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It’s Getting Hard to Breathe – The Bay Area’s Toxic Smoke Crisis and How Politicians Failed our Communities

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They say that when someone experiences a crisis, you see the real person. Today California is suffering a major environmental and health crisis rolled into one that the authorities prepared no one for. This crisis is exposing the complete failure of a profit-based economy to quickly and responsibly respond to the needs of the people.

The Butte County Camp Fire is now the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Seventy people are confirmed dead, over one thousand are missing, and close to 10,000 homes were destroyed. The entire city of Paradise, California, home to 26,000 people, was burnt to the ground in one day. Those who died were most often the elderly and disabled, many died trying to flee, many were just unable to make it to their cars, if they owned one.

A second disaster has now ensnared the Bay Area, home to seven million people. Streets are empty and our usual traffic gridlock has eased, as hazardous air quality breaks records and people stay in their homes. Air quality index levels over 200 are considered dangerously high. San Francisco this week recorded levels of up to 245, the worst since the Bay Area Air Quality Management District began measuring levels. One day this week, the state capital of Sacramento recorded a 337, possibly the worst air quality index in the world for that day. The fire continues to rage.

Growing Anger

Bay Area school districts closed all schools Friday. San Francisco’s Department of Health urged people to stay indoors, with a warning of a future spike in cardiopulmonary deaths. Children are complaining of asthma-like symptoms and many are suffering headaches and sore throats. Many fear the outcome for isolated elders who are staying inside in poorly constructed homes that allow substantial air to enter. Being homeless on a day like Friday, without protection from the air, was the equivalent of smoking a half pack of cigarettes, according to environmental groups.

Bay Area people are angry. State and local government should have coordinated an ongoing, mass distribution of N95 face masks. Large facilities with filtered air systems like museums, malls and movie theaters should have been identified and made free and open to the public. Activities could have been organized in these locations for young kids whose parents were unable to stay home with them when school was canceled. Expert advice and supplies should have been widely disseminated on how to control air quality inside your home. Instead people are calling around to multiple stores trying to find masks and relying on Facebook posts to jury-rig fans as air filters. This is not an organized response.

People are also angry at the privately-owned public utility company, PG&E. Its poor electrical infrastructure maintenance record has been implicated in previous fires and it is under scrutiny for transmission line problems at the source of the Camp Fire. For the past three years the hugely profitable company has been under a state investigation over its safety culture. On Thursday November 15, after initial reports of the causes of the fire, PG&E stocks crashed 30%. This led state regulators to promise a bailout, which in turn, led to a rise in their stocks. It doesn’t seem to matter how big PG&E’s mistakes are, the government continues to bail this billion dollar private company out and lets them continue to suck profits out of the California community. Private companies should not have the kind of power that PG&E has.

President Trump, an advocate of privatization of public lands and escalating logging, cited California’s poor forest management for the fire disasters. He did not mention the deepening of federal cuts that have undermined any ability to manage these lands. California’s wildfire crisis has undoubtedly been exacerbated by budget cuts, but climate change has also contributed to drier and hotter forests. Fires across California are burning hotter and faster than ever before bringing more destruction and death. Now a group of climate refugees from Paradise are forced to call a Walmart parking lot home.

The privately owned fossil fuel companies continue to fund both the Republican and Democratic parties and continue to be barely constrained despite the massive damage they are doing to the planet. While fossil fuel companies spend millions on a PR game of appearing to be green-friendly, a recent report in the Financial Times exposed that they are in fact only spending 2% of their capital investments on renewable energy development. These companies are so short-sighted and profit-addicted that they cannot in any way be trusted with the power they have over this economy.

Medicare for All Now!

The massive fog of smoke that now envelops the San Francisco Bay Area has been a boon to sellers of masks and air purifiers and those made sick will only make the privately owned pharmaceutical companies and hospitals richer. Part of the failure of city and county governments to step into this crisis is that healthcare is seen as a separate entity to their responsibilities. In countries with socialized medicine, the government is more likely to be proactive in such a crisis, specifically so as not to burden their public health systems. A single payer system, or the implementation of Medicare for All could begin to integrate preventative measures into a democratically controlled health system that looks at the all-round well being of all people.

The Democratic Party now has a super majority in both California state houses. California is increasingly becoming a one-party state. However, working people continue to have their voice and their concerns shut out from the state’s affairs. Socialist Alternative campaigned to send Jovanka Beckles, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America to the State Assembly where she could have been the lone voice for working people that was willing to call out big business in crises like these.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently joined a sit-in at likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to highlight inaction by the establishment on climate change. This was a good start for the new Congressperson. Were she, as the voice of a new generation, to issue a call for mass mobilizations for a Green New Deal, alongside progressive unions, the billionaires and the right could be pushed back.,These mobilizations would need to be centered on a clear program to tax the rich to fund affordable housing, universal healthcare and education and for massive investment in retooling the economy on a sustainable basis.

The incredible human tragedy of the fire itself has gripped the attention of all Californians. The stories of those that managed to flee the fire in time reminds us of the terrible suffering of those that could not. Over 50,000 people have evacuated. The full resources of the state must be mobilized to provide quality temporary shelter until permanent affordable housing can be built. This fire has further underlined the crisis of availability of housing in California. It has further underlined the need for a high quality Medicare for All health system. These fire crises will continue. The poor response must not.

Working people in California were completely unprepared for the current smoke crisis that has hundreds of thousands beginning to display symptoms of respiratory distress. The governing party of the state, the Democratic Party, have the experts at hand that could have predicted this crisis: what they were lacking was the will to put the people first. We need a party that will put our needs first and will be independent of what the private healthcare, utility and fossil fuel companies demand. Ultimately we need to get rid of the entire system of capitalism that creates disasters like the Camp Fire and then is completely unable to respond to them.

  • Tax California’s 1% to fully fund public infrastructure and disaster preparedness;
  • Green New Deal for California’s economy: union jobs for all;
  • End Fossil Fuel extraction;
  • Medicare for All Now!
  • Bring PG&E into public ownership, as well as the fossil fuel industry and energy sector generally, under democratic control;
  • Affordable, Safe Housing Available to all through Taxing the Rich.

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