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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 jacket.

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 good.

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 destroyed.

One person has been reported dead and more than 20 people have been injured.

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 noted.

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