Paradise Lost in California: A community struggling to survive

Climate change is turning working class Californians into sitting ducks. Sadie Fulton writes about how people are struggling to build networks of solidarity in the face of climate disaster, ruling class neglect and the far right.

National Guard on Humboldt Road, Chico, CA. Photo: Erik Rydberg.

Thursday 8 November was a unique day for California’s climate. Record low humidity paired with record high winds practically guaranteed that there would be fires. It is uniquely hard to prepare an entire state for the elevated natural disaster risk when nobody has any idea where a spark will start a wildfire.

At 6:30 AM, a fire (‘Camp fire’) started just east of Paradise, CA. The evacuation system wasn’t ready for it. Some people got alerts on their phones, but others only found out when neighbours knocked on their doors. There was no time to prepare. They got in their cars and fled.

Trees were falling, fires were spreading, and there was a fire tornado. The fire spread at a speed greater than 5,000 square metres per second. Official death tolls are based on just the bodies found – a further 200 people are missing. Some survived by hiding overnight in a pool. One man ran out of his car, down the hill and threw himself into the creek while the fire went over his head.

The same day, another fire (‘Woolsey fire’) started in a radioactive site near Malibu, CA, and while that community evacuated, radioactive ash started falling on Los Angeles. It took a few days for us to realize that there was radioactivity involved in the Woolsey fire.

The conversations inside and outside of California seem to have a very different nature. Many are offended on our behalf at the ridiculous comment made by Donald Trump, blaming California for these fires and threatening to cut federal funding. The Camp fire started on federal land. As usual, his comments weren’t based on anything approximating fact. He was also gratuitously attacking his own base: Paradise is (was) actually located in one of those fabled Republican areas in California.

But here in California, we don’t care about him right now. It’s almost as if we don’t have a president. We have temporary shelters to build.

Paradise was a town of 30,000 people, adjacent to Chico, a city of 80,000. Before Paradise burnt down, Chico had a housing vacancy rate of 1% and a homelessness crisis. Now, with Paradise effectively levelled, Chico’s remaining housing stock will be gone in the blink of an eye. Housing is the most urgent need. Many are trying to help, and most aid initiatives are in disarray.

Paradise has now burnt down. Nearby Chico already had a homelessness crisis.

Our best hope for survival is to work together and restore the solidarity culture that is instinctive to humanity. And we need to stop climate change. California stands at a crossroads. Every year, every season, our fires get worse. A combination of drought and increased wind means, basically, we are all sitting ducks. Nobody knows when or where the next fire will hit.

On the ground, people are working together to build networks of support. Our biggest fear is that a month from now, the world will have forgotten this situation, and with no houses or shelter, people will be more vulnerable than ever.

The Camp fire hit a poor community, the Woolsey fire hit a wealthy one, and the difference is instructive. The Kardashians apparently paid for private fire fighters to protect their private property from the Woolsey fire. This infuriates me. We need to be saving lives, not property.

Undocumented folks are at an intense risk. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been exploiting natural disasters to go to shelters and target vulnerable people. We are encouraging anyone at risk to go to the Sikh shelters instead, as they are welcoming everyone. For the same reason, if you are going to find a shelter to donate to, please pick the Sikh shelters.

Some folks are having to evacuate through federal lands. There are unconfirmed reports that the federal parks are stopping every car for searches. If they find any weed, which is legal in California, the weed is confiscated along with all of the evacuee’s money.

Meanwhile, Chico already had an established fascist movement, which was targeting homeless people. This movement is now trying to prevent previously homeless people from accessing disaster relief resources aimed at the climate refugees. Talk about priorities.

Climate change means that these fires are going to keep coming. We are faced with fire, the far right and a ruling class that does not care about our lives. Ultimately, we will have to build our own solidarity networks if we want to survive out here.



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