California and the Pacific Northwest ravaged by worst wildfires in US history

Wildfires in California, 26 June, 2020 (Photo: Bureau of Land Management/CC)

On July 24th, lightning sparked the first fires of what would become one of the worst wildfire seasons in US history.  Just under two months later almost 5,800,000 million acres have burned in California and the Pacific Northwest, and in the state of Oregon half a million people have been given the notice to evacuate or be prepared to leave at any moment.  Residents of California and Washington state are also facing a future where they have no homes, having to rebuild their lives from the homes of family members, hotel rooms, or homeless shelters.   By 17th September, there was no hope in sight as the fires in the West and South were hardly contained.

The scale and suddenness of these disasters have been a shock to countless communities but was no surprise to the leadership of the US Forest Service and California state fire agencies.  The causes are known; in the preceding years, there has been a lack of controlled burns and clearing of fire fuel in the Western states.  And yet, as simple as the solution is, funds and resources have not been allocated to agencies that could have prevented this catastrophe.  These preventative measures would have easily saved the federal government millions of dollars, and prevented the disruption of thousands of people’s lives.

On September 14th, President Trump had a briefing on the wildfires in which he congratulated himself on approving California’s request for disaster status (making Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)  funds and services available) and remarked on how the combined forces of state and federal governments have 230 people “ fighting the August complex fire, and that’s the largest fire in California.”  That is an insanely low number for the largest fires in California’s history. In the month since the fires started, only 30% of containment has been reached.  According to Trump, there are 28,000 firefighters and first responders in the Pacific states handling the situation. But the results have been poor. Fire damage has been very costly and widespread due to the large conflagrations.

Furthermore, while Hurricanes Laura and Sally were flooding five coastal states, and wildfires immolated the west, FEMA was missing $44 billion in disaster relief funds because they were used for Trump’s paltry and inadequate Covid-19 response (the CARES act), and FEMA’s funds were not replenished.  The decision to withdraw those funds was made after the Trump administration had been repeatedly warned that climate change was going to cause unprecedented damages from storms and fires.

In the US disasters are not prepared for and government responses are criminally slow because of a lack of investment and also because disaster is viewed as profitable by the capitalist class. The big bosses see these disasters as ‘opportunities’ – clean slates for investment.  And this is not a glitch or side effect of capitalism; this is how the profit system is supposed to work. Without disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the capitalist class would not have had the opportunity to replace the property of New Orleans’ residents with expensive condos, and the education system could not have been privatised using a charter school system.

As time goes on, disasters are only going to worsen and many more regions will face similar fates to New Orleans and the American West. Capitalist society will never be willing to mount a real response to global climate change because capitalism is built to profit from disasters and to exploit populations too displaced and shocked to organize against these predatory practices. Capitalism’s reliance on short-term profit and infinite profit growth means that it will never meaningfully address climate change before it is far too late. This is why we can never trust any capitalist party, anywhere, to help fight climate change.

The only solution to capitalism’s cycle of preventable disasters and tragedy is socialism.  When working people have the power they will take care of themselves and each other, and not be subject to the profiteering of billionaires. A socialist society would be able to coordinate on a global scale to combat Climate Change and prepare communities for natural disasters. A socialist society would be able to break the power of the fossil fuel companies, take them under public ownership, and begin the necessary transition towards renewable energy. A socialist society could plan and fund a socialist-green ‘New Deal’, putting millions back to work in good unionized jobs.

The working class must move society forward if we are to have a society at all!


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September 2020