The air quality of the San Francisco Bay Area is the worst in the world right now. We all have air quality apps on our phones now to keep up and as I type the air particles pollution index just went up to 217, as a comparison Beijing, for years vilified as the city with the worst air quality in the world, today is 75. It is really dangerous for anyone to be out in it even with a N95. That is the best over the counter face mask that is now common and known just by its number. As we go into the second week of this, more and more people are inside and those few outside are wearing N95’s, and for the thousands of homeless, well they, as usual, are on their own.
What is sinking into the consciousness of all is that the destination State; the so called Golden State is seriously tarnished. The streets seem abandoned as schools, businesses – and even San Francisco’s famed cable cars are closed. The common view of seeing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge across the bay is becoming a thing of the past and part of the wardrobe of our grand children will most likely require face masks.
There are 3 major fires still not under control in California, 2 in the South and one in Butte County, 165 miles up wind from where we live in Oakland and that fire is the source of the worst air quality here ever. The Butte wildfire is now on record as the worst fire in California history and the worst in the U.S. in over a century. Over 140,000 acres have burned and over 13,000 structures have been turned to ash; 9,800 of them homes.
These fires are a dramatic new norm that climate scientists have been warning us about for years. Just like the hurricanes that get larger and more ferocious in extended storm seasons, as they gain steam over the warming Gulf of Mexico, the hyper charged fires in the West of the U.S. are not only becoming more frequent but are larger, hotter and move with the speed of a tornado inferno.
In the middle of the Butte fire is Paradise, a town of 27,000 people where the wild fire tore through last Thursday night at the speed of covering, 8 football fields (2400 feet) per minute! Residents said it was like a war zone as propane tanks exploded like bombs. People literally had just a moment to flee for their lives and many didn’t make it. Reports as of this morning are that 79 people are confirmed dead and a staggering 1300 are missing. Many died in their cars; some ran out of gas and were trapped. Many older and infirmed died and where incinerated in their homes. The death toll in Paradise for sure will rise; maybe into the hundreds and many will not be found except possibly through DNA evidence. The personal stories coming out of the town are heart wrenching.
The U.S. has an atrocious record of preparing for and responding to disasters of this magnitude. Like usual the people of Butte County pretty much had to fend for themselves. A tragic example of this is unfolding in the city of Chico near the fire where over a thousand of the victims of the fire are camping in a Walmart parking lot and have just been given a deadline to clear out and leave in 2 days. People here and in other make shift emergency camps are sitting unprotected in an area where the air quality particle measure has reached levels over 500, rated damaging to all who inhale it. There are 5,100 people fighting the fire in Butte County many of whom are prisoners earning a slave wage of $1.45 a day for the dangerous and exhausting work while hoping their efforts will mean days off their sentences.
Only in the delusional minds of climate change deniers like Donald Trump is there not a human caused climate crisis reality taking place. As people’s lives were being destroyed in Paradise Trump dismissed the fire as a product of California’s poor forest management and he threatened to cut off federal disaster funding to the state. The bombastic president has never let facts get in his way as he failed to mention that more than half of California’s forests are under federal management that his administration has chosen to divert resources away from. Outgoing Governor Jerry Brown responded to Trump’s assertions by saying there is nothing normal about these fires, “this is our new abnormal and it will be with us for years to come.”
There is not a person living in the primarily rural counties of Northern California that cannot be in fear of losing everything at any moment. A friend of mine who lives in Sonoma County, the site of last year’s devastating wild fires, told me, “It isn’t if our house will burn it is just a matter of when.” Before the town of Paradise became an incorporated town it was called Poverty Ridge, now it is beyond poverty, it is gone.
Bill Hackwell is an editor of the North America bureau of Resumen Latinoamericano and a national organizer with the International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity.