CALIFORNIA: Wildfires Rage due to Negligence of Electric Companies

Photo: Kincade fire ignites Jimtown community of Sonoma County, California.

By Audrey Hellenbrecht

For nearly two weeks, wildfires have been raging across the state of California, burning almost 100,000 acres of land. The “Kincade” fire in the north alone has burned down 77,000 acres and claimed 167 homes in Sonoma county.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), a utilities company that provides electricity for 5.2 million households from Bakersfield to Oregon, bears responsibility for the pervasiveness of these fires. While it is true that the high Santa Ana winds knock dry brush into power-lines, this hazard could be addressed by the routine maintenance of cutting away dry brush, something PG&E has neglected to do, along with making proper upgrades to deteriorating equipment.

The company’s bad practices have been responsible for 18 fires in 2017 alone and the 2018 Camp Fire, which claimed 14,000 homes and killed 85 people. Meanwhile PG&E has made $4.5 billion over the past two years as they allow sections of California to burn to the ground.

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2018 “Camp Fire” burns around PG&E transmission towers around Pulga, California

When people lost their lives, had their power cut, and were forced to evacuate from these enormous and deadly flames, PG&E filed bankruptcy to avoid paying $30 billion in fire liabilities. The company now faces a settlement payment of only $11 billion to the insurance companies that covered properties damaged in their previous fires.

The communities most affected by PG&E’s recklessness are predominantly working class. The city of Paradise, where the Camp Fire raged, was all but destroyed with a 90% decrease in population caused by the forced exodus of its people. With a median income of $48,831, ex-residents have struggled to get by as they still cannot return to the city.

The current blackouts have caused Lake County to declare a state of emergency as working class residents live in total darkness. This blackout has caused their food to spoil and their cell phones to lose service. In a community where most residents are living paycheck to paycheck, small business owners are forced to spend thousands of dollars on generators just to stay open.

It should be understood that PG&E is not just a “bad apple” among other power companies. It is the conditions of capitalism that compel all utilities to base their actions on the bottom line rather than social well-being. Today, the Getty fire is raging across Los Angeles due to the city-owned Department of Water and Power (DWP) also failing to perform its own proper maintenance. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti deflects blame by claiming the fire is “an act of God,” but this has not stopped DWP from a lawsuit filed by insurance companies.

Without class analysis and organizing against the people responsible for the destruction caused by these fires, the only compensation comes through litigation by insurance companies in pursuit of reimbursement for property damage, with little reaching those actually affected by the fires. Billions of dollars transfer from the hands of negligent utility companies into the pockets of exploitative insurance companies, while the poor infrastructure that led to the fires remains in disrepair.

Clearly it is not one utility or the other, privately or publicly owned, that is the problem but the way that electrical power is provided in general. Distribution, maintenance, and safety are all determined by class, with the bourgeois raking in profits while the masses burn. Only by reconciling these class antagonisms through socialist revolution will these fires that scour the state of California finally be put out.