Nearly one million displaced from onslaught of California wildfires

Severe weather patterns produce drought (FCN, 11-07-2007)

LOS ANGELES ( “Apocalyptic,” “monstrous,” and “a disaster of biblical proportions” are just a few words used to describe the army of wildfires that recently swept across Southern California. Over a 7-day period, fires killed nine people, uprooting at least one million more, demolishing 2,000 homes and causing more than $1 billion in damages to date.


“The only way I can explain it is it was the closest you could ever be to hell. Armaggedon! It was a live being, which had a personality, and it was saying, ‘I’m coming,’” exclaimed Tonex, a platinum recording and award winning gospel artist, to The Final Call. He was referring to the San Miguel Fire in San Diego County, one of 19 fires that raged simultaneously, at one point, from the coasts of upscale Malibu to the San Bernardino Mountains.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the mayhem initially began Oct. 20 with a ranch fire in Los Angeles County’s Angeles National Forest. At Final Call press-time, the fire was 87 percent contained, but not before scorching more than 58,000 acres of land. The legion of fires ignited throughout San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside and Santa Barbara Counties. Fire officials are investigating at least two of the blazes for arson.

Wildfire rages near Spring Valley, Calif.

Overall, they were caused by perfect fire storm conditions of extremely dry weather, high winds and hot temperatures. Airstreams known as the Santa Ana Winds blew at more than 100 MPH, amid 95-degree temperatures, sometimes higher. These combined with the alarming drought conditions in Southern California to create the catastrophe.

Immediate responses thwarted by winds

During an Oct. 24 press conference, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and an array of officials enacted what he called a “full court press” of resources to fight the fires, assist in evacuations and to help victims return to normalcy after the ordeal. They pulled out all stops, but in the end, the best available resources were grounded by heavy turbulence caused by the unusual winds. In Lake Arrowhead, where two fires threatened to merge, command copters had to suspend water drop flights.

President George Bush visited the damaged areas on day four of the disaster, and announced his California Fire Disaster Declarations, which will provide money to victims whose property was not insured. FEMA deployed Mobile Disaster Recovery Centers to Qualcomm Stadium to help victims register for federal aid made available under President Bush’s plan. This aid will include grants for temporary housing, home repairs and other serious disaster related expenses, but not as a substitute for insurance.

Insurance companies set up mobile offices for swift claims processing for evacuees, approximately 2,000 of them sheltered in San Diego’s Del Mar Racetrack, and another 10,000 in Qualcomm Stadium. gave Qualcomm Stadium a five-star rating for the shelter and services the victims received there. That included yoga and acupuncturists for the adults and clowns, toys, coloring books, a ventriloquist and a puppet show for children, and tables full of foods, including kosher meals for Jewish evacuees.

California’s Katrina?

During early evacuations, local newscasters commented on the differences in conditions of the fire victims in Qualcomm Stadium to the Hurricane Katrina flood survivors that made their way to the New Orleans Superdome. “Fortunately, this was not California’s Katrina,” one female anchor stated.

Hugh Muhammad, a Nation of Islam Student in the Ministry, said that comparison was there in terms of it being a disaster, but little else. “They didn’t have to swim or trudge through the forest or make it through flood waters to get to Qualcomm. Everything was laid out for them and they had supplies to the point of turning away food,” he said.

Mr. Muhammad sent a team into Qualcomm to assess the situation and found “about one or two blacks” there. Muhammad’s Mosque No. 8 has established an emergency relief effort to aid those within the community. “You would have seen us devastated in Spring Valley, but Allah blessed us and the winds changed,” he said.

Tonex also believes that his community’s devastation by the natural disaster was only spared by God’s intervention. He charged that he and some other Spring Valley neighbors received no 911 reverse calls, which alerted residents of extreme danger. “There were no sirens, no warnings, people were asleep. I don’t want to make this a race issue, but it is certainly a demographics and economic issue,” he said.

Ultimately, Tonex said, nearly 100 people evacuated to his church, with the community working together to provide mats, water, food and TVs for as long as they could.

Several other Spring Valley residents, according to Mr. Muhammad, reported receiving 911 reverse calls, and others who did not, concluded it was because their numbers were not listed.

Kali Akuno, Executive Director of the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee, which formed to win the right of return with equity and justice for all those displaced as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, found the overall Katrina-Wildfire comparison to be dead on. “I think it’s an excellent comparison because it highlights the racial inequality and national oppression of African people in this country. Some people may point to California and say that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and state agencies learned the lessons of Katrina, but I would beg to differ that is not the case. What we learned, rather, in the lessons of Katrina is how this country treats the lives of Black and White and rich and poor people in this country differently. Black life has no worth in this society; Katrina just painfully reaffirmed that.”

As FEMA directs relief efforts to Southern California, Mr. Akuno said, the suffering for many Hurricane Katrina survivors are increasing, especially within the last three to four months. “FEMA has totally cut everybody off. The housing vouchers have totally dried up and the only help available to people is state aid or they’re basically on their own,” he said.

Further, Mr. Akuno noted, studies have proven that flood survivors with home insurance have not received compensation or aid at the rate of 70 percent of what Whites have received. Foreclosures are up in New Orleans. Reconstruction work is pending. Rents and utilities have increased three-fold, while wages remain the same. For instance, something once priced at $600 to $700 has gone up on average to about $1,600, yet people are still earning six dollars an hour. Many places are facing winter without water or gas service.

“So while a large portion of the country is trying to forget and have been told that everything is fine because the Saints are playing, the reality is that the vast majority are getting worse and not better. If you really want to see the difference, let’s see how fast these homes get rebuilt in California,” Mr. Akuno continued.

The Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee is still actively fundraising and need people’s support to continue the struggle. It is a concern that as people forget and “Katrina fatigue” increases, resources stop flowing in, threatening the shut down of relief organizations, particularly similar grassroots agencies.

For more information about the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee or the Katrina Tribunal, visit and