Muqing M. Zhang, The Outline:
The Woolsey Fire has caused three reported deaths in the impacted parts of Los Angeles County such as Malibu, where the average household yearly income is $128,712, and in Ventura County, where the average household income is $100,000. In contrast to these wealthy areas where celebrities have reportedly been hiring private militia for their insured mansions, the death total has risen to 63 with over 600 missing in Butte County and surrounding areas, where the average household yearly income is $43,000, well below the national average of $53,482. In addition, in Butte County 200 incarcerated people are being forced to fight the fires for $1/hour. Unsurprisingly, while the rich are taking advantage of privatized systems and protecting their multi-million dollar mansions, the poor are dying.
As the disparate impact of these fires demonstrates, although white class-privileged people are culpable for climate change and the environmental disasters it results in, they are able to use their wealth to avoid the devastating consequences while poor people, who tend to be largely people of color, bear the brunt of the harm.
To protect these wealthy residents’ property, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Ventura County Sheriff’s Department both announced that they have dispatched at least 200 officers to further militarize the area and arrest looters. Insurance companies have also deployed teams of private firefighters, comprised of “specialists and former firefighters,” to protect the most expensive properties they insure. In addition, homeowners have hired private bodyguards to risk their lives to protect property from looters. Rather than understanding that looting is a symptom of extreme class inequality in our society, these rich residents have condemned the looting as proof of lack of morality amongst the poor.
The stark contrast in the fires’ impact demonstrates greater environmental racism and class inequality. Being from southern California, I know from experience that one’s ability to minimize and/or recover from fire damage falls strictly along class and race lines. The only people who can afford or even know about fire home insurance, afford days off work to evacuate, find difficult to access information on evacuations, find temporary housing, and navigate insurance claims systems—are white, educated, class-privileged people.
While they are funding these privatized resource systems with the wealth they built off of marginalized peoples, wealthy white people are simultaneously supporting Trump in droves, who blamed forest management for these current fires and derided a United Nations report released last month finding that the world has 12 years to avert global environmental catastrophe. These fires and their disparate impact demonstrate a necessity for structural action on climate change and support for those who will be most harmed—poor people and people of color.