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    WSWS : News & Analysis : North America California wildfires raise social questions By John Andrews 1 November 2003 Use this version to print | Send this link
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 3, 2003
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      WSWS : News & Analysis : North America

      California wildfires raise social questions
      By John Andrews
      1 November 2003
      Use this version to print | Send this link by email | Email the author

      Since October 21, huge wildfires—fueled by thick, dry foliage and
      fanned by hot Santa Ana winds blowing over the mountain passes
      linking the desert to the coastal plain—have 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
      $2 billion.

      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
      impossible.

      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
      November 8.

      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 catastrophe—like all large-scale disasters—vividly 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 wildfires—especially during early autumn, when the dry
      desert winds howl at the end of the arid summer season—are 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
      catastrophe.

      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
      Bernardino fires.

      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
      department.

      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
      and aspirations.
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