Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Five stories about the California Wildfires you probably missed

I wrote this post in 2017, more than 6 years ago. It may be very out of date, partially or totally incorrect. I may even no longer agree with this, or might approach things differently if I wrote this post today. I rarely edit posts after writing them, but if I have there'll be a note at the bottom about what I changed and why. If something in this post is actively harmful or dangerous please get in touch and I'll fix it.

You’ve probably heard about the massive wildfires in Northern California. You probably know that they’re huge, that over 50 people have died, and that some wineries have burned. You might have seen some pictures.

Unless you’ve been following closely, though, there’s a lot you’re missing. The vast majority of the reporting has lacked context, been overly sensationalistic, or has outright ignored deeper, more complex stories. It’s far deeper than a story about a natural disaster. When you place the fires in context, they reveal so much about deeper issues facing the state.

I’m in no way qualified to provide this context. I’m not a journalist, and I the depths of what I don’t know here are staggering. I’m sure I have some details wrong. But the main story getting told is about wineries burning down, and that’s some bullshit right there. I by writing this to inspire you to pull some threads and learn more.

So, here five stories about the California wildfires that you probably don’t know:

Inmates, who get paid $1/hour, are a critical part of the firefighting force

More than 10% of the firefighting crews – 3,800 people – are inmates. They get paid $1 an hour to put their lives on the line fighting these fires. They’ll make about $500 a year; starting salaries for civilian firefighters is around $40,000.

Inmates are a critical part of CA’s wildfire response: if we paid them the same wages as civilian firefighters, it would cost the state an additional $500 million a year. The state’s fought hard to keep this program and to resist raising pay. For good reason: the state couldn’t afford to fight fires without these inmates.

Despite the terrible pay and high danger, this is a more complicated story than inmates being treated badly (though it is that, too). In many ways the fire camps are significantly better than other programs available to inmates, and many inmates have positive things to say about the program. The program’s intended to be rehabilitative, and by many accounts it seems to succeed. But inmates who’ve served on crews still struggle to find jobs after they leave prison: most fire houses in the state won’t hire felons.

This story pulls on so many deep threads: prison reform; the prison industrial complex and California’s deep reliance on it to bolster state budgets; the poverty to prison pipeline; and so on.

The end of the middle class in Santa Rosa, and beyond

The wineries will be fine. Their owners are insured, and rich, and they’ll rebuild.

What probably won’t be rebuilt is the Santa Rosa middle class. The most devastated neighborhood, Coffey Park, was an unusually affordable neighborhood:

Recent home sales were around $400,000 to $500,000, below the median home price for Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that is the largest in the world- renowned wine region of Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco. Mayor Chris Coursey said the city lost 5 percent of its housing stock and suffered at least $1.2 billion in damage.

To put that 5% housing stock in perspective: before the fires, Santa Rosa had a vacancy rate of about 1%.

These people who lost homes almost certainly won’t be able to move back to Santa Rosa. Even if they have good insurance (many don’t) and even if it pays out quickly (ha) there really aren’t very many houses left that a middle class person can afford to buy. The houses that will be built on the rubble of Santa Rosa’s middle class will be priced well out of their reach. Most of the people who lost their homes in Santa Rosa will have to leave the Bay Area if they want to own a home again.

Remember also that for middle class homeowners, their home represents their largest chunk of equity. Many middle class families were probably counting on their homes to pay for their children to go to college, or for their retirement, or as an emergency fund to help them through a major health crisis, etc. This fire will drive many into poverty, possible permanently.

This is just a sad coda to the ongoing story of gentrification and the death of the middle class in the greater Bay Area (and across California). In a very real way, the fire just sped up a process that’s already been underway for decades.

In one sense, these fires aren’t so unusual

If you live in this area, you know that summer wildfires are the norm. This part of north/central California burns every year: in 2016 the Soberanes fire burned most of Big Sur; 2015’s Valley Fire burned Lake County, just northeast of Napa; Napa itself had a previous wildfire in 2014 (the hilariously-named Butts Fire); and so forth. So in one sense: this isn’t anything new.

See, until about a decade ago, the state’s fire policy was to try to contain or put out fires as quickly as possible, even in wilderness areas. This policy of quick containment has led to a build-up of brush and downed wood that in some places hasn’t burned in decades. We’ve recently learned our lesson, and are now letting fires in wilderness areas burn, returning the land to a more healthy (and less dangerous) state. But until we finally get fires in all these overgrown areas, these summer fires will be huge and scary.

What makes this fire different from ones in previous years is that it escaped into more densely populated areas. That’s historically rare; usually fire crews have been able to contain fires and minimize damage to urban areas. But our wilderness continues to shrink, and we’re building more populated areas right up against the wilderness. This gives less space for fire to naturally burn, and less buffer for fire crews to operate in and contain fires.

Unless we can reverse the trend of shrinking wildernesses and growing urban sprawl, we should expect more fires like these ones.

Climate change created the conditions that made these fires so devastating

Of course, in another sense, these fires are very unusual.

Summer wildfires are common, but humans created the conditions that allowed these regular fires to explode into devastation. Without climate change, the odds of a fire like this are very low. With climate change, this is the new normal.

California’s fire season is now two months longer than it was 50 years ago. Climate change helped create the drought we experienced over the last five years. it left a huge amount of terribly try ground, ready to burn. Climate change made it more likely that we’d get unusual wind patterns, like the gale- force “Diablo winds” that threw burning embers dozens of miles, and fanned the flames into a roaring inferno.

As climate change gets worse, so will the fires.

You missed these stories because the local newsmedia is dead

If you didn’t know about these stories, it’s not your fault. You didn’t know about them because there aren’t many reporters left to report on them! The Bay Area used to have a thriving and competitive market for local journalism, but it wasn’t immune to the decades-long decline of the newsmedia.

What’s left of the newsmedia in the Bay Area has barely been able to cover the basics – what’s burning, where the evacuation centers are, what caused the fires, and so forth. Indeed, the best reporting about the fires came from the LA Times, a newspaper 600 miles away. Almost nobody’s left with time to cover the deeper stories, to put these fires in their proper context.

That’s why I wrote this article. As I said up top, I’m deeply unqualified to tell these stories, and I probably got some things wrong. But I felt I had to try. I’m deeply frustrated that this context isn’t more widely known. I hope you’ll follow one of these threads, and learn a bit more.