Record wildfires in the San Francisco Bay Area rapidly erupted in less than two weeks, in the midst of a scorching heat wave.
As of August 24, nearly 120,000 people have fled their homes as nearly 5000 square kilometres have burned and area greater than the state of Rhode Island. Two of the wildfires rank as the second- and third-largest in California’s history – and they’re still growing. The largest wildfire was in 2018.
This is happening during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused increased difficulties for those evacuated from their homes. The areas where they find refuge must obey physical distancing rules, so cannot hold as many people.
More than 1200 homes and other structures have been destroyed.
One of the oldest reserves of giant redwood trees — some more than 2000 years old — has been set ablaze. Some redwoods may be saved due to their fire-resistant bark — which accounts for their old age, having endured many fires — but many have been destroyed. Already, the soaring tops of many of these trees, where their branches and green needles grow, have been burnt, and it will take years for them to grow back.
There have been 700 fires, with two dozen major fires that firefighters are still battling.
The fires sprang up in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, encompassing a region from the city to its north, east and south.
Thick smoke, creating unhealthy conditions, has spread over the region, impacting 8 million people.
The fires were ignited by a freak “dry lightning” storm which unleashed about 1200 strikes in one night. Dry lightning happens when the air below the storms is hot enough to evaporate most, or all, of the accompanying rain, before it reaches the ground.
So these strikes sparked the fires without the rain that could have dampened them.
The lightning storm was caused by the remnants of a tropical storm that tracked north in the Pacific region from Mexico, then veered into central California and continued further north, encountering the heat wave.
California has two seasons, a wet one in the late northern hemisphere autumn and winter and then a dry one in late spring to autumn. Vegetation grows during the wet season and then dries out, providing tinder for fires.
Within the dry season, two types of fire seasons have occurred in recent years. One, which runs from June to September, is driven by a combination of warmer and drier weather. Those fires tend to be more inland, in higher elevation forests. This is what we are experiencing now.
The second runs from October to April, even in the wet season, and is driven by strong westerly hot winds coming from deserts east of California, that cross mountains into the state. These fires tend to spread three times as fast and burn closer to urban areas. That’s what we can look forward to.
While Californians have come to expect wildfires in the dry months, climate change has drastically increased the number of fires as well as their intensity, as we have seen markedly over the past decade. One indication of the effect of global warming is that, during this decade, ten of the largest wildfires have broken out in the state’s recorded history. Records have been kept since 1932.
Dr Park Williams of Columbia University’s Earth Observatory said in the August 22 New York Times: “Behind the scenes of all this is, you’ve got temperatures that are two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than they would’ve been without global warming.” This has resulted in drier conditions over the past decade.
Determining the links between any individual fire and climate change takes time and analysis from the evolving science studying this. However, the effects of the greenhouse gases human activity produces underlie everything that occurs in the atmosphere, including the tendency of climate change to make dry places even drier over time. The states in the west, including California, can expect an increasingly fiery future.
Reflecting the austerity policies of capitalism, just as the United States’ health system was pared down to where it had no reserves to deal with the pandemic when it struck, the fire fighting system in many states, including California, is stretched thin.
The thinned out number of firefighters has been augmented by the use of trained prisoner firefighters.
One intersection of the pandemic with the fires is that, because the prisons have become epicentres of the virus, some prisoners with less than five years remaining on their sentences have been allowed to go home. Many of the prisoners trained in firefighting come from this group, resulting in a greatly reduced pool of firefighters.
California is asking other states and even Australia to send firefighters to alleviate this crisis, which will only get worse in the months ahead.
Given the institutionalised system of mass incarceration, which is the source of the “New Jim Crow” racist system afflicting the oppressed Black population and other peoples of colour, it is no wonder that the prisoner firefighters welcome the chance to get outdoors. They are often used for the most dangerous and difficult jobs, including clearing lines to contain the fires.
They are “paid” US$1 an hour. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution passed after the Civil War outlawed slavery — except for prisoners. This was famously used as part of the Jim Crow system, exemplified by the notorious “chain gangs”, but is still used today, to outsource slave prison labour to contractors for a price, to help finance the mass incarceration system.
As far as the prison firefighters are concerned, the state doesn’t pay the prisons, but uses these firefighters to reduce its number of regular firefighters, cutting expenses.
Obviously the regular firefighters are fighting to expand the number of regulars, instead.
But, the prisoner firefighters love their jobs. A recent article in the NYT reports: “Some Californians, including former inmate firefighters, say the program provides a sense of purpose, offering prisoners a chance to prove themselves, and the satisfaction of helping others.”
“It gave me a sense of direction and a sense of worth,” Francis Lopez, who spent a year as an inmate firefighter, told the NYT.
“There are people high-fiving you, there are big signs saying ‘thank you to the inmates for fighting our fires, for saving our homes’. You can see that and you think, ‘Wow, I can do good. I can be a person who is being respected.'”
Lopez also said that inmates should be given a direct path to a firefighting job once they are released.
However, fire departments are loath to hire people with prison records.
This experience indicates what a workers’ state could do, while dismantling the system of mass incarceration and slave labour, in providing real socially useful jobs with pay to offenders as part of the transition to abolishing prisons altogether under socialism.
Returning to climate change, a rare event is now occurring on the other side of the country: two hurricanes simultaneously forming in the Gulf of Mexico aimed at the US — a harbinger of what experts predict will be an intensification of the hurricane season this year.
Global warming impacts on hurricanes in two ways: It warms the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf, imparting more energy to hurricanes; as well as increasing moisture in the atmosphere, thus causing heavier rains.
Disturbingly, such intensification is probably linked to what became the dry storm that set off the current fires in California.