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Green Is The New Black

California Fire Season Meets COVID-19: Vineyards, Prison Labour, and Malibu Beach

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Fire season in California has arrived earlier than usual this year, and it’s not just because 2020 has been written off as “frankly… terrible“.

COVID-19 is one of many factors working to blow smoke across the state of California. Fires with erratic, directionless speeds, impenetrable ground-level smoke, and whirls, or ‘fire-nados‘, are raging through cities and countryside alike, and it’s only August. We look into the history of California’s fire ecology, the wine industry, prison labour, and luxury property management, to investigate how we have arrived at this point.

Fire Ecology in California

Much of California’s natural vegetation (think giant sequoias, chaparral, and sage scrub) is reliant on yearly fire cycles for seed germination. But a combination of external factors, such as unsustainable food production that is drying out California’s largest water source, have accelerated these fire cycles into an unmanageable threat. So far this year, 1.3 million acres of California forest has burned down — approximately one million more acres than were burned in total last year.

In Mike Davis’ recent Longreads feature, he explains the structural elements that prime California for fire. Every year around October, the powerful ‘Santa Ana’ winds blow from the north. As they pass over high-pressure zones that form over the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, these winds “heat up”. Pushing seawards through cavernous valleys and narrow canyons, the winds are blown to “hurricane velocity”. A single spark from a lightning bolt, a campfire, or cigarette butt can “explode” the dry vegetation and brushy hillsides into wildfire. This is to be expected, but overdevelopment and mismanaged land use mean that blazes are becoming larger, faster, and ultimately “uncontrollable”.

Smoke and Wine

Amelia, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, works at a popular vineyard in California’s most famous wine-growing region. The winery is a certified ‘California Sustainable Winegrower’, is solar-powered, and is dedicated to natural resource preservation in pest control. The winery is also experiencing dramatic revenue loss in 2020 due to closures under California’s Shelter-in-place order.

Amelia, who has been fire-evacuated from her Sonoma home twice over the past few years, describes her recent workdays as “hot” and “nauseating”. Hospitality venues are ordered to offer outdoors-only service in an effort to contain the deadly coronavirus. “Staff are running around in the 32°C heat, with an air quality index of 250, serving customers who aren’t wearing PPE.” she tells me. “One of my coworkers was throwing up but my boss doesn’t want us to close because we need to make up for lost sales”.

This week, Amelia and her coworkers had to choose between masks that protect them against the virus, or masks that protect them against smoke. A solemn reality cautioned by Dr. Jeanne A. Noble, director of the COVID-19 response team at UCSF Medical Centre, in a recent New York Times article. She explains that, while some N95s are “effective in filtering out particles from smoke, the valves let the wearer’s breath escape the mask, thus posing a risk for spreading Covid-19”. Amelia chose the “covid-mask”.

Mansions in Malibu

The protection of luxury developments along high-risk areas of California, such as Malibu, set the scene for more catastrophic fire events with every year that passes. Such developments have been protected by the state government ‘at all costs’ since 1919, meaning fire crews expend massive efforts to suppress fire activity in developed areas in order to protect homeowners. As a consequence, the already dry vegetation, which would usually burn on a regular basis as part of its life cycle, gets older and older, thus increasing its capacity to explode. For example, 50 year old chaparral is calculated to burn with 50 times more intensity than 20 year old chaparral. Effectively, areas like Malibu are covered in increasingly flammable and insuppressible fuel, just waiting for a spark.

Prison Labour

The State of California relies heavily on prison labour to control impact of the massive wildfires that burn through the state on a yearly basis. An article in The Guardian reported in that, in July, “a dozen California firefighting camps that house incarcerated firefighters have been quarantined and taken out of commission after a coronavirus outbreak at a state prison, highlighting the precarious situation for these crews.”

Romarilyn Ralston, who leads Project Rebound at California State University explains that the prison crews are “both crucial and heavily exploited… in exchange for extremely dangerous work, prisoners earn time off their sentences and are paid between $2 and $5 a day, plus $1 per hour when they are on a fire.” Prison labour saves the state of California 90 to 100 million dollars on wildfire containment per year.

This year, COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons across California have left more than 5,700 prisoners sick with the infection. California Governor Gavin announced in July that “of the 192 crews of incarcerated firefighters, only 94 are currently available”.

The antagonistic relationship between smoke and COVID-19

According to this New York times article, UC San Francisco hospital “has been using outdoor tents to properly space patients as they wait to be seen.” The toxic smoke fumes will “probably make them unusable” and contaminated. In addition, during power outages that are par for the course during fire season, Dr. Noble said her department would “most likely be busier” as there is “always an uptick in respiratory cases during power outages from people who rely on electrically powered CPAP machines for breathing or nebulisers for administering medicine.”

I asked Amelia about being evacuated from her home, and she’s fully prepared to flee again this year. “We have boxes packed with our most precious belongings… It’s normal for us to digitise family photos, not out of regular convenience, but specifically to make them easy to save when the next fire comes around.”

“After you evacuate you have to find somewhere to stay” Amelia reminds me, “Some people find a hotel, move in with family, sleep in their cars…” And while in previous years, counties have set up shelters for those without a safe place to take refuge, social distancing measures have thrown disaster planning into flux.

What comes next?

The causes for the worsening California wildfires are systemic and, frankly, beyond individual control. It is important to remember that California itself is not volatile, but its unsustainable built environment is. Keep yourself informed with reliable resources such as this Medium article about modelling a sustainable future, and this report on the Green New Deal, which aims to attack the problem at its root.

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Theressa is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand with a strong interest in the relationship between people, land, and literature.