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

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California is bracing for a day of strong winds as climate change-fueled wildfires continue to burn from Los Angeles to north of the Bay Area. After a chaotic weekend of mass evacuations and blackouts that left millions in the dark, firefighters in Sonoma, California, made headway Monday, containing 15% of the massive Kincade fire that has burned nearly 75,000 acres. But as high winds pick up again today, firefighters still face an uphill battle in combating the at least 10 blazes raging across the state, including the growing Getty fire, which erupted in one of Los Angeles's most opulent communities Monday. Fires in California are typical this time of year, but the length and severity of the state's fire season has grown due to climate change.

We speak with Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and researcher on climate and energy politics. We also speak with Ariel Kelley, the CEO of Corazón Healdsburg, a bilingual family resource center based in Northern Sonoma County.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I'm Juan Gonza'lez. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world. We begin today's show in California, where residents across the state are bracing for a day of strong winds as wildfires fueled by climate change continue to burn from Los Angeles to Northern California. After a chaotic weekend of mass evacuations and blackouts that left millions in the dark, firefighters in Sonoma, California, made headway Monday, containing 15% of the massive Kincade Fire that has burned nearly 75,000 acres in the region and destroyed at least 123 homes and structures. But as high winds pick up again today, firefighters still face an uphill battle in combating at least 10 blazes raging across the state. Public utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric will shut down the power grid for nearly 600,000 more customers in Northern and Central California Tuesday in anticipation of the dangerous weather.

AMY GOODMAN: In Southern California, firefighters are combating the growing Getty Fire, which erupted in one of Los Angeles's most opulent communities on Monday, forcing thousands to evacuate and destroying eight structures. This is Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: We have fires all the time in Los Angeles, but our ability to knock them down in past years was much stronger because we didn't have these extreme shifts of wind. We didn't have these extreme shifts of weather. We didn't have these extreme shifts of extreme weather that dumps rain, as we saw in January, and provides fuel now here in October.

AMY GOODMAN: Fires in California are typical this time of year, but the length and severity of the state's fire season has grown due to climate change. Of the more than 4,000 firefighters working across the state to contain the blazes, at least 700 are California prisoners. While salaried firefighters earn an annual mean wage of $74,000 a year plus benefits, prisoners earn a dollar per hour when fighting active fires.

Well, for more, we're joined by two guests. In Boston, we're joined by Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Researcher on climate and energy politics. In San Francisco, we're joined by Ariel Kelley, the CEO of Corazón Healdsburg, a bilingual family resource center based in Northern Sonoma County. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!.

Leah Stokes, let's begin with you. You were just in Santa Barbara and you have just written a piece, an op-ed piece, where you make the connection. The corporate media -- and I'm not just talking about Fox; I'm talking about CNN and MSNBC -- will bring us endless, as they should, coverage of these fires, very critical to cover these fires. They don't make that connection as much with climate change. What is the proof?

LEAH STOKES: Well, we know from research from scientists that climate change has dramatically worsened fires in the West. There is research that says that fires have gotten 500% more risky as a result of climate change and that two times more area has burned because of climate change. We know that the drought that California has recently come out of was also caused by climate change. And yet some of these deeper stories about what is happening in California, what is happening across the United States with climate change, are not told by the media. Instead, it's just a focus on the fire, a focus on sort of the proximate causes and not a focus on the fact that we have already warmed the planet by one degree Celsius and we are headed in a very dangerous direction.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Stokes, what about the role of PG&E, the big utility there, blamed for some past fires as well because of malfunctions of its equipment, and its decision to go into bankruptcy? Could you talk about that, the role of the utilities?

LEAH STOKES: Yes. PG&E has played a really important role in the last few years of fires, and it is currently in bankruptcy in part as a result of that. It has an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion in liability as a result of these fires. In 2017, a number of people died in a very deadly fire in Northern California. And it got even worse last year with the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, where 85 people died. And so those liabilities are now on PG&E's balance sheets. And there's a lot of people suing the company, and therefore it is in bankruptcy proceeding.

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