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Vol. 81/No. 40      October 30, 2017

(front page)

Deaths, damage from California fires heightened
by capitalism

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The first time Rose Ruiz suspected something was wrong was around midnight when she saw news of the fires on Facebook, she told members of the Socialist Workers Party who came here to show solidarity. When she went outside to check, she saw flames rising nearby. She and her husband grabbed the children, jumped in the car and fled.

Under the impact of strong winds, some in excess of 50 mph, the fires quickly swept through Sonoma, Napa and nearby counties. Some fires advanced more than a football field every three seconds. Santa Rosa was one of the hardest hit places.

The area is home to hundreds of wineries, with grape vineyards lining the hillsides and valleys.

And the situation of workers affected by the disaster is made worse by the workings of the dog-eat-dog capitalist system, which puts profits first and always before human needs.

Ruiz and her mother, Jerri Sedeno, were among the volunteers gathered in front of a market in Santa Rosa Oct. 15, near an area of the city the fire swept through. They were giving away toothbrushes, diapers, clothes and other items donated by people in the area to those who lost homes or had evacuated.

“They didn’t send out an alert, like the Amber Alerts,” Ruiz told us. Her mother added, “Everyone was on their own. We got no help in getting out.”

Many residents learned of the danger only when the fire approached their doorsteps, some dodging flames and flying embers as they rushed to their cars. The death toll of those unable to flee in time is up to 40, with dozens still reported missing.

A week after the fires began, heavy smoke with particulates dangerous to health hung over the whole area. And although the fires were more contained, some were still burning.

Smoke and particles darkened the sky in the Bay Area and forced cancellation of high school football games and other outdoor events.

Some 5,700 houses and other structures have been burned to the ground, with many others severely damaged. Areas with large homes were hit as well as working-class neighborhoods. But it’s working people who face the biggest challenges.

Blanca Tucker, a factory worker, who fled her home in the middle of the night, told us she was appreciative of the volunteers distributing clothes, towels and toiletries. Neither she nor her children had been able to change clothes for a week, she said.

A worker selling masks at Home Depot for protection from the heavy smoke said that farmworkers who had no other place to stay were staying near the store at night and in the nearby Walmart parking lot.

Ninety percent of the grape harvest is already in, but some farmworkers have been working without protective masks in unharvested fields drenched in ashes and smoke.

In addition to those made homeless, many workers have lost jobs due to the destruction of stores, hotels and other businesses. In an area already noted for skyrocketing rents and high prices for homes, affordable housing will be hard to find.

Although this was the biggest fire to hit northern California since the 1930s, it was far from unexpected. Fall fires at the end of the dry season, exacerbated by winds, are a yearly event in this state.

This season the danger was increased because of years of drought along with an increase in burnable vegetation that grew up during last winter’s rains.

Nevertheless, state and county officials failed to make adequate preparations that could save lives, livelihoods and homes.

A prime suspect in the search for the causes of many of the fires is PG&E, the privately owned electrical company. The night the fires began, emergency fire crews in Sonoma County were sent out to at least 10 different locations to deal with exploding transformers, sparking wires and other problems with the electrical system amid the high winds.

PG&E cuts back maintenance

PG&E has a long history of hefty fines for cutting back on maintenance, including keeping trees and vegetation away from power lines and transformers. In April the state Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $8.3 million for failing to maintain a power line that sparked the Butte Fire in Amador County in 2015. That fire burned for 22 days, killing two and incinerating over 70,000 acres.

Company spokespeople always say the fires weren’t their fault, because the winds were out of control. But in the 1994 Rough and Ready fire, PG&E bosses were found guilty of 739 counts of negligence. It was determined they diverted nearly $80 million from their tree-cutting program, turning it into profits.

God forbid the utility bosses should consider burying the power lines underground in this wildfire-prone region.

Added to this has been the rapid expansion of housing developments into wooded and rural areas here, with little attention paid to the danger of building in areas prone to fires.

These areas are in what are called “wildland-urban interface areas,” where the houses are literally surrounded by potential tinder. Because of this, insurance costs soar and many residents aren’t made aware of the danger.

After the disaster, residents will face challenges trying to collect insurance — if they have any. Only 40 percent of home renters have insurance and some 60 percent of all people with insurance don’t have enough.

Michael Mallory, a firefighter at the beginning of a 48-hour shift, was one of those gathered in front of the market in Santa Rosa, where his wife organized distribution of clothes and other necessities. Human solidarity by working people has been key in reducing harm and loss, from hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean to the wildfires.

Mallory told us about the crucial role hundreds of prisoners play who are trained to fight the fires that break out every year at the end of the dry season.

“Without these groups what is needed to fight these fires would never get done,” he said. The media has given very little credit to the contribution of these fellow workers — or the fact they’re only paid $1 an hour.

Norton Sandler contributed to this article.
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