Good morning, California. It’s Tuesday, August 31.

Hectic evacuation process

Thousands of cars stuck in traffic so knotted that one South Lake Tahoe resident moved just 30 feet in two hours. Snow guns deployed to beat flames away from the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort. Smoke and ash so dense that the clarity of Lake Tahoe’s brilliant blue water — not to mention the balance of its delicate ecosystems — could be troubled for years to come, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reports.

Those are just some of the scenes emerging from the Caldor Fire, which on Monday forced South Lake Tahoe’s 22,000 residents to evacuate as flames entered the basin — a scenario firefighters had long been working to avoid. The blaze is the second in state history to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the other — a feat achieved earlier this month by the still-growing Dixie Fire. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday night declared a state of emergency and issued an executive order to support the state’s wildfire response and recovery efforts.

And, experts say, things are likely to get worse amid gusty winds and low humidity. The National Weather Service extended through Wednesday a red flag warning for the Northern Sierra and Southern Cascades initially slated to expire tonight. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service announced that it will today close all 20 million acres of California’s national forests through at least Sept. 17, citing “extreme fire conditions” and “strained firefighting resources.”

The timing couldn’t be worse for Newsom, who is facing a recall election on Sept. 14 and has taken particular heat for vastly overstating the state’s progress on fire prevention. Today, a group of Republican state lawmakers is holding an informational forum on wildfires — an attempt to revive an oversight hearing into Newsom’s fire prevention strategy that was abruptly canceled last week, along with a hearing on the state’s beleaguered unemployment department.

In a sobering indication of how many crises the world is facing right now, the U.S. Army is sending about 200 active-duty soldiers to assist with wildfire suppression in Northern California. Meanwhile, Newsom on Sunday deployed urban search-and-rescue teams to Louisiana to help the state respond to Hurricane Ida.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 4,213,057 confirmed cases (+0.4% from previous day) and 65,271 deaths (+0.04% from previous day), according to state data.

California has administered 46,780,323 vaccine doses, and 66.4% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.

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1. Your recall concerns, addressed

Image via iStock

By now, you’ve probably seen posts on Twitter or Facebook raising concerns about the security of the Sept. 14 recall election. Questions abound: Why does the envelope of my mail-in ballot have a hole in it? Why does the crease in my folded ballot run through a certain candidate’s name? Why have I heard stories about stolen ballots, extra ballots and even dead people receiving ballots? Can I trust Dominion voting machines? CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal examines all of these rumors — and breaks down recall fact and fiction — in this helpful piece.

Meanwhile, the Newsom campaign rolled out a new anti-recall ad featuring Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who clinched the state’s 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The Sanders spot follows a similar ad featuring Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, indicating that Newsom is hoping to fire up his Democratic base by having national progressives denounce the recall as a Republican-led power grab. As the Los Angeles Times reports, it’s a strategy similar to that used by former GOP Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the only governor in American history to defeat a recall: Attack those trying to remove you, instead of defending your record.

2. Controversial bills head to Newsom

A ‘No to upzoning’ sign placed on the lawn of an East Sacramento home on Aug. 4. 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
A ‘no to upzoning’ sign on the lawn of an East Sacramento home on Aug. 4. 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

With the legislative session ending on Sept. 10, state lawmakers have less than two weeks to decide the fate of 740 bills — but they lightened their load on Monday by sending two controversial housing bills to Newsom’s desk. The governor has until Oct. 10 — about a month after the recall election — to decide whether to sign or veto them:

Another contentious bill still wending its way through the Legislature: one that would give farmworkers more ways to vote in union elections. Business groups say the proposal is a job killer and would leave farmworkers vulnerable to pressure from union organizers, while supporters say it would limit employers’ ability to deter workers from forming unions, CalMatters’ Grace Gedye reports.

But at least one explosive proposal won’t be making its way to Newsom: Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, an Oakland Democrat, said Monday that she is no longer advancing a plan to mandate vaccines for many indoor venues and force employers to require worker vaccinations or regular COVID testing.

3. A dose of positive news

Robert Paylor, left, is assisted by Tom Billups, right, as he walks across the stage of the Greek Theater after receiving his diploma during a commencement ceremony for business students at U.C. Berkeley on Aug. 29, 2021. Paylor, a Cal rugby player was injured in a 2017 game that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Photo by Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group
Robert Paylor, left, is assisted by Tom Billups, right, as he walks across the stage of the Greek Theater after receiving his diploma during a commencement ceremony at UC Berkeley on Aug. 29, 2021. Photo by Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group

Many readers have told me they crave positive news — and, with seemingly endless reports of destructive fires, I could use some myself. So here are two amazing stories of Californians defying the odds.

On Sunday, Robert Paylor, who in 2017 was paralyzed from the neck down while playing for Cal’s rugby team — and had been told he might never be able to move again — stood up from his wheelchair, grabbed his walker, and accepted his diploma from UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, the Mercury News reports.

  • Paylor: “While this was only 5 to 10 yards, it’s some of the most important 5 to 10 yards I’ll ever walk in my life. … I hope when they saw me walk across that stage they saw themselves overcoming their own challenges.”

And last week, when a Calabasas mother saw that a mountain lion was attacking her 5-year-old son, she ran out and started beating the animal with her bare hands, according to the Associated Press.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: How would Newsom continue to pursue a political career if he’s recalled from office this year?

Speeders shouldn’t set speed limits: State lawmakers must pass legislation allowing cities to lower speed limits on our busiest, most complex streets, argue Seleta Reynolds of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and Jeffrey Tumlin of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority.

Closing California’s digital divide: The state must leverage existing broadband networks and create economic “middle mile” services to reach 463,000 largely rural households, writes Michael Kleeman, a senior fellow at UC San Diego.

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Other things worth your time

San Francisco school board recall hits critical milestone to qualify for the ballot. // San Francisco Chronicle

Rage against the vaccine: how a San Diego group is lashing out at COVID-19 rules. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Hundreds protest in Santa Monica over proposed vaccine mandates. // Los Angeles Times

Life insurance can’t be cut off without proper notice, California Supreme Court rules. // San Francisco Chronicle

Federal oversight of the Oakland Police Department may be nearing its end, attorneys say. // Oaklandside

Cal State’s incoming freshman class key to meeting system’s graduation goals. // EdSource

‘Lobster claws’ test questions land Crowden School principal in hot water. // Berkeleyside

Dozens of Sacramento-area students may be stranded in Afghanistan. // Sacramento Bee

Lithium fuels hopes for revival on California’s largest lake. // Associated Press

Marin County’s median house price hits $1.8 million. // Marin Independent Journal

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...