This fire season will show there is no limit to our leaders’ stupidity

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.

AB

(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.

Public Education at our Schools Once Again Stands to Lose from Budget Woes Next Year

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 64)

Governments have established virus task-forces, and job task-forces. Where’s the education task-force?

– Austin Beutner

In his address to families and educators this past Monday, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner noted the toll on public education posed by Governor Newsom’s proposed budget for the following year, which is said to contain nearly $7 billion in cuts to public schools in California following an estimated $54 billion loss in the state’s income and sales taxes due to these last two months of shutdown.

While the governor originally forecast almost $19 billion in losses for education over the next two years, he is now looking to direct nearly $4 billion from the federal Stimulus bill passed in late March to make up for learning loss during the crisis, which is particularly important for special education students, as well as for districts with large concentrations of low-income families such as LAUSD, where more than 80% of families are living at or below the poverty line.

The governor is also looking to offset the state’s revenue losses by reducing a number of increases in pension payments scheduled for 2020 – 2021 before the crisis, which can save up to $1 billion, as well as issuing up to $2 billion in deferrals or IOUs for 2020 – 2021, meaning that districts can count on being paid back for the money, though at an unspecified date.

These adjustments from the governor’s office account commit up to $7 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges in California despite the crisis, but still fall well short of rescuing the public education system.

The biggest cut would be in the local funding control formula by about 10% under the proposed budget, translating into a $6.5 billion dollar loss for public schools, and forcing districts to pick and choose between prioritizing instruction for English learners, unhoused students, students in the foster care system, and the many more low-income students enrolled on their sheets.

The reduced budget can also entail a shortened school year, more furlough days for teachers and staff, larger class sizes, and a hiring freeze for new teachers.

According to John Gray, president of the School Services of California consulting group, the last possibility of losing new teachers due to budget cuts, whom were already in short supply following the great recession, will lead to a repetition of this history in the years ahead:

Last time, we went up and down the state and dismantled public education piece by piece. We lost 40,000 teachers and they never came back because the recession lasted so long. They left the profession. [If this next round of cuts come to pass] yet again we’re going to just disillusion thousands and thousands of teachers.

In his own remarks, Beutner noted that such cuts could prove catastrophic to the hundreds of thousands of families like those at LAUSD, whose children’s dependence on schools should demand more support from the state’s resources, not less. In his view, failing to support students with the additional resources they need during this time and in the days ahead can prove just as damaging for their future as the coronavirus, yet the issue isn’t being treated with the urgency it demands.

Is it because the harm is silent and unseen, unlike the image of overrun hospitals? Is it because children don’t have a voice, or is it because so many of the families we serve are living in poverty and don’t have access to the corridors of power in Sacramento, and Washington D.C.?

This makes it critical for more families and advocates to stand for this public good, for how its loss can alter the course of too many lives for the foreseeable future. Or, as one mother said of what parents can learn to better support their families going forward:

Mainly we need to learn how to use a computer to support our children, and not stress ourselves out. We also need to have more patience because our teenagers are a little more stressed [right now].

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 35

Last night, only a few minutes after midnight, a 3.7 earthquake rocked the city of Los Angeles, making of my mind something like a frightened fish as I scurried for safety in reaction to a sudden, unwelcome stirring of the fishbowl.

Already weary, and already dazed at the final edge of a lengthy day spinning like a trompo across town, the shaking reminded my body how at any given moment, life remains a fragile force-field in a much larger one. At the same time, in a strange twist, what was also true was that on accepting the chaotic whirling of the world around me and finding something of a steady footing, I was actually ready for more bad news; in my own way, I was ready to face another crisis within the larger one that’s enshrouded all of our cities as of late.

Fortunately, the midnight rattling would be the apex of its type for the remainder of the dark morning, but its unexpected wrangling would still cast a specter over the sunrise that lasted even through mid-day for yours truly.

Even so, come the final moments of the lunch-hour, when I stood outside to gaze at the still road, and as my eyes fluttered through the southern California winds trying to process what had happened to my once-familiar city–or what was happening–I realized that the only thing that was truly different, was me. And then, that’s when I loved Los Angeles again. A city which, even if I can’t recognize it sometimes, still takes me around the world like no other.

J.T.

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