Marty Englander, AFSCME 444 | Worker Wisdom in a Changing Climate

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On September 12th, 2015, Marty Englander was settling in to watch the Giants game at her home in Hidden Valley Lake, CA. Little did she know that a wildfire was raging toward her home which would quickly grow into one of the most catastrophic and costly fires in California history. After a week of raging flames and thousands of evacuated residents, the “Valley Fire” would claim 4 lives, scorch 120 square miles and raze 1,300 homes, leaving 3,000 people displaced. Once green hills are black, and charred trees dot the horizon. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled. Communities already battling poverty, disinvestment and drugs have been stretched to their limit and beyond.

Marty is a long-time union member, now retired. Her first union job was on the Southern Pacific Railroad, where she was one of only three women working as Journeyman Pipefitters in the U.S.. She would later spend 20 years as a wastewater operator at the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), where she served as chief shop steward with her union, AFSCME 444. After retiring, Marty moved to Lake County, CA where she is the secretary and treasurer of the South Lake Fire Safe Council and an active member of the Hidden Valley Lake HOA Lake Committee.

As news cameras moved on from the Valley Fire, Marty met with Climate Workers last fall to share her story. The following interview – edited for length and clarity – was conducted by Brooke Anderson and Paul Blasenheim as Marty drove us through the devastation. Photos by Brooke Anderson.

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Scorched earth and blackened trees are everywhere as Marty begins to show us the devastation. Our journey eventually takes us through the creek community of Anderson Springs, across Cobb Mountain and into Clear Lake.

Climate Workers: Marty, bring us back to the day you were evacuated. What do you remember?

Marty Englander: I had nodded off watching the Giants game. I’m sitting there in sweatpants and a t-shirt when my neighbor calls to tell me that they are evacuating the neighborhood. I could literally see flames from my deck. The sky was very smoky, and you could just see the orange. I have never been so scared in my entire life. It was fucking scary. Never before have I driven down a two lane country road as congested as a Bay Area freeway, with fire raging all around me. And God knows, I think I handled it pretty well.

Driving up Cobb Mountain through blacked forest as clean-up crews cover barren hillsides with grass seeding spray. Nearby, an entire golf course remained untouched as frequent watering prevented the wildfire from taking hold.

Driving up Cobb Mountain through blacked forest as clean-up crews cover barren hillsides with grass seeding spray. Nearby, an entire golf course remained untouched as frequent watering of the course prevented the wildfire from taking hold there.

Climate Workers: Once you escaped the fire, then what? Were you able to go back?

Marty Englander: I was out of my house for 8 days, and had no idea whether it survived. My blood pressure was through the roof. The worst part is, I lost my first home in the Bay View to fire many years ago. It took me 6 months to recover, and I didn’t know if I could handle that again. Luckily, this time my home survived.

Not far from Marty’s home, the remains of a burned-out home overlook Hidden Valley Lake.

Not far from Marty’s home, the remains of a burned-out home overlook Hidden Valley Lake.

Climate Workers: What is it like to look at your home and see this?

Marty Englander: It’s horrible. It’s disastrous. There’s nothing good about it. Anderson Springs was once a beautiful community of 270 homes. It is now a community of no homes. Almost every house here was lost, and two people lost their lives. The ranching communities were hit hard too. One young man I know snuck past the fire line to get here, to see if his house had burned. He said the most devastating sight were the animal carcasses. It’s not just lives, but whole livelihoods that were lost.

Utter devastation in a residential Middletown neighborhood. As a fire marshall reminded us, when a home burns, everything inside it burns including toxic items like batteries, light bulbs and cleaning products. He told us “As you walk, you kick up and breathe all that toxic dust. Please wear a mask and don’t stay long.”

Utter devastation in a residential Middletown neighborhood. As a fire marshal reminded us, when a home burns, everything inside it burns including toxic items like batteries, light bulbs and cleaning products. He told us “As you walk, you kick up and breathe all that toxic dust. Please wear a mask and don’t stay long.”

Climate Workers: How has this fire affected the people of Lake County?

Marty Englander: But this whole county is suffering from PTSD. People were living in tents in the Wal-Mart parking lot for weeks. I still see people hugging each other and crying in the grocery store. My neighbor’s kid is in therapy. But in the face of all this, people were so nice. They would show up with barbecues to feed people. Others brought clothing and animal food. It was really beautiful watching the community come together.

Entrance to the Konocti Conservation Camp - part of the network of nearly 30 prisons run by Cal Fire. Over 6,000 incarcerated people stood arm in arm with union firefighters to combat this blaze. A 22-year old incarcerated firefighter Shawna Lynn Jones was recently killed in Southern CA fighting wildfires.

Entrance to the Konocti Conservation Camp – part of the network of nearly 40 prisons run by Cal Fire. Thousands of incarcerated people stood arm in arm with union firefighters to combat this blaze. A 22-year old incarcerated firefighter Shawna Lynn Jones was recently killed by a boulder while fighting brush fires in Southern CA. Read the LA Times article on Shawna’s death at http://fw.to/woG5QcY.

Climate Workers: What is this massive lot we see here filled with blackened automobiles?

Marty Englander: Those are the cars of people who were trying to evacuate, but their cars caught fire while on the road. At some point people just had to get out of their cars and flee on foot, or others picked them up. And this is where the clean up crews put all the cars.”

Work crews apply grass seeding spray to barren flatlands in Middletown, CA.

Work crews apply grass seeding spray to barren flatlands in Middletown, CA.

Climate Workers: Are you hopeful about the prospects for recovery?

Marty Englander: A month, two months ago this was a lush, green, beautiful, safe environment. Now it’s a bald hillside. I won’t see the hillsides covered with tall beautiful pine trees and oak trees again in my lifetime. But someone will see them again. And I hope that what happens here brings new economic opportunity for the people. You know, after the fire, part of me still doesn’t feel safe. But in the end, it is still safe because the people are still here.

Signs are posted everywhere, advertising clean-up services, alongside others warning of unscrupulous contractors. English Translation: “Homeowners beware! Unlicensed and unscrupulous contractors may try to rip you off.”

Signs are posted everywhere, advertising clean-up services, alongside others warning of unscrupulous contractors. English Translation: “Homeowners beware! Unlicensed and unscrupulous contractors may try to rip you off.”

Climate Workers: What would you say to people who think climate change isn’t a “labor” issue?

Marty Englander: That’s bullshit. And I’d say that even if I hadn’t lived through this fire. Our unions need to do a better job of supporting and educating their members, to understand the climate crisis and our role in solving it. All worker battles are not fought in the workplace. The land, the trees, the lakes, AND the people — all of us need justice. We have to take care of those who take care of the Earth.

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A clean-up worker talks with us while on break in Middletown, CA. He works for one of many environmental crisis management companies that contract with the state. He told us that he spends most days in a hazmat suit and has worked on every major environmental accident or natural disaster in California in the last decade.

We live in a time of great transition. As Marty’s story makes clear, climate disruption is already here. And its consequences will worsen the grave economic and social inequities of our day. The Valley Fire was a shock to the system, but the slow advance of drought, poverty, soil erosion and mass incarceration are ever sliding us into a state of permanent crisis. Lake County is now facing down a crossroads, as are we all. Will our “recovery” see a dangerous embrace of false solutions, abandoning livable union jobs in favor of prison labor and privatization? Or will we harness these “shocks” and “slides” to fundamentally shift the status quo, investing in ecological resilience and worker power? What role can – must – our unions play in bringing the people back into right relationship with the land, and with each other? Climate Workers believes we need a future led by workers like Marty, who sit on the frontlines of real climate solutions, and know that inaction is (as Marty said) “bullshit.”

Will you join her in building the worker-led movement for climate justice?

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