California wildfires kindled by capitalism
Thursday, November 22, 2018 at 10:54AM
Challenge_DesafĂ­o

Wildfires are regularly occurring natural disasters whose effects on workers are worsened by the neglect of capitalism. Throughout the state of California, over one thousand workers are still missing and at least 80 have been found dead in the Camp Fire in Northern California and the Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California. Over 11,000 homes, including the majority of the town of Paradise, have been destroyed and the fires have not been fully contained.
Under communism, we would organize the working class to plan in advance for and respond collectively to the damage and destruction that ensue from natural disasters. Instead of “everyone for themselves,” our motto would be “mobilize the masses to act together.” Most of all, we would preserve and protect our environment from exploitation for profit, and design scientific policies based on the interconnection between a viable natural environment and human progress.
A Paradise lost
While California boasts to be the richest state in the country, home to tech giants like Google and Facebook and the multimillionaires of Malibu, these blazes lay bare the inherent inequality of capitalism, especially in this state, as many poor workers have been reduced to refugee status in tent cities in Walmart parking lots much like our sisters and brothers of less developed countries. (New York Times 11/18).
Moreover, while the Woolsey fire turned around 100,000 acres into a smoldering hellscape with its fast-moving fire, one neighborhood in its path was saved. It’s a gated community with multimillion-dollar homes of celebrities like musician Kanye West who called on private firefighters to save their $60 million mansion and many of the other houses in their neighborhood (Huffington Post 11/15).
Mainly retired workers on fixed incomes lives in Paradise. Most of them never received evacuation orders; those who did found gridlock as they tried to flee (Los Angeles Times, 11/14). This is the essence of capitalism—leaving workers stranded to die. We see this time and time again around the world—the earthquake in Haiti (2010), the tsunami in the Indian Ocean (2004), hurricanes Katrina (2005), Harvey (2017) and Maria (2017) in the southern U.S. states and Puerto Rico.
For decades, workers had demanded safety
The Woolsey fire started near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) and burned part of this nuclear waste contaminated site that has yet to be cleaned up (NBC News, 11/12). Workers who live near SSFL have been campaigning for decades for the government to clean up the site, not just because of the ongoing exposure to residents, but also because of the danger that a wildfire could pose by spreading hazardous chemicals in its smoke.
In the area surrounding the Camp Fire, workers have been wearing masks when outside to protect themselves. Despite the dangerous air quality, farm workers in Ventura County are forced to continue to work in the fields picking crops. Some farms even forced their workers to speed up the picking to avoid crops being damaged by the fires (LA Magazine, 11/15).
Workers douse fires for $2/day
For the other thousands of workers’ and their communities, these blazes were covered by over 9,000 firefighters including 1,500 incarcerated, mostly Black and Latin workers. These incarcerated firefighters risk their lives to make slave wages of two dollars a day, which only increases to $1 an hour when they are actively fighting fires (New York Times, 11/15). Even with the work experience, they cannot work as firefighters when they are released because of their criminal records.
Bosses don’t prioritize health of workers and earth
According to Cal Fire the causes of these fires have yet to be determined. Many people suspect that they were caused by power company equipment failures, which happened minutes before the start of each blaze. Southern California Edison is already facing a lawsuit stating that their negligence caused the Woolsey fire (Ventura County Star, 11/19). Pacific Gas and Electric also reported issues with two high voltage power lines in the area where the Camp Fire started. (Sacramento Bee, 11/18).
Nevertheless, while it is true that forest fires are a natural phenomenon, and while the California energy corporations might have started these fires, the magnitude and intensities of these fires represent a much larger problem that has been ongoing for generations. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) was created in the late 1800’s with the sole aim of managing timber production and was the first government agency that hired university-educated agronomists and forestry experts as opposed to other government bodies that hired based on patronage. However, after the Great Idaho Fire of 1910, which burned three million acres and killed at least 85 workers, fighting forest fires was added to its mission. Nevertheless, in spite of its best intentions, the proponents of scientific forestry didn’t understand the role of fires as serving an important function in maintaining the health of forests.
For instance, shade-intolerant trees such as ponderosa pines, lodge pole pines, and giant sequoias, require periodic fires to clear areas in which they can regenerate. Once fires were suppressed, these trees were overrun by trees like the highly flammable Douglas firs which turned forests into potential giant tinderboxes. Coupled with the Great Migration west, which resulted in larger communities in forest areas, these government policies led to more people living in areas vulnerable to wildfires. With this movement, insurance companies added pressure on the USFS to continue a bad practice in order to preserve their property.
Over time, the USFS began to take on multiple missions that were often in direct contradiction representing the competing interests of real estate developers, wealthy homeowners, insurance companies, timber interests, environmentalists and aspiring firefighters. As a result, the decline in the USFS’ effectiveness now mirrors the decay in bourgeois political institutions like the U.S. Congress (Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014).
Burn capitalism, build communism
Under capitalism, the ruling class doesn’t care about whether housing is built safely in areas that are prone to fires, floods, hurricanes, or other natural disasters. During times of crisis, the working class unites to help each other evacuate and to help each other rebuild. Under communism, natural disasters would be exactly that—natural. Under the leadership of the working class, we will build infrastructure and maintain natural areas to lessen the damage to neighborhoods and destruction of workers’ lives.

Article originally appeared on The Revolutionary Communist Progressive Labor Party (http://www.plp.org/).
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