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Climate Change Meets Mass Incarceration: California's Incarcerated Firefighters

By Ryan Harvey and Sammy Didonato - Truthout, December 27, 2017

The intersection of climate change and mass incarceration is not unique to California, but as the state experiences its deadliest and most destructive year on record for wildfires -- including the second-largest in the its history -- the state's incarcerated firefighter Conservation Camp program has come firmly under the microscope.

With fresh air, no walls and better treatment than prison, these "fire camps" have been commended as a model for rehabilitation. However, with wages at a fraction of minimum wage, they have been condemned as an exploitative labor practice.

Often missing from this debate are the voices of the firefighters themselves, whose perspectives offer an important nuance of criticism and possible solutions.

"What worries me when I hear too much discussion about fire camp as a form of slavery, is that they're focusing on perhaps the best part of the whole prison system," formerly incarcerated firefighter Matthew Hahn told Truthout. "The firefighters are in the public, that's why they are getting the focus. At the same time, they are living in perhaps the best conditions in the California prison system."

Selena Sanchez, an incarcerated firefighter until last year, describes an experience far better than prison but full of hard work, false promises and extremely low pay. "I'm not going to paint a pretty picture of it," she says. "They ran us like dogs."

Still, Sanchez says she would return to fire camp if she found herself back in prison.

The Conservation Camp program, joined at times by other local county prison so-called "Honor Camps," began in 1946 as a partnership between the California State Detentions Bureau -- now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) -- and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire). It quickly grew to become a staple of fighting California's wildfires, and has long been destination number one for prisoners serving time in the state prison system.

A nuanced look at the dynamics of this program, and the small percentage of prisoners eligible for participation, reveals that even though fire camps offer alternatives to prisoners being behind bars for all of their incarceration, the model has its shortcomings and should not be seen as a panacea to mass incarceration.

Amid Worst Winter Wildfires in California History, Farmworkers Are Laboring in Hazardous Air

By Amy Goodman - Democracy Now!, December 11, 2017

In California, drought-fueled wildfires raged toward Southern California’s coastal cities over the weekend. The fires have scorched some 230,000 acres of land and forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate. At least one woman has died so far. The wildfires are already the fifth largest on record in California history. Climate experts say the intensity of the winter blazes is linked to climate change. Authorities have warned residents to stay inside because of the dangerous air quality caused by smoke and carcinogenic ash from the fires. But a number of farms have stayed open, sparking concerns that farmworkers are laboring in hazardous conditions without proper equipment. Last week, volunteers handing out free protective masks to farmworkers say they were kicked off some farms, despite the fact that the pickers were asking for the safety equipment. For more, we speak with Lucas Zucker, who was evacuated last week due to the wildfires. Zucker is the policy and communications director for CAUSE—Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy—and he helped distribute respirator masks to farmworkers who had to continue working despite the hazardous air quality conditions. We also speak with Democratic California State Assemblymember Monique Limón, who represents Santa Barbara and Ventura County.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to California, where drought-fueled wildfires raged toward Southern California’s coastal cities over the weekend, the fires scorching 230,000 acres of land, forcing nearly 200,000 people to evacuate. At least one woman has died so far. The wildfire is the fifth largest on record so far in California history, the largest ever recorded in December. Climate experts say the intensity of the winter blazes is linked to climate change.

Authorities have warned residents to stay inside because of the dangerous air quality caused by smoke and carcinogenic ash from the fires. But a number of farms have stayed open, sparking concerns farmworkers are laboring in hazardous conditions without proper equipment. Last week, volunteers handing out free protective masks to farmworkers say they were kicked off some farms, despite the fact the pickers were asking for the safety equipment.

For more, we go now to Southern California, where we’re joined by two guests. Via Democracy Now! video stream, Lucas Zucker, joining us from Ventura in Southern California, evacuated last week due to the wildfires. He’s policy and communications director for CAUSE—Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy—helped distribute respirator masks to farmworkers who had to continue working despite the hazardous air quality conditions. By phone, we’re joined by Democratic California State Assemblymember Monique Limón, who represents Santa Barbara and Ventura County.

What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, December 8, 2017

Sadly, we are becoming  used to seeing headlines about the costs of fighting climate change-related wildfires, hurricanes, and floods – most recently, the record wildfire season of 2017.   These news reports usually discuss loss  in terms of the value of  insurance  claims – for example, “Northern Alberta Wildfire Costliest Insured Natural Disaster in Canadian History – Estimate of insured losses: $3.58 billion”   from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, or in terms of the budgets of emergency service agencies – for example, “Cost of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017” from Reuters (Sept. 14), or in terms of health and mental health effects – for example, “Economic analysis of health effects from forest fires”  in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research (2006).  “The Science behind B.C.’s Forest Fires” (December 5) post by West Coast Environmental Law discusses the links to climate change, and concludes that the record wildfires of 2017 foreshadow growing economic and  human costs in the future.

When employment effects of disasters are reported, it is usually by statistical agencies interested in working days lost or unemployment effects,  for example,  “Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016”  from Statistics Canada, or “Hurricane Katrina’s effects on industry employment and wages ” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( 2006) . While all these are important, Hurricane Katrina taught that there are also other aspects, including those of environmental and economic justice.

Disaster in Your Backyard

By Jodi Fleishman - 350.Org, October 31, 2017

Jodi Fleishman is a California Nurses Association Union member, and a nurse on the burn unit closest to the recent fires in Northern California. She shared some of her feelings around the intersection of her work and the fires.

It’s my day off, and I have just finished a yoga class and walked across the street to get a coffee. The barista is making small talk, but what he says next catches my attention, “Does it still smell like smoke outside? There’s a massive fire in Napa..” I get a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I am a Burn ICU nurse and my immediate thought is–mass casualties. Hours later I will get a text from work asking for additional nurses to come in, “Several new burns from Napa fires, SITUATION CRITICAL!” There are only two burn centers in Northern California, we are already functioning at capacity, and I wonder how we will manage.

In the upcoming days, when I go into work I am surprised to learn that we have only a few new critical burns on the unit. As the death toll reported in the news continues to climb, it seems as though most people either got out or didn’t make it, while hundreds remain missing. Those in between are my patients, and their fight for survival, and rebuilding their lives has just begun.

My heart breaks, as I know what is in store for these people. The healing process for burn patients is long and grueling. They often endure months in the ICU—they will be on ventilators, go through multiple surgeries for grafting, twice a day dressing changes, chronic pain, and battling infections. And even after they make it through they physical trauma, they will still have to face the emotional trauma. My job is to help people get through the most vulnerable time in their lives, both physically and emotionally. But the loss, and the grief, and the pain is so layered upon layered, it is almost unfathomable. My patients have lost their homes. Some of them have lost family members, friends, and neighbors. Some have lost their mobility. Some may lose their lives. They have lost life as they know it, and will be forever changed. Their medical team will fight to get them through the infections, and the surgeries and eventually through their rehabilitation. Throughout the months we will listen to your family’s stories, we will share in your grief, we will shed tears, we will carry you with us, and we will go home and hug our own families and count our blessings.

As nurses, we are used to tragedy, we deal with it everyday, but this disaster hit home in a different way. We all know someone who has friends/family who has had to evacuate. Although I live roughly 50 miles from the fires, there has been a Red Alert for the hazardous air quality. It smells like a campfire when I walk outside my front door, and although I am a young healthy woman, I could still feel the tightness in my chest from the smoke in the air. I watch my neighbors walking around with N95 masks on. I think about the vulnerable population—the elderly, the young, those with asthma, and those with chronic heart and lung disease and the risks for them are serious. There are those who will never fully recover from the devastation of these fires. Communities will have to rebuild but will always have scars. My patients will have to rebuild their lives. Rehabilitate their bodies. Adapt to a new body image and new physical limitations. They will have to grieve. They will have to work through their PTSD.

It has been a strange year, one natural disaster after another. But when it happens in your own back yard, and you are one of the responders, you cannot help but feel the fragility of the world around you.

Puerto Rico Labor Action By US Unionists & Jones Act

By Steve Zeltser - Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, October 26, 2017

KPFA WorkWeek Radio-Puerto Rico Labor Action By US Unionists & Jones Act
WW10-24-17 Puerto Rico Labor Action By US Unionists And Jones Act

https://soundcloud.com/workweek-radio/ww10-24-17-puerto-rico-labor-actio...
WorkWeek looks at the ongoing struggle in Puerto Rico for survival. We interview NNU CNA Alta Bates nurse Gregory Callison about his solidarity action and that of the NNU-CNA to help the people of Puerto Rico. The union sent a delegation of over 50 nurses. We also interview retired ILWU Local 10 longshoreman Jack Heyman. Heyman talks about the Jones Act and why it coming under attack.
Additional media:

What fueled the inferno?

By Ragina Johnson and Nicole Colson - Socialist Worker, October 20, 2017

THE DEADLIEST wildfires in the state's history ripped through large areas in Northern California this month, terrorizing residents, causing mass evacuations, and leaving behind catastrophic destruction.

Described as a "hurricane of fire," the web of interconnected blazes, centered primarily in Napa and Sonoma Counties, north of the Bay Area, had killed at least 41 people--many of them elderly residents who could not escape--and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate as this article was being written.

The wildfires have burned more than 220,000 acres across wine country, but what distinguished this disaster from others is that the flames didn't stay in the "wild." Hot winds whipped the fires back and forth, sending them a mile or more into urban and suburban areas. At least 6,700 homes and business have been destroyed, with an estimated loss of at least $3 billion.

While the exact causes for the blazes aren't yet known, and may not be for years, if ever, we do know that the scale of the devastation was unquestionably magnified by man-made factors like climate change and exacerbated by things like poorly maintained infrastructure.

And as is the case with all "natural" disasters--from Hurricane Katrina to the more recent Hurricanes Harvey and Maria--the devastation isn't hitting everyone equally. Poor and working-class families--especially undocumented immigrant workers who make up a large portion of the agricultural workforce in wine country--will face an uphill battle to rebuild their lives.

Why Are Women Prisoners Battling California Wildfires for as Little as $1 a Day?

Jaime Lowe and Romarilyn Ralston interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan González - Democracy Now, October 18, 2011

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we end today’s show in California, where raging wildfires have killed at least 41 people and scorched more than 200,000 acres—roughly the size of New York City. The fires are now the deadliest in California since record keeping began. At least 100,000 people have been forced to evacuate, with about 75,000 displaced after their homes and businesses were destroyed.

More than 11,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, and a number of them are prisoners, including many women inmates. In this clip from the film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, an inmate with an all-woman crew describes being sent to fight a raging fire in Marin County.

INMATE FIREFIGHTER: My first day here, when I first got to camp, I got thrown on a fire. We had just got through orientation, and the horn went off. And I got thrown on the bus, and off we went, chasing the smoke. We’re driving up the mountain and seeing dirty burn everywhere. All of a sudden, there’s a 40-foot wall of flame on both sides of me.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from PBS’s Independent Lens, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes.

To find out more about these firefighters, we’re joined by two guests. In Fullerton, California, Romarilyn Ralston is with us, of California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the L.A. chapter, program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State University. Romarilyn experienced 23 years of incarceration. While she was incarcerated, she was a fire camp trainer and a clerk for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

And in Los Angeles, journalist and author Jaime Lowe is with us. Her recent story in The New York Times Magazine is headlined “The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s Wildfires.”

Romarilyn, if you could start off by telling us who is on the front lines? People might be surprised to hear that prisoners, among them women prisoners, are fighting California’s wildfires right now.

Final Straw: Autonomous Northern California Fire Relief Efforts

By Final Straw - It's Going Down, October 18, 2011

Listen and Download Here

I’d like to share a Final Straw Radio mini-episode, a conversation with Emilio of the currently unofficial Sonoma County IWW, or Industrial Workers of the World. This chapter doesn’t yet have an official charter but they were in the process or organizing one when the fires in Northern California started last week and have used this as a platform for fund-raising and trying to work out solidarity relief in Santa Rosa, the seat of Sonoma County.

For this chat, Emilio and I talk about the weather patterns of northern coastal California, relief efforts by the Red Cross and other NGO’s around shelter and care distribution, what their nascent chapter of the IWW is trying to do and related topics. To find more about their chapter, you can go onto Fedbook and stay tuned in the conversation for their relief phone number, a few material needs you can provide from a distance and ways to get involved if you’re in the area.

Nurses Call for Stepped Up Federal Effort on Fires

By Kari Jones - Common Dreams, October 12, 2017

WASHINGTON - With the death toll now topping at least 21 people, and fire officials saying the disastrous North Bay wildfires remaining far from contained, the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United yesterday called on the federal government for a far greater urgent response with additional equipment and firefighting personnel.

“The Trump Administration has been distressingly slow in taking the urgent steps needed to protect the people and communities affected,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of both CNA and NNU.

CNA RNs have been directly affected by at least six major wildfires that have raged in Northern California counties, as first responders, evacuating patients in two Santa Rosa, CA hospitals, and also dealing with their own losses. At least 15 RNs have also lost their homes.

Kaiser San Rafael RN Tara Williams described 100 patients being brought to her hospital by bus who “were all pretty overwhelmed and concerned about their homes, but we were giving them food and support and helping them get into a safe space where they could be cared for.”

Now in its third full day of battling the destructive fires, “we’re not going to be out of the woods for a great many days to come,” California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection head Ken Pimlott told the Los Angeles Times Wednesday.  In addition to the deaths, some 560 people are reported missing, a number partly due to loss of communication facilities, many people under evacuation order, and a total of 22 fires ripping through the state.

“With California officials fully engaged, and the fires still posing a major threat to lives and homes. But this is a national responsibility as well. We need to see immediate action from the federal government – as well as a robust commitment to rebuilding shattered infrastructure in the path of all of these horrific disasters,” said DeMoro.  

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget shows disturbing priorities at a time when wildfires are increasing, in part due to the effects of the climate crisis, DeMoro noted.

Under the proposed budget, the Huffington Post reported in July, the U.S. Forest Service would face a $300 million reduction to its wildfire fighting programs, another $50 million in cuts to its wildfire prevention efforts and a 23 percent reduction to funding for volunteer fire departments.