By Brian Martel
Devastating wildfires have torn through areas of the west coast over the past week, causing multiple deaths and in some cases, burning entire towns. The fire’s impact can be seen across the western US as ash rains down from red, smoke filled skies. For some time, these wildfires have been getting worse every year.
Many people have been put at greater risk due to land speculation in fire prone areas. Capitalists have increasingly been purchasing land in areas of high fire risk to develop and sell. A large part of this is the ‘suburbanization’ occurring around large cities, a result of the working class being pushed out of the city centers.
For over a century, the state’s policy has been to aggressively extinguish every wildfire, which has caused a buildup of underbrush. This extra foliage acts as fuel for successive fires, meaning that when a fire does burn out of control, it is hotter and larger than it otherwise would be. The policy of immediate suppression has been used due to it being cheaper in the short term to put out a small fire, even if it means any future fire that gets out of control would become a major disaster.
When these large fires do occur, there aren’t nearly enough resources devoted to stopping them. Wildlands firefighters are paid low wages to do extremely strenuous and dangerous work. Constant smoke inhalation typically leads to lasting health conditions for long term wildlands firefighters; they are also at risk of death from falling branches, faulty equipment, and getting caught in fires.
A major source of labor for fighting wildfires comes from prisoners who are typically paid only a few dollars per day. One third of all year-round Cal Fire personnel are inmates. This year, however, COVID-19 has prisons on lockdown which has deprived the state of this source of nearly-free labor. Reliance on now-unavailable cheap labor, on top of the ongoing economic crisis, means that the state is simply unable to cope with this disaster.
This year’s fires are also the culmination of years of drought and a record heatwave resulting from climate change, itself caused by the contradictions within capitalist production. Under capitalism, the forces of production become forces of destruction, and the ruling class allows the people to lose their homes, belongings, and lives at the hands of this destruction as long as they continue to rake in their profits.
Like other natural disasters in capitalist society, these fires have mainly affected the working class. Fires have burned through working class neighborhoods and RV parks unchecked, while wealthy neighborhoods with the necessary precautions have been spared. Hit particularly hard have been the small towns and the city outskirts which contain the highest concentrations of working class people.
Echoing Trump’s campaign to criminalize protesters as ‘Antifa’, reactionaries have begun a misinformation campaign saying that ‘Antifa’ is behind fires started in Southern Oregon. Even senate candidate Paul Romero has been actively spreading these baseless rumors. This is a clear attempt to criminalize the protest movement which has been going strong for months in Portland. It is but one example of the reactionary misinformation campaigns against protesters and the broader reactionary tactic of using the most oppressed people as a scapegoat for the ravages of capitalism.
These reactionaries cling desperately to the decaying US imperialist system which is the cause of these ever worsening crises, but this system has proven itself to be outdated and incapable of dealing with the disasters it creates. Crises like this cannot begin to be addressed until this system has been swept from the earth.