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Fueled by Climate Change, California's Raging Wildfires Are Threatening Vulnerable Communities First

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It's clear that the utility has not done all that it could and should and must do to prevent these fires, but it is also facing really extreme weather that we haven't seen before. So we should definitely be holding that utility accountable, while also talking about climate change and the fact that if one utility from just two years of fires has up to $30 billion in liability, what will that mean for our infrastructure and our organizations across the United States as climate change worsens?

AMY GOODMAN: California Congressmember Ro Khanna tweeted Monday, "Instead of spending $10.5 million lobbying our politicians, and $4.5 billion on stock buybacks for investors, PG&E should have invested in tree trimming and infrastructure. Here's the result: Over 2 million Californians without power," Ro Khanna tweeted. Let's go to California Governor Gavin Newsom speaking at a news conference Monday.

GOVERNOR GAVIN NEWSOM: I recognize this moment generates a tremendous amount of anxiety. The high-profile images that people see, not only the Kincade Fire in Northern California but now the Getty fire in Southern California and Los Angeles, generate consternation, generate concern. But this, interestingly, is a moment in California that is very familiar. We have actually had a below-average fire season to date. What we are experiencing at the moment is slightly above average. It is the high end of average for this time of year. It doesn't feel that way, but in fact, is the case. The state has been well resourced. The state has been very forthright in terms of prepositioning assets to a degree that we never have in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: So that's the governor of California, Gavin Newsom. We want to bring Ariel Kelley into this conversation, of Corazón Healdsburg. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a PG&E transmission tower in Sonoma County malfunctioned near the origin point of the Kincade Fire just minutes before the fire started. If you can talk about how the state of California is dealing with the overall population, and then particularly with a population you deal with, Ariel, in Healdsburg, and that is the population of immigrants and particularly the concerns of the undocumented in times when they might need government help.

ARIEL KELLEY: Yes. Well, I would say it has been quite a week. I, myself, am an evacuee. I live in Healdsburg and I live about five miles from Geyserville, which was the first town that was impacted by the fires, the first homes that were lost late last Wednesday night. And it is true; it's a very agricultural community. Many of our residents work in agriculture. Wine is the predominant industry there. And as the evacuations continue to grow further and further south, we are now seeing as of yesterday about 190,000 people were evacuated from their homes. I think, fortunately, yesterday, we saw some evacuation orders lifted for the western part of Sonoma County, so people will be able to return to their homes in a very small section of the community.

But still, hundreds of thousands of people remain without power. The cell phone service is down in many parts of Marin County and Sonoma County. The cell phone towers operate off of batteries, but many of those batteries only have like 72 hours of battery life, and so the communications are completely next to nothing, and people are living in their cars, in shelters, at large event centers, at fairgrounds. And there's a real sense of trauma in the community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ariel Kelley, I think Sonoma County has about 38,000 estimated undocumented. Across the state of California, 40% of the entire state population is Hispanic. A significant percentage of that is undocumented. But all of these government services that are available in terms of disaster, the undocumented can't take advantage of or can't utilize. How is this being dealt with?

ARIEL KELLEY: That is correct. Fortunately, our local government, state government resources, as well as all local shelters are no-questions-asked in terms of documentation status. Since 2017 when the last time we went through this in Sonoma County, we realized that there was a lot of education that needed to happen with our immigrant community and our undocumented community to let them know that all of these shelters and immediate emergency services were available to them. There is a lot of government agencies involved during this type of emergency, and so there was some concern historically about who are these agencies, that if I go to a Red Cross shelter, am I going to be putting myself or my family at risk of deportation? I think fortunately, we have done a considerable amount of education since 2017, and so we have seen more of those families being comfortable coming to the shelters and seeking refuge and support.

But you are absolutely correct -- FEMA funding is not available to undocumented immigrants. And so it is really important that we as a community -- we are doing a lot of fundraising right now and actually distributing cash right now to people at shelters who have no gas money, have no money for food. I met a family two days ago who fled their home with moments to spare as the fire was coming down the hill behind them on Wednesday night, left with nothing. And so they have been for days -- no shower, no clothing except for the pajamas that were wearing when they were leaving. So providing immediate aid to those families is really urgent. So we are raising funds and distributing funds through Corazón Healdsburg, my organization, to everyone in the community who needs help.

AMY GOODMAN: Kind of a double whammy here with the president of the United States going after California. I want to ask Professor Stokes about saying that California cannot limit fossil fuel emissions in the way they want to, greenhouse gas emissions. And I want to ask Ariel Kelley if Ariel, you could start by talking about the pressure Trump has put on California around the issue of immigration, how that impacts people now under enormous pressure from the fire.

ARIEL KELLEY: Certainly. I think since 2017, we have seen President Trump and a lot of the rhetoric against immigrants all across the country. I think people are genuinely still very concerned and fearful for their safety and security living in California. And you see it manifest in youth with severe trauma and having behavioral issues because of the stress that their parents and family units are under due to the rhetoric coming out of Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: And Professor Stokes, on this issue of President Trump trying to make illegal California limiting greenhouse gas emissions?

LEAH STOKES: Trump, since he has taken office, has been rolling back environmental legislation and regulations across the board. It is very clear that he wants to make California's life more difficult. California has been a really important leader, not just in the United States, but around the world, in terms of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. And he has gone after that both through automaker rules that California has a right to set, as well as through California's decision to have a cap and trade system with Quebec in Canada. And I think that this is extremely wrongheaded.

A lot of legal scholars feel that Trump has very little to stand on with these cases, but he is certainly wasting a lot of time while we are watching a really big disaster unfold across the United States. It is not just about these fires in California that are caused by climate change. It's also about the hurricanes, about the drought, about flooding. So many Americans are already experiencing the effects of climate change. And instead of having leadership and action from our federal government, we have a climate denier-in-chief who is completely abdicating responsibility on what is increasingly a climate emergency.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Stokes, on Sunday, Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted that it is time to begin thinking about public ownership of public utilities. But there has been a long history in the United States, especially in the West, of publicly owned utilities that arose out of the progressive movement of the early 20th century, really. And you are kind of skeptical as to whether this is a solution to the kind of problem presented by the California utility. Could you talk about that?

LEAH STOKES: Yeah. So as part of PG&E's bankruptcy proceedings, there has been a move by San Francisco to try to take over a piece of that utility. And I will note that the unions that are part of PG&E oppose that effort, so I think it is going to face a big uphill battle. There are some reasons why cleaving off a part of PG&E into a municipal utility for San Francisco I don't really feel makes sense. Because what you are going to do is have a huge amount of fire risk and liability for the rest of the PG&E territory, which theoretically will not be under that San Francisco municipality's control.

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