Summer danger in California: Unpredictable wildfires and extreme heat

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La July 12, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

Summer danger in California: Unpredictable wildfires and extreme heat

The winter’s deadly and devastating floods are a distant memory for many Californians. Now, summer dangers, fueled by climate change, are top of mind.

Across the U.S., wildfires have grown larger and more frequent since 2000. But California fires can quickly escalate to megafires or gigifires (fires that cover more than a million acres) in part because they have become more unpredictable, writes CalMatters’ environmental reporter Julie Cart.

There are several reasons for this: The West recently experienced the driest period in more than a millennium. About a third of coastal summer fog, which prevents big fires from scorching California’s coastal redwood forests, has vanished. And rising temperatures keep flames burning overnight, crucial hours when firefighters typically toil to get ahead of fires.

Julie reports that Cal Fire crews attempt to outmaneuver these erratic blazes with fire behaviorists, who use information from satellites, military flights, drones, radar and AI models to try and predict future fire movements. Any data point can be crucial — from wind force and direction to the shape and height of slopes — to manage conflagrations.

These advances in technology could not come soon enough. Though the state’s three-year drought is over, Cal Fire officials warn that last winter’s unprecedented rain has resulted in lush vegetation that can serve as kindling for summer fires. And ultimately, trying to predict something so capricious as fire — no matter the technology available — is futile. 

  • Mark Finney, Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory research forester: “Once you are in a position to have to fight these extreme fires, you’ve already lost. Don’t let anybody kid you, we do not suppress these fires, we don’t control them. We wait for the weather.”

To learn more about wildfires, check out our explainer. And read Julie’s award-winning “Trial by Fire” series on the post-traumatic stress experienced by firefighters.

Even without wildfires, Californians have to deal with the danger of extreme heat. In advance of the next scorching wave this weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Tuesday the launch of Heat Ready CA — a $20 million, two-year campaign to warn communities about extreme heat. The elderly, workers and people who have disabilities or are pregnant are particularly sensitive to heat.

  • Newsom, in a statement: “The impacts of climate change have never been more clear — the hots continue to get hotter in our state and across the West putting millions of Californians at risk.”

The San Francisco Chronicle also reports an uptick of snowmelt mosquitos, which are more aggressive, in the Sierra Nevada due to high temperatures, as well as a greater risk of summertime wet avalanches, which have so far claimed two lives this season.

By the way, it’s not just California that is dealing with extreme heat. The effects are showing up around the globe.

  • Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist, in his weekly YouTube office hours: “The Earth currently this week appears to be hotter than any week than we’ve observed since we’ve been recording temperatures.”

CalMatters covers the Capitol: CalMatters has guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard, understand how state government works and follow the state budget process. We have a lesson-plan-ready version of the explainer — especially made for teachers, libraries and community groups — as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative.


1 Bill deadline claims some victims

The Assembly floor at the state Capitol on April 24, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
The Assembly floor at the state Capitol on April 24, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

With only three days left to go for the Legislature to pass bills before the summer break, a few bills notably did not advance out of their policy committees Tuesday. One bill, authored by Republican Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, would have made the human trafficking of a minor a serious felony. In May, the Senate approved it 40-0.

But with only the two Republicans voting “yes,” the bill failed to make it out of the Assembly public safety committee. In response, Grove said that trafficked children in California “will continue to be raped and victimized until Assembly Democrats take action.”

  • Grove: “I am profoundly disappointed that committee Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to support the bill, with their stubborn and misguided objection to any penalty increase regardless of how heinous the crime.”

The chairperson of the committee, Los Angeles Democrat Reggie Jones-Sawyer, told CalMatters in a statement that the bill made “no new corrective actions or enhancements” to laws that were already in the books.

  • Jones-Sawyer: “Ultimately, members of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee understood the author’s intent but recognized this bill needs considerable work and granted reconsideration.”

From Jeanne Kuang of CalMatters’ California Divide team:

Labor groups seeking to hold fast food chains legally responsible for the working conditions in their franchisee-owned restaurants are getting a little more time to try to get their bill through the state Senate in the face of industry opposition. 

On Tuesday, Assemblymember Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat, pulled his Assembly Bill 1228 from its scheduled hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bills need to pass out of policy committees before the end of the week, so that would normally mean it’s dead for the year. 

But committee Chairperson Tom Umberg, a Santa Ana Democrat, said he’ll ask for a rules waiver to get the bill a hearing when the Legislature comes back from its summer recess in mid-August. 

Holden’s spokesperson Timme Mackie said the bill was pulled “to give the opposition some time to have more dialogue with Assemblymember Holden.”

But neither Holden’s office nor Umberg’s would say whether the lawmakers see any ways to compromise with businesses over one of the most controversial labor bills this year.

Bill sponsor SEIU says holding the corporations who control the franchise business model liable for labor violations of franchisees would help rein in wage theft and other worker mistreatment across the low-wage industry. 

But chains and franchise owners alike say that’ll destroy their business model, which emphasizes the independence of franchisees in making workplace decisions. A coalition of businesses and restaurants has staged a concerted opposition campaign, spending $150,000 lobbying against it between January and March. Lawmakers are hearing the group’s many fast food franchise owners who have made personal appeals, spokesperson Kathy Fairbanks said.

A few other noteworthy measures became two-year bills, with further debate put off until 2024:

2 Big election changes get sidelined

A voter casts their ballot at a polling station at the Sacramento County voter registration and elections office in Sacramento on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
A voter casts their ballot at a polling station at the Sacramento County voter registration and elections office in Sacramento on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Despite the Legislature introducing nearly 50 election-related bills this session, it looks like there will be no major sea change in how Californians vote. The two most impactful measures — one state constitutional amendment about recalling statewide officials and another to change the state superintendent of public instruction to an appointed position — are basically toast for the year.

But some other proposals, which could still impact voting in 2024 and beyond, are still alive, writes CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal

A quick rundown:

  • AB 421 would simplify language on referenda so that it aligns with what voters want (“yes” to keep a law and “no” to overturn the law); 
  • AB 764 would strengthen rules around redistricting;
  • AB 1124  would require independent redistricting commissions for cities, counties and other large districts by 2030.

The saga of AB 421 in particular has been notable: Originally, the bill sought to curb disinformation by requiring signature gatherers to disclose whether they are paid or volunteers and mandated they undergo training and registration. But now the bill mostly focuses on clarifying ballot language.

Of course, as Sameea writes, reforming voting laws go hand-in-hand with reforming campaign finance. Currently, three measures are being considered:

  • AB 37 would allow candidates or elected officials more use of campaign funds to pay for security expenses; 
  • AB 969 would ban jurisdictions from terminating contracts for a certified voting system without having a plan in place for a replacement;
  • SB 24 would expand public financing of campaigns.

3 The coming crisis for caregivers

Grace Diaz, a caregiver, at the home of her client in Orange County on June 7, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters
Grace Diaz, a caregiver, at the home of her client in Orange County on June 7, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

Who will take care of the caregivers?

Within seven years, 1 in 5 Californians will be 65 years old or older. By then, the state will face a staggering shortage — as many as 3.2 million workers — who will need to look after and provide comfort for California’s elderly population.

But as Alejandra Reyes-Velarde of CalMatters’ California Divide team explains, despite being one of the fastest growing jobs, not many are clamoring to be caregivers given the low wages and the lack of benefits and workplace protections.

To encourage more growth in the workforce and expand safety protections, state lawmakers have been considering two measures related to caregivers — workers who are often women, people of color and immigrants.

  • SB 686 would include home caregivers in the state’s oversight of workplace safety, which would result in the development and enforcement of health and safety policies for employers of in-home workers;
  • AB 1672 — which has been pulled by its author as the state works out caregiver contractors — would have shifted collective bargaining for publicly funded caregiver contracts from counties to the state, which supporters argue will make contracts more equitable and enable care workers to move across county lines.

In the meantime, caregivers such as Grace Diaz, a 56-year-old who lives with her elderly Alzheimer’s patient in Westminster and makes $15.50 an hour, continue to worry about who will take care of them when the time comes.

  • Diaz: “We take care of the elderly, but I’m not even sure that, if I stay here, I’m going to have the same care that I’m giving right now — if I’ll be able to afford it.”

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters is away and will return July 24.

California has come full circle, with most mental health treatment behind locked doors, writes Alice Feller, a psychiatrist and writer based in Berkeley.


Other things worth your time

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Millions in tax refunds could await some same-sex couples // The Sacramento Bee

Reparations debate incomplete without Indigenous Californians, activists say // Los Angeles Times

Anti-book banning bill picks up steam in Legislature // The Mercury News

CA moves closer to passing new guidelines for teaching math // KQED

Most San Diego County elected officials reported harassment, threats // The San Diego Union-Tribune

Petition to recall Santa Ana Councilmember Jessie Lopez is filed // The Orange County Register

Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten released from California prison // AP News

A racist past and hotter future are testing Western water like never before // NPR

San Francisco firms lead the world’s AI funding in 2023 // The San Francisco Standard

50-story SF condo tower proposal casts political shade // San Francisco Chronicle

The dirtiest night of the year for Clovis’ air is just another winter day in south Fresno // Fresnoland

See you tomorrow


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