Class, race and the California wildfires
Published Oct 25, 2007 9:39 PM
On the East Coast, an unprecedented warm October reminds us all about the
crisis in climate change. It is fall, but the trees are still green, flowers
are still blooming, birds still sing and, troublingly, there is no need for a
But on the West Coast, the burning fires of Southern California are a stark and
painful reminder that the times they are a-changing—and not for the
As of this writing, almost half a million people have had to flee their homes
in Southern California as a result of wildfires that started Oct. 21. An
estimated 700 houses and businesses as well as 260,000 acres have been
One person has been reported dead and more than 20 people have been
The fire is being called one of the worst in California’s history, a
“perfect storm,” prompting both Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and
President George Bush to declare the area a national emergency. Schwarzenegger
is deploying National Guard soldiers to help support the 6,000 firefighters who
are fighting the flames.
Within two days, there were at least 14 separate fires raging throughout
Southern California, covering a region from north of Los Angeles to south of
the Mexican border.
More than 316 fire engines, 19 air tankers, 15 bulldozers and eight helicopters
are being used to fight the infernos. Help is being requested from Northern
California, Arizona and Nevada.
The Associated Press reports that the fires are so extensive that several of
them could be seen from space. Due to strong winds, which are erratic and
unpredictable, there is no telling where other fires will move or start up.
It remains to be seen if the fires will rival the record wildfires of 2003 that
killed 22 people, destroyed more than 3,300 structures and caused more than $2
billion in damages.
What really caused the fire?
One of the firefighters on the site stated that “strong winds, totally
dry” led to perfect storm conditions.
But Mike Davis, an academic who writes prolifically about California, takes
another view. His writings have been labeled as fringe leftist ranting by the
right wing. However, his book, “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the
Imagination of Disaster,” was on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list
for weeks. His views about the fires of Southern California should be
Are the fires burning in Southern California, and the destruction they bring,
inevitable? Or are they avoidable?
Davis documents that fires in the Southern California region of Malibu are part
and parcel of California history. Spanish conquistadors could see vast blazes
along the coast when they arrived.
Back then, due to a healthy respect for the earth by Indigenous people, the
Native Chumash and Tongva peoples annually burned brush in that area. These
fires, it turns out, were ultimately beneficial in recycling nutrients in the
earth and ensuring seed germination.
It is therefore natural that this region burns. What is unnatural and avoidable
is building in areas that should not be built in. But the rich have to have
their ocean views, don’t they?
What is unnatural is the drier climate, possibly resulting in more wildfires,
as a result of capitalist polluters who have ruined the environment. And what
is unnatural are the racist and class divisions that result in the allotting of
resources when disaster strikes.
Malibu, Westlake & New Orleans: lesson in racism & class oppression
Davis compares the wealthy and star-studded neighborhood of Malibu with that of
Westlake, an area in Los Angeles where many immigrants and [email protected] live.
It is commonly known that August through October is California’s wildfire
season. It is then, Davis writes, “when Westlake and Malibu suffer a
common lot: catastrophic fire.”
But there the similarity stops.
Westlake, it turns out, has the “highest urban fire incidence in the
nation: one of its two fire stations was inundated by an incredible 20,000
emergency calls in 1993,” Davis notes. Many of the sites of these fires
are in tenements and apartment hotels.
Malibu is the “wildfire capital” possibly for the world, Davis
contends. A large fire in the area occurs every two and half years.
“The two species of conflagration (between Malibu and Westlake) are
inverse images of each other. Defended in 1993 by the largest army of
firefighters in (U.S.) history, wealthy Malibu homeowners benefited as well
from an extraordinary range of insurance, land use and disaster relief
subsidies. Yet as most experts will readily concede, periodic firestorms of
this magnitude are inevitable as long as residential development is tolerated
in the fire ecology of the Santa Monicas.”
A film executive protected his home against the current blaze with his own
private firefighting team that has been on his payroll.
In Westlake, on the other hand, most of the “119 fatalities from tenement
fires in the Westlake and Downtown areas might have been prevented had
slumlords been held to even minimal standards of building safety.”
The differences between the growing rich and the poor, between the working
class and the bourgeoisie are becoming more evident everyday.
This obscene difference in class society will result in tumultuous struggles.
The victims of Katrina and Rita will unite with the immigrants of Westlake and
all decent minded people will rise up to reclaim justice. What will burn to a
crisp then is not Southern California but capitalism.
“Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster”
is available at www.Leftbooks.com
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe [email protected]
Support independent news DONATE