By: Dr. Matsemela Odom
The regular wildfires that have appeared in California and other western states, for the past three decades, are a symbol of the crisis of imperialism—the uneasy equilibrium, as Chairman Omali Yeshitela has defined it.
According to the statistics on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) website, there have been 6,750 wildfires in California from January 1 through October 4, 2020. These fires have burned 1,411,641 acres of land in California.
In the same time span last year, from January 1 to October 4, 2019, there were 4,501 wildfires that burned through 45,806 acres of land. Estimates suggest that the fires have totaled at least $10 billion in damage.
These wildfires have grown larger and more frequent. Of the top 10 wildfires taking place in the last 17 years, seven have taken place in the last three years.
With the exception of the 1932 Matilija Fire in Ventura County, the 1970 Laguna Fire in San Diego, and the 1977 Marble Cone Fire in Monterey County, the largest 20 fires in California have taken place in the last 20 years.
The prevalence of wildfires was recognized by the original indigenous custodians of the land in California. Historian Mike Davis chronicled the history of California wildfires in a now iconic essay “Let Malibu Burn: A Political History of the Fire Coast” that first repost publish in LA Weekly in 1996.
Davis notes that the hot and dry Santa Ana winds, coastal canyons, and high pressure land basins create a very volatile landscape, highly susceptible to fires in the late-summer and early-fall. Even the white North American colonizer Richard Henry Dana noted these fires in 1835.
Indigenous communities in San Diego kept these fires at bay by conducting annual controlled-burns; the Indigenous people often chose to not live where the fires took place, something parasitic capitalist land developers refuse to do.
Colonizers have developed directly in the fire zones with limited consideration for the life or the land of African and colonized people in California. Colonial settlers developed farms and ranches on top of the land they had stolen from Mexican and other Indigenous people in these areas.
In the post-World War II years, these former farmlands have formed the suburban coastal megapolis that links San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Individual human error has been noted as the cause of many of these fires. The 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego that destroyed over 2,000 homes, killed 15 people, and burned almost 300,000 acres from October to December 2003, was the result of a signal fire started by lost campers.
The ongoing El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County began with a gender-reveal party gone awry on September 5, 2020.
Despite the natural elements and idiocy, these fires are not the result of happenstance. These fires are the natural result of a colonial capitalist economy.
California wildfires are the result of parasitic capitalist growth
The contradictions that have forced these wildfires are political and economic at their base. The wildfires are the result of a parasitic capitalist economy built on the theft of Indigenous land and the theft of the labor of African and Indigenous people that continues to this day.
Settler colonialism, the theft of the land by foreign entities who then settle themselves into it, is the basis of parasitic capitalist production that has made California’s economy the fifth largest in the world.
According to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the 2019 Gross State Product was $3.2 trillion. A 2018 BEA report slated the finance, insurance, and real estate as California’s largest industry having totaled nearly $600 billion.
In comparison, the entire Gross Domestic Product for the continent of Africa is $2.6 trillion. The GDP of Nigeria, the country with Africa’s highest GDP, is about $448 billion.
California’s economy is derived from stolen labor and stolen land. Broad swaths of California’s central valley are owned by corporate agribusinesses who make their money through forced and exploited undocumented labor from Mexico and Central America.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator, the average single adult with no children would need a salary of about $31,000 to live in California.
Meanwhile, according to Rural Migration News of the University of California Davis, the average farm worker makes about half the wage needed to live, $16,000. On top of that, 240,000 people in California’s prisons and jails paint the roads, clean out brush and even fight the fires.
Real estate speculators and private finance capital has driven California’s postwar economic boom. The median price for a home in California is more than $700,000.
Real estate investments, home loans and other forms of investments made financial firms, like Bank of America, hundreds of billions of dollars in annual deposits.
In the 1960s, U.S. federal banking regulations prohibited the California-based Bank of America from crossing state lines.
Then interstate banking regulations were removed in the 1980s, and Bank of America extended its reach by investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the apartheid regime in South Africa. This positioned Bank of America to become the second largest bank in the United States.
California wildfires are the direct result of gentrification in California. Looking back to 2018, the Woolsey Fire was the result of increased suburban development, while the Camp Fire impacted communities that have been pushed out of the gentrifying and overpriced urban centers.
California’s most productive industries—oil, gas, and electricity—are also industries that have contributed to these fires.
The pyrotechnics are the firefighters
There is a popular meme that says, “You know cops are out of line. No one ever made a song that says f*** the fire department.”
This is funny, but we can’t let the fire department off the hook, either. The fire department, like the police department, is the result of the same parasitic capitalist relationship with African people and poor and oppressed people in the US.
Fire protection began as a private racket. Gangs of firefighters were hired to protect the wealthy.
White immigrant groups, like the Irish, established monopolies over these industries, which allowed them to occupy middle class positions in society. White North American historians David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev have chronicled this in their many books.
Firefighters fought to exclude African workers and were used, alongside the police, to commit violence against African workers.
During the African Revolution of the 1960s, firefighters turned their hoses against African men, women and children. This is an act of counterinsurgency that we have seen throughout the colonized world.
It was for this reason Africans opened fire on the firefighters during the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and the Detroit Rebellion of 1967. The fire department is another tool of white colonial power.
According to Ben Tippet, doctoral student and writer for Open Democracy, private firms began dominating federal fire service in the 1980s. A 2018 National Wildfire Suppression Association report notes that 40 percent of fire service has been privatized.
These firms protect the white capitalist power at the expense of the homes and labor of Africans and other colonized and oppressed people. The largest of these firms to profit from their investment in the fire industry is American International Group (AIG) who holds over a half trillion dollars in assets.
Banks and financial investment firms profit from the sale of the land, they profit from the insurance and the redevelopment of fire scorched earth.
Stolen labor fights fires on stolen land
California has the world’s fifth largest economy. California also has the world’s fifth largest prison and jail population.
Compared to other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, California is second only to the United States with its rate of imprisonment. These colonial contradictions are not an accident.
California protects its stolen land with stolen labor. According to Tippet, about 40 percent of California’s firefighters are inmates.
The near 4,000 inmate firefighting force in California makes between $1 and $2 per hour to fight fires. They have no benefits and no protections.
Inmates are often the “firefighters” listed as casualties during these major events. The official firefighters of CalFire and other agencies, therefore, act as a managerial class of overseers monitoring the enslaved labor of predominantly African, Mexican and Indigenous workers.
This saves California as much as $100 million per year and, therefore, makes these fires a profitable industry for developers despite the loss everyday people might accrue.
Sitting in the smoldering remains of a forest fire, California governor Gavin Newsome signed State Assembly Bill 2147 on September 11, supposedly giving formerly incarcerated people the opportunity to become professional firefighters.
California’s inmate firefighter program is decades-old and has long needed reform. “Inmates who have stood on the frontlines battling historic fires, should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter. Today, I signed #AB2147 that will fix that,” Newsome posted on Twitter.
However, Africans, without prison records, have repeatedly been denied access to careers as firefighters. In fact, the 2009 Supreme Court Case Ricci v. DeStefano declared that it was white North Americans and not Africans and Latinos who suffered discrimination in the field of firefighting.
Black Power to the African working class, return the land to its Indigenous custodians
California’s wildfires are the result of a parasitical capitalist and colonial system. This system has placed profit and labor exploitation above the lives and well-being of Africans and other colonized people.
Capitalist land developers have continued to build, disregarding the way Indigenous people of what is now California used to conduct controlled burns and limit settlements in these fire-prevalent areas. In the instances of both the San Diego County fires of 2003 and 2007, San Diego real estate firms did not only rebuild, they expanded into the fire area.
For this reason, we must do as the historian Mike Davis suggested 25 years ago and let these suburban developments burn. Let them burn and build a new society led by working class African and Indigenous people.
Return the land to its original custodians. Give African and other colonized people, who have been incarcerated in colonial concentration camps, reparations, not long shot chances to become firefighters and defenders of the colonial system.
The real solution to the fires that blaze is power placed in the hands of African people and Indigenous people.
Build Black Power!
Smash Settler Colonialism!
Make Wall Street Pay Reparations!