California wildfires, a British view


This Canadian TV video recorded in the USA says about itself:

The ruins of Paradise: Inside the California fire zone | Dispatch

Nearly two weeks after California’s deadliest wildfire began, more than 500 people are still unaccounted for and more than 80 have been confirmed dead so far — a number that has been rising almost daily. CBC’s Briar Stewart takes us to the devastated town of Paradise, where people are bracing for rains that could bring a new danger to the region.

A statewide rainstorm which began Tuesday night has brought an end to the wildfire season in California and almost fully extinguished the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. The rainstorm comes as a mixed blessing, as it both ends the wildfires and air pollution plaguing the state, while preparing the conditions for debris flows that could compound the dire situation facing homeless evacuees. Further, the rain will make it far more difficult to find the remains of those that died in the Camp Fire and will likely cause significant environmental damage throughout the region: here.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Friday, November 23, 2018

Frosty’s Ramblings: California wildfire victims aren’t ‘all in it together’

Not all battles to save homes and people from the recent US forest fires are on an equal playing field, discovers PETER FROST

THE fast-moving fires in southern California driven by the relentless Santa Ana winds are truly terrifying and destructive. The one they call the Camp Fire north of Sacramento has killed nearly 60 people, injured three firefighters and destroyed at least 6,500 homes.

After searching through the blackened aftermath of California’s deadliest wildfire, authorities believe that at least 1,000 people are unaccounted for and that total just keeps growing. Many of them are in their eighties and nineties living in pleasant forest retirement communities.

One problem is that wooden phone masts are being burnt down by the flames.

In a second fire 500 miles south, firefighters are battling another huge blaze known as the Woolsey Fire, where fortunately the number of deaths, injuries and people missing are much lower.

Wildfires have always been a normal feature of California’s and other US forest ecosystems, but a century of misguided fire suppression policies have led to massive build-ups of dead litter on the forest floor.

In the past regular smaller blazes would clean up this dry vegetation, reducing the fuel load that large wildfires use to spread. These new heavy build-ups have now led to wildfires burning hotter, faster and longer than ever.

I have actually experienced two forest fires in the US. One was in the vast Okefenokee Swamp on the state line between Florida and Georgia. The danger here is that the forest fires could have set alight the underlying peat in this amazing wetland, home to many exotic carnivorous pitcher plants.

The other was in the 3,500-square mile wilderness of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The park is home to hundreds of animal species, including bears and wolves.

In both of these fires the size, scale and sheer ferocity was truly terrifying, yet they were tiny in comparison with those hitting the headlines in California today.

We were warned to leave the campsites we were staying on in good time but we still had to drive through blazing areas of woodland and the thick smoke turned day to night even after we had driven many miles clear of the actual scene of the fires themselves. Neither fire was an experience I would like to repeat.

After those adventures I felt I had to learn about some of the factors making forest fires more common and more fierce. I have already talked about the prevention of smaller fires that keep the forest floor clear of fuel.

Another factor is the increased development close to the fringes of the many large wilderness areas. There has been more and more development in these areas in recent years, resulting in more homes being destroyed by wildfires.

Finally, perhaps the most important factor contributing to these mega-fires is climate change. Donald Trump and his oil industry apologists would like you to think climate change isn’t really happening. It is of course, and as rainfall declines and dry winds increase, wildfires get much more destructive.

Watching the TV reports, you might think that at least all the people, rich and poor were “all in it together”, but as so often that wasn’t exactly the case.

If you drive about 10 miles north of Malibu and head east on Highway 101, you’ll hit the city of Hidden Hills, a gated community that’s home to many famous celebrities, including hip-hop artist Kanye West and his wife, reality television star Kim Kardashian.

Just like in many of the towns in this region, Hidden Hills residents were ordered to evacuate their homes as the Woolsey fire approached. But unlike thousands of others, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian did not have to leave their fate up to erratic winds and unpredictable floating embers.

They called in a team of very expensive private firefighters who, with superior numbers and equipment, saved their $60 million mansion and many of the other multimillion-dollar houses in their neighbourhood.

Under the raw capitalism of Trump’s land of the brave, wealth has always been a determining factor for life outcomes. The rich have access to better hospitals, better schools, a better lifestyle altogether. And in this case even a better chance to save themselves and their property from forest fires.

A society where wealth allows one neighbourhood to be saved, while a poorer neighbourhood goes up in flames because the people there weren’t able to purchase the same resources, is the worst example of what capitalism really means.

It isn’t just forest fires but also other natural disasters. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the results of the disaster reflected pre-existing racial and class divisions. African-American and low-income communities in New Orleans were largely abandoned by recovery efforts.

Things haven’t changed much. In California today, undocumented immigrants affected by wildfires do not have the same access to federal emergency relief funding.

Perhaps it is not all that surprising to hear about the ultra-rich purchasing private firefighting services to protect themselves and their wealthy neighbours. It could be said that this is just another logical step towards privatisation of all public services, already almost universal in the US.

As I write this, my worry is that, as our own Tory government privatises schools, railways, utilities, prisons, the NHS and so many other essential public services, how long will it be before we will need to buy an expensive subscription to the Richard Branson Virgin fire brigade?

Worse, will those Virgin fire engines be like Virgin trains and turn up late or even not at all?

WHY THE U.S. CAN’T SOLVE PROBLEMS After the federal government released a devastating report documenting the immense economic and human cost of climate change, The Atlantic explains why America is useless at solving big problems. [The Atlantic]

Thousands forced to flee “catastrophic” fire event in Australia: here.

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California wildfires, over 1,000 dead?


This 18 November 2018 CBS TV video from the USA says about itself:

Death toll rises in wildfire that swept Paradise, California

More than 1,200 people are still unaccounted for in the Camp Fire, which has burned over 149,000 acres in Northern California. At least 76 people have been killed. Meg Oliver reports.

By David Brown in California:

Death toll from California fires likely to soar, with nearly 1,300 people still missing

18 November 2019

The death toll from wildfires in California could rise to more than 1,000, which would make it one of the deadliest and most horrific disasters in modern American history. While the official number of dead from the Camp Fire in Northern California rose to 76 over the weekend, nearly 1,300 are listed as missing, many of them elderly.

Confirmed fatalities have only been added at around eight each day, as investigators meticulously comb through the destruction. Given the nearly 10,000 homes destroyed and the chaos of the evacuation, the final number killed will almost certainly be much higher. To this must be added the untold health consequences from the extreme air pollution that has spread throughout Northern California.

Due to the intensity of the fire, in many cases the only remains recovered are teeth or a human bone—making it difficult to identify victims. Many residents of the small California town of Paradise faced the last moments of their lives in the most horrific manner, as flames engulfed their homes or senior living facilities when they were still in bed.

Samantha

Samantha, whose father and step-sister both lost their family homes in the fire, told the World Socialist Web Site on Sunday, “There was no kind of warning or anything like that.” As for the death toll, she said, “I think it’s going to be with a comma”—that is, over 1,000.

In an attempt at damage control, President Donald Trump joined Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and Democratic Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom to tour affected areas on Saturday. Aside from the usual platitudes and vague promises about federal aid, none of the politicians had anything substantive to say about the disaster.

Trump fixated on “raking” the forests to clear out brush and prevent fires. Brown said that Californians living in high risk areas need to “build some kind of underground shelters.” Neither idea has any basis in fire management or emergency safety.

In a political circling of the wagon, Brown praised the response of Trump, who threatened last week to cut off federal funding to the state. “The president not only signed a presidential declaration giving California substantial funding, but he said and pledged very specifically to continue to help us, that he’s got our back”, Brown said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program Sunday. “And I thought that was a very positive thing.”

The political establishment and media are extremely nervous about the social and political consequences of the disaster. There is growing popular outrage as details emerge pointing to the culpability of the state’s energy giants and government officials in creating the conditions for the deadly inferno.

Although high winds and low humidity drove to the rapid spread of the fire, there is nothing natural about the disaster. The human toll is the product of decisions by elected officials, government regulators and private utilities to maximize profits by risking the lives and property of ordinary workers.

The precise cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, but firefighters initially responded at 6:45 am to a fire by downed power lines at Poe Dam, owned by the local utility monopoly Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), 10 miles outside Paradise.

The company’s stock initially plummeted amid investor fears that the company would be found liable for the lives lost and billions in damages. PG&E is already facing liability of up to $17.3 billion for 16 wildfires sparked by its equipment last year that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 44. In 11 of those cases, PG&E was determined to have violated safety regulations.

In the 2010 San Bruno disaster, one of PG&E’s aging pipes running under a residential neighborhood exploded, killing eight people.

Michael

Michael, a home support services worker from Paradise, expressed the anger of many when he told the WSWS, “It’s insane we didn’t get a warning.” As for energy giant PG&E, Michael said, “I hated them before this fire, I hate them after this fire, I’ll hate them for the rest of my life.”

Michael and his family are currently living in a makeshift tent outside of a WalMart. Those without nearby family to take them in are living in such tent cities or crowded shelters across Butte County. Conditions in the shelters are difficult, and survivors were immediately struck by a norovirus outbreak sending at least 25 to the hospital.

Government officials have responded by attempting to defend the company. Michael Picker, the president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), held a private meeting with investors and analysts announcing that the state would not permit PG&E to go bankrupt and instead would limit their liability and allow them to cover losses with consumer rate hikes.

Picker then issued a public statement announcing that, as regulators, the CPUC needed to defend PG&E’s profits because “An essential component of providing safe electrical service is the financial wherewithal to carry out safety measures.” PG&E stock rebounded Friday at the news, rising 40 percent.

Picker based himself on the recently passed Senate Bill 901 backed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. SB 901 instructs regulators to reduce utility liability due to weather conditions and to take into account the company’s “financial status” when assessing damages. PG&E tripled its lobbying expenses to $1.7 million in the three months leading up to the vote.

Rescue workers

In addition to the role of PG&E, there is growing popular outrage over the lack of government planning for a disaster that was both foreseeable and foreseen. Officials issued an initial evacuation order for the easternmost part of Paradise at 7:45 and a city-wide order for over 26,000 people an hour later. Emergency officials never issued a system wide wireless emergency alert, instead relying on a privately-run Red Alert program that only notified residents who had signed up for it.

The Paradise Emergency Operations Director told the Los Angeles Times that no more than 30 percent of residents had opted-in. Many people never received official notice and had to hear from neighbors or see the approaching fire before trying to escape, only to find the evacuation routes overwhelmed.

Like countless other disasters, public officials knew the risk of a catastrophe and did nothing. In 2008, the Humboldt Fire approached Paradise from the Southwest and closed off three of the routes out of town, leaving panicked residents to try and escape on just a single two-lane mountain road. A 2009 grand jury investigation was convened to guide government planning and prevent a catastrophe. The report highlighted the lack of evacuation routes from the area.

Despite the report, no improvements were made that resolved the problem. Out of four roads to the south of Paradise, only one, the Skyway, has more than two lanes. The rest wind through the mountains without shoulders and are closely surrounded by easily burned vegetation. By the time the general evacuation order was made, one of these roads was already closed from the fire. The Skyway was only designed to carry 1,200 cars per hour. When tens of thousands tried to make it out, many were trapped.

Each and every death from the fires is an indictment of the capitalist system. There is no shortage of wealth in society to safely manage wildfires and put in place emergency response systems. However, that wealth is currently tied up in the hands of a small oligarchy. California is home to 144 billionaires, the largest of any state, holding a combined $725 billion in wealth.

CALIFORNIA DEATH TOLL STILL GOING UP The death toll from Northern California’s Camp fire has risen to at least 76 after search-and-rescue officials recovered five sets of remains over the weekend. [HuffPost]

CALIFORNIA DEATH TOLL STILL RISING The death toll from Northern California’s Camp fire now stands at 79, as search and rescue teams continue to carry out recovery operations following the deadly blaze. Meanwhile, a Republican official in Ohio provoked outrage with a Facebook message declaring the fires “God’s punishment” for the “liberal” state. [HuffPost]

HuffPost’s Jena Hatch, a reporter from Sacramento, is on the ground in California this week covering the Camp fire, which has quickly become the most destructive fire in the state’s history. Some of the refugees Hatch is talking to she’s known for years; others she’s meeting for the first time. She’s there with photographer Cayce Clifford, whose work you can see above and in Hatch’s stories. We asked Hatch about the trip: here.

FIRE SURVIVORS FACE MUDSLIDES California is expected to finally get some rain in the next couple of days ― bringing relief from the flames, but also a very real danger of mudslides. [HuffPost]

FINNISH PRESIDENT: TRUMP WRONG ON ‘RAKING’ The president of Finland said he didn’t talk to Trump about wildfires during their brief interaction earlier this month, contradicting the U.S. president’s assertion that the Scandinavian nation spent “a lot of time on raking and cleaning” their forests. Baffled Finns took to social media to mock Trump’s lie. [HuffPost]

California wildfires, over 1,000 people missing


Firefighters taking on the Woolsey Fire in Southern California [photo courtesy Cal Fire]

By Evan Blake in the USA:

Death toll rises to 71, more than 1,000 missing from devastating California wildfires

17 November 2018

The ongoing wildfires in California, including the most deadly and destructive in the state’s history, are a horrific exposure of the collapse of social infrastructure and the consequences of government neglect.

The immense toll is just beginning to be comprehended. On Friday, the official death toll from the Camp Fire in Northern California reached 71, while the number of missing persons skyrocketed from 631 to 1,011.

The Woolsey Fire in Southern California began on November 8 and has destroyed over 98,300 acres, roughly the size of Denver, Colorado. Over 295,000 people have been forced to evacuate the region, and there have been three confirmed deaths as of this writing. The fire is now 69 percent contained.

In Butte County, Northern California, the Camp Fire began on the same day and has caused far greater damage. The fire currently encompasses 146,000 acres, with 50 percent containment, and has forced 52,000 people to evacuate. The fire has destroyed 12,263 structures, including 9,844 single residences and 144 multiple residences.

Another 15,500 structures are still threatened by the Camp Fire, which is not expected to be fully contained until November 30 at the earliest. Statewide, roughly 9,400 firefighters have been deployed to fight the ongoing fires, of whom roughly 1,500 are prison inmates that are paid a meager $1 per hour.

The largely working-class, elderly towns of Paradise and Magalia, as well as multiple smaller census-designated places, have been essentially wiped off the map by the Camp Fire. Each day, an average of eight new bodies have been found in the rubble, as nearly 500 search-and-rescue personnel survey the area.

On Thursday, the number of missing people skyrocketed from 300 to 631, then to 1,011 on Friday evening. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has said that officials have finally processed all the 911 calls and missing person reports made over the past week.

A map of the building damage in Paradise, CA and surrounding areas

Officials have not released the names of all 1,011 missing people, but the most recent public list showed that the vast majority are elderly, with 91 percent over the age of 50, and therefore more likely to have perished given the rapidity of the wildfire’s spread and the complete lack of a citywide warning system.

The Camp Fire will likely rank among the top five deadliest wildfires in US history, and the deadliest since the Cloquet Fire in Minnesota killed an estimated 1,000 people in 1918. The fact that such a devastating event could take place in modern America speaks to the immense social crisis of contemporary capitalism, which subordinates all aspects of social life to the pursuit of private profit.

Beyond those killed or made homeless by the Camp Fire, millions more have been impacted across the Northern California region, as toxic particulate matter has fanned out and spread hundreds of miles westward, creating hazardous air for millions of residents in the densely populated Bay Area, as well as large parts of the Central Valley.

According to the air quality-monitoring network Purple Air, Northern California currently has the most polluted air in the world, worse than notoriously smoggy cities in India and China. On Friday afternoon, the air quality reached the highest “hazardous” rating on the Air Quality Index scale in the cities of Chico and Oroville, where most Camp Fire evacuees have fled, as well as the heavily populated Sacramento region, effecting over 600,000 people. At least 25 other cities in Northern California ranked in the highly toxic “Unhealthy” and “Very Unhealthy” range.

The cumulative, long-term health impact of this air pollution may never be fully known. The toxic air can cause asthma attacks and prompt strokes and heart attacks. Due to the fact that school funding is tied to attendance, almost every major school district in the region remained open throughout the week, until conditions became so bad that they were forced to close on Friday. Ambulances were sent to schools in the region Thursday to hospitalize students having severe asthma attacks.

Air quality monitors across Northern California show hazardous conditions for millions [Courtesy wunderground.com]

US President Donald Trump—who has feuded with the state’s Democratic politicians—initially threatened to cut off federal funding to the state. He has since backpedaled slightly, and the White House announced Thursday that Trump will visit “individuals impacted by the wildfires” this Saturday.

Whatever empty platitudes Trump issues during his visit, his administration will do nothing to make survivors whole or address any of the underlying causes of the epidemic of wildfires that have ravaged California in recent years. Nor will the Democratic politicians that run the state, including Governor Jerry Brown or Governor-elect Gavin Newsom.

Both parties are responsible for this catastrophe. Funding for the state agencies that oversee fire prevention and management has been continually cut in recent decades at both the state and federal level, while the energy monopoly Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has been allowed to subordinate public safety to its private profit.

In a report published last June, Cal Fire found that PG&E equipment caused 16 wildfires last year, 11 of which involved violations of state fire prevention codes, making them potentially liable for $15 billion in damages. Southern California Edison, which provides energy for much of Southern California—including the region impacted by the Woolsey Fire—admitted in late October that its equipment helped spark the massive 2017 Thomas Fire that killed two people and burned over 280,000 acres.

However, in September Governor Brown signed into law SB 901, which limits the potential damages for which utilities are liable. The law also allows regulators to reduce assessed damages when weather exacerbates the disaster, and to take into account the company’s “financial status” to limit the costs to shareholders and allow the utilities to raise rates on the public.

PG&E shares have fallen by as much as 53 percent since the Camp Fire began, as the first ignition point for the fire is reported to have been under PG&E power lines near the Poe Dam. PG&E acknowledged Tuesday that it had submitted an “electric incident report” moments prior to the outbreak of the fire, sending its shares plummeting.

In response, late Thursday California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker held a private meeting with Wall Street investors and analysts, in which he reportedly said that he wishes to avoid a PG&E bankruptcy, and that he will allow the company to pass on wildfire-related costs to customers through a bond-purchasing program. After-hours trading caused PG&E stock to surge more than 44 percent, erasing the day’s 30 percent decline.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Picker stated, “If [PG&E] can’t borrow money, if they have liquidity problems and they can’t do vegetation management, that’s a problem. That’s not good policy, to really let them get financially unstable.”

Almost all of California’s electricity is transmitted through wooden aboveground power lines, which are known to cause wildfires due to poor maintenance. Two rational but more expensive solutions are the use of underground lines or steel aboveground lines. Instead, PG&E has since 2013 begun cutting power to entire regions that experience conditions conducive to wildfires. In the days prior to the Camp Fire, PG&E sent warnings to customers in Butte County that they would temporarily cut power, indicating that they knew conditions were ripe for a wildfire. However, no cutoff was made before the fire broke out.

Both the Democrats and Republicans preside over a capitalist system that has proven incapable of addressing climate change, which is responsible for increasingly extreme and unpredictable global weather patterns. The 2011-2017 California drought was the driest period in state history since records began in 1895. Then 2017 brought one of the wettest years in state history, while 2018 has seen a return of drought conditions. The Camp Fire itself began after 210 continuous days without rain in the region.

The experience of the Camp Fire has affected millions of people and will deepen the ongoing radicalization of the working class. As Robert Starling, a restaurant dishwasher who fled the Camp Fire in Magalia, told the World Socialist Web Site, “This country has failed. We need to have an overhaul. I don’t know how it’s going to be done, if it’s going to take another revolution. […] Things like this will make people mad and instill enough drive to do it.”

In a socialist society, the major corporations, including PG&E and Edison International, would be nationalized. Billions would be reallocated from the military and the bank accounts of the super-rich toward the rational planning of cities, including the universal use of underground or metal aboveground electrical infrastructure. Emergency response technology would provide instant notification of any wildfires or other extreme weather events, and fire departments would be fully funded to prevent any future outbreaks. Programs to halt and reverse human-induced climate change would create a stable climate and lay the basis for sustaining future generations of mankind.