The nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century is getting a bigger spotlight as celebrities, alongside other Los Angeles residents, lose their homes. The California fires, known as “Camp Fire” sweeping through the Paradise area, and the “Woolsey Fire” which has destroyed much of the Malibu area, has altogether killed 59 people and forced 52,000 to evacuate. Caitlyn Jenner’s house was recently destroyed and Liam Hemsworth recently tweeted out this photo:
It’s been a heartbreaking few days. This is what’s left of my house. Love. Many people in Malibu and surrounding areas in California have lost their homes also and my heart goes out to everyone who was affected by these fires.
— Liam Hemsworth (@LiamHemsworth) November 13, 2018
Losing your home is devastating no matter what and some celebrities are using their status to bring about a positive change, while others are using it for personal gains. Liam Hemsworth and Miley Cyrus recently donated $500,000 to The Malibu Foundation through Cyrus’ charity, Happy Hippie, while others have visited Red Cross shelters and firefighters. However, some like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, decided to go an alternate route. The couple recently hired private firefighters to save their mansion. Though saving their home also saved nearby houses as it was in a cul-de-sac, I have to wonder why Kim and Kanye didn’t offer to hire firefighters for neighborhoods other than their own. The Kardashians did take time to appear at People’s Choice Awards, where they dedicated their award win to “all of the firefighters, the law enforcement, and the first responders.” Most recently, after going out to dinner with Kanye and her sisters, Kim posted a photo in which she was getting fitted for a new custom diamond and gold grill. It seems despite the trauma caused by fires, Kim and Kanye will be just fine.
What’s infuriating is that while the media tilts towards stories of celebrities losing their homes, the stories of those truly impoverished by the fires aren’t being heard. The poverty level in Malibu and Paradise (where the fires have taken place) is 10.5% and 14.1% respectively. As Chris Sturr, Co-editor of Dollars & Sense said:
Many of the less-wealthy LA residents are forced to stay in evacuation shelters and with a lack of affordable housing options, have nowhere else to go. Natural disasters like this will only grow in intensity in the years to come, thanks to climate change. The people likely to suffer the most continue to be those who live in poor or low-income areas.
What makes this even worse is where California is getting its labor to fight the fires (and has since World War II) – namely that of prison inmates. Prisoners have been fighting California fires since the 1940s and currently make up about a third of the state’s wildfire-fighting personnel. Though the work is supposedly voluntary and is paid, they are only given $1 an hour plus $2 a day with long shifts that can last up to 72 hours. Inmates can earn time off of their sentence, offers them better treatment and the sense that they are doing good work. “It’s not just the [prison] walls you get rid of,” said inmate Michael Dignan in 2014. “You learn a lot about yourself. You learn that there is stuff you can put yourself through that you never thought you would have been able to do.” That being said, once prisoners are released, it rarely leads to a job after their release. More to the point, it saves California $90 million to $100 million a year, say officials.
There are also the consequences as a result of working so close to these conditions. Firefighters are known to have many health issues as a result of their job, from respiratory diseases to cancer, and stress. Are prison inmates being informed of these risks? And if so, are they being provided with protections to safeguard against these risks as much as is humanly possible? All this leaves me wondering why people working such a dangerous job are given such a horrifyingly low pay.
When natural disasters affect public figures, it has the added bonus of calling the world’s attention to an event that often affects thousands. But, we can’t ignore the privilege that many of these figures hold. In time, thanks to their wealth and insurance, their houses will be rebuilt and they can move on with their lives. For some, this isn’t always an option. We need to pay attention to their stories and ask them what we can be doing to help them rebuild their lives.