Wildfires have been devastating California for years. But the Camp Fire that is currently spreading in northern California has marked the largest death tally from a single fire in the state’s history with 86 people dead. These monstrous calamities have left thousands of people displaced from their homes and countless others missing in the rubble. Over 18,000 structures have been destroyed, 400 square miles burned to nothing, and smoke advisories have been issued for all affected regions. California’s response in these situations are Shelter-in-Place (SIP) practices. These include designating shelters, recommending safety strategies for homes, and other methods to address protecting land, evacuation, rebuilding, and safety. However, there is a toll that comes with the practices of SIP that targets marginalized groups and impoverished communities. Private sectors are prioritized for economic and availability reasons. The allocation of resources has become tainted with prejudice and, as a result, has left thousands at the mercy of the fires.
In the article, “The Façade of Safety in California’s Shelter-In-Place Homes: History, Wildfire, and Social Consequence,” author Albert S. Fu argues that “in so-called rational policies concerning firefighting, the inequality between the powerful and the marginalized is clearly visible in the allocation of attention as well as resources.” This article written in 2012 clearly outlines the inherent issues in the response to natural disasters. The reality is that class, race, and income are all reasons for who is brought to safety and who is left behind. Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic communities are 50% more vulnerable to wildfires due to their lack of resources. These disasters have become less “natural” and more of an example of the consequences of social differences between people.
Prevention and the cleanup of fires is directly linked to money. Discussing the current Camp Fire, an article on az.central says, “Communities in the fire zone included those populated by lower-income residents seeking affordable housing.” These people’s priorities are not on a good firefighting department or brush removal, but basic necessities like housing. Stocking up on water and food becomes much harder for certain families, leaving thousands of communities underprepared for turmoil. In the current fire and even those past, people of color have been shown to be much more vulnerable to harm than primarily white communities.
Aside from prevention, the government’s methods of distributing emergency services are flawed. Those who cannot provide identity documents can be barred from shelters and services, which endangers undocumented immigrants and Indigenous people. There is also a lack of financial support for local fire safety, meaning people must take matters into their own hands. However, the wealthy have the opportunity to have secure homes in secure locations, while marginalized groups are left with structures that are less than ideal for disasters. This private implementation of safety has created dangerous differences between all people affected by fires. It takes thousands of dollars to secure a house and keep it up to date in terms of structural integrity and fire safety––dollars that many do not have.
Natural disasters affect everyone, yet some can come out less charred in the long run than others. The factors that create the divide are due to marginalized groups’ inability to receive the same resources and safety implications than others. They are trapped in a burning state where their class, race, and income determine their likelihood of survival.