The fire season seems to arrive earlier and earlier every year, and becomes fiercer, more destructive, and more indifferent to the fact that there are cities and towns in its way. There are currently more than 560 fires burning through the state, most of which have only appeared in just over a week. Most are concentrated in the north and central parts, but southern California isn’t exactly being spared. A large handful of blazes are scattered throughout Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties. They are smaller, but smaller is always relative.
The worst fires are up north, in the counties sold to the world as “wine country,” and too complex, diverse and breathtaking for any tourism pamphlet to capture. These are the locations of the LNU Lightning Complex and SCU Lightning Complex Fires. (The term “complex fire” describes a cluster of component fires that started out as separate but have converged and/or are converging to create one massive mega-blaze. Reporters and fire departments will sometimes refer to the component fires by their own name, such as the Hennessey Fire near Vacaville, which is part of the LNU Lightning Complex.) Already, the LNU is the second largest wildfire in California state history, the SCU is the third largest.
Combined, the two complex fires have destroyed more than 600,000 acres and forced dozens of small towns and suburbs to evacuate. Across the state, almost a million acres are now scorched, and by last count at least 119,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes. Whether anything will be left for people to return to after the blazes fade is, of course, a complete unknown. At least five people have died. With an historic heatwave still pressing down on the state, and dry seasonal winds sweeping through, there is no end in sight. We are, after all, just at the beginning of the season. The infamous Santa Ana winds aren’t even expected to get here until sometime in October, but already we’ve lost ground.
Thousand-year-old, iconic redwoods are currently burning like Roman candles. There is good reason that these trees are so emblematic of California’s unique position in the planet’s ecological history. Their beauty and massive size aren’t merely impressive on their own terms. As with any tree, their size testifies to time. In the case of the redwoods, the slow and intricate patterns of nature’s web – so all-encompassing that we take it for granted – are monumentalized. Seeing them before us, we are forced to contemplate how young society is, how temporally small human beings are next to them. Their destruction severs our ties to deep ecological history.
End-times capitalism shrugs at all this. Wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecology anyway, another example of how nature can self-regulate. Climate denialists love to toss this fact out as its own argument, an attempt to discredit the alarm bells. It fails, in its deliberate stupidity, to account for why the conflagrations get worse and worse every year, for the heatwaves unleashed by climate change, to say nothing of the role played by Pacific Gas & Electric’s negligence in some of these fires.
It is not that humans as a whole consider themselves above nature. It is that capitalism arrogates itself as the pinnacle of history, of time itself. The multi-sided domino effects that spill from one realm of crisis into the next – the interconnection between ecology and society that Jason Moore identifies and calls the oikos – are casually compartmentalized and explained away.
Another factor casting doubt over the end of this fire season is California’s fire-fighting capacity. COVID-19 continues to pummel the state, itself an expression of the countless ruptures and fractures in the metabolic rift. While COVID and climate change are separate phenomenons, Andreas Malm and others have argued recently that the same conditions responsible for climate change–the disruptions of delicate ecosystems–also expose human society’s collective immune system to lethal pathogens.
COVID-19 has severely limited California’s capacity to fight the fires. It’s not just sick firefighters or social distancing that hinders the effort. Over the course of the past several decades, the state has become increasingly reliant on the cheap labor of prisoner firefighters. But the complacency and ineptitude of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has turned the state’s overcrowded prisons into festering coronavirus hotspots. Currently there are plans for early release for as many as 17,000 inmates at particularly high-risk for infection, but this is only a fraction of the state’s 115,000 inmates. Regardless, the CDCR has been slow to enact even preparations for these plans; the prison population is on lock-down, which renders the majority of inmates ineligible to fight the blazes for the paltry sum of a dollar an hour. Many reporters saw the quandary coming a mile away.
Many of these same prisoners are watching as walls of fire bear down on them, unable to escape as the CDCR refuses to evacuate facilities. At the California Medical Facility – a prison outside Vacaville specially intended for terminally and chronically ill inmates – officials had moved 80 prisoners into outdoor tents to enable social distancing. Already subjected to the elements, they now are breathing air poisoned by smoke, in turn weakening their immune systems even further as the coronavirus continues spreading through the state’s facilities. The vulnerability of these prisoners presages a wider vulnerability among California’s populace, at least a hundred thousand of whom are now having to seek shelter elsewhere. Canaries, coalmines, so on and so forth.
The inhumanity of this catch-22 is self-evident on its own terms. California, the world’s fifth largest economy, is now tangled in a public health crisis and an ecological crisis of near-unprecedented proportions, unable to pull itself out of one so that it might fight the other, as both feed into each other. Any number of alleviations are at the state’ s fingertips: providing free and adequate healthcare for all, along with a robust tracing system; a universal basic income, or public housing that would allow evacuated residents to relocate, either temporarily or permanently; comprehensive funding (state or federal) for adequate firefighting capacity; releasing non-violent offenders from prisons or, god forbid, shuttering prisons entirely in favor of a justice system that seeks actual restorative justice rather storing human beings like cattle. The kinds of renewals that make history possible.
A rational society would see these as feasible solutions, however radical a future they may harbor. We do not live in a rational society, however. The only new future harboring is of a state’s inaction becoming only more destructive to human life and dignity.
(Originally published on To Whom It May Concern on August 22, 2020.)
Alexander Billet is a writer, cultural critic, and artist. He is a regular contributor to Jacobin, and his writing has also appeared in In These Times, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, and Chicago Review. He is currently a member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective, and serves on the editorial board of Locust Review. Find more of his writing at To Whom It May Concern, and his artwork on Instagram.