While some fires break out in the forests every summer, from lightening strikes in dry, hot weather conditions, the current ones are far more extensive. The British Columbia government took the unprecedented step in July of extending a state of emergency after ordering the evacuation of 45,000 people from their homes.
The fires shut down the province’s timber mills, copper mines and other industries. And they forced the evacuation of ranchers from their homes here and in other areas.
Forestry and related industries are the backbone of production in the province, accounting for over 145,000 jobs, nearly a quarter of all manufacturing employment here.
During a recent trip by supporters of the Communist League to talk politics with working people near the fire zone, we knocked on doors in working-class neighborhoods and discussed what could be done to better fight the fires and defend working people from their impact.
We found powerful examples of solidarity among workers, who stopped fires and minimized their effects, but also a high level of anger at the bureaucratic way the British Columbia rulers are responding.
“When I saw how fast the fire was moving,” said Christine O’Brien, a waitress at the Husky restaurant in Cache Creek, “I got ready to go with my three children in my truck. But I also made sure that my neighbors could leave safely, giving them an old car that we rapidly put back in service.”
“While the firefighters were ordered to retreat, I jumped on my backhoe and was able to save two houses from the flames,” Geronimo Adams told us as we stood outside his home, viewing the charred landscape of the Ashcroft Indian Reserve. “Instead of reaching out to people of the region, or at least consulting us, the government just kept sending us orders.”
He pointed to the government’s decision to prevent asparagus farmers from doing controlled burns on their fields, as they normally do each year. “The result is that these fields ended up feeding the wildfire, instead of becoming a natural fire break.”
At Clinton, a British Columbia Wildfire Service-controlled burn that was set in shifting winds got out of control and caused unnecessary damage, evacuations and killed livestock. “Many of the animals have suffered burns,” Greg Nyman, a rancher with over 120 head, told CBC News, “and many may die from their injuries.” He and many others in the area organized to demand compensation from the government, as well as an apology.
In mid-July, some 300 members of the Tl’etinqox First Nation in Alexis Creek decided to ignore evacuation orders and stay to fight the fires. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police responded by threatening to have the Ministry of Children and Family Services “remove all the children.” Tribal Chief Joe Alphonse said that they would set up roadblocks and prevent anything like that from happening. The RCMP backed down.
Well-equipped and experienced members of the Nation prevented the fire from devastating the village, and no one was hurt.
“Threatening to take Native children away from their parents is a reminder of the residential schools,” one Caucasian forestry worker told us. From the 1870s to 1996, more than 150,000 Native children were forcibly taken from their homes by the Canadian government and made to attend “Indian residential schools” that the federal government in Ottawa now admits were designed to “kill the Indian in the child.”
A 2014 Supreme Court decision here upheld the Tsihqot’in Nation’s claim for Aboriginal title to over 4,000 square kilometers (1,550 square miles) of land in central British Columbia, with unchartered implications for the forestry industry.
The provincial government claims ownership over some 95 percent of the forests in British Columbia, while Native people control 0.1 percent.
Creating fire protection zones around communities is the key to protecting working people. But that’s not the capitalist rulers’ priority. “It seems that governments are willing to protect the annual allowable cut at the expense of community hazard reduction,” fire ecologist Robert Gray wrote in a Vancouver Sun op-ed last summer after the disaster that burned through 1.5 million acres of forest and caused the evacuation of almost 100,000 people in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
“The management focus adjacent to communities is still maximizing timber production instead of hazard reduction,” Gray said in a July 30 Sun op-ed about this summer’s fires in British Columbia.
In our discussions, we said the government represents the interests of the big capitalist corporations, not those of working people in the fire zone. The only force capable of resolving the crises produced by capitalism is the working class advancing to unite all working people and fighting to defend our interests on the road to taking political power away from the capitalists.
Then we — the vast majority whose labor creates all the wealth — can make decisions based on human needs, not private profit.