The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

How Logging Companies Profit from the California Wildfire Crisis

Sep 26, 2022

So far, this fire season in California has not been as disastrous as past years. But there were still nine deaths from wildfires and over 900 structures destroyed. And the authorities are warning that the worst months could be ahead, driven by hot, dry winds coming from the desert that occur more often in the autumn.

If anything, the conditions behind this crisis are getting worse. Fires that break out tend to spread faster and burn hotter than they did before, leaving residents very little time to escape.

Generally, these worsening conditions are blamed on climate change: hotter and drier conditions that make forests and everything in them more combustible. But, in fact, climate change is only making worse some dangerous conditions caused by the policies of big business and the banks, that have destroyed vast natural resources for their own enrichment.

Fire should be a normal and often essential part of the environment in California. In big parts of the state, it rains only during a few months of the late fall and winter. During the rest of the year, vegetation dries out and bakes under the sun, becoming potential kindling. Scientists estimate that before European settlers arrived, fires burned on a much wider scale than anything seen today. But these fires were not the kinds of conflagrations that the state is now experiencing. They were of low and medium intensity, and they actually served a kind of housekeeping purpose. For the fires regularly burnt up all the leaves, needles, branches, dead foliage and live underbrush that regularly builds up in forests.

But once big business came to California in the mid-nineteenth century, these fires threatened the investments and wealth of the big logging and mining companies, and so the fires were suppressed. For more than a century and a half, putting out every single fire was the official policy of the U.S. government. This policy allowed the dangerous build-up of dead trees and vegetation. This didn’t stop fires from breaking out. But it did assure that when fires did break out, they were bigger and hotter.

So now, top U.S. government officials say they are modifying their policy. They say they want to manage forests, cut down small trees and reduce dead vegetation with controlled burns in order to reduce the amount of fuel that can burn up when fires hit. Of course, really reducing fire risk is expensive, labor-intensive work. It means removing dense stands of small trees and thick underbrush that accumulated for decades as wildfires—a natural part of the landscape—were suppressed.

But that is not what the politicians are proposing. Instead, they are putting all federal land agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, whose budget is based on the sale of trees to logging companies, as well as the National Park Service, under significant political pressure to conduct commercial logging operations. And these companies have been doing more of the same thing they always do, cutting down mature, old-growth trees that are turned into expensive lumber. Sometimes these companies even clear-cut mature, old-growth forests.

Thus, when visitors arrived in Yosemite National Park this spring, they saw fully loaded logging trucks roaring along the roads as commercial logging crews felled countless mature trees—some of them over five feet in diameter—and hauled them to lumber mills and power plants where they’d be burned in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

This does nothing to alleviate the dangerous conditions in the forests. It destroys more of the environment and makes it more likely that when fires break out, they are worse, because of cutting down old-growth trees that are much more fire resistant than younger trees. Many of California’s most devastating recent fires—including 2018’s deadly Camp fire that reduced the town of Paradise to ashes and killed 89 people—seared straight through forests that had been heavily logged several times in the past.

Thus, the very companies and government authorities that destroyed the environment in the past in their drive for profit, are continuing to profit from that crisis … by making the crisis worse.