In summary

A Thanksgiving week storm batters California, and firefighters give thanks in Santa Barbara. Plus, cities grapple with cannabis, and the state with Trump.

Good morning, California. Laurel Rosenhall here, sitting in on this short holiday week for Dan Morain.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto!! Do not underestimate the power of this storm! Stay home and do not travel unless necessary.” — California Highway Patrol-Crescent City on Facebook Tuesday.

A Thanksgiving bomb

Interstate 80 near Truckee on Tuesday via a Caltrans camera.

A Thanksgiving week “bomb cyclone” wreaked havoc on Tuesday as expected, paralyzing mountain freeways, tearing into North Coast redwoods and prompting Californians north and south to brace for power outages and torrential holiday rain.

Snow shut down I-80 north of Lake Tahoe, near the Nevada-California line, and I-5 near Redding and Yreka. A flash flood watch was issued for northern Sonoma County, charred last month by the Kincade fire, and for recently burned areas in Southern California. Oakland International Airport lost power for more than an hour, delaying planes, blacking out terminals and bringing security and baggage claim to a standstill.

Caused by a powerful, cold, low-pressure system, the storm is expected to weaken by Thanksgiving, though forecasters anticipate continued snow in the mountains.

Not entirely sorry to see it: Firefighters in Santa Barbara County, where the wind-whipped Cave Fire had burned more than 4,000 acres before the flight from flames became an evacuation for potential mudslides.

Advice from Oz

Fire behind homes in southeastern Australia. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Fire rages in the hills behind homes in southeastern Australia.

California and Australia share a similar climate, many of the same plants, often-arid landscapes — and residents bedeviled by ferocious and worsening wildfires. So CalMatters’ Julie Cart asks: What do Australians do that we don’t?

  • Fend more for themselves: The principle of shared responsibility underpins fire policies Down Under. Residents are offered extensive training to prepare their properties to withstand fire and defend them on their own.
  • Bury power lines:  Eighty percent of wildfire deaths in Australia since 1950 are from power lines. Most states require new lines to be underground, and the government helps pay for it.
  • Follow the science: Oz, as Australia is sometimes called, has been studying fire statistics and doing fire modeling for more than 60 years. Research institutions regularly spit out computer programs and other tools to assist fire commanders.

The Australian message: “There are simply not enough fire trucks for every house. If you call for help, you may not get it.”

In more climate news

California is about to lose key weapons against climate change.

The Trump administration’s new rule stripping California of its power to police tailpipe pollution took effect Tuesday — but the immediate consequences are so murky that the state’s clean air enforcers have had to ask the feds for clarification, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reports.

Announced at the end of September, the rule yanks key weapons in California’s battle against climate change:

  • The authority to limit greenhouse gases from cars and light duty trucks
  • The power to enforce the zero-emission vehicle program that requires carmakers to sell a certain percentage of clean cars in the state

What’s not clear, however, is whether this first phase of federal rollbacks starts with model year 2021 vehicles, or earlier editions, California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young says.  Until the courts weigh in and the EPA clarifies timing, experts say it’s uncertain how much harm California faces — but it could mean trouble for California’s commuters as transportation planners around the state account for the increased pollution. 

CARB assistant chief counsel Craig Segall: “This is a real blow to our abilities here, which will translate into increased asthma risk and increased climate risk — at a time when the state obviously is on fire.” 

Growing pains

Local governments continue to grapple with California’s newest legal cash crop.

Three years after recreational marijuana was legalized by California voters, the cannabis trade remains messy. Nearly three-quarters of the state’s weed is sold on the illegal market, and legal vendors are pressuring the government for more consumer access.

  • In the courts: State and local governments are jostling over how far cities can go to limit home delivery of cannabis. The state has joined a dispensary’s lawsuit against Santa Cruz County, which has banned pot deliveries by companies it has not licensed, reports The Los Angeles Times. Local control was part of the 2016 legalization pitch, but the state has since passed a rule letting companies deliver pot even in cities that have banned it, as most have. Cities are challenging that rule in another lawsuit based in Fresno County. Is California’s legal motion an attempt to settle the issue in 420-friendly Santa Cruz, rather than more conservative Fresno?  
  • At the tax collector’s office: Cannabis vendors are pushing back against a tax increase state officials plan to put in place on Jan. 1, saying it will “further drive consumers to the illicit market.” They’re asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to intervene, according to CNN. The governor pushed for marijuana legalization but has long said the transition to a sanctioned marketplace will take many years. 
  • From the feds: Six California businesses were among 15 companies the federal government sent warning letters to this week for “illegally selling products containing cannabidiol (CBD) in ways that violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.” FDA officials say the companies are marketing CBD capsules, drops, chocolate bars and lotions as disease cures that have not been scientifically proven. “The Agency is particularly concerned that you market one of your unapproved new drug products, ‘CBD Softgels for Kids, 10 mg,’ for children,” says the letter to a company based in the East Bay.

Making immigrants pay

The Trump administration’s bid to deny immigrants visas unless they show they can cover their medical costs was blocked by a federal court Tuesday. But the president still wants to make it more expensive for immigrants to apply for citizenship, a move that critics say is part of a broader effort to skew the system to favor wealthy migrants.

Under the proposal, the application fee would rise to $1,170, an increase of more than 60 percent, Erica Hellerstein of the Mercury News reports in a story that is part of the California Divide journalism collaboration. The steep fee may dissuade legal residents from seeking full citizenship, and keep them from voting, immigration advocates say.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center’s Melissa Rodgers called it “a vicious attack on communities of color,” but  Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the fee increases are necessary to close a budget deficit. 

Commentary at CalMatters

Mark Nelson, California Rangeland Trust: Livestock grazing can lower wildfire risk and reduces the impact of fires by slowing down the speed of spreading flames. Livestock often leave land better than they found it, providing benefits to the state’s watersheds and helping to cultivate healthy soils. An added benefit: They don’t rely on toxic herbicides, petroleum products or chemicals.


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What Matters will be off for Thanksgiving weekend. Dan Morain will return on Monday. Have a safe and warm holiday.

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Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the state Capitol. She's been included in the Washington Post’s list of outstanding state politics reporters...