By EDWIN FREED
Wildfire season has come early to California this year. A month before the annual period of destruction, flames are already engulfing coastal areas. At least 100,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, and over 770,000 acres have burned, in a virtually uncontrolled maelstrom of heat and light. The fires are growing in some places at a speed of 100 feet per second, and BBC news reported that at the time of writing (Aug. 21, 10 a.m. EST) that six people have died. Amid catastrophic smoke and heat, rolling blackouts affecting over 15% of the population are hitting the state for the first time in 15 years.
Global warming becomes global burning
By now, the fact is well established that fossil-fuel emissions and environmental destruction are disastrously heating the planet. So too is the consequent reality that droughts, a shrinkage of mountain snowpacks, high winds, explosive storms, and increased lightning strikes are part of the new normal all over the world.
In California, these changed conditions exacerbate the chances that an already extremely fire-prone region will have ever-larger fires. Fifteen of the state’s 20 largest fires have occurred since the year 2000. This summer is another in a series of years that have set heat records, leading to the most severe rolling blackouts in over a decade. Severe draught is expected to last until late September, although the scene has already been set. Already the total burned acres are approaching the total for last year. Winds pick up in the fall, creating even more potential for disasters.
The last three years have seen a definite ramping up of intensity with wildfires in the state; 2017 and 2018 both brought the most destructive fires in state history, measured by property damage and death. There were at least 22 and 86 people killed respectively between the Tubbs and Camp fires. Last year, 2019, was something of a reprieve, what fire-fighting officials called “sheer luck,” with “only” five deaths.
One of the effects of the new epoch of climate crisis is that wildfires now occur outside of the normal boundaries of their traditional “seasons.” Climate change has extended the fire season by at least 75 days since the 1970s. The normal period of peak intensity in the last few decades has been August to November, but recent years have seen a sharp increase in devastating fires outside of this time frame. By late June of this year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection or Cal Fire had responded to 2700 fires, compared to 1500 total in 2019.
Suppressing fire, growing profits
The long-term policy of forest managers in the West has been “full suppression.” California’s forests are famously fire prone, but the shift in forest management practices brought by displacement and genocide of Indigenous communities have greatly worsened the risk of megafires (fires over 10,000 acres).
Driven first by the timber industry and later by real estate development, the name of the game of forest fire management for over 100 years has been full suppression. The original purpose in the early 20th century was to allow for the greatest harvesting of trees possible from public forests. This idea remains true until today, but the development and expansion of sizable communities within California’s fire zones has also contributed to the ideology of full suppression. In 2019, at least 2.7 million people lived in the state’s “very high severity” fire zones.
The extreme reluctance of timber industrialists to allow wildland fire use, a technical name for controlled burning, is due in part to their desire to profit from the largest and most valuable trees. This was taken to an extreme in the Bush-era Healthy Forests Restoration Act, whose stated purpose was fire prevention but was effectively a series of handouts to timber industrialists. The HFRA allowed for industrial logging to be part of the regime of “fire management,” despite the fact that the scale would be well below that necessary to maintain forests.
According to the Sierra Club, the Act also “failed to ensure that fuel reduction projects would actually target the unprofitable underbrush, very small trees, and logging slash that create the greatest risk of destructive fires, while allowing logging that will dry out forests and promote more underbrush.”
After decades of discussion and general agreement by forest managers on the need to end the century-long mismanagement of California’s forests, the response now is too little and too late. The current goal of all thinning efforts is 500,000 acres annually between “mechanical thinning,” controlled burns, and logging. Even this number is much too low. It is based on the peak burns on federally managed lands over 100 years ago. Similarly, the projects need to be repeated on an annual basis, rather than focusing on one area one year and another the next.
Public forest managers face extremely tight budgets. Despite billions of dollars being spent in suppression efforts, which most years make up the majority of the U.S. Forest Service’s total expenditures, relatively little funding goes towards actual forest maintenance. Even with suppression, costs are cut. Over one-quarter of California’s wildfire fighters are incarcerated workers, making $1 an hour to risk their health and lives.
Trump, using the same logic as past administrations, signed an executive order in 2019 that allows for large expansions of logging on public lands in the name of fire suppression.
The housing problem
While the fire cycles of Californian forests and grasslands, as well as their increasing climate-change-driven intensity, are known to experts and community members alike, developers still push to build in fire zones.
Part of this is that the danger of wildfires is a foundational fact of much of California’s populated coastal areas. Wildfires historically have rolled all the way to the sea, and a quick look at a fire severity map shows that both Los Angeles and San Diego are in severely threatened areas. In 2003, the Cedar Fire came into the city of San Diego, burning hundreds of houses in the Scripps Ranch community. In 2017, the Tubbs Fire came within 20 miles of Los Angeles and in 2018 the Woolsey fire reached Malibu. Neither San Diego nor Santa Rosa, the city worst hit by the Camp Fire, are counted in the “2.7 million Californians within severe fire zones” statistic noted above.
Developers have no problem with these risks. Their investments are insured, and the fires have the strange effect of increasing rents. About half of the housing built in California between 1990 and 2010 was in the “wildland-urban interface,” where most wildfire destruction takes place.
On top of rapidly expanding “boomburgs” like Santa Clarita—which narrowly escaped evacuation on Aug. 6—moving further into wild lands, new projects are being approved that are within well-known fire zones. One such planned community is Centennial, 25 miles from Los Angeles and expected to produce housing for around 57,000 residents. California is especially attractive for real estate speculation due to its relatively high housing costs. The unaffordability of gentrified cities pushes urban sprawl further and further into fire zones.
Just the beginning
All of these conditions, created by capitalism, mean that California wildfires will continue to become larger and more destructive. Destruction measured in both money and lives is the product of capitalist control of land and housing, in addition to the unfettered burning of fossil fuels.
Although the effort to arrest the growing acreage and severity of massive forest fires in California should have begun many years ago, the effects that these changes have on human lives can still be mitigated. Capitalists and landlords insist on sacrificing workers to the flames of profit. There is too much past investment in housing, production, and agriculture in severely at risk areas for the ruling class to consider moving tens of thousands of people to different, less dangerous, homes.
A workers’ government would be able to not only soberly evaluate the extent of damages but also create a solution to the human tragedy that plays out every year in California and other Western states. A solution would necessarily include major steps to end rural sprawl while building low-cost urban housing. It would also involve putting into action a rapid transition to renewable energy and other decisive measures to deal with climate change.
The exact prescription of relocations, controlled burns, replacing invasive plants with ones that are native to the region, and other forest and grassland management measures will have to be worked out by experts and community members, but one thing is for certain: The only real solution to California’s wildfire catastrophe is revolution, and until that day the flames will continue to roll over everyone in their path.
Illustration by General Strike Graphics