A Hell Within Hell
To everything, burn, burn, burn...
California’s fire season is back. It seems to arrive earlier and earlier every year, and becomes fiercer, more destructive, more indifferent to the fact that there are cities and towns in its way. There are currently more than 560 burning throughout the state, most of which have only appeared in the past week or so. 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 that is always relative.
The worst is up north, in the counties sold to the world as “wine country,” that are so much more complex, diverse and breathtaking than any tourism pamphlet can 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. All in all, across California, almost a million acres are now scorched, and 119,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes. Whether anything will be left for them to return to after the blazes fade is, of course, a complete unknown. At least five 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.
Thousand-year-old redwoods are now burning like Roman candles. There is good reason that these trees are so iconic, so emblematic of California’s place in the planet’s ecological web. Their beauty and massive size aren’t merely impressive on their own terms. As with any tree, their size testifies 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. Viewing them, we are forced to contemplate how young society is, how temporally small we are next to them. A cord connecting us to deep history is severed with their destruction.
End-times capitalism shrugs at all this. Wildfires are, of course, a natural part of California’s ecology, another fascinating 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. Which is 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.
Yet 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. Though Covid and climate change are not themselves directly intertwined, Andreas Malm and others have argued recently that the processes responsible for climate change – the disruptions of delicate ecosystems – also exposes human society’s collective immune system to lethal pathogens.
Covid has severely limited California’s capacity to fight the fires. It is 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. Since March, the complacency and ineptitude of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has turned the state’s prisons into festering coronavirus hotspots. With prisons overcrowded and decent medical facilities non-existent in some cases, how could they not be? 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. In any event, the CDCR has been slow enact even preparations for these plans. For the time being, the prison population is on lockdown, rendering 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 them. 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 Covid continues to spread through the facility. As with so much else, 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. So is its sheer irrationality. 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 each feeds into the 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 them entirely in favor of a justice system that seeks actual justice rather than to store human beings like cattle. The kinds of renewals that make history possible.
A sane society would see these as feasible solutions, however radical a horizon they may open. We do not live in a sane society, however. For now, the only new horizons opening are those of deeper hell within hell.