California: the wildfire crisis

Autumn 2021

[This article is reprinted from the bi-monthly Class Struggle journal of the US Trotskyist group, Spark 108: Aug-Sep 2021]

For the past decade, the entire western part of the United States has been in a worsening wildfire crisis. Every year wildfires have consumed forests, incinerated homes and drowned huge areas in choking smoke, often for weeks on end.

    But nowhere is this crisis more pronounced and long-standing than in California. Over the last 10 years, the number of wildfires in California has dramatically increased, along with their intensity and destructiveness. Last year’s fire season - 2020 - had been the worst, breaking all kinds of records. It scorched more than 4m acres across the state, double the previous record. Five of California’s 6 largest fires in modern history burned at the same time. The largest of the fires, the August Complex fire, became the largest fire in state history, scorching more than a million acres, or 1,614 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. 

    But now, as this is being written, the first half of 2021 is looking to be much worse than 2020, with more than twice as many acres already burned than during the same period last year, with hundreds more fires - even before the most dangerous months of late summer and early fall. 

    The consequences of these wildfires have been brutal. Hundreds of people have been killed because of direct exposure to the fires. Thousands more have died or had their health permanently damaged due to exposure to the smoke and bad air. Hundreds of thousands have been evacuated, often more than once. Tens of thousands of homes have been destroyed in regions where housing is already scarce and often unaffordable. And many face much higher bills for such necessities as electricity and water, not to mention insurance, even while utilities implement widespread and disruptive blackouts and shut-offs, supposedly in response to the threat of wildfires. 

    It seems obvious that climate change has played a significant role in the wildfire crisis in California, given the many-year drought and record-breaking temperatures. But climate change has simply exacerbated a problem already deeply embedded in the way capitalism developed this part of the world. In fact, wildfires were already growing larger, more intense and more destructive well before the obvious impact of climate change set in.

    Forty million people live in a landscape in which fire had long played a role, a landscape, however, that has been largely deprived of flame for more than a century.

Fighting fire with fire

In most of California, fire should be a normal and often essential part of the environment. In big parts of the state, it rains only during a few months of the late fall and winter. During the rest of the year, vegetation dries out and bakes under the sun, becoming potential kindling. 

    Researchers at the University of California estimate that before European settlers arrived, up to one-eighth of the state burned every year; that is, fires burned on a much wider scale than anything seen today. But these fires were not the kinds of conflagrations that the state is now experiencing. They were of low and medium intensity, and they actually served a kind of housekeeping purpose. For the fires regularly burnt up all the leaves, needles, branches, dead foliage and live under-brush that regularly builds up in forests. 

    The vegetation in landscapes like California evolved while burning periodically. For example, varieties of pine trees are resistant to fi res. When a fire moves through the forest, the pine cones open, and the seeds are released and spread by the wind. Fires also provide advantages for the survival and growth of the trees’ seedlings, for they clear out dense vegetation that chokes out light, while producing ash that nourishes the soil. 

    The native peoples, who had lived in California for at least 13,000 years, were skilled in the use of low-intensity fire. They burned young trees and brush to create and maintain meadows that would attract deer and elk. They burned undergrowth to beat back shrubs that would overwhelm berry plants. They burned some stands of oak trees to create smoke that would kill weevils and moths, which can infest other oaks’ acorns that they ground up into flour. They burned leaf litter to kill biting insects and clear pathways for travel and flush out game during hunts. 

    When the Spanish settled California in the 18th century, they began to decimate the indigenous population through disease and violence, and seized much of their land. At the same time, they forcibly ended the practice of low-intensity fire. The first official proclamation by a Spanish bureaucrat in California in 1793 was to outlaw ”Indian burning”, which was viewed as a threat to the Spanish cattle herds and pastures. When the United States took over California, after winning it in the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848, the US government passed a law which outlawed intentional burning in California even before it was a state. 

    Thus, the practice by humans of managing the forest by purposefully using fire ceased, to a great extent. 

    Of course, this didn’t prevent fires from breaking out anyway. But by ending the practice of using periodical fires that were somewhat controlled, there was a much greater build-up of burnable materials, making forests ever more prone to explosive ignition. Suppressing fires ensured the opposite of what was intended. It may have resulted in fewer fires, but, over time, they became much more destructive.

The rise of the lumber industry and fire suppression

When California became a state in 1850, it was the dawn of the age of the robber barons. In the early years, most of the land was still in the hands of the US government, which distributed millions of acres to big landowners. By the early 1880s, the federal government had handed over 11m acres, or one-tenth of all the land in California, to the Central (later Southern) Pacific Railroad. To cash in on this bonanza, the company sold off much of the land in big chunks, often to timber, mining and other large interests. 

    The California Gold Rush of 1849 signalled the beginning of the explosive development of California’s population and economy... along with devastating fires.

    Lumbering and saw mills were an integral part of that development. Wood was used for everything. In mining, it was needed for water flumes, mine timbers, fuel and building material. It was also needed for housing and business structures. 

    Railroad construction harvested the forests for railroad ties, bridges, trestles and fuel. The construction of snow sheds (roof structures) over the railroad tracks crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains as a protection from avalanches required 300m board feet of lumber, and another 20m board feet per year was required for annual maintenance. Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 opened up markets in the eastern part of the country for California lumber. 

    Entire forests were cut down. A California State Forestry Board report published in 1886 estimated that 20 years of cutting and fire had ”consumed and destroyed” one third of the Sierra Nevada’s timber. It further estimated that if the same rate of consumption was continued, all of the range’s forests would soon be cut. 

    The robber barons who owned the land, timber, mines and railroads enriched themselves greatly. But throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, millions of acres were destroyed by a series of deadly wildfires. They were caused by sparks from the new transcontinental railroad, as well as unsafe and wasteful practices common to the logging industry. For example, felled logs were frequently cut at the point where limbs began, leaving the rest behind to serve as fuel when fires started. Mining camps and entire towns were often consumed by fires. 

    To the land and timber barons, their holdings were too valuable to risk any fire. By the 1890s, loggers had already started to complain that the Sierra Nevada could be significantly more productive for timber harvesting if wildfires were suppressed, and they looked to the federal government for answers.

    In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, who according to the history books was a great conservationist, created the US Forest Service and made it a part of the Department of Agriculture in order to put the vast forests on public lands at the disposal of the big logging companies. One early head of the Forest Service forthrightly described his mission as being that of “a business manager, whose business it is to turn into profit the product of a forest property”. 

    Five years later, the Great Fire of 1910 burned 3m acres across Idaho, Montana, and surrounding areas, killed 89 people and destroyed several towns. This provided the pretext to usher in the era of zero tolerance for fires that the lumber industry had been demanding.

    At the time, not everyone was in agreement with this zero tolerance fire policy. In the administration of William Howard Taft, who had become president in 1909, Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger argued that “We may find it necessary to revert to the old Indian method of burning over the forests annually at seasonable periods”. Ballinger was not alone in voicing this opinion. The Government Printing Office made available a pioneering effort in fire ecology, “The Life History of Lodgepole Burn Forests”, that argued fire should be properly developed as a tool and not an enemy of foresters. The August 1910 issue of Sunset magazine ran an article that argued for Ballinger’s position: “From time immemorial fire has been the salvation and preservation of our California sugar and white pine forest”, the article said.

    But this reassessment of how to use fire to reduce the severity of fires was ignored by the Taft administration and the rest of the US government. In 1911, US Congress passed the Weeks Act authorizing the government’s purchase of millions of acres of land in which all fires would be outlawed. By the 1930s, the Forest Service enacted a ”10 a.m.” policy: every fire that sprang up on one day had to be controlled by 10 a.m. the next day. 

    Policy was set to serve the interests of the short-term profits of the big landowners and logging companies, which didn’t want any of their trees, land and other holdings damaged by fire, even though the suppression of fire meant the degradation and decline of the health of the forests in which the trees grew. 

    As the flames ceased, a new kind of forest emerged: a nearly fire-free ecosystem that was unlike anything that had existed since the end of the Ice Age.

The business of Big Fire

Of course, suppression didn’t end forest fires. It only delayed the fires to the future. 

    A self-perpetuating cycle began: each fire fought created the conditions that would spark future fi res, and thus increased the demand for fighting fire. Forests slowly choked under the proliferating dead-fall of unburned debris, including the more than 150m dead trees in California’s forests. This made the inevitable fires, when they came, hotter and more destructive. By suppressing fire so successfully for so long, the public lands agencies groomed the nation’s forests for the age of the mega-fire. Nowadays, mega-fires are happening more and more frequently, the only question being where the next explosion will occur. 

    The US Forest Service and Cal Fire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention) now claim to be carrying out programs that will eventually reduce the wildfires by beginning the long-delayed work of thinning out forests, removing smaller trees and brush and carrying out burn programs. But these programs are minuscule. The US Forest Service, which owns more than half of the forest land in California, oversaw burns of just 44,000 acres in 2020, while the state of California burned another 11,399 acres. Taken together, this is barely 10% of what the State of California’s own official forest plan, written in 2018, argues is the minimum of “approximately 500,000 acres per year” required to make “an ecologically meaningful difference” on the 33m acres of forests in California. 

    Last August, the chief of the Fire Service, Vicki Christiansen, signed a memorandum of understanding with California Governor Newsom, pledging to rectify this by increasing the volume of forest treatments in the state to one million acres a year, through thinning and burning. But this document is non-binding. In other words, it is little more than a wish-list. 

    So, without a meaningful alternative, a way to reduce the crisis, fire suppression remains the only real government policy to deal with these ever growing fires. This dead-end policy is reflected in the skyrocketing amounts of money that go to fighting the wildfires. In California, state spending on fighting fires that break out has gone from $100m in 1999 to close to $2bn in 2020. In the same time period, the share of the US Forest Service’s overall budget devoted to fighting fires has risen from 15% to 55%. The rest of the Forest Service’s budget is used to facilitate logging on public land, mainly outside of California, for the profit of the big logging companies. To extract lumber, for example, the Forest Service has built 400,000 miles of roads - enough road to circle the globe 16 times - entirely paid for by the US taxpayer.

    And, just as with every other government program, a part of the capitalist class has positioned itself to gain the greatest profit: roughly two-thirds of the money for fighting wildfires is being contracted out to private companies for their own profit. The government hires contractors large and small to provide a wide range of equipment and services to fight wildfires, including aircraft, ambulances, earthmovers, water trucks, even portable airtraffic-control towers and their operators. Out of that, a large proportion goes to pay companies to provide aircraft, that are often converted military aircraft like C-130 cargo planes, that have limited capabilities for fighting fires. They can’t fly in heavy winds and fog, they can’t manoeuvre in rugged mountainous terrain, and their drops of fire retardant or water often miss their mark. Nonetheless, it is the aircraft that gain the headlines, are pictured in the media and that rake in the profits. Firefighters disparage these airplanes as “political air shows” and “CNN drops”. It’s a firefighting axiom that ”aviation doesn’t put out a fire” .

Poor pay and prison labour

Behind all the glitz and glamour presented in the news media of airplanes and helicopters being used to fight fires, the actual gruelling and dangerous work of fighting fires is carried out by crews on the ground. And just as for other government services, in the never-ending quest by politicians in the service of the capitalist class to “reduce labour costs”, much of this workforce is extremely poorly paid and often temporary. Entry-level Forest Service firefighters in certain parts of California earn less than the minimum wage of $14/hour.

    They travel the country, working 16-hour days, 12 days at a time, sleeping in their cars, often relying on overtime and hazard pay to make ends meet. 

    But this year, because of a combination of low pay and exhaustion from fire seasons that are longer and more devastating than in the past, many of these firefighters quit, including the most skilled. And, as of this writing, the federal government has been unable to fill most of those positions. 

    This means a real breakdown in the Forest Service’s ability to send out the number of fire fighters needed to do the job. Roughly 30% of the federal hotshot crews that work on the front lines of wildfires in California are understaffed, according to the union that represents most Forest Service employees. In some parts of California, engine crews who are usually the first to arrive at wildfires, dousing them with water before they can grow out of control, have shrunk to the point that on some days during the week, no one is available to respond to calls. In some cases, union officials said, fire engines are sitting un-staffed and unused. 

    In response to this dire shortage of firefighters, in early July President Biden called for increased pay and a revamping of the job of firefighters. But firefighters say that even if these open positions are backfilled by seasonal hires, the temporary employees won’t be as knowledgeable or experienced as the firefighters they replace - that, is assuming they are able to find enough people to fill these positions.

    At first glance, Cal Fire appears different, because the people who make up its firefighting crews have permanent positions, with full benefits. But in reality, California officials just hold down “labour costs” in another way: about half the firefighting crews in California are made up of prisoners, who are paid a few dollars per day. Last year, because of the pandemic, which swept through California’s prisons, exacerbating already brutal conditions, there were many fewer prisoners to fight the fires.

    The fact that the state of California - where the politicians advertise themselves as “enlightened” and “progressive” - depends so greatly on prison labour, shows how little different they are from the politicians in the Deep South who continue to use convict labour for assorted tasks, such as growing crops, making soap, or working on road gangs. 

    It may be a relief for those California prisoners who serve as firefighters just to be able to get outside the prison walls, and they even may find firefighting work rewarding. But when they are finally released after serving their sentence, the state of California bars them from rolling over into permanent firefighting positions, despite their experience and qualifications, branding them for life as former convicts. The state would rather pay a few dollars an hour to a new crew of prisoners.

The housing crisis collides with the wildfire crisis

Almost completely overlooked in all the talk about wildfires is just how much it has exacerbated California’s housing crisis. In some ways, the two crises are one, and they feed off of each other. California’s housing crunch in urban centres has pushed millions of people to seek housing in cheaper, more peripheral areas, where wildfire risk is greater.

    Housing and land is not lacking in urban areas, as it is often claimed, but they are unavailable because of the insane workings of capitalism, with its rampant speculation that has produced a gigantic housing bubble. In Los Angeles, for example, there are close to 100,000 vacant apartments, and over 22 square miles of vacant, privately-owned lots, even as all the supposed experts say that the main reason for the homeless crisis is that there is no more available housing.

    California’s housing crisis and its fire crisis often collide in what’s known as the “wildland-urban interface”, or WUI. Roughly half of the housing units built in California between 1990 and 2010 are in the WUI, which has expanded by roughly 1,000 square miles. As a result, 2m homes, or 1 in 7 in the state, are at high or extreme high risk for wildfire, according to one estimate from the Center for Insurance Policy and Research. Certainly, some of those are wealthy people living in luxury in places like the canyons of Malibu. But a big part of this housing is urban sprawl, as developers buy up cheaper land on the further and further outskirts of big cities in order to put in enormous new housing and mixed use complexes, ignoring or minimizing just how dangerous that area is, despite the likelihood that one day all those homes and stores will face fire. Another part is made up of trailer parks and cabins, where the working poor and retirees on fixed incomes survive in the state’s scrublands, pine forests and grassy ridges. And these homes are the most vulnerable to fires. 

    The bulk of wildfire destruction in California happens in the WUI. These include the Kincaid Fire that burned more than 75,000 acres - roughly 5 times the size of Manhattan - north of Santa Rosa; the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and eliminated more than 10,000 homes in Paradise; and the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,000 structures in and around Santa Rosa. 

    State or local governments aren’t doing anything to limit or discourage building in these fire-prone areas for various reasons: local governments have an incentive to expand their tax base; neither do they dare get in the way of developers and speculators from making a killing. But even if they did rein in future development, millions of Californians already live in the WUI, at risk of having their homes destroyed and their lives endangered by fire - and at risk of being unable to insure their homes or of seeing their housing values fall. 

    Neither the federal nor state governments are lifting a finger to prepare these neighbourhoods for a fire. They don’t even talk about the most basic means of making sure there is a functioning warning system, or that there are enough escape routes so that cars don’t get caught in traffic jams as they try to escape, or that there are enough fire engines and firefighters in close enough proximity to every area of houses to fight a blaze and safeguard the population. And finally, there is not enough help to protect homes from possible fire - when much could be done. Most of these fires in the WUI are not the same kind as those that break out in forests. They usually take place in grasslands or scrublands, where the fires are spread by wind-swept burning embers. By far, the most effective measures homeowners can take to protect homes is proper landscaping that has to be done on a regular basis, as well as to install ember resistant vents and double-pane windows and to box off eaves—which is what the state mandated for housing built after 2008. 

    The efficacy of this was illustrated during the state’s most deadly blaze, the Camp Fire in 2018, where a wind-driven fire swept through an area that had been heavily logged, dropping embers on the town of Paradise. When the smoke cleared, many trees were left standing among the rubble and so were most of the homes that had been fi re-proofed.

   But in an economy in which almost half the population doesn’t even have $400 in cash to pay for an emergency, according to estimates by the Federal Reserve, how many families have access to $14,000, which is the average cost for retrofitting a home with these safety features? 

    The government treats this like it is just a question of individual responsibility. But the reality is that all the neighbours’ homes have a stake in all the homes being fire-proofed. All it takes is one home to catch fire for the heat and the embers from that blaze to spread to all the rest of the homes.

The role of power companies

On every level, capitalist society is not able to deal with the ever worsening wildfire crisis, despite the fact that all the measures were there and available and have in part been available since the time when indigenous peoples roamed the forests. On the contrary, the capitalist drive for profit pushes increasing numbers of people into harm’s way, while failing to provide any kind of protection. 

    But what stands out as the grossest, most disgusting symbol of how capitalist greed grinds down lives and destroys the environment is the role of the power companies in these disasters. 

    By far the biggest cause of fires are the big electric utility companies. The biggest in California, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), that provides natural gas and electricity to 16 million people, has admitted in its reports to the state that in recent years its equipment set 1,550 fires, or about one fire a day. While some were snuffed out within minutes, some stoked by winds have spread quickly. In 2017, PG&E equipment was responsible for setting 17 major wildfires that together scorched 193,743 acres in eight counties, destroyed 3,256 structures and killed 22 people. In 2018, the Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history, was set off by a 115,000 volt line that was damaged and dislodged from a century old tower. 

    The reason why? PG&E simply won’t spend the money to maintain or upgrade or make its equipment safe. It pinches every penny so it can funnel more to its big stockholders and executives. More than half of PG&E’s area is in high fire-threat zones, with 5,500 line miles of electric transmission and 25,500 line-miles of distribution equipment. But as many critics point out: PG&E and other electric providers focus on the cheap stuff, like trimming trees, instead of upgrading its thousands of miles of old lines and ageing equipment. It’s a guarantee that PG&E will continue to cause more fires and more catastrophes. 

    ”They are charging Cadillac prices for a jalopy”, said Loretta Lynch, the former president of the California Public Utilities Commission. ”It’s not just PG&E - all the wildfire mitigation plans are about their bottom line, not what will mitigate wildfires. The record is really clear: it’s an environmental catastrophe”. 

    The politicians and top officials act as if they are powerless to do anything about it. Twice, courts have found the company guilty of causing the deaths of dozens of people due to poor maintenance of its equipment. Twice, PG&E has gone through bankruptcy, only to be bailed out by ratepayers and taxpayers so the company can do it all over again. The ability of one company to make enormous profits for the capitalist class, by cutting its expenses as low as possible at the expense of the lives of millions, makes it more powerful than the politicians, the courts, and the regulators, combined.


In the face of the growing wildfire problem, there are simple things that could be done which have not been done. This is not a question of “oversight” or “bad management.” It is a question of which class controls society today, which class runs it, whose interests are served. Electing different politicians to office cannot change the basic drive of this society, which is to maintain and increase profit for the class that today owns the productive system. There is no answer to the multitude of catastrophes we face - the wildfire danger being only one of them - so long as the capitalist system continues to exist, a system which is organized to benefit a very tiny class through exploitation of labour, to the detriment of the majority of the whole population.

17 July 2021