Revolution#108, November 11, 2007

San Diego Fires: Hidden Outrages & the Need for Revolution

We received the following correspondence from a reader in Southern California. It has been excerpted and edited by Revolution:

Every year between October and December, the hot, dry, erratic Santa Anas pay us a visit. The Santa Ana winds are caused by a cool high-pressure system in the Great Basin above Nevada and Utah and a warmer low-pressure system along the Southern California coast. They flow like a river picking up speed, heating up and drying out as they sink and flow across the desert. Then, like rapids they swirl, eddy and accelerate as they push through the narrow Southern California canyons and passes, sometimes gusting to hurricane strength—70, 80, 100 miles per hour.

This is fire season. When the hillsides are dried out from rainless summers and the Santa Anas come through, any spark can become a raging wildfire in a few minutes’ time.

Fires are a fact of life this time of year. But this year, in a single week 15 fires exploded in Southern California and across the border into Mexico to become the largest wildfire and one of the most destructive in the history of California. Seven people killed. Over half a million acres burned. Almost 2,000 homes destroyed. What happened?

Global Warming

The Daily Green website points out that in a scientific paper published a year ago, co-authored by Tom Swetnam of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, and Anthony Westerling, of the University of California-San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the scientists concluded that the changing climate was a greater influence on wildfire activity and intensity than forest management.

There were four times as many major wildfires between 1986 and 2004 than there were from 1970 to 1986, and a six-fold increase in the area of forest burned in the western United States. The active wildfire season has increased by more than two months, and individual fires are burning longer—up from barely a week on average to more than five weeks.

As spring and summer temperatures have increased, snowpacks in the mountains have melted earlier—between one week and one month earlier, on average, than 50 years ago. Since snow melt is responsible for 75 percent of annual stream flow, the decrease in snowpack drains regional streams and rivers, leading in turn to a drop in humidity.

The website concludes that “while no one event can be attributed to climate change—no one can say that global warming caused these fires in California—we can say that fires like these may well become more likely as global warming changes conditions on the ground.”

Ignoring the Fire Dangers

The destructive reach of the fire in terms of homes and structures was made possible by the building of whole subdivisions in high-risk zones. Time magazine said that 50% of the new homes built in California since 1982 have been built in severe-fire zones. Land speculators, developers, and city councils encourage development and these subdivisions push deep into the canyons and to the edge of the forests.

Four years after the single most destructive fire in California history—the Cedar fire in San Diego that burned 300,000 acres and destroyed 2,000-plus homes—what do you call it when the federal, state, and county governments ignore the fire danger that threatens life and property?

The San Diego County fire chief at the time resigned in protest when the powers-that-be launched a campaign to defeat his call for an increase in taxes to expand the fire department. San Diego County has 975 firefighters and 1 firefighting helicopter for 330 square miles and 1.3 million residents. In comparison, San Francisco has 1,600 firefighters for 60 square miles and 850,000 residents. San Diego County has no county-wide system and relies on volunteer firefighters in small cities and towns.

This scattered and under-equipped force was no match for the three massive fires that broke out. Not enough firefighters, not enough equipment, not enough aircraft. Firefighters were spread so thin that whole neighborhoods were left to burn without a fire truck in sight. Two-thirds of the land burned, three-quarters of the homes lost, and all the deaths were in San Diego.

After 2003 Schwartzenegger appointed a blue ribbon panel to recommend what California had to do to meet the next inevitable fire threat. They recommended getting 150 new fire engines, replacing the Vietnam-era helicopters and increasing the number of firefighters staffing each truck from three to four. Only 18 new fire engines have been ordered and none have arrived. The helicopters have not been replaced.

Bush has been decimating the Forest Service budget and outsourcing firefighting. The service has become disorganized and bureaucratic, incapable of responding quickly to forest fires. The number of National Guard available for natural disaster has been drastically cut due to guard duty on the U.S.-Mexican border and deployment to Iraq.

One lesson we could draw: the people who run this system don’t care much about middle class white people either. There are classes in this country, and there is racism and national oppression. People from different classes and nationalities are treated differently. But this system let the neighborhoods of some very wealthy people (along with the less wealthy and the poor) burn down. They enticed people to buy land and build homes in high fire-risk areas. They refused to protect people from a fire danger that they have studied and restudied. In the aftermath of the fires, even those middle class folks with insurance will find it difficult to recover the real value of what they lost.

But not to worry: businesses are gleefully drooling over the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance money, up to $1.25 billion, pouring into the area. Says “The California economy is about to receive a much needed injection of insurer capital that will help revive its construction and homebuilding industries, boost the retail, service, hotel and restaurant sectors and in turn increase tax revenues for local, state and federal governments.”

Let’s see: first they let a place burn down, then build it up again and wait for the next fire. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories (these fires were not planned), but industries know there’s profit to be made in this disaster, and they are stepping up to the food trough to feast.

Untold Story: Undocumented Immigrants

In San Diego County it is estimated that 1,600 agricultural laborers live in camps with no running water, electricity or sanitation systems spread throughout the hillsides and canyons, sometimes just a stone’s throw from neighborhoods of million-dollar homes. Agriculture is a $1.5 billion industry in San Diego County, which has the second highest number of farms in the country. These farms run on immigrant labor.

On top of the terror of the rapidly advancing fires, soldiers with loaded M-16s were reported to be patrolling the shelters in Hummers, and 300 Border Patrol agents were called on for help in “watching for looters, monitoring affected neighborhoods and safety control,” together with police and sheriffs. In this situation, the immigrant population was subjected to a repressive encirclement that in many cases forced them to stay in the fire areas and punished them with the threat of deportation if they tried to use the services that were supposed to be set up for relief.

Of the seven people killed by the fires, four were immigrants—two men and two women—who burned to death in a canyon near the border town of Tecate. Eleven Mexican immigrants, also found near Tecate, are in the University of California-San Diego Medical Center burn unit; four of them are in critical condition. Even as they lie suffering with the excruciating pain of severe burns, they were kept in the cross-hairs of the anti-immigrant crusaders. The San Diego Union newspaper quoted Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, saying that these fire victims should be sent back to Mexico for medical care: “I think there is a plausible cause to make for people who were sneaking across the border at the time of the injury, and clearly don’t have any business to be there. We should tap the Mexican government to say, ‘we need to share the burden here.’” That’s just a half breath away from saying that the immigrants have no right to medical care.


Capitalism didn’t cause the searing wildfires that charred hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings throughout Southern California. But it did intensify the destruction and cost in human life, revealing in very stark ways the ugly relations it promotes among people. The dominant property relations of capitalism were protected. Those on the bottom—the immigrant laborers, the unemployed and impoverished, people of color—continued to be the objects of repression and coercion through this whole thing; indeed, the machinery of capitalist dictatorship took special care to keep these masses “in their place” through harassment, arrests, deportation, etc. all backed up by their monopoly on the use of force.

Imagine the same climate and topography—the Santa Ana and wildfires—but a totally different society. One where the whole orientation of society was not toward protecting and extending the private accumulation of wealth in a few hands, but toward the masses and their needs. One where the machinery of state—including the monopoly on the use of force—was protecting and extending social relations that were attempting to eliminate exploitation, and were only to be used against those who were trying to restore that exploitation. In short, a socialist rather than a capitalist society; a dictatorship of the proletariat, moving toward the elimination of classes and class distinctions, rather than a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which reinforces those distinctions, and the oppression that goes with them, at every turn. What if the government, aware of the fire danger each year, enlisted and trained thousands of volunteers who could be called on to fight the fires if they got out of control? What if profit was no longer the motive force of society and it was not allowed to be the deciding factor in decisions about land use—but instead we could actually decide to set these high fire risk areas aside for conservation or recreation or farming or some other less risky use? What if we actually paid attention to scientists, or the Indians who used to live on these lands, who understood the importance of controlled burning of the underbrush so fuel doesn’t accumulate and lay the basis for the next cataclysmic firestorm? What if we were struggling to break down differences between people, so that in times of crises no one is treated as an outcast and the heroism of the masses can be fully unleashed? (Along with all the other stories of heroism in the face of danger during the current fires, I heard a story about four immigrants who stayed behind in the wealthy San Diego area of Rancho Bernardo and saved several houses.)

That would be a state power, and a society, worth fighting for. As the outrages of the San Diego fires bring home yet again: WE NEED A REVOLUTION.

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