Life in the Ashes of Lotusland Dreams

The Kincade Wildfire, currently burning in Sonoma County, California erupted at 9:24 PM on October 23 during an extreme wind event, east of Geyserville (77 miles or 124 km north of San Francisco). An area of 400 acres (2 square kilometers, 2 km^2) burned that evening. By October 30 the fire had burned an area of 76,825 acres (311 km^2), and was only 30% contained. The daily progress of the Kincade Fire is charted in the following figure.

“The cause of the fire has not yet been confirmed by a formal investigation, but a compulsory report shows that the fire started when a 230,000 volt transmission line failed near the point of origin, just before power was about to be shut off in the area” [1] as a precaution against anticipated high winds causing electrical lines and tree branches swinging into each other and sparking a wildfire in the parched hilly landscape.

During October 23 and 24, PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric Company] carried out a massive power shut-off to nearly 940,000 customers in Northern California, this included a swathe of territory at the higher elevations of the Berkeley Hills (the low mountains behind the cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay). My home, in Oakland, was in this blackout. The winds died down on October 25, and my power was restored for a day; but this was not so in the blacked-out areas of Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties (and possibly also Marin County, and numerous counties further north). Another extreme wind event was anticipated for October 26 and 27, so PG&E began shutting off power in an attempt to prevent additional fires, leaving an estimated three million people (2.5 to 2.8 million) without power.

A 102 mph (164 kph) wind gust was recorded at Pine Flat at 3,300 feet (1000 meters) elevation, at 8 AM on October 27. A National Weather Service forecaster noted the wind speed on Twitter and shared that sustained winds had also “officially broke Hurricane Force (78 mph, or 126 kph).” [2] From the chart above, you can see how the area covered by the Kincade Fire expanded during these gusty conditions, between October 26 and October 28.

There were and are many severe wildfires raging in California north and south during this time (the Getty Fire in Los Angeles being one); the Kincade Fire is merely the largest current wildfire in the state. The Kincade Fire threatened over 90,000 structures (by October 30, 189 have been destroyed) and has caused widespread evacuations throughout Sonoma County, including the communities of Geyserville, Healdsburg, and Windsor. The majority of Sonoma County and parts of Lake County are under evacuation warnings.

There are 4,900 firefighters trying to contain and extinguish the Kincade Fire alone. Some of these firefighters are prisoners. “These are the people we write off, don’t allow to vote, don’t allow to become firemen once released” [3]; “people who are paid unconscionably low wages” for helping to keep so many of us safe. [4]

By October 28, power had been restored in my section of Oakland; it still remains off in most of the blacked-out territory in the northern counties (October 30), but I believe it is now slowly being restored in areas released from evacuation warnings.

Cal Fire (the state agency dealing with wildfires) put out 300 fires between the 28th and 29th, and more than 650 fires since the 27th. Smoke will linger in the San Francisco Bay Area atmosphere for days, no rain is forecast and temperatures are predicted to drop to near freezing in some areas; and the winds are expected to die down after October 30. The Kincade Fire is expected to be 100% contained by November 7, 2019. Most Sonoma County school districts will remain closed through November 1, and many schools in Marin County were closed as of the 30th. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs in California demanded that Governor Gavin Newsom find a way to restore power to the numerous VA clinics that do not have backup power equipment. [5]

A Sonoma County man who used an oxygen ventilator to assist his breathing was reported to have died shortly after the electric power was cut to his home. [6] The power cuts and evacuations were very hard on people who are frail, infirmed or who require powered medical devices to assist and sustain them. The authorities had established evacuation centers to include the medically needy, but it seems not all of them made it to safety.

PG&E reported that 1.2 million people, in 28 California counties, have been without power since October 26. The process of restoring power can take 48 hours, and PG&E expressed the hope of beginning that process early on the 30th. [5]

There have been many calls now — as newspaper editorials, letters-to-the-editor, comments on social media, angry voices in the streets, and conversations through sporadic telephone connections between cold blacked-out homes — for the State of California to take over PG&E and run it as a publicly owned electric and gas utility.

Besides losing lights, reliable refrigeration (for food and medicine storage), the use of: electrically powered medical devices, electric cooking devices, wall-plugged electronics, recharging capability for battery-powered electronics and cellular telephones; many homes in more rural areas lost water because their local water company (or their own well) relies entirely on PG&E electricity to run the water pumps. It is no fun to not be able to flush in a blacked-out house for a week, unless you can find a way to haul in water. Running a gasoline-powered generator helps (if you have one, along with safe heavy-duty extension cords to run into the house), but this must be carefully done so as to avoid introducing carbon-monoxide fumes into the home (you’re stuck with the motor noise), and not cause a fire during your handling of the gasoline (which you must repeatedly travel to purchase) when replenishing the tank of the generator unit.

The losses of lives, property and homes to fire were the greatest tragedies that people suffered, and the large-scale evacuations and blacked-out sheltering-in-place were the most widespread hardships. But economic damage spread further in the form of lost wages by many lower-income workers in small businesses that were closed due to lack of power, and for restaurants the added impact of foodstuffs lost to spoilage with the loss of refrigeration. Large food supermarkets near me brought in self-contained refrigeration tractor-trailers to store perishable foods, or motor-generators to power the refrigerators in the stores. Either way, gasoline or diesel fuel was being burned (and exhaust gases emitted) locally to replace the missing PG&E electricity needed for refrigeration.

Nearby restaurants that were not in black-out zones were crowded through the week with us hungry refugees from the black-out; and our rate of expenditure for eating necessarily increased. Many of us refugees would also seek out electrical outlets at these restaurants and coffee houses, to recharge our cell phones and portable computers. I like to read books at night, and this became impossible without the use of some battery-powered light (and battery depletion would be a problem), or, more risky, with the use of candles.

The anxiety about lack of electrical power, and the uncertainty about when it would be restored was for so many otherwise prosperous and bountifully endowed Californians the visceral experience of a very noticeable decay of “the American way of life.” This was a sensible punch-in-the-gut by climate change (global warming, drought, wildfire) and not just climate change as an insubstantial verbal construct, an abstraction, a slogan. This was also an unpleasant visceral hint of what a descent into Third World living might be like, for a significant population of Americans (in California) who would otherwise unthinkingly continue with perhaps the most privileged lifestyles experienced by any mass population on Earth.

Some appreciation of the scope of the Kincade Fire can be gained by viewing the photo taken of it from by space by US astronaut Andrew Morgan. [7]

The Kincade Fire is the plume on the right, wafting toward the Pacific Ocean. San Francisco Bay occupies the left half of the image just below the coastline. The view from bottom to top is from east to west.

Another view of the Kincade Fire burn area is given by a 6 minute video recorded during a fly-over on October 29 by the Henry 1 helicopter of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. It looks like a film clip of a US chopper flying over the burnt and blasted jungle hills of Vietnam 50 years ago (with a touch more suburban development) but without the sight and sound of explosions. (https://www.facebook.com/sonoma.sheriff/videos/1163763990678292/) [8]

“The wildfire season in the American West is now two and half months longer than 40 years ago. Wildfires are now four times more common and burn six times as much forest area. Some of today’s fires are so big and hot they burn the soil itself, and when that happens it can take up to a thousand years for the trees to grow back. By 2050 wildfires in the United States will be twice as destructive as they are now and each year will burn 20 million acres. An estimated 339,000 people die each year from smoke from wildfires. By 2050 we are expected to lose half of all the forests in the American West.” [9]

It seems that by November 1 the Kincade Fire and other smaller blazes in Northern California will be nearing full containment and total extinction, most evacuees will have returned to their homes — if they still have them — and those homes will regain electrical power, and the many workers temporarily put out of their wage-earning jobs because of the black-outs will once again be employed. But it could all happen again with the onset of another period of extreme wind during this dry season (please rain soon! but then we will have flooding and landslides because of the loss of soil-holding vegetation). And what of the dry seasons in the years to come?

Undoubtedly there will be swift recriminations, lawsuits, fights with insurance companies (and rate increases), political posturing and even perhaps useful actions in the California legislature and by the Governor’s office. With luck the political system of the State of California will swiftly develop new plans that are immediately put into action to devise strategies and infrastructure to better prevent the outbreak of such rapidly expanding wildfires, and reduce (ideally eliminate) the necessity of having widespread electrical power shut-offs during the highly windy days of our (global warming lengthening) fire season.

For an increasing number of Californians, the 20th century illusions about “the American way of life” have been lost in the dark of de-electrified homes with shut-off water, and gone up in the smoke of raging wildfires that extend to the horizons.

Notes

[1] Kincade Fire (30 October 2019)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kincade_Fire

[2] SFGATE (a Facebook web-page of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper)

[3] David Menschel, @davidminpdx

[4] Bay Area For Bernie (Facebook group)

[5] The San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, October 30, 2019

[6] Santa Rosa Press Democrat, October 24-27, 2019

[7] Kincade Fire from space, photo by Andrew Morgan
https://sfist.com/2019/10/30/heres-what-the-kincade-fire-looks-like-from-space/

[8] Kincade Fire, Henry 1 Fly Over (10/29 1:00pm)
Sonoma Sheriff
https://www.facebook.com/sonoma.sheriff/videos/1163763990678292/

[9] Climate Facts: Wildfire Season
11 October 2017
https://www.facebook.com/senatorsanders/videos/1511664332253953/

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Kincade Fire, FINAL, 6 November 2019, 7:00 PM
https://www.fire.ca.gov/media/10083/kincade-incident-update-11062019-pm.pdf

Sonoma County
active 14 days:
start -> 23 October 2019, 9:27 PM
cause: under investigation
77,758 Acres, vegetation
100% contained
374 structures destroyed
60 structures damaged
4 injuries (first responders only)

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Climate Change Bites Big Business

“Electoral politics is not the solution to the Earth-threatening problems we face.”
– Jeffrey St. Clair (10 August 2018, Counter Punch)

There is now no non-violent way to reverse climate change. Even with morally unrestrained action, it is probable that there is now no physical possibility of reversing climate change. The time for action was 1973-1979, the time of the two oil embargoes (the post Israeli War – against Egypt and Syria – Arab Oil Embargo of 1973; and the related-to-the-Iranian-Revolution vengeful price gouge oil embargo of 1979). This was the period of the Watergate-climax finale of the Nixon Administration, the Ford Administration, and the Carter “energy crisis” Administration. Politically, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 killed the possibility of US climate change action.

From Reagan through Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama to Trump, the mentioning of climate change – as one of government’s highest priorities, as one of corporate America’s foremost concerns (to be addressed, not suppressed), and as one of mainstream media’s primary and continuing focuses and leading stories – was minimized if not altogether absent. If anything, climate change denialism was heavily promoted by corporate and partisan (right wing) media, and by legions of corporate agents, flacks and factotums masquerading as elected representatives in federal and state governments. That has now changed.

Climate change is now all over the front pages of the newspapers and is the headline story of the mainstream mass media, primarily because of the massive fires in California whose smoke has even reached New York City. Why this new overt and blaring mainstream news attention to climate change, a subject that was officially hush-hush, trivial and fake news so recently in the past? Obviously because climate change has begun costing big money to major sectors of American capitalism.

In the case of the 2017-2018 California wildfires, one of the costs to capitalism is the financial threat of bankruptcy via liability suits against Northern California’s regulated monopoly utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which is being held responsible for causing the Sonoma and Napa Counties fires of 2017, because electric power lines swung into too-near tree branches during high winds setting off sparks that ignited fires that raced across the dry countryside, incinerating many communities and much industrial infrastructure (e.g., for telephone, internet and TV distribution, and also numerous small business facilities, croplands and vineyards).

A second set of costs to capitalism from California’s vast wildfires of 2017-2018 are the high losses to fire insurance companies, prompting their threats to leave the California insurance market, which in essence would mean a very sharp increase of fire insurance rates for California residents, homeowners and businesses. It seems unlikely to everybody that multi-countywide wildfires like those of 2017 and 2018 are a fluke unlikely to reoccur next year and thereafter.

Companies offering flood, tornado and hurricane insurance along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States, and in Puerto Rico, may now also be smarting from the increased damage caused by more frequent and more powerful hurricanes, and the drenching and flooding rainstorms of the last few years. As with the vaster wildfires and longer wildfire season in the West, the more frequent and extensive flood and tornado disasters in the Great Plains and Gulf and Atlantic coasts have likely seeded thoughts of insurance flight and massive rate increases, and loan rate increases, in the minds of the moguls of the liability underwriting industry and the investment banking industry.

Higher insurance and loan costs hamper any business operation, and dampen real estate construction and sales activity, as well as adding usually unproductive costs to the living expenses of homeowners and renters seeking to buy a little security against unanticipated personal catastrophes.

It is good to remember that the reason the nuclear power industry (for electric generation) is dead is because the insurance industry worldwide rates nuclear power as an infinite liability and thus an uninsurable risk. Nuclear power can only exist where government assumes 100% of the liability in perpetuity. Insurance companies are starting to get the queasy feeling that perhaps wildfires in California (and probably the Great American Desert west of the Mississippi), as well as hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States, are growing into potentially bankrupting infinite liability insurance risks.

A true and honest free market zealot would say: “So what, if companies like PG&E are at fault for wildfire apocalypses then let them get sued into bankruptcy. Another set of entrepreneurs will take their place as providers of electricity and natural gas for consumers, and profit as they deserve for providing safe and reliable service. Also, if some insurance companies are too scared to underwrite the risks of wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, then let them run away or price themselves out of the market, because newer entrepreneurs will become new insurance providers who will take advantage of capturing an underserved market by offering affordable insurance, and thus profit by gaining a large customer base that would then dilute their aggregate risk.” Yes, zealot, but “true and honest” does not usually pair with “profit” when we are dealing with Big Money operators. So, what is more likely to happen?

In the official postmortem of the 2017 Northern California wildfires, PG&E was pointed to as the primary (essentially only) culprit because of the arcing contact between live electric cables and dry tree limbs during the high winds preceding the fires. PG&E is required by regulations to maintain a set clearance between its power cables and all trees near them. That clearance was obviously insufficient, either because of an inadequacy of the state regulations, or an insufficiency of tree trimming maintenance by PG&E’s tree trimming contractors, or both. Fingers will point, courts will be busy.

However, the idea of thousands of burned-out wildfire victims suing PG&E into bankruptcy will not happen because the state of California would then have the colossal headache of finding a new enormous and technically competent business entity to seamlessly take over the operations of producing and distributing electric power and natural gas to many millions of Californians populating a large and geographically diverse terrain. So, California state government will revise old laws or craft new ones to provide too-important-to-fail utilities like PG&E (and Edison International, and San Diego Gas & Electric) with some legal protection from the financial threat of bankruptcy over the liability of causing wildfires. (See the citation at the end for the legalistic details.)

The FIRE combine (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate; and their meshing as Wall Street speculation), along with the War Industries Complex, has a stranglehold on today’s U.S. Government. Recall that FIRE owned the political career of Barack Obama, who dutifully protected them from justifiable prosecution and punishment for the greatest robbery of all time, in 2008; and that military-related expenses and subsidies consume over 70% of the federal budget (our taxes). While American Big Business includes many other rich and politically powerful sectors, like Big Pharma, I think that FIRE and the War Industries Complex are the largest forces in American capitalism today.

It seems to me that now that climate change is biting Big Business in a big way, the mainstream media is excited to report all the lurid details of catastrophes spawned by climate change, because it is echoing the fears of their prime and patronizing audience: the loss of big money by Big Business, and its fear of the loss of future certainty of uninterrupted profitability. Big Capital is now openly scared about climate change, and that is what we are now seeing as headline news.

We will also be seeing urgent promotions – presented as mass media news and commentary – for varieties of government subsidized protection for those sectors of Big Business that feel most financially threatened by the biting furies of climate change. The little that California state government is now doing for moderating the potentially infinite liabilities of its wildfire-haunted electric utilities is only the beginning of what we can expect in the way of publicly subsidized climate change insurance for Big Business.

I think that the pretense of climate change denialism by the Big Money has crumbled, and we are now entering a period of overt climate change acknowledgment coupled with fanatical efforts to gain public subsidies for private interests to both insure and indemnify them against climate change-related financial losses, and to also preserve the nature of their businesses even if they are major CO2 and organic vapor polluters, like the petrochemical and coal companies.

Notes:

California Governor Taking PG&E Closer to Fire Law Changes
July 25, 2018
https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/west/2018/07/25/496015.htm

Facing $17 Billion in Fire Damages, a CEO Blames Climate Change
By: Mark Chediak
August 13, 2018
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-13/facing-17-billion-in-fire-damages-a-ceo-blames-climate-change

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This article appeared first as:

Climate Change Bites Big Business
14 August 2018
https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/14/climate-change-bites-big-business/

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Fire Evacuations vs. Homelessness Abatement

Just in from the edge of the fire zone at Annadel Park, Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, California, U.S.A., on 18 October 2017. Fires in this vicinity raged from 8-17 October 2017.

Fire Evacuations vs. Homelessness Abatement

An advocate for the homeless (Miles Sarvis-Wilburn) just posted on his blog (link below) a criticism of Sonoma County (CA, U.S.A.) for working so hard and spending so much to help the county’s well-housed residents avoid the catastrophe of wildfires (during October 2017) destroying their homes and threatening their lives and prosperity, yet failing to eliminate the chronic homelessness of the county’s destitute street-people. Mr. Sarvis-Wilburn called this “hypocrisy.” The following is my reply to this argument.

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This is the U.S.A., it’s all about the money. The chronically homeless population in Sonoma County is a small fraction of the county’s population, and the current public expenses for them are not monumental (and I am sympathetic to the reasonable and compassionate arguments for increasing that public spending: federal, state and local).

Tens of thousands of Santa Rosa city and Sonoma County residents (normally well housed) were displaced by evacuations during the October Fires (I heard the number 70,000 at one point). The Herculean task of fighting the vast fires to save those homes and residences (rental housing, trailer parks and hotels, where possible) was clearly in large part motivated by instinctive human solidarity: to save lives and prevent and alleviate suffering.

However, another motivation in the public interest was to save housing stock to prevent suddenly having a huge increase in the local long-term homeless population (many aged), and thus a huge increase in unanticipated local public expenses.

The solution to the problem of chronic homelessness is known and has been successfully implemented elsewhere: provide secure affordable (i.e., free) housing for the homeless. Once street-living people are securely housed (and fed), social service professionals have a much easier time helping such people overcome the numerous other problems that bedevil their lives, and which overwhelmed them to the point of becoming homeless.

This solution has been found to be cost-effect because it eliminates many public nuisances = public expenses created by having people-in-need living on the streets indefinitely.

Also, and most crassly, preventing the homes and neighborhoods of secure tax-paying residents from being incinerated, and those residents becoming impoverished, bankrupt or fleeing the area, would prevent a drastic loss of revenue for local governments, and a loss of trade (income) for local businesses. The economic motivation to fight the fires is: to prevent a sag, even collapse, of the local economy.

What prevents, or at least slows, the elimination of homelessness in the U.S.A. is simply the individual and organized selfishness, which we in the U.S.A. call “conservative” politics and “free market” economy and personal “freedom,” as opposed to the “wasteful-pay-for-the-losers” political attitude known as “socialism,” which is disliked by “conservatives” because it “raises taxes” and in general makes greedy people apprehensive about not being able to get as much as they lust for.

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Fire Evacuations vs. Homelessness Abatement,
Miles Sarvis-Wilburn’s criticism of Sonoma County
http://www.westwardness.com/blog/2017/10/13/the-horrible-hypocrisy-of-sonoma-county

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