California wildfires: Climate change, prison labour and the electric company

November 15, 2019
California prisoners fight wildfires.

The intense wildfires that have gripped California since July seem to have abated.

The fires were concentrated in the area north of San Francisco and the upmarket west side of Los Angeles and the devastation wrought was covered by the mainstream media in graphic detail.

What the media downplayed, or did not cover at all, however, was the cause underlying the great intensification of these fires in recent years, and other related issues.

Barely mentioned (and then only in passing) is the glaring underlying cause of climate change due to global warming.

California has what is known as a “Mediterranean climate” — a rainy season in the late autumn, winter and early spring — and a dry season for the rest of the year. Vegetation flourishes in the rainy season, then much of it dries out in the yearly drought. By the end of summer and into autumn, this creates abundant fuel for forest fires.

This climate creates high winds in certain mountainous areas. In California’s central valley, temperatures become high in the virtual desert. The expanding hot air rises as it encounters the low mountains to the west, then picks up speed as it crosses the valleys and mountains, and drops down into the area below towards the ocean, where it gradually lessens.

Hot air, low humidity, abundant fuel and wind mean the areas north of San Francisco, the hilly side of the San Francisco Bay Area and the hills on Los Angeles’ west side are prone to fires.

Over the years, the flora and fauna in these regions have adapted to fires. But global warming has upset this equilibrium, qualitatively intensified the fires and increased their number.

Global warming has raised desert temperatures in the dry season by more than the average global increase, intensifying wind speeds. In the largest fire this year, north of San Francisco, winds reached unheard of speeds of 100km per hour, with gusts of 130kmph and even 160kmph on one occasion — hurricane-force winds.

Higher temperatures mean lower humidity and both contribute to the ferociousness of fires.

Another feature of climate change — Arctic warming — is having an impact on the California fires. The Arctic is warming much more quickly than scientists had thought. It is also warming more than the average global temperature rise. This has affected the jet stream, and weakened it.

This means that weather systems can stay around longer than in the past. This happened during the high temperatures in the recent wildfires in California, prolonging the danger.

The jet stream also wanders more as a result. As I write this, the jet stream is above California, near the Canadian border, but then turns abruptly well into the south, allowing colder Arctic air to plunge into much of the United States. Global warming deniers use this to bolster their fake arguments.

In recent years, global warming has lengthened the dry season and the fire season. This may be upset by the unpredictability of the jet stream.

Prisoner labour fighting fires

A fact concerning the recent wildfires the mainstream media completely ignores is the use of prisoners as firefighters. The difficulty in battling the fires necessitated the use of 4000 fire fighters from across the state and from nearby western states, including 700 California prisoners.

Regular firefighters earn an annual mean wage of about US$74,000 a year plus benefits, while the prisoner firefighters earn about $1 an hour.

The very low wages that are typically paid to prisoners for their work is rooted in the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War, which abolished slavery. However, it made an exception, allowing prisoners to be forced into “involuntary servitude”.

This exception was one of the pillars of reaction to the Civil War and Reconstruction that established the “Jim Crow” period of extreme oppression of Blacks in the South, epitomised by the infamous chain gangs. It was also used in the rest of the country, and after the overthrow of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s, to justify low wages or no wages for prisoners’ work in the jails or outside.

Democracy Now! is the only media reporting on the prisoner fire fighters. They are fully trained and as Democracy Now! found in visits to the firefighter camps, “very treasured by the free fire fighters, because they do so much of the most dangerous work”.

These incarcerated fire fighters appreciate getting out in the open air and doing something that is quite socially useful. However, they find that, in spite of their training and experience, they are not allowed to become regular fire fighters once released.

Democracy Now! interviewed Amika Mota, a former prisoner fire fighter, who is now policy director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco. She said: “I think it doesn’t really make sense that we come home and there's this barrier.

“We are not able to get [Emergency Medical Training] licenses [because of our prison records], which is what we need to be working at municipal fire departments.

“We have folks that are really trained up and have the potential to come home and be a really productive member of society and have stable careers, and that is not happening.”

Role of Pacific Gas and Electric

Another big issue concerning these wildfires is the role of the private utility company that covers much of northern and central California, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E).

Even before this year’s fires, it was proven that PG&E’s rickety and old electrical system was responsible for sparking many fires in recent years, including some that caused the most horrific destruction of whole cities and loss of life.

PG&E has neglected to maintain its high and low voltage lines and towers and to clear away trees and dry brush from around them. In high winds, these trees can blow down, bringing power lines down with them.

Over a decade ago, I learned from a PG&E operator in a control facility (a fellow socialist) that the company was laying off maintenance workers while its systems were deteriorating.

Many lawsuits have been brought against the company for its role in sparking fires. As a result, prior to this year’s fires, PG&E was forced into bankruptcy.

In an attempt to avoid more lawsuits, the company instigated major blackouts on days when high fire risks were declared this year. These blackouts lasted for days and affected millions and PG&E should pay the cost.

Mass evacuation orders in front of the fires have affected tens of thousands, forcing them into makeshift shelters, many into tents.

California Governor Gavin Newsom blasted PG&E for its deliberate failure to maintain its infrastructure in order to increase its bottom line. This should be treated as a criminal offense; given the loss of life and destruction PG&E helped cause. However, none of the PG&E officials who carried out this deliberate policy have been indicted.

What does Newsom propose? Using bonds backed by the state treasury to raise funds to bail out PG&E and help it make the huge investments necessary to rectify its systems — shades of the big bailouts of the financial institutions in the Great Recession.

Newsom has received big donations from PG&E to his election campaigns. His wife has received their funds to her charity.

There has been an outcry against the bailout, which is presently on hold.

As a first step, PG&E shareholders, which include big banks, should be forced to pay the municipalities and individuals what the company owes them as a result of their lawsuits.

PG&E is a monopoly, which charges billions to its customers, pays its shareholders and managers big bucks, and refuses to spend those billions to maintain its systems.

PG&E should be nationalised by the state and made into a public utility, without compensation to the big stockholders, who should be forced to pay the billions needed to remake the entire electrical system.

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