California fire catastrophe is a product of capitalist greed

By Jeff Powers
August 23, 2021

PARADISE, Calif. — High winds and extremely dry vegetation are fueling the Dixie Fire that has grown to burn over 450,000 acres — twice the size of New York City and the second-largest fire in California history. The historic town of Greenville has been completely incinerated and several other towns in the area are threatened. Cal Fire says the blaze is only 21% contained, down from 35% a few days ago, as it continues to grow. Unhealthy, smoky haze from the fire has poisoned skies from Denver to Philadelphia.

“PG&E is culpable,” Julie Whited, who now lives in the nearby town of Live Oak, told the Militant by phone Aug. 7. Utility officials admit that employees saw sparks from their equipment set a tree on fire near here, the likely cause of the Dixie Fire.

In 2018 Whited lost everything she owned. Her home here, along with almost all of the town, was burned to the ground in the Camp Fire, the deadliest blaze in California history. That fire killed at least 85 people, destroyed close to 19,000 structures and incinerated 150,000 acres.

In 2020 Pacific Gas & Electric bosses pled guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter, acknowledging that their equipment — a failed 100-year-old power line — was responsible for the deaths and destruction.

The dog-eat-dog profit drive at the heart of the capitalist system shapes the morals and practices of the utility bosses, like all employers and the politicians they control, while workers pay the price.

On Aug. 7, Socialist Workers Party campaigners from Oakland returned to Paradise and knocked on doors in a newly constructed apartment complex. We introduced the SWP campaign of Dennis Richter for California governor in the Sept. 14 recall election and asked workers for their opinions.

The day we arrived the air was full of smoke from the Dixie Fire, which had started 10 miles away. If the wind had been blowing in a different direction, it’s likely nothing would still exist here. As it is, very little of Paradise has been rebuilt. It was the home to 26,000 people before it was destroyed in 2018.

“I lost everything that I valued in the Camp Fire,” Richard Reed, a checker at the local Save Mart grocery store, told us. “My next-door neighbor told me I had to leave. It was really frightening. Flames were on both sides of the road. I drove to Chico.

“I’m a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union and I was able to get a job at one of the Save Marts in Chico. I had to live in cheap hotels for four months and decided to move to Sacramento,” he said. “The union found work there for me too and gave $1,500 to help me out.

“PG&E pays fines and then they raise the bills of their customers,” Reed added. “My daughter lives in Yuba City and pays rent of $1,200 a month. Her monthly PG&E bill was $600.”

“Our unions need to lead a fight to nationalize PG&E and run it under workers control. We should demand open the books on all utilities’ transactions,” Joel Britton, SWP candidate in the 18th California State Assembly District, said. “That is the only way workers can enforce safety on the job and join with others to defend our communities and prevent PG&E from causing more disasters.”

A few apartments away team members met Blaine Gibson, a supervisor at Big 5 Sporting Goods. Gibson said that he and his sister, a veterinarian, had been determined to return to Paradise after the Camp Fire destroyed their rental home. “There is a sense of community here that we missed after we were forced to leave,” he said.

“It’s amazing the amount of human solidarity we saw after the Camp Fire,” SWP campaigner Carole Lesnick said. “People donated tents and sleeping bags and brought them to the Walmart parking lot where folks from Paradise ended up staying. Booths were set up to distribute food and clothing.

“This shows we need to organize in our millions to take power out the hands of the ruling capitalist families,” she said, “and replace them with a workers and farmers government so we can run things ourselves in the interests of the vast majority. That’s what the Socialist Workers Party is fighting for.”