CVIndependent

Thu12052019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Matt Rahn was about 200 feet away when flames started climbing up the side of the garage and creeping toward the car inside.

A wildfire researcher with California State University at San Marcos, Rahn was at the edge of a fire that would go on to burn 4,240 acres across California’s Amador and El Dorado counties. He was there to study the smoke rising off blackening shrubs and trees. Watching the garage burn, though, he realized that firefighters—fending off flames without any real lung protection—were inhaling more than airborne remnants of burnt plants.

“Think about the average home, all the chemicals and things that are in there, not to mention all the building materials and furniture,” said Rahn, who also is a member of Temecula’s city council. “That’s when we started really thinking about what happens. What’s in the smoke when you have all that complicated fuel being combusted at the same time?”

That was in 2014, when wildfires burned 568 buildings across the state. Fire season is not yet over this year, and the toll already is higher: three people dead and 732 buildings burned, as of this writing. And the state is still recovering from back-to-back years of catastrophic fires that killed 137 people and damaged or destroyed nearly 35,000 buildings.

As climate change primes the West to burn, and more people build closer to nature, the question of what’s in the smoke when fires tear through wilderness and homes alike is still far from being answered. Yet the health of those breathing the smoke—like the firefighters battling the flames—depends on real data.

“Right now, we’re trying to keep California from burning down,” said Michael McLaughlin, chief of the Cosumnes Fire Department and legislative director of the California Fire Chiefs Association. “But how do we put emphasis on those that we’re putting between the fire and the communities we’re trying to save?”

“On people’s radar.”

When a wildfire burns through grasslands, forests and chaparral, the blaze churns out fine airborne particles that can irritate the lungs and have been linked to heart and lung problems, as well as premature death. Deadly gases like carbon monoxide and irritating, potentially cancer-causing chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons mix into the smoke cloud as well. 

It’s a complex soup with ingredients that can change depending on the fuel and the ferocity of the fire. And as the chemicals stew in the atmosphere, they continue to react—breaking apart and joining together to create new ingredients to inhale.

Burning buildings and cars typically make up only a small proportion of wildfire smoke, according to Shawn Urbanski, a research physical scientist at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory—but their contributions are starting to capture scientists’ attention. “With these recent fires, it’s really sort of gotten on people’s radar,” Urbanski said.

For folks inhaling smoke far from its source, toxic emissions from burning cars and houses are likely to pose less of a health risk as they’re diluted away. “All the way down in the Bay Area, probably the smoke from the Paradise Fire was pretty much just wood smoke,” said John Balmes, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Of course, wood smoke isn’t benign; researchers as well as reporters at Reveal found increases in emergency-room visits for heart and breathing problems after exposure to wildfire smoke. But for people immediately downwind and for the firefighters battling the flames, the metals, carcinogens and toxic air pollutants rising from burning homes and cars could present an additional hazard. “It definitely is an occupational risk for the firefighters when they’re trying to save buildings, and for community exposures,” Balmes said. 

We do know that municipal firefighters battling structure fires in towns and cities can run into heavy metals as well as all kinds of cancer-causing chemicals, like formaldehyde, benzene, and asbestos.

They’re also more prone to getting cancer than the general population, according to a massive study of 30,000 firefighters in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia. The paper, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reported an increase in certain cancers, including of the esophagus, lungs, mouth and throat, large intestine and kidney.

There haven’t been any similar long-term epidemiology studies of firefighters battling blazes in the wilderness, according to a deep dive into the scientific literature that was published in the journal Inhalation Toxicology in 2016.

Shorter-term studies, however, have reported small drops in lung function and increased inflammation among wildland firefighters exposed to smoke. Kathleen Navarro is a research industrial hygienist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who has worked as a wildland firefighter. She estimated in a recent study published in Environmental Research that, based on their smoke exposures, wildland firefighters may be at a greater risk of dying from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Wildland firefighters also tend to battle conflagrations without any lung protection beyond a bandana or a mask to filter out airborne particles—even when they’re working where wilderness and homes intersect, a junction known as the wildland urban interface.

For structure fires in towns or cities, firefighters typically use a breathing apparatus equipped with a clean air tank that lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, according to Cosumnes Fire Chief McLaughlin. That’s not feasible for wildland firefighters who can end up working long shifts, in treacherous terrain.

That’s why figuring out what’s in the smoke, and what it means for health, is so important, said Jesse Estrada, the department safety officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. “You get exposed to a lot of stuff over the years, and the body takes a beatdown,” he said. “We need to understand what the short-term and long-term effects are. The only way to know that is to let time pass as they do the research and truly see what we are facing.”

“It’s just a different landscape.”

One of the people driving this research is Aida Rodriguez, a master’s student working with Matt Rahn at CSU San Marcos. The day after the Kincade fire started in Sonoma County, Rodriguez hopped on a plane with a pink duffle bag full of pre-labeled glass vials, patches made out of the same Nomex material in firefighters’ uniforms, and fabric staplers. Airport security, Rodriguez said, “were concerned about everything in there.”

The next morning, under a reddish haze of smoke on the horizon and the faint smell of camp fires in the air, Rodriguez got to work. Balancing the vials and Nomex patches on the front of a fire engine at the base camp in Santa Rosa, she tacked the material to the outside and the inside of the firefighters’ gear. She was done in about 20 minutes. “I was fast and furiously going through it,” she said.

Twenty-four hours later, it was Rahn who was in charge of ripping the patches from the returning firefighters’ uniforms, pushing them into the glass vials, and mailing them to an independent lab in Ohio for testing. His team’s goal is to find out which chemicals settle on the outside of the firefighters’ uniforms while they’re fighting the flames, and which ones soak through.

“Are they harmful chemicals? Are they cancer-causing?” Rodriguez said. “If that’s something we can answer, then you can develop a decontamination protocol to mitigate the exposure to those chemicals.”

Scientists across the country are asking these questions. Amara Holder, a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is working with the U.S. Forest Service to review what we know—and what we don’t—about the air pollution from fires that burn homes and wilderness together.

The stakes are high for firefighters and other emergency responders, and for the people living close to a conflagration. “You’ve got smoke from a house, or a car, as well as trees,” Holder said. “It’s just a different landscape.”

Key will be measuring what’s in the smoke, and determining how far these pollutants travel—as some might dissipate before they reach nearby towns, and some might not. Figuring that out could help guide evacuations and determine when and where wildland firefighters need to wear protective equipment. “Then we’ll know what we need to do to protect people,” Holder said.

Navarro, the scientist who has worked as a wildland firefighter, is taking an even closer look at wildland firefighter health—by studying their bodily fluids. She and a team of researchers at the University of Miami and the University of Arizona are collecting blood and urine samples from firefighters battling fires at the interface between homes and nature. She’s looking for signs of metals, certain flame retardants, and a family of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that’s known to include carcinogens.

In those environments, firefighters’ chemical exposures become much more complex, according to Navarro’s colleague, Kenneth Fent. “There are a lot more questions about their health risks even above and beyond other wildland firefighters, where it may be more vegetation exposure,” Fent said.

Fent is helming a voluntary National Fire Fighter Registry to track the long-term health of any firefighter who signs up. The goal is to understand the long-term cancer risk of firefighters across the field, from those rushing into burning buildings to those fighting to keep a wildfire from engulfing a nearby town.

For wildland firefighters in particular, he said, this is the kind of study that’s been missing. And identifying the risks is the first step for trying to prevent them. 

“This is an expensive consideration.”

Why don’t we know yet what long-term health problems might plague wildland firefighters? One reason is logistics: It’s tough for scientists to tag along with firefighters while they’re working in extreme conditions to save lives and homes. “To do my work, I became a firefighter,” Navarro said. Her training allows her to measure smoke exposures at active wildfires, and gives her insights into what the job as a wildland firefighter actually involves.

Another reason is that this research is expensive, according to CSU San Marcos’ Rahn. “The laboratory analysis costs us about $2,000 per firefighter,” he said. “This is an expensive consideration. That’s the hurdle we’re up against.”

And the money—which Rahn said includes a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and another from the Cal Fire Local 2881 union—is running out.

Researchers have struggled to find someone willing to pay to investigate the risks to wildland firefighters, he said.  “We have to convince these funding agencies, believe it or not, that the work we do here is not just a California issue —this is a national concern,” he said. “It’s a challenge every year to try to receive that funding.”

That’s why two years ago, Cal Fire Local 2881 pushed the state of California to fund the research, according to union President Tim Edwards. And a bill by Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino, would have tapped $5 million from the state’s general fund to pay for wildland firefighting research at California State University campuses.

Although the bill sailed through the Legislature, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, calling it a “well-intentioned and important proposal” that belonged in the budget, not legislation. Edwards, an engineer with Cal Fire and thyroid cancer survivor, said the veto was disappointing. “Being a state employee, and a state firefighter, I think that hurt me more than anything. It frustrated me more than anything,” he said.

Now, Edwards said the union is working to get the funding included in the state budget. H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at the California Department of Finance, wouldn’t say whether the union’s latest efforts will work. “I’ll respectfully decline to speculate on what will or will not be included in next year’s budget proposal,” he said.

What’s next?

There arestrategies to reduce wildland firefighters’ risks by removing them from the smoke when they’re off shift, and giving them a chance to clean up, Cal Fire’s Estrada said. “It doesn’t mean that when they go out in these environments that 100 percent of the time, every firefighter is completely immersed in the smoke for the duration,” he said.

Still, union president Edwards said, “We’re hoping to eventually find a breathing apparatus that will work at the wildland conditions.”

To that end, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate has contracted with a company called TDA Research to create a lightweight respirator that firefighters can use in the wildland for days to weeks. Since many wildland firefighters wear bandanas over their faces, the device is shaped like a scarf.

“We wanted to create something that was similar to what they use,” said Kimberli Jones-Holt, program manager with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. Jones-Holt is optimistic that wildland firefighters could be using the device by 2021.

As for Rodriguez, the results aren’t back yet from the patches she sent into the smoke in Sonoma. But in the meantime, she has her glass vials and fabric staplers still packed in that pink duffle bag, ready for the next fire.

“It’s important for us to realize that fire season is year round,” she said. “I don’t really have the time to sit and wait.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Features

The easy calls have been made in dealing with California’s wildfire crisis. We’re clearing brush, spending on firefighters and hastening insurance claims. We’ve tied the pay of utility executives to their companies’ safety records. To save lives—and liability costs—during red-flag conditions, we’ve cut power to great swaths of the state.

We’ve spent billions: Rare is the press release from Gov. Gavin Newsom that does not include a litany of wildfire actions. But it hasn’t been enough, and as Californians now face the realities of climate change, the only choices left are hard vs. hard: Black out even more people. Ban wildland homebuilding. Bury power lines. Build microgrids. Break up the state’s largest utility—the bankrupt one supplying half of the state—and give its aging, spark-spewing equipment to taxpayers or customers or hedge funds or Warren Buffett. Burn nature before it burns you.

So what are our options at this point, assuming we get through this season? Here are a few—with pros, cons and political odds.

Why don’t we ban homebuilding in areas of high risk?

The idea: One in three homes in California is in an area at risk for wildfire. Those residences—poised on the edge of, and sometimes in the midst of rugged, flammable wildlands—are increasingly in peril. And too often, only the rich can afford the kind of insurance that’s necessary to rebuild.

The pros: This is a zoning issue. If people can be prohibited from building in a flood plain, or warned about living on a fault line, why not write ordinances that either say no to building in dangerous places, or require homeowners and businesses to sign a waiver absolving authorities from the need to provide fire protection to them?

The cons: Property rights are big in American jurisprudence. People want to build where they choose and get irritated when the state steps on local control. Sometimes financial necessity forces people to homes in rural places. And build-at-your-own-risk isn’t the mantra of a society that believes public safety is part of a government’s role.

The odds: Imagine a local elected official telling a property developer—who may or may not donate to political campaigns—that we will no longer make room on forested hills for new luxury subdivisions, with their alluring property tax potential. Not gonna happen.

In any case, Gov. Gavin Newsom has rejected such a building ban, telling the Associated Press in April, “There’s something that is truly Californian about the wilderness and the wild and pioneering spirit.” Odds are zip.


Why don’t we bury all the powerlines?

The idea: Some of the most catastrophic wildfires in recent years have been sparked by electrical equipment. PG&E, in particular, has been bankrupted by liability for apocalyptic fires caused by aging wires and towers. Its solution? Apocalyptic blackouts. So why not put the fire hazard underground?

The pros: It would be safer. And it’s not unheard of. Since 2009, Australia has required undergrounding of new lines.

The cons: It’s incredibly slow. PG&E alone has some 81,000 miles of overhead lines. Undergrounding makes damaged lines hard to access, and leaves them vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. They’re just one source of risk among many. And it’s reallllly expensive. PG&E puts the price at about $2.3 million a mile on average compared with $800,000 per mile for building new overhead lines.

The odds: On a scale of 1-10? Maybe a 3, though the cost-benefit improves with every utility-sparked wildfire. But utility poles have a constituency, too, as California rolls out the 5-G digital infrastructure needed for high-speed internet and self-driving cars.


Why don’t we break up PG&E?

The idea: An inordinate number of catastrophic wildfires have been traced to Pacific Gas and Electric, which powers most of Northern California, from big cities to remote wildlands. Either transition California’s largest investor-owned utility into one public utility, or break PG&E into a bunch of municipal utilities.

The pros: PG&E is a bankrupt corporation that has been found guilty of six federal felonies, not to mention a history of water contamination, pipeline explosions and electrical fires that are killing people. It knew for years that aging equipment was at risk of sparking wildfires. And CEO stands to make millions if the company’s stock rebounds after bankruptcy. So yes, PG&E’s track record makes it easy to rally public support for a government takeover.

The cons: Breaking up PG&E may be more costly for consumers and leaves questions about how to serve rural communities, such as the Sierra foothills, where it is more expensive to maintain the electric grid. Plus, those wooded areas are at greater risk for wildfires, no matter whose wire the spark comes from.

The odds: Maybe 3 in 10? San Francisco and other cities are exploring the possibility of escaping PG&E. But local annexation of PG&E territory is litigious and costly, if history is a guide.


Why don’t we make utilities repay us for blackouts?

The idea: Sensing no political downside, Newsom is demanding PG&E offer rebates—$100 to residential customers and $250 to small businesses—to compensate people for the recent public safety power shutdowns.

The pros: Other businesses offer your money back if customers don’t get service. Californians use less electricity than customers in other states, on average, but their rates are relatively high. And there’s no harm for politicians in demanding refunds from, say, a company like PG&E, which is both unpopular and bankrupt.

The cons: PG&E blackouts for October alone have hit more some 2 million households, and, as noted, that utility is bankrupt. In any case, any rebate would be a mere gesture compared to what Californians are about to pay for electricity. So far, the average PG&E customer stands to pay an extra $30 a month even before all the details of bankruptcy are worked out.

The odds: Eight in 10 of some policy going forward. Newsom has already scored one clawback. Acknowledging blunders, PG&E recently announced a one-time credit to those impacted by its Oct. 9 blackout, which cut power to more than 700,000 customers.


Why don’t we move to microgrids?

The idea: If the big utilities are causing the fires, and creating the untenable public safety blackouts that are impacting millions of Californians, why not pull the plug on for-profit power companies?

The pros: A microgrid is a locally controlled power system that can be connected to or “disconnected” from the electrical grid. The systems produce, store and distribute power on a small scale and offer precisely what’s needed in times of chaos: resiliency. A tiny grid can provide power to operate critical infrastructure during emergencies, such as hospitals and fire stations.

The cons: As the technology stands right now, microgrids, as the name implies, are not applicable for large scale deployment, although the desert community of Borrego Springs hums along using one. There are still some technological barriers to be overcome.

The odds: Moving en masse to a system of microgrids is a dream for some, but still a distant one. The state is studying the issue. And legislators are not ones to let a crisis go to waste. Expect even more attention to this in Sacramento. Odds are 6 out of 10.


Why don’t we stage more controlled burns?

The idea: Fighting fire with fire has been going on in California since before European settlement. If carefully planned and monitored, these small purpose-set fires can quickly remove dangerous fuels and dead trees.

The pros:Forest thinning is a critical component of California’s approach to fire mitigation. It’s an inexpensive alternative to tree-cutting: Sending crews in to physically remove trees can cost as much as $1,400 an acre. Controlled burns are a relative bargain, coming in at about $150 an acre. Small, low-intensity burns are ultimately healthy for forests. And it’s more efficient than that raking-the-forest-like-Finland idea …

The cons: Even closely monitored burns discharge polluting and unhealthful smoke. It’s not uncommon for a prescribed burn that took two years to plan to be scrubbed because residents in a nearby town complained. Also, the flames can be dangerous, and it’s a bit jarring to see firefighters set fires.

The odds: Very good, an 8. The state is accelerating thinning projects. Everyone likes the idea of controlled burns, in theory. But we may all just have to get used to them as a norm.


Why don’t we throw more people and equipment at fires?

The idea: We are Americans. More is better. Why can’t we have everything?

The pros: Fire folks like to talk about “tools in the toolbox.” Who doesn’t want the biggest toolbox with the latest tools to tackle a dangerous and unpredictable job? Why use puny World War II-era prop planes when you can call up a retrofitted 747 jumbo jet patrolling the sky like a pterodactyl, dousing flames with nearly 19,000 gallons of retardant? Even when machines are grounded by wind, it’s reassuring to have them near.

The cons: Some wildfires are predictable, inviting crews to swarm over them, all-but stamping them out with their boots. Those polite fires don’t tend to be California fires. The infernos menacing Northern and Southern California are driven by powerful winds, typical for this time of year. Putting resources in front of those flames is dangerous and not always effective: Aircraft and machines and people in uniform may not stop a wind-driven fire until winds die down or rain falls. And paying for fleets of tankers, helicopters, bulldozers and crews to sit around waiting for the weather to change is breathtakingly expensive.

The odds: Pretty good. Maybe 7 out of 10. As noted, fire folks like a well-stocked toolbox and usually, Cal Fire gets what Cal Fire wants.


Why don’t we make all utilities public?

The idea: California is home to a mix of public and investor-owned utilities, but the investor-owned ones (think PG&E) have a fiduciary duty to shareholders that complicates spending on public safety. So let the government run the grid.

The pros: The public, not shareholders or investors, would set rates through a governing body or a board, and there would be clear accountability to improve safety and maintain equipment. Public utilities operate their own generation facilities or purchase power through contracts. And they would have access to public financing. No more worrying about shareholder returns.

The cons: Turning private corporations into government-run providers would be difficult, pricey—and a gamble. The public would have to pony up billions just to acquire all private providers, including the biggest three: Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and the main Coachella Valley provider, Southern California Edison. Then the public is left holding the bag if there are problems, such as deadly wildfires. And publicly owned utilities aren’t necessarily without controversy. Consider the history of corruption at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves 3.9 million customers—and whose power lines appear to have helped spark the Getty Fire.

The odds: Like, 1 in 10. Gov. Gavin Newsom could talk up a state takeover of PG&E, if the political will were there for it, but he’s talked up Warren Buffett and other potential white knights instead.


Why don’t we force utilities to better target blackouts?

The idea: Public safety power shut-offs, or de-energization, have been used in California since 2013, mainly by San Diego Gas and Electric during high fire danger to reduce the risk of electrical fires.

The pros: SDG&E hardened its system after a 2007 wildfire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed two people. It now operates a “networked” grid of major transmission lines, smaller distribution lines and circuits that allows distribution from different paths. The company also has invested in “reclosers,” which are pole-mounted circuit breakers that allow authorities to more surgically pinpoint trouble on a line and shut off power to smaller areas. The utility’s blackouts have affected as many as 23,000 households, and as few as one or two customers.

The cons: PG&E can’t be so precise. It serves 70,000 square miles of California and runs a “radial” system, meaning power lines stretch over long distances. PG&E serves 16 million customers compared to 3.6 million for SDG&E over 4,100 square miles.

The odds: Eight in 10, but it’ll be a work in progress. According to PG&E’s wildfire-mitigation plan, it pledged to work on finding ways to reduce the impact of blackouts ahead of this year’s wildfire season. So far, the utility has cut power to millions of people in dozens of counties several times in October.


Why don’t we beef up California’s alert system?

The idea: Alerting the public can be the difference between life and death. But too often, emergency notifications come too late. During last year’s Camp Fire, a large number of residents didn’t receive an alert or warning. At the time, the most effective system came from neighbors knocking on doors and word of mouth. California has to do better. With 85 lives lost, that blaze is now the state’s deadliest.

The pros: For the first time, the state has issued basic guidelines for when and how to issue public alerts, suggestions for what information to include in a message, and where to distribute those warnings. The 83-page report released in March by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommends alerting communities through as many platforms as possible, from wireless emergency alerts, traditional landlines, TV and radio to door-to-door notification, loudspeakers and sirens. Cal Fire also has an alert app that lets users receive customized texts and push notifications about wildfires reported within a chosen ZIP code or 30 miles of a phone’s location. State officials now say “all of the above” is probably the best way to keep the public informed.

The cons: “All of the above” is still pretty tech-heavy, and recent fires and blackouts have shown that cell phones can be rendered useless in a worst-case scenario. Tech access isn’t equal in all parts of California. While most of the 58 counties have access to a new federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, 16 counties are not signed up. And despite those warning guidelines from CalOES, the state is still working on uniform terms so various state and local government agencies understand each other in an emergency.

The odds: Six in 10, at least in the short term. Progress is being made but emergency communications still need work.


Why don’t we bring back landlines?

The idea: Cell phones aren’t reliable during emergencies, and PG&E blackouts have already resulted in a loss of cell-phone service—so let’s go analog. California should bring back landlines.

The pros: Landlines are time-tested, typically underground and can be operated with minimal power.

The cons: They aren’t what they used to be. Modern landlines frequently operate on voice-over internet protocol, which sends calls over the internet, not a traditional phone line. If the power’s out, then a house phone might not work. Nor are companies required to offer backup power for VOIP lines. This is already becoming an issue as blackouts affect the state. Another problem? Folks with landlines often use cordless phones, which require electricity.

The odds: Two out of 10. In 2017, more than half of U.S. households relied on cell phones alone. As phone companies increasingly lean on the internet to provide service, landlines figure less and less into California’s emergency back-up plan.


Why don’t we deal with this crisis at its source?

The idea: These are not your father’s wildfires. California was built to burn, but that natural propensity has been amplified by climate change to a perilous degree. Costly though it may be, we should do whatever it takes to curb the greenhouse-gas pollution behind global warming—now, if it isn’t already too late.

Pros: “California’s burning while the (climate) deniers make a joke out of the standards that protect us all,” former Gov. Jerry Brown recently told a House Oversight Committee. “The blood is on your soul here and I hope you wake up. Because this is not politics, this is life, this is morality. … This is real.”

Cons: Bringing greenhouse-gas pollution down from the world’s current, existentially threatening levels, is a far bigger job than California alone can afford to bankroll. And Americans, even those who don’t deny the threat, aren’t in political agreement about the change, sacrifice and massive expense required by the solutions.

The odds: Climate change may not be the tip-top priority it was in the Brown administration, but the Democratic Party is highly unlikely to depart from the policies that made California a climate leader. So the odds are 9 in 10 that the status quo here will continue—though it’s another story in the Trump administration’s Washington. And let’s be real: The ability of one state to solve global climate change is limited. Even California doesn’t have that much climate control. Or hubris.

Elizabeth Castillo and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this explainer. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

On this week's tax-return-releasing weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips welcomes back Flamey the Fire Safety Rhino; Red Meat has an idea for a movie; This Modern World gets Trump's thoughts on that perfect phone call; Jen Sorenson ponders Bill Barr's attack on the non-devout; and The K Chronicles examines the early dissent over primate change.

Published in Comics

Despite speculation about bold moves—in a far-left direction, even for this blue state—Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative Democrats actually landed a budget Thursday that’s surgical about new taxing and spending while still keeping promises to help poor Californians and working families.

Under the $214.8 billion spending plan, the state inched closer to universal health coverage, expanding Medi-Cal to all low-income young adults regardless of immigration status. State lawmakers also charted a course to increase tax credits to the working poor and boost subsidies to middle-income Californians to buy health coverage. There were significant investments in early education and housing, while a portion of the surplus was diverted to pay down pension liabilities.

While Democrats began the year with a surplus of ideas for taxing Californians, only a few strategic levies survived the negotiation process, specifically a fine on individuals who don’t have health insurance under a state mandate. There’s even a little tax relief: Parents, for instance, will get a temporary tax exemption on diapers.

One hitch? The devil is in the details, some which have yet to be worked out. Though Democrats met their deadline for a balanced spending plan, most of the underlying policy to enact the budget wasn’t hashed out—and may not be for weeks. Call it a learning curve: This was the new governor’s first time negotiating with seasoned legislative leaders who know how to count votes. Look for more action in coming trailer bills.

Here’s what you need to know about California’s new budget—including maybe, just maybe, the first steps toward the establishment of a four-year college in the Coachella Valley.

Yes to Health Care for Undocumented Young Adults

The Legislature agreed to the governor’s plan to expand Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people, to young adults ages 19-25. It’s a step toward offering free health care to all undocumented adults since the state already makes Medi-Cal available to children regardless of immigration status.

The Senate had proposed going further by offering Medi-Cal to undocumented seniors 65 and older. However, none of the leaders backed offering health care to all low-income immigrants.

The state expects an estimated 90,000 young adults could gain coverage when the benefit begins next year. Already, 76,000 have registered for a limited version of Medi-Cal that covers emergency services and prenatal care available to low-income people regardless of immigration status. The price tag for this expansion? About $98 million a year.

It’s worth noting the state also affirmed its commitment to restoring optional Medi-Cal benefits. During the recession, coverage for audiology, optical, podiatry, speech therapy and incontinence creams had been taken away.

Obamacare Lives: A $695 State Mandate to Carry Health Coverage

Starting next year, California will join New Jersey, Vermont and the District of Columbia in requiring residents carry health coverage or face a $695 state penalty—a fine that will go up each year with inflation.

The state individual mandate aims to replace the federal one that Republicans repealed in their effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The administration says California needs to act, because without a mandate, the number of Californians without coverage—10.4 percent in 2016—will go back up. Separately, a study conducted by the University of California estimated the uninsurance rate will rise to 12.9% by 2023, or 4.4 million people, without state action.

Money raised from the penalties, about $450 million over three years, will be used to give bigger subsidies to those who purchase private insurance through the state’s health coverage exchange, Covered California.

Newsom and lawmakers hope to expand assistance to 190,000 middle-income Californians making between $48,000 to $72,000 a year, according to Health Access California, a health advocacy group.

Fear of Recall = Not Many New Taxes

The budget includes a plan to impose a fee—that still needs to be voted on—of no more than 80 cents a month on each telephone line to help digitize the state’s 911 system, which is still analog. The next-generation system would improve call delivery, better location data and incoming text capability.

Other than that and the health-care mandate, lawmakers opted against most of the new taxes proposed early in the session. In fact, California parents and women will get a sales tax exemption on diapers and menstrual products (though only for two years).

Notably rejected, given the state’s current $21.5 billion surplus, was Newsom’s push for a 95-cent tax on most residential water bills to fund-clean-drinking water initiatives in the Central Valley. Instead, the Legislature worked out a deal to clean up toxic water by diverting money generated from big polluters under the state’s cap-and-trade program.

Some environmental groups questioned using clean air money to pay for drinking water, but supporters reasoned that water is being contaminated with arsenic and other toxic chemicals from the heavy use of fertilizers, so it makes sense to draw the $100 million for cleanup from the agriculture industry’s portion of the greenhouse gas fund.

One issue that won’t be resolved this week is whether California will conform its tax code to match federal changes made by Republicans in 2017. Newsom is relying on the projected $1.7 billion increase in net revenue from that to expand the state’s earned income tax credit, the centerpiece of his anti-poverty agenda.

Assembly Democrats in swing districts are skittish about limiting deductions and losses that can be claimed by some businesses. They know the fate of former Sen. Josh Newman, who was recalled from his Orange County seat after voting to raise California’s gas tax. Tax conformity requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass, so the pressure is on.

Paying Debt and Rainy-Day Saving

Lawmakers embraced the governor’s proposal to use some of the surplus to make extra pension payments, a step Newsom says is necessary to tame the state’s $256 billion retirement liability for state workers and teachers.

The Legislature approved supplemental payments of $3 billion to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and $1.1 billion to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System for the state’s portion of unfunded liability.

To relieve school districts across the state, the Legislature will contribute a total of $3.15 billion toward paying down their liabilities and reducing their payroll contribution rates. One difference is where it will go.

Previously, Newsom had all the extra payments going to the teachers' pension fund—a reaction, in part, to teachers strikes that erupted as he took office. Now a portion of that money will be doled out to CalPERS. The change was made in recognition that while teachers are members of CalSTRS, many other school employees from janitors to bus drivers belong in the state’s other public-employee pension fund.

Besides paying down California’s “wall of debt,” as former Gov. Jerry Brown called it, the state is shoring up for a downturn—or in Newsom-speak, “building budget resiliency.” The new budget carries a roughly $20 billion reserve from several rainy-day funds. This amount, while hefty, would be easily wiped away in a downturn. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state would need as much as $40 billion to cover the budget in a moderate recession.

Big Spending on Housing

With new commitments topping $2 billion, the budget represents the most important action the governor has taken so far on housing and homelessness. The lion’s share will target the state’s homeless population, including $650 million in grants for cities and counties to build and maintain emergency shelters, and $100 million for wrap-around care for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Another $500 million will go toward quintupling the size of the state’s affordable housing financing fund, plus hundreds of millions earmarked for cities to update their often outdated housing plans.

While lawmakers and Newsom have agreed to cut big checks, it’s not clear who’ll get the money, and with what strings attached. Big-city mayors and lawmakers want homelessness grants directed towards the state’s largest 13 cities, while Newsom wants to spread out the money to include counties.

Newsom also wants to deny transportation funds to cities not building enough housing. As of Thursday, lawmakers were still negotiating a scaled-back version of the proposal. Another Newsom proposal that speeds construction of homeless shelters by sidestepping environmental laws also remains unresolved.

Lending a Hand to Working Families

Expanding California’s earned income tax credit has quickly become one of Newsom’s signature anti-poverty programs, because it gives a cost-of-living refund to low-income working families. Lawmakers are poised to triple the program from $400 million to $1.2 billion to provide a $1,000 refund for families with children under 6 and expand income eligibility from $24,950 to $30,000.

Anti-poverty advocates had wanted Newsom to include undocumented workers who file with individual taxpayer identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers. That proposal did not make the final version of the budget. Still, the administration estimates the current expansion will increase the number of beneficiaries from 2 million to 3 million households.

The budget also will make it easier for low-income families with children to qualify for assistance, increasing the CalWORKs asset limit to $10,000 and the motor vehicle exemption to $25,000—changes that will allow people to save and hang on to cars that can get them to work.

And parents of all incomes will get a longer paid family leave to care for new babies—eight weeks, up from the current six weeks, starting in July of next year. The goal will be to boost the benefit to 90 percent of most wages, up from the current maximum of 70 percent.

The K-14 Kids Did All Right

As required by law, the lion’s share of the budget goes to public schools, with nearly $102 billion in state money to be pumped into California classrooms and community colleges, plus another $389 million in a special reserve fund for schools. Though the figure is an all-time high, California is still viewed as lagging in per-pupil spending, in part because of the high cost of living.

Democrats are also demanding more stringent oversight of charter schools, which can operate like private schools, tend to be non-union and have proliferated in big cities such as Oakland and Los Angeles. Newsom proposed prohibiting charter schools from blocking or disenrolling special-education students who require more support for disabilities. Lawmakers readily embraced that change.

The budget includes $300 million to build more kindergarten classrooms in an effort to boost full-day kindergarten programs. Newsom had initially proposed $750 million but that was reduced after a study found most part-day kindergarten programs are in wealthier communities.

After-school programs will get a $50 million boost over the $600 million or so the state is currently spending. The money will help cover the cost of minimum wage increases enacted during Brown’s tenure.

So Did the Little Ones

In emphasizing early education, Newsom and lawmakers agreed to expand day care and preschool slots by the thousands while investing in training for child care providers.

Newsom gets $50 million in seed money to start child savings accounts for college and post-secondary education. He initially asked that all of it go toward pilot projects with First 5 California and local governments, but the Legislature is designating $25 million to that. The other $25 million will create a state program with the Scholarshare program in the Treasurer’s Office.

More Free College and Help for Student Parents

Newsom and legislators delivered on a $45 million promise to fund a second year of tuition-free community college for first-time, full-time students at campuses participating in the state’s College Promise program.

Other big winners include students with children, who will be eligible to receive grants of up to $6,000 to help cover their families’ living expenses. The budget boosts by about 15,000 the number of competitive Cal Grants—a significant jump, but far less than the 400,000 qualified students who applied for the state scholarships last year and didn’t receive them.

The University of California and California State University systems will receive money to increase enrollment, and waive tuition during the summer to help low-income students graduate faster. Lawmakers also set aside funds for campuses to combat hunger and homelessness, strengthen veterans resource centers, and provide more mental health counseling. A center at the University of California San Francisco is getting a $3.5 million earmark for dyslexia screening and early intervention.

Backers of the state’s controversial new online community college fended off an effort to slash the college’s funding, clearing the way to enroll its first class this fall. And CSU will get $4 million to study five possible locations for a new campus: Stockton, Chula Vista, San Mateo, Concord and Palm Desert.

Lots for Police Training; a Little for Police Records

Reflecting the Legislature’s focus this year on reducing police shootings, the budget includes $20 million to train police officers on de-escalation tactics, and how and when to use force. Outside the budget, bills to set a tougher standard for police to use deadly force and require more officer training are advancing through the Legislature, reflecting a compromise between civil rights advocates and law enforcement groups.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office will get $155,000 to implement the new state law he’d been resisting: making law-enforcement misconduct records public. Becerra will also have to report to the Legislature on how many requests his office processes, and how much time is spent on that. A judge ruled in May that Becerra must produce the records; previously he had said he would not release them until the courts clarified whether he had to.

Powering Down to Cope With Wildfires

Besides beefing up the state’s firefighting capability and disaster preparedness, California will add powering down to its to-do list for coping with climate change-driven wildfires.

The budget doles out $75 million to state and local agencies whenever investor-owned utilities decide to shut off electricity during red flag weather warnings. One note: The Assembly added language to track how the money is used.

CALmatters reporters Matt Levin, Felicia Mello and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Don’t be fooled by the precipitation, the snowpack and the wildflowers. When winter ends, it’s unlikely that California’s iconic landscape will sustain the moisture to withstand the scorching summer and fall.

California has yet to recover from the 5-year drought that began in 2012. For four years, record wildfires have ravaged the state, including the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma in 2017, and the Camp Fire last year that wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte County. The 2019 wildfire season officially kicks off in mid-May, but California’s wildfire season is essentially year-round now.

So what happens when the next big wildfire hits?

State fire officials are already amassing new aircraft that can drop thousands of gallons of bright red flame retardant. Emergency responders are pre-positioning fire crews in high-threat areas even before a fire starts. State officials will no longer second guess the use of wireless emergency alerts that grab people’s attention by making smartphones vibrate and squawk.

The major investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—now plan to shut off power, even where fire risk is minimal, during red-flag weather warnings. It’s considered a public-safety measure of last resort, because a power outage can cut off internet access and make communication difficult for hospitals, firefighters and emergency personnel.

The utilities also plan to fireproof California’s electricity grid, a result of their equipment being implicated in so many recent disasters. That includes clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, replacing wooden poles with metal ones, and using drones and weather monitoring stations to gauge danger via wind and smoke patterns.

Yet even these expensive precautions may not ward off the next towering inferno, say fire officials.

“I think we are better prepared,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “The real question is whether or not that’s enough.”


‘A Sense of Urgency’

Part of the problem is that California has been caught off guard by the new climate-driven fire seasons, amplified by longer hot summers and extended droughts. Seven of the 10 most destructive wildfires in state history have happened in the last five years.

“The fires are behaving so much differently than they have before,” Huston said, noting the new wildfires are “virtually impossible to fight” as they leap mountains and gallop for miles, creating their own weather systems. “You couldn’t have predicted this based on past fire.”

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker told state lawmakers on Jan. 30 that climate-change-driven wildfires are happening much faster than anyone predicted. But for the state regulatory agency to enforce safety at the state’s eight investor-owned utilities, Picker said, he would need 15,000 to 20,000 new staff to police every electricity pole and wire. The agency has, roughly, a 1,300-member staff.

The CPUC regulates not only privately owned utilities from telecom to water, but also rail-crossing safety, limos and ride sharing. Historically, Picker’s role has been more like that of an administrative judge than a police chief.

“If you want to get the Legislature to allow me to be a total dictator, and make decisions overnight, I’m happy,” Picker elaborated to reporters afterward. “That’s not what our job is. We are like a technical court. People have to have their day in court. It’s not a fast process. Have you been in a court proceeding that took one day?”

But his answer on the challenges of enforcement frustrated lawmakers, on whom political pressure has mounted with every disaster. The CPUC is not known for swiftness. It took nine years to issue a statewide fire-threat map after Southern California fires, caused by Santa Ana winds whipping power lines, prompted commissioners in 2009 to demand one. It has laid out a two-month schedule just for reviewing fire-prevention plans utilities must submit under recent and hard-fought wildfire safety legislation.

After Picker’s testimony, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, a forensic dentist who represents fire-ravaged Santa Rosa, took to Twitter.

“I want to hear a sense of urgency,” he wrote. “We don’t have time for a standard bureaucratic approach.”


Amassing ‘More Tools’

Ultimately, the fire challenge involves painful long-term decisions such as how to reconcile the acute demand for California housing with the suddenly limited supply of land that isn’t in a high-risk fire zone.

Short-term, Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa is among those who hope incremental improvements might make a difference. He is proposing the commission work with Cal Fire and the Office of Emergency Services to improve coordination for turning off power in red-flag weather, alerting residents to evacuate and better targeting crews to fight fires. His Senate Bill 209 would establish an official, statewide California wildfire warning center.

“It would give us more tools in trying to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Dodd said.

Emergency officials also are studying past fires, and preparing. Survivors of the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties complained they had little or no warning when the flames flared up at night under dry windy conditions. Local officials opted against sending out a mass alert for fear of causing panic or hindering emergency responders.

“Everybody I talk to in our neighborhood pretty much either had family call or a neighbor knock on the door. I don’t know of anyone that got an emergency alert,” said Patrick McCallum, a higher education lobbyist who barely escaped his Santa Rosa home with his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki. “Worse, there were police and fire engines running around, but they were not allowed to put their alarms on.”

In coming weeks, the state is expected to issue clearer guidance to all 58 counties for issuing alerts and warnings to the public across multiple platforms. The new thinking is to over-communicate, rather than rely on the alerts of the 1980s sent over television and radio or ringing landlines.

“It is something people depend on to make decisions in a crisis,” OES’ Huston said.

The state also believes pushing out wireless emergency alerts on smartphones similar to an Amber Alert can now be done effectively without creating chaos. This simple weather warning was sent out to seven counties encompassing 22 million people in Southern California in December 2017 as a precaution after authorities saw dry windy conditions similar to the wine country fire two months earlier:

“Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger. Stay Alert. Listen to authorities.”

This fire season, Californians may see it again.


A Firefighting Air Force

Meanwhile, Cal Fire is beefing up its capabilities. Rather than waiting to respond to a wildfire, emergency personnel have shifted to pre-positioning strike teams before a fire even starts.

The switch comes at a price; Cal Fire’s expenses now already routinely exceed its budget. Last year’s fire spending set a new record, and the political climate has made the outlays difficult to question.

“That’s expensive, because you’re paying the same amount of money for firefighters whether they’re fighting a fire or sitting waiting for a fire to start,” Huston said. “But you have to weigh that against the potential for loss and the expense of a disaster.”

The state already boasts a formidable firefighting air force, featuring S-2T air tankers that dump 1,200 gallons of flame retardant and Huey helicopters for lifting fire crews in and out of steep terrain.

This spring, the Hueys will start to be replaced by more modern Black Hawks, the Army’s frontline utility helicopter. The first one is expected to be ready in May, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

And over the next two years, Cal Fire will add seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Those will be retrofitted to carry between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of flame retardant.

“California will have one of, if not the largest, firefighting air forces in the world,” McLean said.


What About the Utilities?

At ground zero in much of the state are California’s investor-owned utilities and their spark-prone equipment. PG&E has vowed to expand power shut-off territory to as many as 5.4 million customers, up from 570,000 today. SCE is focused on better weather monitoring, adding 62 high-definition cameras and 350 micro weather stations as part of a broader $582 million safety plan.

And SDG&E, which has been most aggressive with more than $1 billion in safety upgrades, will continue to replace wood poles with steel poles, hire a helitanker on standby year-round, and contract with firefighters especially trained to put out electrical fires.

Yet there’s no statewide standard for deciding when the power should be shut off. Instead, participating utilities base decisions on temperature, wind, humidity and other factors. SDG&E has been lauded for its proactive use of public safety power shutoffs.

PG&E’s rollout has been less reassuring.

Two days before the most destructive wildfire in California history ignited, 62,000 PG&E customers in eight counties, including Butte, were warned that their power could be turned off as a precautionary measure. This was sent at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 6: This is an important safety alert from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Extreme weather conditions and high fire-danger are forecasted in Butte County. These conditions may cause power outages in the area of your address. To protect public safety, PG&E may also temporarily turn off power in your neighborhood or community. If there is an outage, we will work to restore service as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Cal Fire reports the Camp Fire ignited around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8.

PG&E never shut off power. In fact, the utility went on to issue cancellation notifications hours after the deadly blaze started. Sent at 2 p.m. on Nov. 8: “This is an important safety update from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Weather conditions have improved in your area, and we are not planning to turn off electricity for safety in the area of your address.”

PG&E wouldn’t comment on its decision. The California Public Utilities Commission would say only that it is investigating when asked if the state was looking at why the utility didn’t initiate a blackout.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

As a publicly traded corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric reported $17.1 billion a year in revenues from its electric and gas operations. After operating costs, expenses and taxes, it still made out with a profit of $1.7 billion last year.

So why has California’s largest utility filed for bankruptcy?

PG&E may be solvent, but it is facing a cash-flow problem as a byproduct of $30 billion in potential liabilities from a series of catastrophic wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018. In the company’s own words, the board has determined Chapter 11 “is ultimately the only viable option to restore PG&E’s financial stability to fund ongoing operations and provide safe service to customers.”

“A company the size of PG&E needs access to the capital markets, and right now, it’s under stress,” said Robert Labate, a San Francisco bankruptcy attorney with Holland and Knight, which has clients that do business with PG&E. “This is a way of getting breathing room.”

PG&E is being sued by thousands of wildfire victims for property damage, medical expenses and a heap of punitive and personal injury damages alleging corporate negligence. Insurance carriers that have paid claims to homeowners and businesses for property damage have filed dozens of subrogation complaints. Even local governments, such as Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties, as well as the city of Santa Rosa, have piled on with their own legal claims.

So even though the company was just absolved by state fire investigators in last year’s deadly Tubbs Fire, it still faces potentially tens of billions of dollars in liabilities. For one thing, its equipment remains a prime suspect in the Camp Fire that killed 86 people in Butte County late last year. A PG&E employee spotted flames near a shorted-out utility tower, at the same place Cal Fire identified as the start of the state’s most-destructive wildfire.

But bankruptcy will by no means solve PG&E’s long-term problems, which will require legislative and regulatory solutions. Because what will be just as important in the months and years ahead is consensus on a fundamental question: When can the utility pass disaster costs on to consumers as wildfires become more frequent and destructive?

And unfortunately for PG&E, that’s about public trust.

“There’s a lot of public distrust of investor-owned utilities right now,” said Tara Kaushik, a utility lawyer also with Holland and Knight. “There’s a sense that the utility has to be held accountable and to operate safely. But at the same time, we have these recurring wildfires that are making it unsustainable for them to continue operating.”

Even before the utility announced its intent to reorganize in bankruptcy court, the financial market expressed concerns about PG&E’s ability to recover costs associated with these recent disasters. It was part of the reason credit agencies recently downgraded PG&E to junk status, which only made it more expensive and difficult to access capital.

“The rating downgrade reflects the material exposure to new potential liabilities associated with the Camp Fire and the uncertainties associated with how the fire-related liabilities will be recovered,” said Jeff Cassella, vice president at Moody’s Investors Service.

As climate change impacts corporations’ bottom line, the same concerns have extended to other California utilities, triggering downgrades for both Southern California Edison, which services the Coachella Valley, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

Cassella noted that state lawmakers passed $1 billion legislation that did nothing to address the 2018 wildfires. SB 901’s most controversial provision, to make it easier for utility companies to absorb the cost of fire damages by borrowing money and charging customers to pay it back over many years, covered the 2017 fires and those that start in 2019, but not any when the Camp Fire hit.

PG&E also tried—but failed—to get the Legislature to loosen fire-liability laws. Under a legal doctrine called “inverse condemnation,” utilities are liable for any wildfire damage traced to their equipment even if they were not negligent in maintaining it. Unless the state Supreme Court decided to issue a different interpretation or voters approved a constitutional amendment, releasing utilities of this financial responsibility would be pretty much out of the question.

Enter the California Public Utilities Commission.

The five-member commission regulates investor-owned utilities in the state and could decide whether PG&E acted prudently and should be allowed to pass on wildfire costs—even the damages a utility pays out in lawsuits—to consumers.

But a precedent has been set that has made PG&E think twice about its ability to recover wildfire costs through rate increases. In 2017, the commission blocked San Diego Gas and Electric from passing on $379 million in liability costs stemming from a 2007 wildfire. In a unanimous vote, the commission found the utility’s management of its facilities unreasonable.

It’s unclear what the CPUC would do if PG&E asked to pass on costs from the latest wildfires.

“We don’t know yet,” Kaushik said. “They haven’t asked.”

Even without liabilities, the cost to maintain public safety is creeping up. PG&E is asking for a $1.1 billion rate increase for wildfire prevention, risk reduction and safety enhancements, which, if approved by state regulators, would increase the average residential customer bill by 6.4 percent, or $10.57 per month.

Wildfire victims and their lawyers are quick to question PG&E’s motives, calling Chapter 11 a tactic to discourage and discount lawsuits rather than taking responsibility for the spate of recent tragedies. Camp Fire victims recently rallied at the state Capitol with legal activist Erin Brockovich, who was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2000 box-office hit.

“This is another blow after the body blow of losing their homes and their lives,” said Noreen Evans, a former state legislator who is now representing 4,000 victims of 2017 and 2018 wildfires, at the rally. “It’s insult added to injury at a really hard time in their lives.”

Evans noted that under bankruptcy, wildfire victims with claims in trial court would be treated as unsecured creditors.

“Their claims would be delayed and probably discounted,” she said then—a fear that could now come true.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

In 2008, Paradise was spared.

That June, a fire broke out in one of the canyons southwest of the Butte County town and quickly roared east, up and over the ridge. Thousands scrambled to evacuate, clogging the single road to safety. A sudden wind shift allowed firefighters to cordon off the flames, but the experience left residents intimately aware of the risks of living in Paradise.

State lawmakers have been aware of the risk, too. In color-coded fire-hazard maps maintained by Cal Fire, Paradise is a bright red island in a churning sea of pink, orange, and yellow—all denoting various levels of danger.

“It is not a great feeling … to have highlighted an area for its vulnerability, and then having this come to fruition,” said Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire researcher who helped designate the state agency’s “Fire Hazard Severity Zones.”

As California grapples with an increasing possibility that the once-in-a-century wildfires that have torched Paradise and Malibu are becoming once-a-year occurrences, larger swaths of the state’s population may find themselves living in the crimson regions of those maps. This presents lawmakers with a dilemma: Should they impose costly and politically unpalatable regulations on homeowners, and rip up existing infrastructure—or simply accept the risk?

“We’ve got to take intelligent precautions in how we design our cities,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a press conference with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week. “The zoning and the planning has to take into account the threat of fires, (and) the building of appropriate shelters, so that people can always find a way to escape—and then of course, (there are) all the things we’re doing to mitigate climate change. All of it. It’s a big agenda. But what we’re paying this week is a very small fraction of what is needed over the years and decades.”

With wildfires growing ever more ferocious—a product of a changing climate, forests increasingly packed with dead and dry kindling, and the encroachment of development into state’s wilderness—it can be hard to tell which parts of California should be considered safe anymore. Coffey Park, the suburban subdivision of Santa Rosa that burned in last year’s firestorms, was designated a low-fire-risk area by Cal Fire.

The agency is now in the process of updating its hazard maps, with an expected draft publication date of next summer.

For state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district includes Santa Rosa, this year’s fires raise a number of “difficult yet necessary” questions about where and how communities are placed—and then replaced.

“What type of rules and regulations will there be if homes will be allowed to be rebuilt?” he said. “For example, defensible space, landscape restrictions, no longer allowing developments to be built with one way in and just one way out. … If there have been multiple fires over multiple years, are we truly going to rebuild?

“Being very candid with you, the discussion has just begun—but this is a discussion that we are going to have to have, because this is the new reality,” he said.

Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco has championed giving the state more power to override local planning decisions to meet statewide housing goals.

“Job one is to help the people whose lives have been so dramatically altered by this disaster, but we also need to look at the long-term picture of this new normal,” Wiener said. “Historically, we have allowed local communities almost complete autonomy in making housing-related decisions, whether that decision is not to allow new housing, whether that decision is to ban apartment buildings, or whether that decision is to allow a lot of housing in very fire-prone areas.”

Wiener says he is not suggesting that development be banned outright anywhere, but that the state should impose standards that “reflect our needs as a state and reflect risks.”

Between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 45 percent of all new housing units built in California were constructed in what experts refer to as the wildland-urban interface—where the state’s cul-de-sac’d suburban subdivisions and rural communities meet its flammable forests and shrub fields. The encroachment of homes into undeveloped areas creates a much larger and challenging front for firefighters to defend.

“You get this very different fire dynamic once it gets into a heavily populated area,” said Anu Kramer, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-authored the research upon which the estimate is based. “You have cars on fire, propane tanks exploding, and burning houses radiating a lot of heat, which can contribute to neighboring houses igniting. That’s very different from trees and shrubs burning in a forest.”


Strict rules for new homes, but not the old

California already has among the strictest fire-minded regulations on construction. Since 2008, any building constructed in areas designated at very high fire risk must be built with specific roofs, vents and other materials designed to resist fire and keep out flying embers. Homeowners are also required to maintain a perimeter of brush-free defensible space around their houses.

Legislation passed this year extends those restrictions, without exception, to development on local as well as state land. Cal Fire also operates a consulting arm for local governments hoping to make more fire-appropriate land-use decisions.

But some of those regulations were written with a certain type of community in mind, said Kramer: “Vacation homes in Tahoe with wood roofs and pine trees over the house. … A lot of the regulations are geared towards that quintessential idea.”

The charred homes of more urban enclaves such as Malibu and Santa Rosa were not destroyed by “a giant tsunami wave of flame,” said Chris Dicus, a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo professor and president of the Association for Fire Ecology. Instead, they burn “from the inside out after embers get inside the house through vents and windows or under doors.” Those embers may have traveled from the front of the original fire miles away.

While many existing regulations require new construction be “hardened” to embers, they don’t apply to existing homes. That leaves many of California’s at-risk communities stuck with old, fire-prone homes, and inadequate or constrained infrastructure.

“We’re currently paying for the sins of the past, where subdivisions and other developments were built without fire in mind,” said Dicus.

Some changes are relatively easy to make even after construction: installing ember-resistant vents, weather-sealing garage doors, and clearing flammable items like lawn chairs off the property’s perimeter can keep embers from starting new spot fires. Other changes are pricier: regular brush clearing, double-paned windows to reduce radiant heat inside a home, replacing wood roofs with metal, and installing fire shutters.

You have a lot of homeowners who “maybe can’t afford to upgrade and retrofit” their homes, said Molly Mowery, president of Wildfire Planning International. “We know now what keeps us safer, but you can’t just change that overnight.”


Homeowner help: Subsidies, rebates and discounts?

One possible solution, said Sen. Wiener: the state could help current homeowners make those changes.

“What we don’t want to do is force people out of their homes because they can’t afford—for lack of a better phrase—a ‘wildfire retrofit,’” he said. He added that he would consider “subsidy and rebate programs … but I don’t want to pretend like I know what all the answers are.”

Absent new government assistance, insurers could encourage homeowners to be more fire-conscious. In the same way that health insurance providers might offer their policyholders discounted gym memberships, home insurers could cut a deal for those who install ember-resistant vents.

But only one major insurer in California currently offers discounts to encourage fire-safe behavior. According to a recent RAND Corporation report, that’s because most providers argue that state regulators don’t let them charge homeowners living in high-fire-risk areas a high enough premium to justify a discount. The state Insurance Department counters that such rate hikes wouldn’t be justified based on the evidence.

The study also found that most homeowners in high-risk areas are just purchasing less coverage and opting for plans with higher deductibles, leaving them more exposed.

And then there are changes that homeowners alone cannot make.

Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council, spent last year promoting the region’s evacuation plan, so she knew what to do as soon as reports came in that fire was moving toward Paradise.

“I had turned on the town’s AM 1500 radio station, and they were notifying residents that an evacuation center had been set up and that certain zones needed to be evacuating,” she said. “So I felt kind of calm … like, ‘Oh, this is how the plan was supposed to go.’”

But that plan soon met a bottleneck on Skyway, the main route out of Paradise.

DeAnda said she got on the road at around 8:20 a.m.—along with hundreds of her neighbors. She wasn’t out of the foothills and away from the spot fires popping up along the side of the road for an hour and a half. It’s a drive that would typically take her 25 minutes.

Nearly a dozen of the bodies identified in the devastation left by the Camp Fire were found in their cars, stuck in the crush of evacuation traffic.

Paradise had an evacuation plan. But the plan, and the town’s cramped, 19th-century layout, were not prepared for a fire of such intensity or speed. And in that respect, Paradise is not alone: The hills above Berkeley and Oakland, where 25 people died in a fire in 1991, also featured narrow, winding roads that made escape more difficult.

“I worry about another deadly fire in the East Bay,” said Kramer, the researcher. “It burned before, and it’s going to burn again. And when it does, it’s going to be really bad.”


To rebuild … or say ‘enough is enough’?

In the aftermath of fire, local governments often face an impossible task of balancing the need to rebuild as quickly as possible—to get those who have lost everything back into their homes—with the need to prepare for the worst.

After three fires raged through the foothills of Butte County in 2008, including the one that prompted the first evacuation of Paradise, the county Board of Supervisors made the building code more flexible for homeowners to rebuild: Homeowners could have their permit applications expedited, and use lumber located on their own property for construction. This summer, the board renewed and expanded the exemption.

The building code carve-out represents a necessary compromise between smart planning and the needs of homeowner, many of whom could not afford to build a new house up to the current code, said DeAnda. Without the exemption, she said, many homeowners would have likely replaced their burnt homes with modular houses or trailers, which she said often present a bigger fire risk.

DeAnda, who spends most of her time raising awareness about fire safety across the country, lives in one such “ancient mobile home” in Concow, just east of Paradise. “It’s going up in 8 minutes if it catches on fire,” she said.

“There is a lot of emphasis, and understandably so, on prioritizing getting back to normal,” said Dr. Miranda Mockrin, a research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service who has studied how communities respond to wildfire. She said most local governments avoid using building restrictions and regulations, instead favoring less-coercive, voluntary fire safety programs and educational outreach.

But rebuilding is a slow process. If communities want to require more fire-conscious development, “there is time,” she said.

For Chris Coursey, the mayor of Santa Rosa, which lost some 3,000 homes last year, there was never a question about whether to allow the incinerated communities of Coffey Park and Fountain Grove to rebuild.

“Under state law, people have the right to rebuild a legal home that they lose in a disaster. We don’t have the ability to tell them that they can’t rebuild” he said.

Nor would he want to, he added.

“If you live in California, you’re going to face an earthquake or a fire or a flood or a mudslide at some point—there’s no way to mitigate all of that risk,” he said.

Santa Rosa officials, he added, are trying to drive more development into the city’s downtown, away from its more-vulnerable edges. Since last year, nearly 60 homes have been reconstructed. They’ve been built up to the new, municipal fire codes, and many homeowners have elected to use more fire-resistant materials. But Coursey said only so much can be done to prepare for catastrophe.

“I think we’re more fire-aware; I think we’re more fire-ready,” he said. “But if that wind and that combination of low humidity and high temperature and high winds happened again, I think we’re vulnerable.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Anna Dise slammed her hand into her car’s steering wheel, crying out for her father, Gordon, as he ran into their blazing home in Butte Creek Canyon.

She tried desperately to get the car to start, but it was no use. Worse yet, she was running out of time, and her dad wasn’t coming back out. One of the last things Dise saw before grabbing her two dogs and running for her life from the spreading Camp Fire was her childhood home’s kitchen disintegrating.

Dise called 911, but emergency personnel couldn’t get to her. To survive, she needed to find a way to outwit the blaze. She found a ditch and hunkered down, using what little water it held to douse herself and her beloved pets, Luna and Sirius, as embers rained down upon them.

Hours went by, and Dise, terrified the flames would consume her, stayed on alert as she spent the night outside.

“I had to stay awake and watch which way the fires were moving, all the hot spots,” she said on Nov. 9 at Chico’s Neighborhood Church, one of several locations temporarily housing evacuees and others rescued from the deadly Northern California blaze that ignited the previous morning.

In the early morning light, under a blanket of smoke, Dise hiked back to her house. There, she found its charred, skeletal remains and the car “all melted down.” There was no sign of her father.

“I don’t even think I saw my dad’s bones, but I know he was in there,” she said.

Inexplicably, a bag of family photos she’d abandoned was “untouched, no burns or anything.” That, along with her canine companions, provided some comfort.

“We lost everything except for each other,” she said.

Dise’s cellphone battery had died, so she walked to a neighbor’s house and waited for help to arrive. She heard chainsaws in the distance—the sound of Cal Fire personnel working their way through fallen trees—and was rescued around 7 a.m.

Dise’s harrowing story would be unfathomable were it not for the fact that so many other Butte County residents can relate to it. Indeed, tens of thousands of residents fled for their lives, as the Camp Fire bore down on the Paradise and Magalia ridge communities of Butte County, as well as several surrounding hamlets, including Concow and Butte Creek Canyon.

The blaze started the morning of Nov. 8 east of Paradise in the Plumas National Forest. The cause is still under investigation, but one of the primary questions is whether an issue with a nearby high-voltage power line is related. Already facing billions in lawsuits for allegedly sparking other California wildfires—including the Tubbs Fire in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties in October of last year—PG&E reported to the California Public Utilities Commission that an outage occurred just before the first calls of the Camp Fire came in to authorities.

It spread quickly in the parched foothills, pushed by low humidity and high winds that blew embers for miles, triggering fires throughout the region. As of this morning (Nov. 20), the firestorm had destroyed more than 16,800 structures. It has consumed more than 151,000 acres and was 70 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.


Amid the gray, post-apocalyptic landscape, particularly in the residential portions of Paradise, streets leading to the few main arteries exiting to the valley below were strewn with vehicles. They’d been abandoned by occupants who’d been stopped in gridlock traffic and had no choice but to get out and try to outrun the fast-moving flames.

Some of the automobiles were so scorched that their make and model were unrecognizable. Only shells remained, and in some cases, trails of melted aluminum oozed on the asphalt below. Several were crushed by collapsed power polls or trees. Still others appeared eerily unscathed.

James Betts witnessed the confusion and panic first-hand. Huddled with other evacuees at Neighborhood Church the day after escaping the flames, he described how quickly the fire moved through his Paradise neighborhood and how fortunate he was to make it out.

He, along with a friend and several family members, including his grandmother and nephew, were alerted to the fire by loud explosions. Outside, they saw flames down the street and drivers backed up on the roadway, honking and yelling.

Nobody in Betts’ group had a car.

“I was screaming at people, begging them, ‘Please stop,’” he said. “It was like Armageddon outside. It was nuts.”

A stranger driving a pickup truck finally pulled up and all of them, plus their animals, piled into the bed. “We’re so lucky, we really are,” Betts said. “I gave him the biggest hug in the world. I don’t even know his name.”

Betts was echoed by fellow Paradise evacuee Oscar Albretsen, an epileptic who also was without transportation. “I honestly thought I was going to burn to death,” he said.

Rescue came in the form of his neighbors, who made room in their vehicle for Albretsen and his cat, Nibbler.

The scene he described on the downhill ride to Chico is surreal—a wall of fire on either side of the roadway, which was dotted with charred deer carcasses, abandoned cars with pets inside, and homes burning or burned to the ground with only their chimneys intact.

Albretsen’s last glimpse of the landscape in no way resembled his hometown.

“It’s beautiful, and a town where people are so good to each other,” Albretsen said. “Now it’s starting to dawn on me: Everybody lost everything.”

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Chico News & Review. Please consider donating to the GoFundMe campaign for employees of the News & Review who have been affected by the fire at www.gofundme.com/help-our-news-amp-review-family.

Published in Environment

On this week's tequila-soaked weekly Independent comics page: (Th)ink bemoans the pay received by the prisoners who are on California's fire lines; This Modern World looks at the latest from The Unbelievable Trump; Jen Sorenson sighs as she examines America then vs. now; Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy gets a visit from Flamey the Fire Safety Rhino; and Red Meat features Ted taking Christmas-cooking action.

Published in Comics

As California lawmakers struggled to address an apparent new normal of epic wildfires, there was an inescapable subtext: Climate change is going to be staggeringly expensive, and virtually every Californian is going to have to pay for it.

In the final week of August—just before the Legislature agreed to spend $200 million on tree clearance and let utilities pass on to customers the multi-billion-dollar costs of just one year’s fire damage—the state released a sobering report detailing the broader costs Californians face as the planet grows warmer.

As horrendous as the wildfire situation is, the report made clear that it’s just one line item on a colossal ledger: It could soon cost us $200 million a year in increased energy bills to keep homes air conditioned; $3 billion from the effects of a long drought; and $18 billion to replace buildings inundated by rising seas, just to cite a few projections—not to mention the loss of life from killer heat waves, which could add more than 11,000 heat-related deaths per year by 2050 in California, and carry an estimated $50 billion annual price tag.

“Without adaptation, the economic impacts of climate change will be very costly,” warned the Climate Change Assessment report from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research, noting that the buildup of manmade greenhouse gases has already warmed California by up to 2 degrees since 1900. That bump, the assessment added, could rise to nearly 9 degrees by the century’s end.

And Californians are being hit with a double-whammy because fighting and preparing for climate change also costs money, and the Golden State has embraced an ambitious agenda to combat global warming. For example, Californians pay more for gas in part because of the state’s low-carbon fuel requirement and the cap-and-trade system that makes polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are right now disproportionately bearing the brunt of both some of the impacts (of climate change) and trying to mitigate it ourselves,” said Solomon Hsiang, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has researched the cost of climate change.

As that has sunk in, the reaction has been a mix of pragmatism, panic and political action.

As wildfires laid siege to the state and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of Californians earlier this summer, Brown warned that “over a decade, there will be more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it, more adaptation and more prevention.”

At the time, California had blown through a quarter of the state’s $443 million emergency wildfire fund; in the devastating 4 1/2 weeks since, the fund has been nearly wiped out.

“All that is the new normal we will have to face,” the governor said.

That realization swept through the Capitol again this week, as lawmakers approved a bill to require that all electricity in California come from renewable sources such as solar and wind by the end of 2045.

Senate Bill 100 was hailed as bold move away from climate-damaging fossil fuels—but legislative critics pointed out that California already has both the nation’s highest poverty rate and the highest per-kilowatt cost for electricity.

“I guarantee you: We pass this, and rates are going to go up,” Assembly Republican leader Brian Dahle said during a passionate floor debate. “Californians cannot afford it.”

Sen. Kevin de León, the Los Angeles Democrat carrying the bill for 100 percent renewable electricity, dismissed cost concerns as nothing more than the rhetoric of naysayers “who try to undermine our clean-energy climate goals.” The cost of solar power has already dropped significantly and will likely continue to come down further, he said, in the years leading up to the 100 percent renewable requirement. And, his supporters argued, there is also a cost to not fighting climate change—even more fires and floods than would otherwise occur.

Noel Perry, a founder of Next 10, a group that researches environmental and economic policy, says the benefits of California’s climate policies outweigh the costs, because California can demonstrate to the rest of the world what’s possible to fight global warming while expanding the economy with clean technology investments. California’s economy, the world’s fifth-largest, has grown by 16 percent in the last decade while emissions fell by 11 percent, according to a new report from his group.

“In certain instances, it will involve increased costs for some consumers and businesses. But because of how huge the climate change challenge is, we need to address it,” Perry said.

In some cases, the increased costs for fuel and electricity are more directly offset by efficiency standards for cars and appliances meant to help Californians consume less energy. For example, a recent mandate requiring solar panels on new homes in 2020 will likely add $10,000 to the price of a house, but could save homeowners more than $16,000 in energy bills.

In any event, climate costs are no longer abstract. Lawmakers have spent much of this year deep in the political nitty-gritty of who should pay how much for which climate-fueled disaster. The total cost of last year’s catastrophic wildfires still isn’t fully tallied, for example, but some estimates put it over $10 billion, and lawmakers have spent much of the year debating how much of that should be paid by taxptubbsayers, utility companies or their industrial and residential ratepayers.

Under California’s liability law, utilities are liable for damages from any fires sparked by their power lines, even if they weren’t negligent. Cal Fire alleges that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment was involved in 16 of last year’s fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state codes that require keeping trees and shrubs away from power lines. The company says it met the state’s standards. Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the Tubbs Fire, the deadliest of last year’s blazes.

The utilities lobbied unsuccessfully this year to change the liability law. But they scored a partial win late Friday night as the Legislature OK'd a plan the wildfire committee advanced allowing utilities to issue bonds to cover damages from the 2017 fires and pass the cost onto their customers—even if the company is found negligent.

Senate Bill 901 would require a review of the companies’ finances before any surcharge is placed on ratepayers, and lawmakers supporting the plan said it would result in modest new charges—roughly $26 per year for residential ratepayers if the companies paid off $5 billion over 20 years. The alternative, they said, was the possibility that the company could go bankrupt, costing customers even more.

Consumer advocates blasted it as a “bailout” for PG&E; lobbyists for industries that use a lot of power said the plan would unfairly burden customers.

Meanwhile, the bill also calls for creation of a new Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery that would decide whether utilities can charge customers for fires in 2018 and beyond, and recommend potential changes to state law “that would ensure equitable distribution of costs among affected parties.”

Translation: Expect a lot more debate in the coming years over who will pay for damages from California disasters exacerbated by climate change.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Page 1 of 3