Fire! Climate Catastrophe at Home

Image credit: AP Photo / Noah Berger

Climate change is bringing what scientists and environmentalists have warned about for decades: violent environmental events that pose huge problems for humanity. A massive heat dome hovering over the southwest of the U.S. is causing record-breaking temperature spikes in California. Triple-digit temperatures have been recorded across the state, concerning health experts who remember a similar heat wave that caused thousands of hospitalizations in 2006. Napa beat its previous record from over 100 years ago, reaching 103°F, while Death Valley hit a scorching 130°F. As temperatures climbed, a rare electrical storm, caused by increased moisture and heat from a tropical storm 1,000 miles away, hit the hot, dry state, sparking massive wildfires. Year after year of high temperatures and low precipitation were combined with the storm to spark intense fires that spread rapidly on the dry terrain. The smoke created by these fires has polluted the air, leaving many in the impossible situation of baking in the heat at home or breathing toxic fumes outdoors.

But the heat and fires aren’t the only thing Californians have to worry about. On Friday, August 14, hundreds of thousands of residents were told they would lose power in the coming days due to a lack of energy supply. Normally, electrical grids have emergency plans and back-up generators for such events. At the very least, they should be able to give advance notice of coming shortages with proper monitoring. None of that happened. Instead, several of the back-up electricity generators failed and neighboring states, which typically are able to send additional power, didn’t have any to spare. And since no one predicted it, no contingency plan was in place. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The California energy system has been declining for decades. In the 1990s, the state’s electrical grid was broken up and sold off to private interests who made extra money jacking up prices and using the system for speculation and trading. The result is a broken system incapable of coordinating and preparing for emergencies, repeatedly putting profits before maintenance and safety.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has criticized those in charge of the grid for mismanagement. He made a big show calling for an investigation into the problem, but many of those he criticized were appointed by him in the first place! He has taken no concrete steps to resolve the underlying issues that caused this crisis. The systemic failures go beyond the energy grid. Cal Fire, the state fire agency, has been unable to contain the 600 wildfires sparked by electrical storms. This is because the state cuts costs every chance it gets. One cost-cutting program uses inmates to fight fires, paying them only a dollar an hour. These prisoners work some of the most dangerous tasks climbing through rough terrain, with no chance of getting a job in the field later on. They are brutally exploited and heartlessly exposed to death by fire. But now, because prisoners have experienced a deadly wave of coronavirus infections, some of those that would usually work in the program have been released from prison in hopes of avoiding further outbreaks. The state has a capacity to exploit 3,400 inmate firefighters, but currently has only deployed 1,306. If the state was more focused on safety than on cost-cutting, we might be in a better position.

This system brings us crisis after crisis, piling one on top of the other to create the flaming garbage heap currently engulfing California. As of Saturday night, August 22, 119,000 people have had to evacuate their homes due to over one million acres having caught fire, with five dead. Over 200,000 people have had to deal with rolling blackouts. The climate crisis has come home, and in response, this system is only adding fuel to the flames. This is life in the capitalist nightmare.