Northern California Wildfires: Lives Ruined, Profits Protected

CalifFireWildfires in Northern California, first reported October 8, have raced through communities, up valleys, and over freeways, catching many residents completely off guard and killing 42 people. At present, 21 separate fires are spreading over several hundred square miles, blackening much of the landscape of California’s wine country and filling the air with harmful smoke as far as 100 miles away.

While wildfires are a common phenomenon in the region, there is evidence that climate change is contributing to their increased frequency and intensity. Parched landscapes, a result of longer droughts, turn millions of trees and shrubs that dot the northern California hills into potential kindling. This dry vegetation combines with high winds every October in what’s known locally as wildfire season.

Currently, 8,000 firefighters from around the country, including prison labor paid one dollar a day, are working around the clock. Many are working 36 to 40 hours straight, and it’s clear at this point more resources will be needed to fully contain these fires. As with any kind of disaster under capitalism, the poorest and most vulnerable are those affected the worst.

This area is home to more than picturesque wineries. Entire neighborhoods of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000, have been erased by the flames. Over 8,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed so far and 50,000 Californians are without power.  Already the deadliest fire in California’s history, the death toll is expected to rise; of the 900 people reported missing since the fires began, roughly half still remain unaccounted for. Many of those who perished were seniors and those without cars for whom it was difficult to escape.

The outpouring of solidarity among Bay Area residents toward their neighbors has been incredible. For the thousands of residents who have lost their homes many are turning to sites like GoFundMe, an online crowd-funding site, to ask for the money needed to rebuild their lives.  The site has dozens of these pages. There is a common theme: “No Insurance. Lost Everything.” GoFundMe and YouCaring, another site, have become a financial lifeline for millions of Americans. In 2016, roughly half of the 2.8 billion dollars raised on these sites went to help pay for medical expenses. While approximately 90% of homeowners and 40% of renters do have fire insurance, it often isn’t enough to cover the full cost of rebuilding their lives. Even if residents do come up with the cash necessary to rebuild, they will almost certainly face astronomical increases in their insurance premiums to protect their homes from future fires.

Profit-Motive Induced Negligence To Blame

The wildfires were likely started by utility lines that were not built to withstand the high winds, along with negligence in cutting foliage around power lines. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), a private energy company, runs these lines and provides electricity for nearly two thirds of Northern California.

The company has a long history of ignoring regulations designed to prevent disasters like this from happening. According to the SF Chronicle, in 1994, California’s Public Utility Commission accused PG&E of “diverting money from its tree-trimming program to boost profits, while managers received bonuses for cutting budgets” (10/12/17). The company settled this previous case with a $29 million settlement and a “promise” to improve funding for tree-trimming and other safety measures in the future. In January of this year, California did levy a significant fine, $1.4 billion, against PG&E in the San Bruno natural gas explosion that killed 8 people and destroyed 38 homes. Tragically, that penalty didn’t serve as enough of a deterrent against further shortcuts on safety.

In 2016 alone, PG&E brought in upwards of $17 billion in revenues. Only a small fraction of this would be needed to be in compliance with current safety regulations. Like any other private company, PG&E considers what affects its bottom-line before and above anything and everyone else. This is a well-worn script; large corporations factor the cost of court settlements into their operating budgets instead of paying for safety measures, because it is more profitable for them to do so. People’s lives are lost or ruined, while corporations are allowed to continue putting our communities at risk.

Human Needs Require Democratic Control

The search for the cause of the wildfires will become a dramatic issue in California politics in the coming weeks. State Senator Jerry Hill argued, “If it turns out that PG&E is responsible for this fire and negligent for not putting in the resources or for diverting the resources then I will be the first one to stand up and say we need to dissolve PG&E as a private company and form a public utility.” This radical proposal shows the widespread disgust at private companies’ negligence toward the lives and health of working people. Public ownership would be a huge step forward, it would also be critical that the public utility be democratically controlled and managed by workers in the industry and the communities that rely on it. This would be a first step toward a plan for public energy use and consumption, that would be safe and environmentally sustainable.

All over the Bay Area thousands of people are volunteering their time and money to assist those affected by the fires. A nurse practitioner on her way to volunteer, told SA members, “Those people that complain about socialism don’t realize that when everybody comes together to help in a situation like this – that is socialism!”

  • State resources used to immediately rehouse all those affected by the fires.
  • Expansion of emergency services and personnel to meet the demands of disasters exacerbated by climate change.
  • Bring PG&E into democratic public ownership and enact comprehensive fire-prevention programs statewide.
  • Tax the rich for massive investment to rebuild the electrical grid and the create millions of green jobs.