Social crisis from West Coast fires caused by capitalist greed

By Eric Simpson
October 5, 2020
A few of the 1,200 workers in the “Hillbilly Brigade” who volunteered to fight fires gather for a meal at Hansen family farm after battling the Riverside Fire near Molalla, Oregon, Sept. 16.
Reuters/Shannon StapletonA few of the 1,200 workers in the “Hillbilly Brigade” who volunteered to fight fires gather for a meal at Hansen family farm after battling the Riverside Fire near Molalla, Oregon, Sept. 16.

GRIDLEY, Calif. — Since early August wildfires have burned out of control across California, Oregon and Washington state. Over 2 million acres have burned in California alone as of Sept. 20. These are some of the largest fires in that state’s history. Extremely hot weather, drought conditions, and violent lightning storms have all been factors. Smoke from the fires has spread smoky and unhealthy air up and down the coast.

Some 17,000 firefighters, and thousands of self-organized worker volunteers, are fighting fires across California today, sometimes working 64-hour shifts.

A team of Militant worker-correspondents  from Oakland met Bobby Joe and Bonita Gutierrez in an RV park here. They lost their house when Berry Creek, a town of just over 1,200 people, was wiped out by the North Complex Fire Sept. 9. They left home after their insurance agent let them know that the fire had flared up and was racing toward their town.

Adjacent forestland had not been thinned, nor had firebreaks been cut to protect the town. Grant money to do so, reportedly being freed up by the state, had been caught up in bureaucratic red tape and didn’t come in time to save the town. Twelve people died there.

“No government agency was willing to help us get the forest service road paved as an escape route. All they did was argue over who was responsible,” Bonita Gutierrez told us. “What politicians do is blame each other.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris, Democratic Party candidate for vice president and former California attorney general, visited fire-damaged areas outside of Fresno. They argued that the reason for the deadly fires was “climate change,” trying to turn the disaster to political advantage against President Donald Trump.

“Climate change is real. If you don’t believe in science, come to California and observe it with your own eyes,” Newsom said.

But droughts have wracked California for centuries, and both state officials and the state-sponsored monopoly Pacific Gas and Electric Company have refused to allocate resources to clear brush, organize back burns and create tree-free firebreaks that would sharply limit the spread of wildfires. Nor did they muster the workforce and equipment necessary, despite the state having spent $529 million since July 1 fighting wildfires.

The situation was made worse by PG&E’s decision to cut power to the area, making it more difficult for workers to get notice of the approaching fire.

This is a stark example of a natural disaster transformed into a social catastrophe by the workings of the for-profit capitalist system. Workers were left largely on their own to try and get out.

“The Socialist Workers Party and its presidential ticket of Alyson Kennedy and Malcolm Jarrett say working people and our unions need to fight for a massive federally funded program of public works to create millions of jobs at union scale for those thrown out on the streets today,” I said. “This would include putting people to work doing forestry, fighting fires, and repairing the electric transmission lines and towers that PG&E refuses to maintain. And to build housing, hospitals and other things workers need.”

“PG&E never cuts down the trees near power lines,” Gutierrez said.

“PG&E pled guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for the deaths in the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise,” I said. “Former Chief Executive Bill Johnson told the court he was taking responsibility ‘on behalf of the 23,000 men and women of PG&E.’ But it wasn’t PG&E workers who made the profit-driven decisions that caused the fire and deaths. It was the company’s bosses, who wanted to boost profits by cutting corners.”

Berry Creek is just a few miles from Paradise.

Is Johnson going to jail for the 84 deaths? No. The company will pay a $3.5 million fine. Johnson himself makes over $6 million a year.

Workers form ‘Hillbilly Brigade’

Residents of Molalla in Oregon were awakened in the middle of the night Sept. 7, as two fires were raging towards their town of 9,000 in the mountains south of Portland. In a matter of hours, some 1,200 people volunteered, as Oregon firefighters were overwhelmed by the huge fires across the state. They called themselves the “Hillbilly Brigade.”

Ranch hands, lumberjacks and workers of all trades brought bulldozers, chainsaws and other logging and farm equipment to cut emergency firebreaks and douse flames. “We were left on our own to stop this,” Nicole West, a 36-year-old ranch hand told Reuters. She was operating a bulldozer. “There wasn’t anyone coming from the state to save us. So we had to save ourselves.”

Working-class solidarity and collaboration were successful and the town was saved.