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Where There’s Smoke

As California burns, a corporation goes free

On October 8, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5º C” or SR15, warning that the world has twelve years to dramatically reduce the burning of fossil fuels to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius; failure to do so will only mean deadlier and more frequent consequences like fires, famine, and drought.

Exactly one month later, California burst into flames.

At the time of this writing, Ventura and Los Angeles Counties’ Woolsey Fire and Butte County’s Camp Fire have claimed eighty lives, with nearly a thousand unaccounted for. Despite these staggering numbers, the national response has largely been muted—particularly on the East Coast. Apart from routine coverage in major newspapers like the New York Times, most of the in-depth, on-the-ground reporting has come from local outlets like the Sacramento Bee and the San Jose Mercury, both of which have a combined print circulation of less than a million. “I don’t think the fires are getting as much media attention as they deserve and I think media concentration in DC/NY is to blame for that,” tweeted Splinter reporter Libby Watson. “If this was happening in New Jersey or northern Virginia it would be 24/7 on CNN . . . I’m not saying it’s not being covered, just that it would be being treated like a national emergency if it was happening here. But because it’s the West Coast, it’s as if it’s happening in another country.”

Since the fires began, the air quality in the Bay Area has deteriorated, surpassing far-off polluted cities like Beijing and New Delhi. Even before the fires, homeless shelters in the Bay Area faced long waiting lists, and the smoke has only exacerbated the situation, as many people have nowhere to go despite public advisories to stay indoors. San Francisco City Hall has largely failed to act; groups like the Democratic Socialists of America–San Francisco and Mask Oakland have stepped into this institutional void, passing out thousands of free respirator masks to homeless people and other marginalized communities. J. Redwoods, one of Mask Oakland’s organizers, told the East Bay Express that the catalyst for passing out masks was precisely this lack of public response to the fire from official agencies. Last week, schools across the Bay Area were shut down due to air concerns, and many have remained closed. On Friday, San Francisco made public transit free all day, and many museums last weekend opened their doors to the public free of charge—but these emergency measures are a poor substitute for desperately needed infrastructure that addresses the reality of climate change and lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area.

Even before the fires, homeless shelters in the Bay Area faced long waiting lists, and the smoke has only exacerbated the situation.

California’s extreme class divide has also been made all the more transparent since the fires began. While rich and poor alike have lost their homes to the flames, celebrities like the Kardashians have hired private firefighters to insulate themselves from the more devastating effects, siphoning off potential agents who could assist their public counterparts in preventing further disaster. Making matters worse, many of the firefighters protecting lesser mortals are California inmates working for only $2 a day, or $1 an hour when fighting an active fire. When they are released, most of these volunteers will have a difficult time finding professional firefighter jobs; contrary to popular belief, not all fire departments automatically exclude ex-convicts, but criminal records make it much more difficult to be hired. Some inmates don’t even bother applying after they’re released, despite being uniquely qualified. The use of inmate firefighters has reignited a fierce debate about what constitutes slave labor, especially as California inmates are disproportionately people of color.

Then there is the demographic makeup of the fire victims themselves. On November 8, when the Camp Fire began, the entire town of Paradise, a community of nearly twenty-seven thousand in Butte County, burned to the ground. In a working-class town like Paradise, where a quarter of the population is aged sixty-five and older, many will likely have a harder time finding affordable housing in a state that has been in a housing crisis for years. Nearby Concow, a tiny town of about seven hundred, has also suffered immensely, but its residents feel they’ve been ignored—in part because of their class, or as one woman put it at a town hall meeting, “just ’cause it’s all hillbillies and stuff and trailers and not, like, retirement people.” Adding insult to injury, Proposition 10, a state ballot measure that would have lifted rent control restrictions in some cities, lost miserably during the 2018 midterms two days before the fire broke out; Wall Street-backed housing developers and corporate landlords had poured $70 million into the opposition campaign. In response to last year’s fires, Governor Jerry Brown did extend anti-gouging ordinances to prevent rent increases, but some affordable housing advocates have derided their insufficiency. “The emergency anti-gouging measures are a start, but the fact is that they still allow for high rent increases over time,” said Shanti Singh, Communications and Development Coordinator for Tenants Together, a California statewide tenants’ rights coalition. “[The ordinances] wouldn’t stop evictions; it just meant you would have to justify them . . . they [would] need to be sustained for years while communities rebuild.”

What’s perhaps most infuriating of all is that those who created this disaster will likely avoid being brought to justice . . . again. While the source of the most recent fires has not yet been confirmed, Pacific Gas & Electric, a state-regulated private utility company, reported two power line outages on the day the fires started—raising the possibility that it was their equipment that started both fires. PG&E has a history of causing environmental catastrophe; in 1996, a wastewater contamination scandal in Hinkley, California dating back to the 1950s led to a $333 million settlement and became the catalyst for the movie Erin Brockovich. In 2010, a PG&E gas line exploded, killing eight and destroying a hundred homes in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco. PG&E also played a hand in California’s October 2017 firestorms, when several of its aging power lines snagged together and sparked a deadly blaze. Despite the overwhelming evidence that PG&E has been responsible for some of California’s most grievous man-made disasters, time and time again, their executives have avoided substantive punishment in lieu of multimillion-dollar payouts to victims who have brought class-action lawsuits.

Those who created this disaster will likely avoid being brought to justice, again.

If ever there was a case for a company to be nationalized, Pacific Gas & Electric is it. The Camp Fire—now the deadliest in California history—is the result of capitalism’s worst tendencies to value profits over human lives, says Mia, an organizer with San Francisco’s chapter of the DSA; “When faced with a choice between safety and customer service or the bottom line, a for-profit company will always pick the latter.”

As of Sunday, the Woolsey Fire was 91 percent contained; given its proximity to the affluent areas of Malibu and Los Angeles, it is likely that these Southern California cities will bounce back within a few years, if not months, with the help of city resources. Northern California, however, is a different story. On Sunday night, the Camp Fire was still only 65 percent contained; officials at Cal Fire anticipate that it will continue burning until November 30. Rebuilding communities in areas like Butte County will require time and resources that many area residents simply don’t have. And while Butte County has been called “Trump Country,” the president’s visit to the Northern California area on November 17 barely registered, except for when he mistakenly referred to the town of Paradise as “Pleasure”—further illuminating his lack of empathy for the Camp Fire’s victims after blaming the blaze on forest mismanagement last week.

While Trump tweeted a slickly produced video of his visit to a burned-out retirement community, lines swelled at FEMA and Red Cross shelters: Walmart had just told fire survivors they could no longer camp in their parking lot.