CHICO, Calif. — “I went back to Paradise a month ago. I had been living in a trailer park. My home was completely destroyed,” Julie Whited said when a team of Socialist Workers Party campaigners knocked on her door here Feb. 20. “There is nothing left. I knew that before I got there but it was traumatic when I saw it.
“You were here before and we talked,” she said. “I bought a subscription to your paper. It is a good read.”
The disastrous Camp Fire last November she was describing killed at least 86 people and destroyed some 14,000 homes in Paradise and surrounding towns. It’s become crystal clear since that Pacific Gas and Electric Company bosses are responsible, as they have been for thousands of other fires in recent years. State authorities say PG&E equipment was the cause of 1,550 fires in 2017 — that’s an average of more than four a day. The company president quit and the remaining bosses declared bankruptcy Jan. 29.
“I think the only thing PG&E cares about is getting out of paying for the damages,” Whited said. “They’re responsible but they don’t care. They’re protecting the shareholders. They say they do not have enough money to pay the claims against them and will have to raise utility rates to cover their losses.”
The bosses knew they had a problem with the Caribou-Palermo power line that ran near Paradise. They proposed to fix it in 2013, then postponed implementation every year since. It never began. So on Nov. 8, 2018, they now admit, a wire snapped free from the line, creating an electric arc that scorched the metal tower supporting it. A few minutes later one of the utility company’s workers reported seeing a quarter-acre fire burning under the line. Within hours, the Camp Fire had destroyed Paradise and the surrounding area.
When they restarted the line afterwards, and inspected it, the company found a host of other problems. The line has since been shut down with no estimated restart date.
PG&E executives were previously convicted on felony charges for the 2010 San Bruno natural gas explosion that killed eight people.
Capitalist social catastrophe
There are fewer better examples of the murderous consequences of the dog-eat-dog capitalist profit system. Their efforts to prevent disasters like these were a joke. Xela Young, who lives in the area, told the Wall Street Journal that she saw PG&E crews there before the fire. “The same frickin’ tree got marked three times, but was never cleared,” she said.
“Escaping the fire was so dangerous with flames all around us. You weren’t sure you would be able to make it,” Whited said. “When I first got to this house, I had a hard time sleeping through the night. I would wake up with every little noise.”
After we showed her some of the literature we had brought, Whited got a copy of In Defense of the US Working Class, a book featuring a talk given in Cuba by SWP leader Mary-Alice Waters.
Another worker we met was Stephen Eddy, a member of the stage hands’ union who lives in Chico and works in San Francisco. He described how many people from Paradise are getting by with help and solidarity from workers here.
“If you drive through Chico you can see RVs and mobile homes parked next to houses,” he said. “People who live here have let others they never knew stay with them and they have let people park in front of their house and plug into their electricity.
“My landlord told me he is going to sell this house. I have lived here six years and pay the rent ahead,” Eddy said. “My landlord told me the demand for housing is so high he could get $250,000 for this small place. That’s Bay Area prices.”
Eddy bought an introductory subscription to the Militant and his friend, Randy Turley, who joined in the conversation, got a copy of Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? by SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes.
Paradise housing destroyed
While we were in the area, we drove into Paradise, which reminded me of photos I’ve seen of the devastation of towns in Europe that had been bombed during the second imperialist world war. Ninety percent of the buildings in the city that once housed 26,000 people were destroyed.
The signs for both the Burger King and McDonald’s are still standing, but there’s nothing else there but ruins. Scores of completely burned-out cars remain on the side of the roads where people left them as they fled the fire.
A few hundred former town residents have begun to return to Paradise. Most who have come back have an RV or a camper. Residents aren’t allowed to live in any house where there’s any fire damage. This means there are virtually no homes here legally habitable.
Assuming the company survives the bankruptcy, scads of lawsuits from victims of the fire, and avoids new criminal charges, PG&E bosses say they intend to pass all costs they incur onto their customers.