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The fires in California highlight — and worsen — the state’s income divide

While wealthy Californians can afford to hire private firefighters and rebuild destroyed homes, others may remain homeless for months.

Fast-Spreading Hill and Woolsey Fires Force Evacuations In California’s Ventura County
The Woolsey Fire approaches homes on November 9, 2018, in Malibu, California. About 75,000 homes have been evacuated in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties due to two fires in the region.
David McNew/Getty Images

Miley Cyrus lost her home in southern California’s Woolsey Fire, one of three major fires currently tearing through the state. Gerard Butler photographed himself standing in the wreckage of his Malibu home, which he said was only partially destroyed. Villa de la Vina, the Spanish-style home best known for being the set of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, was damaged by the blaze. The ranch that was recently used as the set of Westworld burned to the ground. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West reportedly hired a team of private firefighters to save their $60 million home, as well as their neighbors’ mansions.

Fire doesn’t discriminate: It destroys multimillion-dollar mansions and trailer parks with an equal amount of fervor. Being forced to evacuate your home — and not knowing whether you’ll have a home to return to — is a terrifying experience regardless of income level. But even if vulnerability to fire isn’t determined by wealth, the ability to react and rebuild is.

Elsewhere in the state, fires are blazing through communities with lower median incomes and fewer celebrity residents, many of whom can’t hire private firefighters to save their houses from the flames. And when the fires are put out, many Californians won’t have the time or resources to bounce back.

California’s wildfires get bigger and more deadly year after year, thanks to rising temperatures fueled by climate change — and each major blaze exacerbates the state’s staggering inequality.

Firefighters for hire

Even before this wave of fires broke out, California was facing more blazes than in previous years. More than 4,700 fires tore through the state between January and August, according to Axios, burning more than 700,000 acres of land. The five-year average for acres burned during that time frame was 18,587.

The state has responded by ramping up its hiring of firefighters, but there may not be enough public resources to put out all the state’s fires. In addition to locally run county fire departments, the state has a team of incarcerated firefighters — who make less than $2 an hour and whose criminal records often make them ineligible for well-paid firefighting work upon their release — who help put out the blazes, saving California an estimated $90 million to $100 million per year.

Ultrarich Californians don’t have to rely on these services, though. Instead, they can hire a private firefighting team, as the Kardashians did. Insurance companies typically offer these services for people whose properties are valued at more than $1 million, according to NBC News, making a private firefighting team inaccessible to most people. (California’s median home value is $544,900, according to Zillow, and many renters don’t qualify for this type of insurance.)

Unlike publicly funded fire stations, these private insurance-backed firefighting teams can only save certain buildings. “Our specific goal is to work with policyholder structures,” David Torgerson, the president of Wildfire Defense Systems, told NBC. “We’re only allowed to access the properties that we’re given permission to access by policyholders.”

In a recent interview with the Atlantic, though, Torgerson said his company isn’t in the business of exclusively fighting rich people’s fires, noting that 90 percent of the homes WDS protects are “average-value homes” contracted through normal insurers, not the companies that work on behalf of ultra-high-net-worth homeowners.

“There are not that many solutions in climate change,” Torgerson said. “If we have a growing problem with wildfire — and it is statistically getting worse — why limit the ability to bring resources that the taxpayer doesn’t have to pay for and policyholders don’t have to pay for?”

The public/private divide that has emerged in response to California’s wildfires is likely to leave thousands of people behind — and breaks with the idea that public services like firefighting should be available to all people, regardless of income. “Firefighters are consistently ranked the most beloved public servants, not just because they look good on calendars but because they treat everyone equally,” historian Amy Greenberg, who wrote Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City, told the Atlantic. “Rich people don’t get their own ‘better’ firefighters, or at least they aren’t supposed to.”

The destruction of celebrity homes and movie sets shows that even the wealthiest among us can’t guarantee that they’ll be unaffected when disaster strikes, even if they have the resources to rebuild afterward. If a celebrity’s home can be completely destroyed by one of California’s deadly fires, what hope does that leave for the one in five Californians who live in poverty?

California’s own refugee crisis

Destruction is just one part of the problem. Many of the low and middle-income Californians fleeing the blazes are increasingly finding that they have nowhere to go while they wait for the fires to be put out.

The Camp Fire, which is raging through Butte County and has killed at least 56 people so far, is the most destructive fire in California’s history. It has destroyed more than 90 percent of the housing stock in the town of Paradise, leaving thousands of people homeless, NBC reported.

“People in Paradise don’t have the means to get out of town,” Danie Schwartz, an evacuee from the area, told NBC. “People are stuck at evacuation shelters.”

California Town Of Paradise Devastated By The Camp Fire Continues Search And Recovery Efforts
An aerial view of a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire on November 15, 2018, in Paradise, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

More than 52,000 people in the area have been forced to evacuate, the Sacramento Bee reported this week, and a dearth of affordable housing in the area means they have few places to go. County officials say they’re “on the edge” of a humanitarian crisis.

“Big picture, we have 6,000, possibly 7,000 households who have been displaced and who realistically don’t stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County,” Ed Mayer, the executive director of the county’s housing agency, told the Bee. “We could make the choice to put them in temporary [shelters] to absorb these households for three to five years, meaning refugee camps and trying to keep our community together. … The other choice is we say, ‘We can’t do it, we don’t have the ability [to find shelters] and go fend for yourselves.’”

A 2017 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that major catastrophes like hurricanes and fires increase a county’s poverty rate by an average of 1 percent, because wealthy residents are encouraged to leave, while low-income residents with nowhere to go end up putting their resources into rebuilding, which affects them even more negatively financially.

After two fires devastated Sonoma County last year, low-wage workers — many of whom were undocumented and don’t qualify for FEMA assistance — had to determine whether they could afford to stay in the region at all. Just 2 percent of the county’s housing stock was available before the fires, Santa Rosa’s economic development manager Raissa de la Rosa told CityLab at the time, and much of that housing was taken up by vacation homes.

The blaze eliminated 5 percent of the housing stock, and the median rent increased by 35 percent in the weeks after the fire was put out. Six months after the fires were put out, the San Francisco Chronicle found that tens of thousands of people, many of whom lived in homeless camps, were still displaced, though the county doesn’t have exact numbers on how many people were displaced altogether.

Rose Bell, a project manager with the organization Mendocino Rebuilding Our Community, which provides relief to the victims of last year’s Mendocino Complex Fire, told me that the rebuilding process is slow and costly. “We’re one year in, and we were fortunate that the community foundation of Mendocino County had a disaster fund set up in advance,” said Bell.

Graphic: Javier Zarracina/Vox

“We were ready to accept donations when the fire struck, which is when people felt the most generous, because they saw these stories on the news. We’ve been working with approximately $2.5 million in donations, which is fantastic, but [it’s] for an $8 to $10 million rebuild.”

Donations poured in while the fires were raging in Mendocino County, Bell said, but slowed down after the public stopped paying attention. But they’re still desperately needed — more than a year later, only a handful of homes have been rebuilt.

Bell worried that the amount of media attention given to celebrity victims of the fire could end up deflecting attention, and resources, away from those who don’t have the money to rebuild.

“While the celebrity attention gains a broader audience, it doesn’t necessarily provide greater philanthropy to the regions that have the least capacity to recover,” she said. “I really worry about the people in Butte County, because they’ve lost so many homes. The amount of money that it’s going to take [to rebuild] — and they’re not a wealthy area — is going to be significant.”