Divided by Fire

The Flames of Inequality Still Burn in California

As the popular saying goes, Interstate 8 divides San Diego County between the haves to the north and the have-nots to the south.

But the Great Firestorm of 2007–which has scorched half a million acres, destroyed 2,300 structures and displaced several hundred thousand people–has revealed the even deeper fissures cutting through a place that calls itself “America’s finest city.”

While the fires were still burning, the Republican chain of command–from George Bush to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders–declared “mission accomplished” in the effort to save the victims and put an end to the Hurricane Katrina syndrome. But in the Republicans’ carefully orchestrated victory tour, the reality facing most San Diegans was left out.

The Southern California wildfires didn’t discriminate among who they affected on the basis of wealth or property values. But the preparations for dealing with the disaster certainly did, and so did the relief effort.

Hundreds of thousands of San Diego inhabitants have been excluded, ignored or persecuted during and after the fires–and they will be forced to bear the costs of a systemic social failure into the foreseeable future.

According to former San Diego fire Chief Jeff Bowman, county officials learned nothing from the 2003 fires that devastated the area.

Driven by a desire to preserve–and expand–wealth for the region’s richest inhabitants, who have come to rely on private services to meet their own personal needs, the local political power structure continued to starve funding for fire prevention measures.

Bowman, a lifelong Republican, said that “San Diego practices the biggest don’t-tax-me campaign I’ve seen,” a philosophy he describes as “we can do more for less.” Bowman quit in 2006 over the unwillingness of the city to fund $100 million in new fire stations and equipment.

The city now has fewer than 1,300 firefighters (the same number as five years ago), who have not received a pay raise in four years. It has only one water-dropping helicopter and lacks a countywide infrastructure to provide regional rapid response to fires.

As UC-San Diego Professor Steve Erie explained to the Los Angeles Times, “developers own most of the city councils. In Poway, in Escondido, what they do is put homeowners in harm’s way. They’re able to control zoning processes, and they’re frequently behind initiatives that say no new taxes, no new fire services. It’s insanity.”

The situation bears all the hallmarks of the pro-free market philosophy of neoliberalism–a drive to shrink the public sector, privatize government services and utilize state power to redistribute money to the rich.

Short-term profits and wealth are traded for long-term calamity–and when environmental catastrophes take place, the cost of relief and recovery is transferred to the those most affected.

As author Naomi Klein explained to the Los Angeles Times, “What we have is a dangerous confluence of events: under-funded states, increasingly inefficient disaster response, a loss of faith in the public sphere…and a growing part of the economy that sees disaster as a promising new market.”

That could be seen clearly when the fires struck last month. As most people evacuated or held out until the flames were licking at their doorways, some homeowners in the fire zone’s most affluent zip codes were able to enjoy special security.

Mansions insured by American International Group–which only covers millionaires–brought in a private army named Firebreak Spray Systems to protect their homes. Expert firefighters blanketed whole estates with state-of-the-art flame retardants that preserved certain houses, while others were incinerated.

For the wealthy residents of San Diego County who weren’t directly affected, the fires have been little more than an inconvenience. One La Jolla doctor described her difficulty finding entertainment for her family while the county burned. “[She] went through the list: the beach, the tennis club and local parks were all quickly rejected because of air quality,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. “They finally decided on Chuck E. Cheese.”

For working class families, whether they lived in the path of the fire or not, the consequences were much more dire. Most workplaces in the region shut down, some for a whole week, depriving people of much-needed paychecks.

As one displaced worker asked a volunteer at a donation center, “What can we do once we return home, and we’re asked to pay our rent? I haven’t been able to work all week, and I couldn’t come up with all of my rent money. I’m afraid of being evicted when I get back to my apartment. I’m also concerned with not having enough money to buy food while I get another job.”

The failure of prevention and preparedness was revealed immediately when the fires struck–and stands in stark contrast to the government’s seemingly limitless funds for war abroad and border militarization at home.

Faced with a shortage of firefighters, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his administration press-ganged 2,600 prison inmates to battle the fire–about one-quarter of the total number of firefighters at one point.

About 1,500 National Guard troops and four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were pulled from the border region, where some 6,000 soldiers currently serve as an auxiliary to the U.S. Border Patrol as part of Operation Jumpstart–a multibillion-dollar federal effort to curb the migration of needed workers.

According to the Defense Department, another 47,000 National Guard troops are currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, used for war abroad rather than disaster relief in their respective states.

Border militarization has only succeeded in increasing the number of deaths among migrants as people cross far from cities in dangerous terrain. Nearly 5,000 men, women and children have died crossing the border since 1994–and four more (that we know of) have been added to that number as a result of the shifting wildfires.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has dramatically expanded its immigrant incarceration infrastructure. It now warehouses tens of thousands of immigrants, many in jails constructed along the border–rivaling the Federal Bureau of Prisons as one of the world’s largest jailors.

If the fires and the government response revealed the shift of resources away from prevention and preparation, they also showed the expansion of institutions of repression, particularly in the approach taken by San Diego law enforcement toward immigrant evacuees.

County Sheriff Bill Kolender vowed to set up checkpoints to identify the immigration status of evacuees returning to their homes–with the stated intention of turning over anyone without documentation to the Border Patrol. Two hundred Border Patrol agents were integrated into local law enforcement to assist in the effort, and Border Patrol units were sent to some evacuation centers to conduct “on-site immigration inspections.”

An emergency response protest, organized in a matter of hours after the announcement of the checkpoints, drew nearly 100 activists representing a dozen groups, who called for an end to the detentions, raids and deportations.

As people began fleeing their homes, some hotels in north county reduced their prices for evacuees, but the reduced rates were still $100 a night or more–far too expensive for any but the well to do. This was another way that the rich victims were separated from the poor–those who were turned away by the high prices of the hotels ended up at the evacuation centers.

After San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium was opened up to evacuees from around the county, thousands of displaced families converged on the home of the Chargers. A quick walk through the corridors of the facility revealed the generosity of ordinary San Diegans.

People donated food; schools donated books, toys and other materials; and teachers gave their own time to organize activities for children. Also present were musicians, artists, masseurs and throngs of volunteers, offering help and services.

But the festival-like atmosphere was soon offset by the fears of evacuees. A survey of the 10,000 people housed in tents and on rows of cots revealed mostly poor people–disproportionately people of color–who were already thinking past this temporary shelter toward a future of uncertainty.

Any sense of community was shattered on the third day when police and Border Patrol agents detained a Mexican family for allegedly “looting” donated goods. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the overt racism directed at Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the extended family of 12 (including several children, one of whom was a U.S. citizen) was accused of “taking too much” by other evacuees, who summoned police.

After being questioned for three hours and unable to show proof of legal residence, the police called in the Border Patrol to conduct an “on-the-spot” immigration inspection. A news cameraman was physically prevented from filming the incident, and a Spanish-speaking volunteer seeking to translate for the family was harassed.

Ultimately, the family was briskly deported to Tijuana–after law enforcement officials reported the family had “admitted” they intended to resell the goods.

Immigration rights activists spoke to the family, and “they say emphatically that they never confessed to this,” says a report filed by prominent immigration lawyer Andrea Guerrero for the Immigrants Rights Consortium. “There are no witnesses to this alleged confession…

“All of the local media outlets regurgitated the law enforcement line about looting, despite being advised by witnesses that they had seen something to the contrary.”

Immigrant rights activist Irma Cordova was outraged at what she saw when she investigated the conditions for Latinos at the stadium. “Once they arrive,” she said, “some are treated like criminals simply for looking Latino, and in some cases for not being able to communicate in English. It’s unbelievable to me how in a time of crisis, some people can still be so hateful and racist.”

In response, the Immigrant Rights Consortium set up a separate reception center, offering services for the immigrant community while monitoring the actions of police and immigration agents.

Before the fires, San Diego County had implemented a “reverse 9-11” evacuation system” that notified more than 500,000 inhabitants and facilitated their relocation.

But millions more were left behind–inevitably, those lower down in the social pecking order.

According to ABC News, 2 million undocumented workers living and working in the 24 fire zones stretching from Los Angeles to San Diego were excluded from coordinated evacuation efforts. Their segregation and second-class status kept them “off the grid.”

Around San Diego County, migrant workers remained–and in some cases, were forced to remain–in the fields while surrounding areas were evacuated. In most cases, these have-nots were simply ignored or factored out of evacuation plans; in some, unscrupulous employers chose profits over the well being of those who worked for them.

San Diego’s tomato business is worth about $88 million annually–it underpins more than a few of the area’s multimillion-dollar estates, while many of the agricultural workers live hidden away in canyons, without running water, electricity or access to the “reverse 9-11” calls.

On the ground, evacuation efforts prioritized the wealthiest suburbs, while poor communities were often left to their own devices.

Jesus Gomez from Oaxaca was working at a nursery when the Witch Creek fire came into sight from the east. His crew kept working while wind whipped smoke and ash into their eyes. “They gave us masks, but still, our eyes were filling with dirt and ashes,” he told National Public Radio. “So we kept working until the police came in.”

Enrique Morones, founder of the Border Angels organization, which provides water, food and other necessities to migrant workers living clandestinely in makeshift camps, witnessed similar scenes as he delivered aid to farmworkers.

On entering one wealthy agricultural suburb named Rancho Peñasquitos, he learned that some growers kept their workers in the field while the rest of the town was evacuated. With thick plumes of gray smoke poisoning the air, workers continued to pluck tomatoes along the neatly ordered rows. “People were driving by in Jaguars and Mercedes, callously ignoring the farmworkers, who don’t have cars, papers or anywhere to go,” he said.

Many workers didn’t want to leave for fear of being deported from an evacuation center, Morones said. Others were scared of being fired from their jobs. “When there’s an emergency such as the fires, you want to have the full confidence of people,” Morones sad. “If you create a climate of fear, then people will be afraid, and lives will be lost.”

Morones brought a team of doctors to help treat the workers, many of whom were suffering from eye and lung irritation. The group later transported some farmworkers to safe houses after the grower was confronted and closed the farm.

Native Americans were another marginalized group who felt the disproportionate effect of the disaster. The Rincon and La Jolla Native American reservations were some of the hardest-hit communities, but were bypassed in initial evacuation efforts.

On the Rincon, 350 people sought refuge on the reservation’s casino grounds as fires engulfed at least 65 homes, structures and precious cultural artifacts. “We were left behind, nobody here to help,” Councilwoman Stephanie Spencer told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

On the La Jolla reservation, more than 20,000 acres and 50 homes were consumed by the flames. A 52-person volunteer fire squad was formed immediately after the fires began, but they were fighting fires elsewhere when their own homes fell into the path of the spreading blaze. As acting tribal chief Joseph Ruise explained to the Los Angeles Times, “Since the resources are so thin, we developed our own [fire crew]…a lot of us just decided to stay.”

In the end, it was other Native American groups that pulled together to fill the void. The Pechanga Reservation opened up its 522-room hotel to other tribes, offering food and shelter. Evacuees included those from Rincon and La Jolla, as well as the Pauma, Mesa Grande and San Pascual tribes.

Other groups were also left behind in threatened areas. In the small community of Portrero in east San Diego Country–which recently made headlines as the potential site for a new training facility for the Blackwater mercenary company–the poorest of the town’s 600 residents never received an evacuation order.

According to a group of student activists who visited the site, Portrero was without electricity and phone service in many cases, and lacking basic essentials. To make matters worse, local law enforcement agencies blockaded the road leading into town.

Adrian Del Rio, one of the volunteers, said the sheriff tried to prohibit their aid caravan from entering Portrero, asking, “Why do you want to go in there? They’re just a bunch of drug addicts,” according to Del Rio.

When the volunteers got through the police roadblock, they encountered one trailer park with 150 units, still full of residents. “They said they were never told to evacuate, and many of them didn’t have the means to,” Del Rio said. “They were hungry and desperate.”

While Latino immigrants were largely excluded from the rescue efforts, there was no shortage of media time devoted to demonizing them. News stories in the local press perpetuated stories about “looting illegals” and even entertained claims that immigrants were to blame for deliberately setting fires.

But one story that was completely ignored has to do with the way the Latino community came together to help out fellow San Diegans.

Activists and community members turned historic Chicano Park–located in the heart of a Latino immigrant community–into a bustling collection and distribution center. Over the course of several days, truckloads of food, water, clothes, toys and goods were distributed across the county, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship status.

Motivation came with need, according to organizer Greg Morales. “I was sure that those who lived beside me in the barrios of San Diego felt much like me,” he said. “Yet it seemed that the media had presented San Diego as a ‘white-only’ environment in which only the people north of [Interstate 8] were of concern or in a position to help and make a contribution.”

All told, the community relief effort distributed more than 100 truckloads of goods to those in need–in start contrast to the Red Cross, which fell in line with institutionalized racial profiling, requiring all recipients of aid at its centers to show documentation.

In the end, so much food aid and so many volunteers came in from around the county that major depots stopped accepting donations by the third day of the fires.

These acts of solidarity at a time of tragedy didn’t stop the anti-immigrant Minutemen from trying to disrupt the efforts. Small groups of vigilantes repeatedly taunted and threatened volunteers, often right in front of police officers. With no “angle” to attack the efforts, they tried to provoke violence and accused organizers of looting the donations from elsewhere.

This outpouring of racism and anti-immigrant hate stands in contrast to the actions of people south of the border. Mexican authorities sent four fire engines to San Diego and offered electricity after fires cut a main power link from Arizona and threatened the power corridor that connects San Diego to the rest of California.

As Capt. Marco Antonio Garambullo, fire department director of the city of Tecate, told the Associated Press, “It is very important for Mexico to cooperate with the United States in situations like these because these fires affect the environment on both sides.”

The fires of 2007 revealed two San Diegos–and demonstrated how natural disaster both unites and divides society based on existing divisions of class, ethnicity and citizenship status. For a diverse community of activists, it was a testament to the power of ordinary people to come together and organize for a common cause.

To prepare for future natural disasters–and to prevent the manmade injustices that follow in their wake–we must continue to organize against the class inequality and institutional racism that were revealed so clearly by this one.

Justin is the author along with Mike Davis of No One Is Illegal: Fighting Violence and State Repression on the U.S.-Mexico Border. This article first appeared in Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Justin, or visit Justin's website.

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  1. Wendy Harman said on November 14th, 2007 at 1:45pm #

    Hi Justin,
    This is Wendy from the American Red Cross.

    Where did you see the Red Cross asking for documentation in exchange for aid? Requiring documentation is not in line with our policies, so if you did see it we will need to investigate.

    In a disaster situation, the primary role of the Red Cross is to provide shelter, food, emotional support and emergency assistance to people with disaster-caused needs, regardless of their nationality, cultural background or citizenship status. The Red Cross is a charity, supported by the generosity of the American public; it is not a governmental agency.

    People do not need any kind of identification to take refuge in a Red Cross shelter. We do ask shelter residents for their name and pre-disaster address at registration; we use that information to keep track of our shelter residents while they are in the shelter only.