least 6,700 homes and business have been destroyed, with an estimated loss of at least $3 billion.

While the exact causes for the blazes aren't yet known, and may not be for years, if ever, we do know that the scale of the devastation was unquestionably magnified by man-made factors like climate change and exacerbated by things like poorly maintained infrastructure.

An entire neighborhood in the city of Santa Rosa was wiped out by the California fires
An entire neighborhood in the city of Santa Rosa was wiped out by the California fires

And as is the case with all "natural" disasters--from Hurricane Katrina to the more recent Hurricanes Harvey and Maria--the devastation isn't hitting everyone equally. Poor and working-class families--especially undocumented immigrant workers who make up a large portion of the agricultural workforce in wine country--will face an uphill battle to rebuild their lives.

MUCH OF Santa Rosa has been reduced to ash and debris, leaving a city only 50 miles north of San Francisco looking like it was flattened by continuous bombardment.

News reports have shown cadaver dogs sniffing through the ashes to find human remains, and almost 3,000 buildings are gone. Sheriff Rob Giordano told the Los Angeles Times, "I don't even think I understand what the damage toll is going to be, and I have a better handle on it than most...Santa Rosa will be a different planet."

According to Cal Fire, full containment of the Northern California blazes was still days away as this article was being written, so a complete tally of the catastrophe is far from known. We do know, however, that thousands of lives have been thrown into crisis, with many families losing everything.

The fires traveled so quickly that many residents had to flee with just the shirts on their backs. In some cases, they were forced to drive down roads with 40-foot walls of flame chasing them.

In several instances, evacuations were made more difficult by roads that were unsafe or made impassable, forcing people to set out on foot and hike through the hills. Others had to jump into swimming pools in a desperate attempt to survive as a wall of fire engulfed them. Seventy-six-year-old Armando Berriz and his wife of 55 years Carmen took shelter in a pool; he held her in his arms as she died.

Of the tens of thousands of people who evacuated, large numbers will be homeless, especially if they didn't own their homes. Even many homeowners, however, won't have the financial means to help get them through this crisis.

Although the image conjured up in the media of "wine country" is of well-to-do residents, some of the communities hardest hit are primarily working class and immigrant--like Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood that sustained some of the worst losses.

According to the New York Times, some one-fifth of Santa Rosa metropolitan residents are foreign-born, and immigrants make up a majority of those employed by the wine industry and the resorts and upscale restaurants that attract tourists. And yet, as the Times noted, "Sonoma County also has some of the highest rents in the country, at par with the San Francisco Bay Area."

The most vulnerable members of the working class, undocumented immigrants, face an especially tough road ahead. Although these workers make up the backbone of the local labor force, they can't get disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other government agencies--and can't receive unemployment or welfare benefits.

Manuel Vieyra, an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager, had been paying $1,650 a month to rent a three-bedroom house for his family. Although they narrowly escaped when the house burned, the family lost almost everything--including the cars they depended on to get to their jobs.

They are now finding it difficult to find a place to live. "[Landlords are] asking $2,000, even $2,800 a month," Vieyra told the Times. "I don't know what we'll do."

Vieyra and his family are currently staying with friends--because they are too scared to stay in one of the shelters, due to Manuel and his wife's status as undocumented immigrants. While politicians claim that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is not going to be conducting raids in areas impacted by the fires, the record of the Trump administration in pursuing the undocumented has made many wary of such promises.

IN A similar fashion to the recent hurricanes that caused devastation for working people in Houston, Miami and Puerto Rico, the Northern California fires have exposed the reality that, even in the wealthiest state in the U.S., the resources allocated for dealing with such disasters are woefully inadequate.

As of October 14, hundreds of evacuees were still taking refuge in the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, sleeping in a pavilion crowded with cots. "There is no way of knowing where people go," Rob Brown, a Lake County supervisor, told SFGate.com. "You'd be surprised how self-reliant people become. People appreciate having a place to go, but after two or three weeks sleeping on a cot they will find another alternative."

But that begs the question: Why, in the richest state in the richest country on the planet, should people who have lost everything be expected to be "self-reliant" or spend weeks sleeping on a cot?

Then there is the outrageous truth about the firefighters who combat California's seasonal wildfires. Some 40 percent are actually prison inmates who don't even make the state minimum wage paid to Cal Fire crews. When prisoners fight fires, they are working for just $1 an hour.

La'Sonya Edwards, an inmate who fights fires in the Southern part of the state, told the New York Times in August: "The pay is ridiculous. There are some days we are worn down to the core. And this isn't that different from slave conditions."

Changes in sentencing designed to decrease prison overcrowding have led, incredibly enough, to the "problem"--as the San Francisco Chronicle described it back in September--of the state "heading into the height of this year's fire season with a drop in the number of what one official called 'the Marines' of wildfire fighters" because "not enough inmates are joining up."

The lack of public resources to deal with fires--including the absence of an adequate emergency alert system, as well as infrastructure upkeep--is what made the situation that preceded the fires more deadly and destructive.

As officials search for a cause, there is speculation that downed power lines may have sparked the initial blazes. Records show that Sonoma emergency dispatchers sent fire crews to at least 10 reports of downed power lines and exploding transformers at the time the fires were first reported.

The electrical utility PG&E claims these downed lines were the result of "hurricane strength," 75-mile-per-hour winds. But according to the Mercury News, weather station records show that "wind speeds were only about half that level as the lines started to come down"--suggesting that lack of maintenance was a likelier culprit.

Other human factors--which officials had years of prior warning about--also likely added to the horror.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Napa, Sonoma and Butte Counties--three of those hardest hit--were warned years ago about improperly maintained roads and staffing that could compound such emergency situations. A 2013 civil grand jury report in Sonoma, for example, warned that because of neglect and underfunding, many rural roads had "deteriorated to a crisis condition" and could "hamper emergency response, evacuation, medical care, and fire response efforts."

Lack of aggressive fire regulations in building construction also added to the destruction. As the Los Angeles Times reported, one of the reasons that the destruction in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park was so severe was because it was considered outside of the "very severe" fire hazard zone just five miles away--meaning the buildings in the area were exempt from regulations designed to make structures more fire resistant.

REGARDLESS OF what sparked the fires or created the conditions that made containment harder, at its root, the Northern California disaster is the result of a compounding climate crisis that, unless taken seriously, is going to continue to cause successive "unprecedented catastrophes".

The fires expose how, despite the end to the state's prolonged drought, California has not escaped the worst effects of climate change.

Last winter, heavy rains replenished much of the state's water reserves and caused officials to declare that the drought had ended. But in fact, this contributed to a deadlier fire season--all the greenery produced by the rains dried out during a hot summer and turned into starter fuel for the fires. This, combined with shifting weather patterns and high winds, combined to make the fires harder to contain.

As Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and co-author of a report linking global warming to increased wildfires said on Democracy Now!:

The fires are really being driven by a big high-pressure system that is sitting over the coasts of the U.S. and driving winds from the east to the west, bringing very dry, warm air from the deserts of Nevada and Arizona out to the coast. And by the time, the air gets to the coast, it's compressed down to sea level. It's very warm and very dry. It pulls the moisture out of vegetation, makes it ready to burn.

Without the kind of controlled burns traditionally practiced by Native American tribes, such fires are inevitable--whether sparked by man-made or natural causes.

Meanwhile, left-wing author Mike Davis noted that the predictable response to such disasters--rebuilding more suburban sprawl without addressing the loss of an agricultural "buffer zone"--will only exacerbate future fires, even in a state whose leaders pride themselves on being environmentally conscious. As Davis wrote:

[California Gov.] Jerry Brown's California enters this new age with a halo over its head. We "get" climate change and thumb our noses at the mad denialist in the White House. Our governor advocates the Paris [climate] standards with rare passion and sends our anti-carbon missionaries to the far corners of the earth...And we continue to send urban sprawl into our fire-dependent ecosystems with the expectation that firefighters will risk their lives to defend each new McMansion...

This is the deadly conceit behind mainstream environmental politics in California: you say fire, I say climate change, and we both ignore the financial and real-estate juggernaut that drives the suburbanization of our increasingly flammable wildlands.

AMID THE horror, however, there are also glimpses of decency and hope--in the heroic actions of exhausted and overworked firefighters, community members and other volunteers coming together to care for each other.

Multiple relief funds have been set up for the fire victims, including the "UndocuFund for Fire Relief in Sonoma County," which was launched by a coalition of immigrant service providers and advocates specifically to "provide direct funding to undocumented immigrants and their families" who will otherwise not qualify for government assistance.

Other labor and community groups are coming together to help organize events to aid those dealing with their grief and loss, like one recently held by the North Bay Organizing Project, in conjunction with the Graton Day Labor Center (Centro Laboral de Graton) and North Bay Jobs With Justice.

As Sonoma County resident and Service Employees International Union Local 1021 member Julia Rapkin described to Socialist Worker, even in the midst of this horrible event, residents reached out to help each other:

People checked on neighbors to see if they needed assistance evacuating, using trailers to even help evacuate farm animals. People knocked on doors. Over the last few days, when you were shopping, cashiers at Trader Joe's asked if you are okay and are you safe. With everyone you see in the street and in the store, there's a sense of real solidarity and people caring for each other, which is really beautiful.

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