Good morning, California. It’s Friday, September 24.

Sequoias still under siege

A dispatch from CalMatters environment reporter Julie Cart: In California, it’s possible to be hundreds of miles away from Hollywood and still find yourself in a place that looks for all the world like a movie set.

Where better to illustrate the perils of climate change than a beloved national park that is on fire, while trucks roar past and ash falls like sooty snow? Standing in front of Sequoia National Park’s distinctive wooden sign — which was wrapped in a protective foil blanket that made it look like a baked potato — Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a $15 billion climate package aimed at combating wildfires, ongoing drought, extreme heat and sea level rise.

  • Newsom: “Here we are with these sentinels to our history. You’ve got trees that quite literally date back to over 3,300 years ago. You can’t rebuild a giant sequoia … and that’s why we’re here with a deep sense of urgency.”

The governor was referring to the groves of ancient trees threatened by the KNP Complex Fire in Sequoia National Park and the Windy Fire in Sequoia National Forest, which sparked new evacuations as it continued to grow Thursday. Ignited by lightning earlier this month, the KNP Complex Fire — which remains 0% contained — offers a preview of what’s likely in store for California as the world warms: more lightning strikes capable of starting vicious fires, Julie reports.

It’s precisely the issue of fossil fuels that led some advocacy groups to criticize Newsom’s wildfire package, part of a series of long-awaited budget bills the governor signed into law on Thursday. “It lacks the ultimate fire prevention method: stopping new permits for the drilling of fossil fuels,” said Alexandra Nagy, director of Food & Water Watch California. “Leaving out such a key climate change accelerator … is wildly shortsighted.”

Meanwhile, as smoke from the KNP Complex and Windy Fires traveled as far as Los Angeles, mandatory evacuations were triggered by the fast-moving Fawn Fire near Redding. A Palo Alto woman was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of starting the blaze.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 4,441,390 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 67,928 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 48,813,863 vaccine doses, and 69.6% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the results of the Newsom recall election and the top 21 bills state lawmakers sent to Newsom’s desk.

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1. Preparing for another big vaccine rollout

Brayden Stymans, 15, left, receives a Covid-19 vaccine injection from nurse Amanda Mumford, right, at a clinic held on the campus of Frick United Academy of Language in Oakland on May 19, 2021. Photo by Anda Chu, Bay Area News Group
Brayden Stymans, 15, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Amanda Mumford, right, at the Frick United Academy of Language in Oakland on May 19, 2021. Photo by Anda Chu, Bay Area News Group

Hurry up, and wait. State health officials on Thursday released a COVID-19 Vaccine Action Plan outlining how California will reactivate its large-scale vaccination campaign to offer booster shots to vulnerable residents and inoculations to children under the age of 12 — once both are formally approved by the federal government and other state agencies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had disagreed on who should get a booster shot. While the FDA on Wednesday approved a third Pfizer shot for those 65 and older, people 18-64 with underlying medical conditions, and those with high-risk jobs, a CDC panel on Thursday approved it only for those 65 and older and people 50-64 with underlying medical conditions, recommending younger people with comorbidities consult with their doctor. Late Thursday, however, the CDC director overruled the panel and endorsed boosters for health care workers and employees in homeless shelters, prisons and other high-risk workplaces.

Many questions remain, CalMatters health reporter Kristen Hwang pointed out to me: How soon can eligible Pfizer recipients expect their third dose? What exactly qualifies as someone “at high risk”? Will booster shots be authorized for Californians who received the Moderna or J&J vaccines, and if so, when?

Another topic up in the air: Will California require kids 12 and older to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to attend school? California’s top public health official said Thursday that it’s “part of what we’re considering as a state,” a step beyond Newsom’s assertion last week that “nothing (is) on the table” in regard to vaccine mandates. And on Wednesday, Oakland, Piedmont and Hayward Unified became the latest school districts to require vaccines for students 12 and older.

2. A trifecta of housing stories

Jordan Lyric holds a rent strike poster that they made on May 6, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
Jordan Lyric of Los Angeles holds a rent strike poster made on May 6, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

With less than a week before California’s eviction moratorium expires, the state is extending and more than doubling its deal with the outside contractor it hired to disburse rent relief to tenants and landlords — despite an initially slow rollout of money. The contract with Horne LLP, a Mississippi-based accounting firm that specializes in disaster relief, jumped from $51.7 million in March to at least $146.8 million on Sept. 16, according to an exclusive report from CalMatters housing reporter Manuela Tobias. Under the new deal, Horne is now responsible for administering $2.6 billion in rent relief through March 2022. Will things go smoothly? Manuela takes a look.

In other housing news:

3. Schools grapple with thorny $$ questions

Fourth year student Riya Master stands near Sather Gate on Sept. 21. 2021 at UC Berkeley. Master, an out-of-state student, worries the new tuition hike for students coming from states other than California will be cost prohibitive. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Riya Master, an out-of-state student, stands near Sather Gate on Sept. 21. 2021 at UC Berkeley. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

When it comes to California schools and money, the solutions are never simple. Two examples:

  • Out-of-state UC students pay three times more in tuition than California residents — but lawmakers and Newsom signed off on plans to enroll fewer out-of-state students and more Californians. While that will likely make California families happy, the move could also cut off a key source of revenue for UC — and leave out-of-state students unhappy, especially with a tuition hike coming up. So what’s the nation’s top public university system to do? CalMatters’ Mikhail Zinshteyn takes a look.
  • Newsom and lawmakers approved $5 billion over the next several years to fund a longer school day and extended school year to help elementary school students make up for learning loss — but due to a dire shortage of teachers and other educational staff, the program won’t happen this year in most districts, EdSource reports.

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CalMatters commentary

Solving the substitute teacher shortage: California needs to reexamine policies that prevent teachers from returning as substitutes within their first six months of retirement, argue Donna Glassman-Sommer and Marvin Lopez of the California Center on Teaching Careers.

Connecting climate justice and housing justice: The state must leverage funding to ensure its affordable housing efforts, climate goals and decarbonization policies work hand-in-hand, writes Srinidhi Sampath Kumar of the California Housing Partnership.

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Other things worth your time

COVID economy: California unemployment claims rocket to their highest level in five months. // Mercury News

Los Angeles teachers to receive 5% raise, bonuses under tentative pact. // Los Angeles Times

Palm Springs bounty hunter case: Police bodycam footage is released. // Desert Sun

Los Angeles County sheriff’s unit accused of targeting political enemies. // Los Angeles Times

State officials propose new site in Rancho Bernardo to house sexually violent predator. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Property owners sue city over pandemic rent relief law. // San Francisco Chronicle

A huge new building proposed near UC Berkeley could reshape the city’s skyline. // San Francisco Chronicle

That tree blocks my view, so it’s got to go. Pacific Heights resident wins dispute over neighbor’s pine. // San Francisco Chronicle

Jacumba residents sue to stop 600-acre solar project. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Fresno County judge orders new air rules for oil refineries. // Fresno Bee

Water war threatens desert community amid California drought. // Los Angeles Times

California’s reliance on dams puts fish in hot water. // Revelator

California tribes get green light for ‘cultural burns.’ // Grist

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...