Gone is the town of Greenville, built during the Gold Rush. Its historic buildings, some of which survived a fire in 1880, are now burned to the ground.

They were destroyed by the Dixie Fire, a monstrous blaze possibly sparked by PG&E equipment that has already blackened more than 322,000 acres — making it the sixth-largest fire in California history. Fierce winds were set to whip Plumas County Thursday, likely directing the flames into a landscape that one fire chief said had the dryness of a month-old Christmas tree.

Yet another blaze, the River Fire, rapidly ignited Wednesday, charring more than 2,400 acres in Nevada and Placer counties, forcing thousands of evacuations and destroying or damaging at least 50 structures shortly.

  • Colfax resident Isabella Vittoni: “There was full-on panic, adrenaline, everyone’s sweating, trying to get whatever you can. … People were driving dirt bikes and quads down the road just to get out.”

California’s wildfire season has reached such epic proportions that it’s difficult to imagine a policy that could adequately address it. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that California had secured a federal grant to help address the River Fire; the day before, the U.S. Forest Service said it would no longer take a “wait and see” approach to fires after Newsom and other Western governors criticized the tactic. Newsom recently secured 12 additional firefighting aircraft, and the budget includes billions for wildfire and drought.

But for many Californians, the aid isn’t nearly enough — and it’s not coming nearly fast enough.

Wine Country, which was devastated by wildfires last year, is apparently so dissatisfied with the state’s response that it wants to create its own fire department, rather than relying on Cal Fire, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Many vintners are buying their own firefighting equipment and training staffers how to use it. And some of Napa County’s wealthiest residents are willing to shell out $2 million of their own money to buy Black Hawk helicopters.

  • Dawnine Dyer, owner of Meteor Vineyard: “If we can somehow train ourselves to be part of the response, then we won’t have to find ourselves in those situations where we’re shut out and feeling helpless.”

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 3,899,158 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 64,206 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data.

California has administered 44,386,538 vaccine doses, and 63.2% 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. State mandates vaccine for medical workers

Personal care assistant Riza Green receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Carefield Assisted Living Facility in Castro Valley on Feb. 3, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Personal care assistant Riza Green receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Carefield Assisted Living Facility in Castro Valley on Feb. 3, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

California on Thursday became the first state in the nation to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers, allowing only for religious or rare medical exemptions, CalMatters’ Barbara Feder Ostrov reports. The order issued by Dr. Tomás Aragón, California’s public health officer, tightens Newsom’s directive last week that medical workers and state employees either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Aragón also issued another order requiring indoor visitors to hospitals, skilled nursing homes and facilites for the developmentally disabled to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken a maximum of 72 hours prior to the visit.

With early data suggesting that vaccine mandates are spurring a surge in inoculations, more and more government agencies and companies are issuing directives of their own. A smattering of Thursday announcements: Los Angeles County’s Superior Court told employees they must get vaccinated once the shots receive full FDA approval or face termination. The Sacramento Kings basketball team said it will require employees — though apparently not the players themselves — to be vaccinated. And Marin County’s superintendent said all adult staff will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to start the school year.

2. New unemployment claims rise — again

Image via iStock

In an unmistakable sign that California’s economic recovery is lagging the nation’s, new unemployment claims in the Golden State jumped to their highest level since the June 15 reopening for the second week in a row. More than 65,000 Californians filed new jobless claims for the week ending July 31, according to federal data released Thursday — an increase of nearly 1,000 from the week before. That stands in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where total claims dropped by 14,000. California now accounts for more than 20% of unemployment claims in the U.S., despite making up less than 12% of its labor force, said Michael Bernick, a former director of the state Employment Development Department and an attorney at Duane Morris. The dismaying trend doesn’t appear likely to reverse course in the near future.

  • Bernick: “California’s employers and the workforce boards that supply workers to employers report no uptick in job applications, even as the schools begin to reopen and as the Sept. 4 cutoff for the (federal) unemployment supplement nears.”

However, the problem-plagued EDD made some progress on its backlog of unresolved claims. Around 233,000 claims had been sitting on EDD’s desk for more than 21 days as of July 31, a decrease of about 5,000 from the week before, according to figures the department released Thursday. I talked with California voters stuck in the backlog — and how their experiences with EDD could influence their vote in the Sept. 14 recall election.

3. Water managers confront illegal pot industry

The vandalized water source where most water thefts occur in Lancaster, on July 2, 2021. The water is pumped into large containers that are sold and bought on the sides of the road. Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
A vandalized water source where most water thefts occur in Lancaster on July 2, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

Just as California’s public health officers likely never expected to need a sheriff’s security detail stationed outside their home, California’s water managers likely didn’t envision themselves becoming amateur detectives cracking down on the multibillion-dollar illegal pot industry. As CalMatters’ Julie Cart has reported, illegal marijuana farms sustained by stolen water are pervasive across the state, ranging from mountainous Siskiyou County in the far north to Southern California deserts. In this strikingly beautiful video, CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons takes us to San Bernardino County, where the problem — and danger — has grown so pervasive that one local water manager refused to show her face and another backed out of an interview.

  • The local water manager: “Is there a mechanism to cut off the water to these farms without having the response be very negative and forceful? … We’re not law enforcement officers, we don’t carry guns. … You’re dealing with a lawless situation, and you’re trying to come after it with a lawful approach.”

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CalMatters commentary

Olive oil in the spotlight: State lawmakers are seeking to regulate the use of the word “California” on olive oil labels, similar to existing rules for California wine, writes Alexandra Kicenik Devarenee, a freelance olive oil consultant.

Other things worth your time

In final decision, judge OKs Newsom tagging recall election a ‘Republican power grab.’ // San Francisco Chronicle

Newsom, PG&E & CPUC: Governor’s office ‘micromanaged’ regulator. // abc10.com

Every county in Southern California offers residents public updates on COVID, except Orange County. // Voice of OC

Recall effort started against members of the Huntington Beach City Council. // Daily Pilot

New paychecks short for some California state workers due to glitchy payroll system. // Sacramento Bee

Santa Ana police union boss tries to muscle his way to more retirement money, city says. // Orange County Register

Barbers, hairstylists uneasy over proposed California legislation. // Coast News

California spending billions to house homeless in hotels. // Associated Press

Scathing report says San Diego County contractors were unqualified to operate COVID-19 hotels. // inewsource

Nearly half of Sacramento homeowners are now ‘equity rich.’ // Sacramento Bee

Biden signs electric car order, cuts Trump emissions standards in move modeled on California. // Sacramento Bee

How cargo and cruise ships contribute to California whale deaths. // Los Angeles Times

2 California wolf packs produced pups in 2021. // Associated Press

Ben will see you Monday.

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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...