Disaster Socialism: Inequality in Recovery After a Fire

By Richard Neve

Fire, City and Demographics

Wild fires are seasonal phenomena here in California. From October through April “Santa Ana” winds blow hot dry air westward from the interior  towards the more populated coastal regions. These types of fires “burn fast and dangerous,” spreading almost as fast as the wind blows. Climate change is causing these fires to be more intense, more destructive.  The winter fire season is beginning to merge with the summer fire season. 

Here in Ventura County we know that it is only a matter of time before a wildfire will threaten one or more of our towns.  Most city’s boundaries sit in “wildland-urban-interfaces” areas. These are zones where communities and urban sprawl are directly adjacent to wildland areas that are at increased risk of wildfires.  While we know the dry, chaparral areas around our towns will eventually be engulfed in flames, we were not prepared to see the flames of the largest wildfire in California history, the “Thomas” fire, from our living rooms.


The city of Ventura, where most of the structure loss occurred, is a suburb wedged between the ocean and the hills.  The population of just over one hundred thousand is mostly white and middle-class. However, about 30% of Ventura residents speak Spanish at home. The homes that were lost in the fire were primarily in the wealthier hillside neighborhoods.  The city’s west side, locally known as the Avenue, is a largely working class and Latino area.  While they were spared from structural damage the effects of lost wages and poor air quality linger.


Socialist Ethic


On the one hand, in the aftermath of the Thomas fire a distinctly socialist ethic is flourishing. Resources are being allocated solely on human need instead of market demands or profit motive. The main Red Cross evacuation center in Ventura had to ask people to stop donating food, water, clothes, toiletries, etc. They had collected more than enough. One local yoga instructor set up a donation center at her home and quickly had her front yard full of supplies. Many folks are hosting displaced residents in their homes for indefinite periods of time. For many residents the basic human needs of food, water, shelter and clothing are being provided for them with no payment demanded in return. Additionally, local government agencies are doing everything they can to keep residents updated on evacuations, road closures and where to find assistance. Ventura even managed to escape disaster socialism, where government provides necessary goods only when the market cannot: the day after the fire began, bottled water was still on sale in local supermarkets.


Latino Community Not Served


On the other hand though, it’s clear that the Thomas fire exacerbated structural inequalities between residents of the white, upper-middle class hillside and working-class, Latino families in the Avenue neighborhoods.

Even though Spanish is spoken in 22% of households in the city of Ventura, most of the emergency information services were only available in English.  Readyventuracounty.org, the main clearinghouse for critical information only had a Google Translate button at the bottom of the page for a week after the fire began.  By that time most of the danger had already passed. The lack of communication tailored to the community meant that many residents in that area did not know they were in an evacuation zone; many had nowhere else to go, or had to stay so they could continue to go to work.


With fires come days and sometimes weeks of poor air quality.  N95 particular respirator masks were in short supply. Residents in the Avenue neighborhood had limited access while supplies were also very limited in local stores. Local agencies were slow to organize coordinated distributions. As the fire pushed northward, more affluent cities soon to be threatened secured thousands of masks and then made sure residents could easily access them. When that process began in Ventura, not one distribution site was located within the Avenue. Additionally, many farm workers in the area continued to labor in the fields. They endured some of the poorest air quality on record. Farm bosses did not proactively hand out masks or inform laborers that they have a right not only to proper protective equipment but also to stay home from work without fear of retaliation if working conditions are hazardous to their health. Indeed, the local Cal/OSHA office was closed due to the fire and the poor air quality.


While most media attention has been focused on the families that lost their homes, many low-income residents are also struggling in the aftermath of the fire. Families who lost homes in the hillside neighborhoods almost all have excellent home owners insurance.  There is already lots of talk of rebuilding homes.


Meanwhile, working-class residents are struggling to get by. With large portions of the cities of Santa Paula, Ventura and Ojai under mandatory evacuation orders, hundreds of local businesses were closed.  Thousands of hourly-rate workers lost days of wages. Employers are “not required to pay them if the employer is unable to provide work due to a natural disaster.” This means that many low-wage workers lost out on wages they depend on to pay bills and purchase basic necessities.  While there are a few programs to provide wage assistance, “an overwhelming majority of low-income and vulnerable workers in our county don’t take advantage of such provisions because of their lack of access to information and transportation and inability to speak or read English.”  On top of that, local school districts cancelled classes for weeks. Ventura Unified School District has not held classes since December 4, the day the fire started. So even when working parents are able to return to work they must contend with securing child care, which is expensive, in the absence of school.


Ventura County DSA Work


The response of the Ventura County DSA chapter was to follow the lead of other local organizations, particularly the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). While the fire pushed towards the north and smoke still filled the skies over Ventura, CAUSE gathered N95 masks and organized distribution events in the Avenue neighborhood. A few VC DSA members joined in those efforts. At one event, in just four hours 4000 masks were given to local residents.


CAUSE is a well-established community organization with experienced, professional organizers who lead a variety of struggles in Ventura County as well as neighboring counties to the north. Solidarity work with CAUSE is helping VC DSA strengthen ties with local left organizations. Most of our members are new to organizing, so working with CAUSE has also provided a wealth of knowledge and insight about what community organizing looks like and how it can be done effectively.


CAUSE has been very successful in the wake of the Thomas fire. All told, they collected and passed out 15,000 N95 respirator masks. When Cal/OSHA finally reopened, it issued a new policy requiring businesses that employ farm workers to provide those masks when conditions become hazardous. Additionally, CAUSE, in partnership with other local agencies, is working on an Undocufund to assist immigrant families.


Our environmental justice working group has previously joined CAUSE activists in the struggle against the construction of a fourth natural gas power plant on the beach in neighboring Oxnard. Fighting to reduce carbon emissions is crucial to curbing the factors that are exacerbating wildfires here in California. Thanks to the efforts of CAUSE and other organizations such as the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), the power plant project is effectively dead.


As a small chapter we had not previously discussed how we would respond to a natural disaster, or even what a socialist response to local emergencies would look like. Our work with established groups like CAUSE and MICOP is helping us begin that discussion. It is also providing models of effective action that are thoroughly embedded in the community.


Richard Neve is an adjunct lecturer in political science and DSA member. He lives in Ventura, CA.


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