Orange Haze: The Historical, Capitalist Roots of the California Wildfires

The Golden Gate Bridge, September, 2020

By: Peter Charles Kraljev, Red Phoenix Correspondent Sacramento

Dusk fell at 10am in northern California on September 9th as clouds of smoke blocked out the sun leaving the state with only a dimly light sky that was accompanied by an orange haze of smoke limiting line of sight and a snowing of ash that created banks of soot on the sidewalks and streets. This apocalyptic scene was caused by an estimated 5,924 wild fires suffocating in the state. While wild fires are common to California and even natural or beneficial, climate change has rapidly intensified their destructive capabilities.

Forest fires in California are nothing new. So many forest fires happen every year the state created an agency, The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), with the explicit purposes of preventing wild fires and preforming firefighting and emergency services during forest fires. Even California’s ecosystem is fire adapted with native plant species such manzanita, ceanothus, chamise, and scrub oak needing routine forest fires to complete their life cycle.

Unfortunately, the fires this year are not more of the same as this is a recorded breaking year. 6 of the fires this year are the largest fires ever recorded and more than 3 million acres of land have been burned exceeded the previous record in 2018 of 1.9 million acres burned. The fires are still burning and cities and towns are being evacuated across the state. This is the worst the fires have been and they are getting worse. The key question to understanding the wildfires in context is why has something that used to be a bearable and necessary part of this land’s ecosystem become so devastating and destructive? There is no one answer or easy fix, despite what many on social media might suggest, as it’s the result of multiple variables that have built up and contributed to each other over the years and are now coming to a head.

One of the causes of this was a bad investment back in the 1800s. All over California you can find groves of eucalyptus trees with their distinct leaves and smell. It’s hard to believe a tree so prevalent in this state is not a native plant, but the tree is actually native to Australia, and was introduced to California in the 1870s. A German botanist, Ferdinand Jacob Heinrich von Mueller, found that this Australian tree grew extremely well in California. Mueller teamed up with Ellwood Cooper, an educator at Santa Barbara, and together they wrote books and gave lectures on uses of eucalyptus, how the wood made good lumber for building materials and drops huge amounts of leaves that make great livestock feed. Muller and Cooper became very wealthy though the sale of eucalyptus seeds and saplings and books on their care as investors planted them all aver the state. Unfortunately, Muller and Cooper turned out to be little more than con men as the trees where not all the cracked up to be and created a dangerous accelerant to natural wildfires.

Take the case of Frank C Havens. Havens was a real-estate developer in Oakland who planted 8 million eucalyptus trees in a 14-mile strip from Oakland to Berkeley and opened a mill to process the trees. Havens found that the lumber form the trees had an irregular grain and bent, cracked and shrank when dried and the leaves where toxic and animals could not eat them. The trees where worthless and as more investors discovered this, they began to abandon the groves and let the trees grow unchecked.

Eucalyptus has very oily wood, this causes it to catch fire easily and is extremely hard to put out. The spread of these trees over the last century have made the forest fires far more intense and frequent then the normally would have been had the trees not been introduced for a quick profit for aspiring capitalists

The second reason for the influx of fires has been Democrat and Republican apathy to climate change. The 2020 fire season was preceded by a record breaking heat wave in California causing the state to be more arid than usual. Forest fires tend to slow down at night when the temperature cools down leading to condensation that increases the humidity and makes things less flammable. This year has been different as night temperatures are not dropping like they used to, causing fires to burn at the same rate night and day. Climate modules have predicted high perception rates in the winter and spring leading to more growth, followed by hot and dry summers. This will cause a climate whip lash as the wet seasons will lead to more under growth creating more kindling in the summer making fires more intense.

Scientists across the world agree that climate change is real and is human caused and we need to address it before the earth is unlivable. Yet Trump, when visiting California to cheer on and offer support to emergency responders fighting the fires, refused to acknowledge the role of climate change and stated “Well I don’t think science knows, actually” “it’ll start getting cooler you just-you just watch” when asked about climate change. President Trump has stated the fires are caused by poor forest management by the state (despite most of the forests being on federal land). His denial of climate change is an opinion shared by most of the Republican party.

You would think the Republicans’ apathy towards climate change should not worry Californians and the west coast as this area is largely controlled by Democrats who acknowledge climate change. While they acknowledge climate change, they do little to nothing about it. The “Green New Deal” promoted by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and other members of “the Squad” has not gained traction across the entire party. Governor Gavin Newsome and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who are both Californians and Democrats have been dismissive and critical of the “Green New Deal”, with Governor Newsome stating he had to “sober up” about the fact that renewable energy sources had failed. And Pelosi saying “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”. Bad environmental decisions in the past and apathy by the ruling class towards the effects of those decisions has led to situation we are in now. While left talking points online have identified a gender reveal party as the catalyst for the destruction in California, the true roots are much more dangerous and long-standing. The destruction in California is a direct result of thoughtless capitalist development and bipartisan unwillingness to address climate change at the cost of corporate profit. As ever, it is the people who pay this price as their homes and even lives are destroyed. It is time we started building a party and political movement that will take action to preserve this land and its people, and put people before property.



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