Fueled by Climate Change, California’s Raging Wildfires Are Threatening Vulnerable Communities First

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California is bracing for a day of strong winds as climate change-fueled wildfires continue to burn from Los Angeles to north of the Bay Area. After a chaotic weekend of mass evacuations and blackouts that left millions in the dark, firefighters in Sonoma, California, made headway Monday, containing 15% of the massive Kincade fire that has burned nearly 75,000 acres. But as high winds pick up again today, firefighters still face an uphill battle in combating the at least 10 blazes raging across the state, including the growing Getty fire, which erupted in one of Los Angeles’s most opulent communities Monday. Fires in California are typical this time of year, but the length and severity of the state’s fire season has grown due to climate change. We speak with Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and researcher on climate and energy politics. We also speak with Ariel Kelley, the CEO of Corazón Healdsburg, a bilingual family resource center based in Northern Sonoma County.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world. We begin today’s show in California, where residents across the state are bracing for a day of strong winds as wildfires fueled by climate change continue to burn from Los Angeles to Northern California. After a chaotic weekend of mass evacuations and blackouts that left millions in the dark, firefighters in Sonoma, California, made headway Monday, containing 15% of the massive Kincade Fire that has burned nearly 75,000 acres in the region and destroyed at least 123 homes and structures. But as high winds pick up again today, firefighters still face an uphill battle in combating at least ten blazes raging across the state. Public utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric will shut down the power grid for nearly 600,000 more customers in Northern and Central California Tuesday in anticipation of the dangerous weather.

AMY GOODMAN: In Southern California, firefighters are combating the growing Getty Fire, which erupted in one of Los Angeles’s most opulent communities on Monday, forcing thousands to evacuate and destroying eight structures. This is Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: We have fires all the time in Los Angeles, but our ability to knock them down in past years was much stronger because we didn’t have these extreme shifts of wind. We didn’t have these extreme shifts of weather. We didn’t have these extreme shifts of extreme weather that dumps rain, as we saw in January, and provides fuel now here in October.

AMY GOODMAN: Fires in California are typical this time of year, but the length and severity of the state’s fire season has grown due to climate change. Of the more than 4,000 firefighters working across the state to contain the blazes, at least 700 are California prisoners. While salaried firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $74,000 a year plus benefits, prisoners earn a dollar per hour when fighting active fires.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Boston, we’re joined by Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Researcher on climate and energy politics. In San Francisco, we’re joined by Ariel Kelley, the CEO of Corazón Healdsburg, a bilingual family resource center based in Northern Sonoma County. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!.

Leah Stokes, let’s begin with you. You were just in Santa Barbara and you have just written a piece, an op-ed piece, where you make the connection. The corporate media—and I’m not just talking about Fox; I’m talking about CNN and MSNBC—will bring us endless, as they should, coverage of these fires, very critical to cover these fires. They don’t make that connection as much with climate change. What is the proof?

LEAH STOKES: Well, we know from research from scientists that climate change has dramatically worsened fires in the West. There is research that says that fires have gotten 500% more risky as a result of climate change and that two times more area has burned because of climate change. We know that the drought that California has recently come out of was also caused by climate change. And yet some of these deeper stories about what is happening in California, what is happening across the United States with climate change, are not told by the media. Instead, it’s just a focus on the fire, a focus on sort of the proximate causes and not a focus on the fact that we have already warmed the planet by one degree Celsius and we are headed in a very dangerous direction.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Stokes, what about the role of PG&E, the big utility there, blamed for some past fires as well because of malfunctions of its equipment, and its decision to go into bankruptcy? Could you talk about that, the role of the utilities?

LEAH STOKES: Yes. PG&E has played a really important role in the last few years of fires, and it is currently in bankruptcy in part as a result of that. It has an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion in liability as a result of these fires. In 2017, a number of people died in a very deadly fire in Northern California. And it got even worse last year with the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, where 85 people died. And so those liabilities are now on PG&E’s balance sheets. And there’s a lot of people suing the company, and therefore it is in bankruptcy proceeding.

It’s clear that the utility has not done all that it could and should and must do to prevent these fires, but it is also facing really extreme weather that we haven’t seen before. So we should definitely be holding that utility accountable, while also talking about climate change and the fact that if one utility from just two years of fires has up to $30 billion in liability, what will that mean for our infrastructure and our organizations across the United States as climate change worsens?

AMY GOODMAN: California Congressmember Ro Khanna tweeted Monday, “Instead of spending $10.5 million lobbying our politicians, and $4.5 billion on stock buybacks for investors, PG&E should have invested in tree trimming and infrastructure. Here’s the result: Over 2 million Californians without power,” Ro Khanna tweeted. Let’s go to California Governor Gavin Newsom speaking at a news conference Monday.

GOVERNOR GAVIN NEWSOM: I recognize this moment generates a tremendous amount of anxiety. The high-profile images that people see, not only the Kincade Fire in Northern California but now the Getty fire in Southern California and Los Angeles, generate consternation, generate concern. But this, interestingly, is a moment in California that is very familiar. We have actually had a below-average fire season to date. What we are experiencing at the moment is slightly above average. It is the high end of average for this time of year. It doesn’t feel that way, but in fact, is the case. The state has been well resourced. The state has been very forthright in terms of prepositioning assets to a degree that we never have in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the governor of California, Gavin Newsom. We want to bring Ariel Kelley into this conversation, of Corazón Healdsburg. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a PG&E transmission tower in Sonoma County malfunctioned near the origin point of the Kincade Fire just minutes before the fire started. If you can talk about how the state of California is dealing with the overall population, and then particularly with a population you deal with, Ariel, in Healdsburg, and that is the population of immigrants and particularly the concerns of the undocumented in times when they might need government help.

ARIEL KELLEY: Yes. Well, I would say it has been quite a week. I, myself, am an evacuee. I live in Healdsburg and I live about five miles from Geyserville, which was the first town that was impacted by the fires, the first homes that were lost late last Wednesday night. And it is true; it’s a very agricultural community. Many of our residents work in agriculture. Wine is the predominant industry there. And as the evacuations continue to grow further and further south, we are now seeing as of yesterday about 190,000 people were evacuated from their homes. I think, fortunately, yesterday, we saw some evacuation orders lifted for the western part of Sonoma County, so people will be able to return to their homes in a very small section of the community.

But still, hundreds of thousands of people remain without power. The cell phone service is down in many parts of Marin County and Sonoma County. The cell phone towers operate off of batteries, but many of those batteries only have like 72 hours of battery life, and so the communications are completely next to nothing, and people are living in their cars, in shelters, at large event centers, at fairgrounds. And there’s a real sense of trauma in the community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ariel Kelley, I think Sonoma County has about 38,000 estimated undocumented. Across the state of California, 40% of the entire state population is Hispanic. A significant percentage of that is undocumented. But all of these government services that are available in terms of disaster, the undocumented can’t take advantage of or can’t utilize. How is this being dealt with?

ARIEL KELLEY: That is correct. Fortunately, our local government, state government resources, as well as all local shelters are no-questions-asked in terms of documentation status. Since 2017 when the last time we went through this in Sonoma County, we realized that there was a lot of education that needed to happen with our immigrant community and our undocumented community to let them know that all of these shelters and immediate emergency services were available to them. There is a lot of government agencies involved during this type of emergency, and so there was some concern historically about who are these agencies, that if I go to a Red Cross shelter, am I going to be putting myself or my family at risk of deportation? I think fortunately, we have done a considerable amount of education since 2017, and so we have seen more of those families being comfortable coming to the shelters and seeking refuge and support.

But you are absolutely correct—FEMA funding is not available to undocumented immigrants. And so it is really important that we as a community—we are doing a lot of fundraising right now and actually distributing cash right now to people at shelters who have no gas money, have no money for food. I met a family two days ago who fled their home with moments to spare as the fire was coming down the hill behind them on Wednesday night, left with nothing. And so they have been for days—no shower, no clothing except for the pajamas that were wearing when they were leaving. So providing immediate aid to those families is really urgent. So we are raising funds and distributing funds through Corazón Healdsburg, my organization, to everyone in the community who needs help.

AMY GOODMAN: Kind of a double whammy here with the president of the United States going after California. I want to ask Professor Stokes about saying that California cannot limit fossil fuel emissions in the way they want to, greenhouse gas emissions. And I want to ask Ariel Kelley if Ariel, you could start by talking about the pressure Trump has put on California around the issue of immigration, how that impacts people now under enormous pressure from the fire.

ARIEL KELLEY: Certainly. I think since 2017, we have seen President Trump and a lot of the rhetoric against immigrants all across the country. I think people are genuinely still very concerned and fearful for their safety and security living in California. And you see it manifest in youth with severe trauma and having behavioral issues because of the stress that their parents and family units are under due to the rhetoric coming out of Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: And Professor Stokes, on this issue of President Trump trying to make illegal California limiting greenhouse gas emissions?

LEAH STOKES: Trump, since he has taken office, has been rolling back environmental legislation and regulations across the board. It is very clear that he wants to make California’s life more difficult. California has been a really important leader, not just in the United States, but around the world, in terms of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. And he has gone after that both through automaker rules that California has a right to set, as well as through California’s decision to have a cap and trade system with Quebec in Canada. And I think that this is extremely wrongheaded.

A lot of legal scholars feel that Trump has very little to stand on with these cases, but he is certainly wasting a lot of time while we are watching a really big disaster unfold across the United States. It is not just about these fires in California that are caused by climate change. It’s also about the hurricanes, about the drought, about flooding. So many Americans are already experiencing the effects of climate change. And instead of having leadership and action from our federal government, we have a climate denier-in-chief who is completely abdicating responsibility on what is increasingly a climate emergency.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Stokes, on Sunday, Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted that it is time to begin thinking about public ownership of public utilities. But there has been a long history in the United States, especially in the West, of publicly owned utilities that arose out of the progressive movement of the early 20th century, really. And you are kind of skeptical as to whether this is a solution to the kind of problem presented by the California utility. Could you talk about that?

LEAH STOKES: Yeah. So as part of PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings, there has been a move by San Francisco to try to take over a piece of that utility. And I will note that the unions that are part of PG&E oppose that effort, so I think it is going to face a big uphill battle. There are some reasons why cleaving off a part of PG&E into a municipal utility for San Francisco I don’t really feel makes sense. Because what you are going to do is have a huge amount of fire risk and liability for the rest of the PG&E territory, which theoretically will not be under that San Francisco municipality’s control.

And so my concern about some of these campaigns that are playing out, particularly in San Francisco as well as in New York City, to try to turn existing private utilities into sort of city-owned public utilities, is that they are breaking up these larger utilities into smaller urban areas where of course we have progressives, and that’s great, but what happens to the rest of the system?

And the fact is that actually public utilities in California have been some of the biggest opponents to the state’s clean energy laws. In 2002, when the first clean energy law was passed, it applied to PG&E but did not apply to public utilities because they resisted it in the first place. So I think there is some complex history in terms of our rural electric co-ops in this country and our public utilities. And just saying that an ownership change will somehow fix all of these problems—I don’t really think that is quite true, although I do support the campaigns that people are running as a way to bring more attention to these really critical issues.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to finally ask Ariel Kelley about the situation of October being the peak fire month but also it is the time of the grape harvest. Looking at an article here, same as in 2017—”For farmworkers in Sonoma county’s fabled wine country, the Kincade Fire poses a daunting set of risks. October—not only fire season in California, also the peak of grape harvest. In areas not imminently threatened, some workers labored through the heat and dangerous smoke to retrieve some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of grapes that had yet to be harvested.” Kaiser health news warning about the health risks that farmworkers are facing. What kind of warnings are you putting out? How are people being helped?

ARIEL KELLEY: So actually, I have direct information. I was there physically on Thursday morning when a group of farmworkers who were staying at our evacuation shelter in Healdsburg left the shelter to go back out to the fields to do just that, to go pick grapes, and left without masks, left on a bus with their employer. And it’s heartbreaking.

I mean, this is environmental justice unfolding right before us. These workers are out there in incredibly smoky conditions. I would actually say dangerous conditions, with the fire risk being as high as it was in that moment.

And so I think it’s a real issue for our community because there is just a level of lack of voice for those workers and being able to say, “I don’t feel safe” or “I need a mask. I need a respirator.” We need to be mandating that if workers are outdoors and they’re working in these smoky conditions that they need to be given masks or forced to wear them by their employer just to protect their health. And I think looking at the long-term health impact of those outdoor workers, we know that there are some real life-threatening potential injuries that can occur in just being out there in those conditions. So it’s very concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Ariel Kelley, CEO of Corazón Healdsburg, a bilingual family resource center based in Northern Sonoma County. And thanks so much to Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara, researcher on climate and energy politics. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk about Iraq, the massive protests that have rocked that country. Over 220 protestors now dead. Stay with us.

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