Big Green Gazette, Volume XXF, Issue I

Curated for you by the Sustainable Dartmouth Interns Sunday, September 27, 2020

News  What you need to know about the West Coast & the wildfires

The Valley Fire in Lower Lake, California in September, 2015.

What is going on right now? 

Since the beginning of 2020,over 3.4 million acres have burned in California alone, with a total greater than5 million acres throughout the entire West Coast (California, Washington, Oregon). Since August 15, when California’s fire activity increased, there have been25 fatalities and nearly 5,400 structures destroyed.Millions of California homes have been experiencingpower blackouts.Hereis a map of the fires happening throughout the West Coast right now. 

Wildfires in the west are on the rise: in California, the10 largest fires on record have occurred in the past 20 years, andsix of the 20 largest wildfires in modern California history have occurred this year.”  Check out this episode of the NYT The Daily: A Deadly Tinderbox for more on what’s happening on the ground in Oregon. 

Why is this happening?

California’s already-dry climate predisposes the state to wildfires as its vegetation dries out and becomes the perfect fuel for wildfires. The drastic increases we’ve seen in recent years, though, are directly linked to climate change–rising temperatures dessicate forests and land, drying out even more vegetation which accumulates and fuels even bigger fires. 

How have the fires affected humans and the environment?

Toxic air quality has blanketed the state, putting residents at risk for developing respiratory problems. This is especially concerning during the current global pandemic as respiratory problems make people more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19. Furthermore, when wildfires burn buildings and homes, they create harmful chemical runoff that can leach into drinking water. Though we’re still in the thick of fire season, one researcher has estimated that the damages from the fires could be over $20 billion this year.

How has California been managing wildfires? 

Indigenous peoples have long used burning as a method to manage the lands of what is today known as the American West; contrary to national myths depicting pristine, untouched territories, these lands were in actuality intentionally burned to manage ecological diversity and regeneration through fire.

U.S. government agencies disregarded these traditional land management practices in favor of viewing fires as a problem to be wholly eradicated. The "total fire suppression" strategy put in place by the U.S. government in 1919 has proven a “catastrophic disturbance for those ecosystems which had been influenced by anthropogenic fire throughout their development” (Kimmerer and Lake, 2001). Fire suppression policy has contradictorily rendered disastrous wildfires (and subsequent floods) inevitable, generating a post-colonial landscape of ecological destruction.

What’s more, California has long relied on exploiting prison labor to fight wildfires. Inmates working in the Conservation Camp Program (CCP) are trained and deployed to fight fires, a physically laborious and dangerous job for which they are compensated with“time off their sentences and … $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when they are on a fire.” Meanwhile, it’s incredibly difficult for incarcerated firefighters to become full-time firefighters after their sentences are served due to stigma and policies that make it hard for people with a felony to earn an EMT certification, a qualification required by most fire departments. Within the past few months, with COVID-19 spreading throughout prisons, many incarcerated firefighters have been quarantined, taken out of commission, or released early in order to stop the spread, but this led to a shortage of firefighters when the fires escalated late summer. This crisis has brought attention to the state’s dependency on cheap and exploitative prison labor,prompting many to call on the state to eliminate this prison program and replace it with proper public investment in firefighting. 

The landscape of fires in the American West has also long been marked by inequity–check out The Case for Letting Malibu Burn, a seminal piece by Mike Davis. TL;DR, Davis places the expensive, extravagant resources mobilized to protect luxury homes in Malibu, a city practically destined to burn, side by side with the fires that are commonplace in inner city LA due to inadequate codes, insufficient housing, and disparities in resource allotment. Davis says, “If enormous resources have been allocated–quixotically–to fight irresistible forces of nature on the Malibu coast, then scandalously little attention has been paid to the man-made and remediable fire crisis of the inner city.”

After decades of suppressing fires, California’s attitude towards firefighting is slowly shifting. “Alongside huge expenditures on firefighting staff and gear, the state is making new investments in prescribed burning,” the indigenous wildfire management practice. “But who gets to decide where that fire goes, what it burns, why it burns – who is the steward of a natural element – remains contentious… native people are trying to revitalize their right to indigenous cultural burning, a practice that was criminalized long before California became a state, before their culture dies out.” Learn more about the relationship between California firefighting programs and indigenous burning here–and why this partnership, especially considering the history of exploiting traditional ecological knowledge, must be on indigenous peoples’ terms here