- WSWS : News & Analysis : North America
California wildfires raise social questions
By John Andrews
1 November 2003
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Since October 21, huge wildfiresfueled by thick, dry foliage and
fanned by hot Santa Ana winds blowing over the mountain passes
linking the desert to the coastal plainhave incinerated about
750,000 acres of Southern California countryside, an area larger than
the State of Rhode Island. As of October 31, 20 people were confirmed
dead, including one firefighter, and over 3,500 structures, including
2,600 homes, have been destroyed. Losses are estimated at more than
While large autumn wildfires are a frequent occurrence, the combined
impact of this season's fires is the largest on record, and one of
the most significant natural disasters in California history. During
the worst days of the inferno, fires moved as much as 20 miles in a
24-hour period, a speed which made coordinated firefighting almost
On October 29 the winds returned to their normal on-shore pattern,
reducing temperatures and increasing humidity. Measurable rain fell
at Lindbergh Field in San Diego for the first time in six months. But
full containment remains at least a week away. Although rain is
expected through the weekend, the earliest projected control date is
The Cedar Fire in San Diego County, which consumed almost 300,000
acres, burned 1,500 homes and killed 14 people, is the single worst
wildfire in California history. It wiped the 300-home lakeside resort
community of Cuyamaca off the map and for several days threatened to
overrun Julian, a quaint old mining town with a population of several
thousand. Three other major fires in San Diego County, one of which
crossed into Mexico and killed two people, scorched another 100,000
acres and 200 homes.
Almost as destructive has been the combined Old Fire and Grand Prix
Fire in the forested mountains of San Bernardino County, and the
Padua Fire in an adjacent part of Los Angeles County. These three
wildfires combined to burn 200,000 acres and 1,000 homes, and kill
two. 80,000 residents of the popular Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear
resort areas have been evacuated for the better part of a week.
Because of the rugged terrain, the Old Fire, the worst of the three,
could take several weeks to extinguish completely.
The third major fire area, in Ventura County near the northern border
of Los Angeles County, has burned about 175,000 acres and destroyed
over 100 homes.
This catastrophelike all large-scale disastersvividly illustrates
the complex interconnections which exist between people's lives in
our modern industrial society. The ripple effects of the wildfires on
health, commerce, insurance, construction and the environment will be
felt for years. Over the last week, the firestorms forced school and
highway closures, and brought down power and telephone lines. On
Monday a large number of scheduled airline flights were cancelled due
to the effect on the fire on air traffic control radar. The Monday
Night Football game was moved from San Diego to Tempe, Arizona, and
those attending were asked to make contributions to the disaster
relief fund instead of paying for tickets.
Large-scale calamities such as these wildfires bring out instinctive
feelings of human solidarity and responsibility, the healthiest
tendencies of the population, as people strive to cooperate, not for
the selfish gains of the individual, but for the general good. The
attitudes and behavior of the majority during such times contrast
starkly with the glorification of the accumulation of wealth which
dominates American capitalism when disaster is not knocking on the
front door. The 15,000 firefighters who have struggled heroically to
keep the fires away from populated areas have earned the sympathy and
support of millions. Tragically, Steve Rucker, age 38, from Novato in
Northern California, died October 29 near Julian, leaving a wife and
two children. Three other firefighters were injured, one seriously,
in that incident.
Generally ignored by the media is the fact that 4,000 of the front
line firefighters are convicted felons presently serving sentences
with the California Department of Corrections. Trained as
firefighters in state forestry camps, these inmates are paid one
dollar an hour to risk their lives suppressing wildfires. Additional
firefighters are provided by the California Youth Authority and the
local jail system. Under other conditions, right-wing politicians and
their media acolytes would be advocating longer sentences, less
rehabilitation and more Spartan living conditions for these men.
A significant amount of media coverage has been devoted to
speculation over the causes of the fire. The Cedar Fire in San Diego
appears to have been accidentally set by a lost hunter, but arson is
suspected in San Bernardino. Whether the fires were ignited by
disturbed or deranged individuals is a secondary question, however.
Periodic wildfiresespecially during early autumn, when the dry
desert winds howl at the end of the arid summer seasonare recognized
as an element in the ecology of Southern California's coastal plains
and mountains. For the last century, humans extinguished most fires
early to protect their property. The result has been an unnatural
buildup of fuel, as the bushy growth of the chaparral becomes too
dense. Gigantic catastrophic fires occur because of too much fire
suppression, not too little. If fires are not allowed to burn, some
other form of brush clearance must be utilized, but adequate funds
for that purpose have not been appropriated.
The threat to life and property posed by large Southern California
wildfires has increased dramatically over the last several decades
with the construction of more housing in outlying areas which adjoin
chaparral. While developers have raked in millions in profits, there
have been many dire predictions about the lack of adequate
infrastructure and land management to protect the new homes from
Moreover, federal land management resources tend to favor forests in
the northwestern United States to protect profits generated by the
logging industry. According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, of
the $53 million for hazardous-fuel reduction distributed to
California's national forests in 2003, less than $4 million went to
the Cleveland, Angeles, San Bernardino and Los Padres national
forests in Southern California, where the current wildfires are
raging. Presently, the wildfires are being used to promote Bush's
proposed legislation to increase lumber extraction in the name of
fire protection, although the two matters are unrelated.
The Bush administration, in fact, bears direct responsibility for the
ferocity of the wildfires in the San Bernardino National Forest.
After several years of drought, which may be related to global
warming, pine trees have become vulnerable to the bark beetle. There
have been estimated to be between one and two million dead pine
trees, many located near the Lake Arrowhead area, because of the
combined effect of the drought and the bark beetle. Last April,
California Governor Gray Davis asked the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA) for a $450 million grant to remove the dead trees
before they became tinder for forest fires. FEMA delayed acting on
the request for six months, finally denying it October 24, during the
early stages of the current fires. There is no question that the dead
trees greatly multiplied the speed and intensity of the San
There have been significant criticisms regarding the resources
available for containing the fires. Crews have been stretched thin by
the number and size of the fires, and the firefighters are exhausted.
National Guard troops, which have in the past provided valuable back
up services, are not available due to their deployment in Iraq.
The state of California's firefighting resources has been crippled by
the fiscal crisis that contributed to the demise of the Gray Davis
administration. The state and local governments have fewer
firefighters per capita in 2003 than 20 years ago.
As part of the budget agreement between the legislature and the
governor this summer, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
lost $50 million in funding, and was told to recapture the funds by
charging fees to rural residents.
The biggest impact of the decline in manpower and financial support
has been on fire prevention services, such as vegetation management.
The state currently carries out only 20 percent of the prescribed
burns and brush clearing called for in the goals set by the forestry
The lack of adequate fire-fighting resources has been most apparent
in San Diego, which is the only large county in the state without a
unified fire department. The area is well known for its "fiscal
conservatism," and 32 of the last 50 San Diego ballot measures to
raise money for fire protection have been defeated. Despite allowing
new housing developments to abut miles of combustible chaparral, San
Diego does not have a single water-dropping helicopter and one third
fewer firefighters than the national average for large cities. The 12
deaths caused by the Cedar Fire were among residents in San Diego
suburbs where no warning was given of the approaching flames.
Much of the money to be raised through the increase in the vehicle
registration fee, which played a significant role in the Gray Davis
recall, was dedicated to funding local public safety agencies.
Incoming Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to eliminate
the fee on his first day in office, a move which would force deep
cuts in the budgets of fire departments throughout the state.
This year's Southern California wildfires provide yet another lesson
on the effects of the anarchy of capitalist production and
development, which subordinates rational planning and the allocation
of resources to the profit drive of big business. The results are not
only larger wildfires with more destruction of property, but also the
greater devastation of individual lives, and the loss of their hopes