When fires, heat and a tropical storm collide
Note: My amazing colleague Ben Christopher and other CalMatters reporters will guest host the newsletter while I’m on vacation. I’ll see you on Monday, Sept. 26!
Another day, another state of emergency.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday proclaimed a state of emergency in Riverside County due to the Fairview Fire — which as of Friday afternoon had charred nearly 28,000 acres, killed at least two people, threatened 2,500 structures and remained just 5% contained after growing half the size of San Francisco in one day — and in El Dorado and Placer counties due to the Mosquito Fire.
State fire officials said the Mosquito Fire exhibited “extreme fire behavior and growth” as it exploded in size to 30,000 acres by Friday afternoon. The blaze had prompted thousands of evacuations, destroyed some homes and was threatening at least 1,000 structures, including the historic Gold Rush town of Michigan Bluff and critical infrastructure such as a hydroelectric powerhouse, a dam, cell phone towers and large power lines. It remained 0% contained.
- PG&E told state regulators Thursday that federal investigators had placed caution tape around one of its transmission poles close to where the Mosquito Fire started. The beleaguered utility, which is facing criminal charges for the role its equipment may have played in causing other California wildfires, said no damage was visible but “electrical activity” occurred “close in time to the report time of the fire” Tuesday.
- Meanwhile, a Weed family filed a lawsuit Thursday against Roseburg Forest Products Co., a wood products company that said Wednesday a malfunctioning piece of equipment at its facility may have caused the Mill Fire that killed at least two people.
The metastasizing fires didn’t bode well for a state already under a thrice-extended state of emergency, a Stage 2 energy emergency alert later downgraded to Stage 1 and a Flex Alert asking residents to conserve power between 3 and 10 p.m. as a long-running, record-setting extreme heat wave continued to push California’s power grid to its limit.
Indeed, not only was smoke from the Mosquito Fire contributing to poor air quality in the Bay Area and Sacramento regions, but it also threatened to drift over solar farms, blocking their access to the sun and potentially reducing their energy output by about 1,000 megawatts, the state’s electric grid operator said.
The fire was also threatening several hydropower facilities in Placer County, potentially leading to a loss of another 200 megawatts, state energy officials said.
Meanwhile, Southern California Edison said Thursday evening that it was considering preemptively shutting off power in certain areas “due to weather conditions that may create the potential for elevated fire risk.”
San Diego County, for example, is today bracing to be hit by hot, dry winds as fast as 80 miles per hour as Tropical Storm Kay — which was downgraded from a hurricane late Thursday — spins closer. Heavy rains, flash floods and lightning are also expected.
- UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain: “This is why the Southern California electrical utilities are considering Public Safety Power Shutoffs … these very strong downslope/offshore warming winds may precede wetting rainfall, posing a conditional but substantial fire weather hazard.”
- He tweeted a satellite photo of the Western U.S., adding: “One of the most striking satellite images of California & the West I’ve ever seen. #HurricaneKay is approaching from southeast while numerous large wildfires burn to north, and an enormous pyrocumulonimbus cloud associated with explosive #MosquitoFire is prominent.”
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 10,314,717 confirmed cases (+1.8% from previous day) and 94,351 deaths (+0.01% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 State amps up climate goals — again
As California struggles with a climate conundrum — it’s relied heavily on natural gas to keep the lights on during this week’s record-breaking heat wave, even as it doubles down on its commitment to phase out fossil fuels — more ambitious goals have been added to the state’s climate change draft roadmap at the behest of Newsom and environmental advocates. California’s powerful Air Resources Board, which had been set to formally adopt the plan later this month, has now delayed taking action until the end of the year, CalMatters’ Nadia Lopez reports. She breaks down the significance of some of the blueprint’s key changes, which include:
- Deleting a provision that would allow for the construction of an additional 10 gigawatts of natural gas capacity to support California’s power grid and replacing it with a goal of developing at least 20 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2045. No offshore wind projects currently exist off California’s coast.
- Achieving 3 million climate-friendly homes by 2030 and 7 million by 2035.
- Accelerating reductions to the amount of miles Californians drive in their cars from 46.8% below 1990 levels by 2030 to 50% in the same timeframe.
- Increasing a clean aviation fuel target from 10% to 20% by 2045.
- Eliminating 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2045 through nature-based methods as well as a controversial method called carbon capture.
“The new targets are quite aggressive and the question now is, will the Air Resources Board have the authority and the resources to follow through to accomplish that?” Michael Wara, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s climate and energy policy program, asked Nadia.
In other climate news: Amplify Energy, one of the largest producers of oil in Southern California, pled no contest to six misdemeanor charges filed Thursday by Attorney General Rob Bonta and Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer for its role in the October 2021 oil spill off Huntington Beach, which slicked a recently restored trio of marshes that serve as rare feeding and resting grounds for at least 90 species of shorebirds. Amplify will also pay $4.9 million in fines and penalties to the state and Orange County and $7.1 million to the federal government and reimburse federal agencies for expenses incurred in cleaning up the spill, according to Bonta’s office.
2 Not-so-free money
An explosion of state and federal stimulus money during the pandemic led to an expansion of safety net programs — but now some of them could be whittled down or eliminated altogether as funds run out, raising questions about what comes next for the low-income Californians who benefitted from the services.
- This month, state regulators are expected to vote on a new rule that could limit the pandemic-expanded number of discounts approximately 1.7 million low-income Californians use to help pay for their internet and phone services, CalMatters’ Lil Kalish reports. The proposal has divided consumer advocates: “This proposed decision would exacerbate inequality and expand the digital divide for low-income Californians struggling to compete in today’s rapidly changing digital economy,” San Francisco resident Todd Snyder said in a written public comment. But Vinhcent Le, a lawyer at the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute, said the decision could also help “create a pathway where you can use your discounts more effectively and make sure there’s funding so we don’t have to increase surcharges on California consumers.”
- California community colleges trying to lure students back to campus amid declining enrollment have been using federal COVID relief money to waive fees and stack additional perks — such as free laptops, lunches, bus passes and school supplies — on top of free tuition, Mallika Seshadri reports for CalMatters’ College Journalism Network. “Money is a big incentive,” said Zachariah Wooden, vice president of legislative affairs for the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. “It’s not like they’re getting paid to take courses, but it’s more, you know, ‘I can save money by taking courses in the fall semester.’” But some colleges have already run out of federal funding, sparking concerns that positive enrollment trends could reverse themselves if the programs expire.
3 State cleared to continue closing prison
From CalMatters justice reporter Nigel Duara: Newsom’s plan to close California prisons won a major victory in Lassen County Superior Court on Thursday when a judge lifted a preliminary injunction against the state prison system and allowed the closure of a rural Northern California prison to move forward.
The city of Susanville sued last year after the state announced its plan to shutter the 59-year-old California Correctional Center, claiming the closure violated both environmental laws and the California Penal Code. A judge in August granted the city a preliminary injunction against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
- The 1,600-inmate prison is the center of tiny Susanville’s economy. Residents have said that if the prison closes, the town will shutter alongside it.
It’s unclear whether the city will appeal visiting judge Robert F. Moody’s decision. Margaret Long, the city of Susanville’s attorney, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
In July, lawmakers included a provision in the state budget that compels the closure of the Susanville prison by June 2023.
Skilled labor essential for a greener state: For the more than 32,000 highly skilled Californians who work in the gas distribution industry, hydrogen represents a real and meaningful opportunity for a just transition, argue Maryam Brown, president of Southern California Gas Company, and Jon Preciado, business manager of the Southern California District Council of Laborers.
Other things worth your time
Tension rises at Bay Area’s largest homeless encampment as state tears down blockade to evict residents. // San Francisco Chronicle
L.A. County and city post small increases in homeless numbers, far less than past double-digit jumps. // Daily News
30 tiny homes sat vacant while California veterans awaited housing. // Knock LA
Snap chops nearly 500 California jobs, more than 80 in Bay Area. // Mercury News
PG&E eyes higher monthly bills, rising revenue requirement, new filing says. // Mercury News
State supports San Diego’s pick for sports arena site. // San Diego Union-Tribune
The reality of legal weed in California: Huge illegal grows, violence, worker exploitation and deaths. // Los Angeles Times
San Francisco just decriminalized shrooms. // Vice News
DA Jenkins unveils new policy to steer drug users into treatment. // San Francisco Standard
Armored guard shot at Kaiser Permanente facility in San Leandro. // KTVU FOX 2
Former CSU baseball coach sexually and racially harassed players and staff, investigation found. // EdSource
Federal court sends California gun litigants back to trial court, history books. // Los Angeles Times
How accurate was California’s 2020 Census? // Public Policy Institute of California
Whopping 86 O.C. candidates to automatically win after drawing no challengers. // Voice of OC
She starred in an anti-Prop. 27 ad — after her organization got $50,000 from a top anti-Prop. 27 funder. // San Francisco Chronicle
Prop. 27 clause a possible ‘poison pill’ for sports betting tribal revenue share. // Play CA
‘Squaw’ removed from place names across U.S., California by feds. // Sacramento Bee
Northern California children learn to cope with wildfire trauma. // California Healthline
El Segundo declares local emergency, set to sue over noxious odor from Hyperion. // Daily Breeze
Rat poison found in mountain lion P-54 and her four unborn kittens after she was killed by a car. // Daily News
Report identified key vulnerabilities two years before cyberattack on L.A. Unified. // Los Angeles Times
Food vendors contend with a mental health crisis on the streets of L.A. // Capital & Main
BART at 50: After decades of growth and tumult, transit system stuck in a massive financial hole. // San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco needs a transit savior. Can Secretary Pete deliver? // San Francisco Standard
State of California will fund $25 million in local reporting fellowships. // Nieman Lab