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Before responsible Riverside County voters go to the polls on Nov. 6, not only will they need to determine which candidates are the most qualified; they’ll need to examine candidates’ statements and positions to determine what is based on fact—and what is not.

This brings us to the race for California’s 28th Senate District—which includes the entire Coachella Valley—where incumbent Republican State Sen. Jeff Stone is running for a second term against Democratic challenger Joy Silver.

Silver is an underdog in the race. In the June primary election, Stone received 56 percent of the vote, compared to 34.7 percent for Silver—a margin of more than 34,000 votes. (A third candidate, Anna Nevenic, a Democrat, received 9.3 percent.)

We asked each candidate why he or she thought constituents should vote for them.

“Probably because I have a proven track record of being an elected official,” said Stone during a recent phone interview. “I’m completing my 26th year (of holding elected office). You never really forget who your boss is, and that’s your constituents, so you have to make sure that you’re always doing things in their best interests.

“Whether I was on the city council (of Temecula), or the board of supervisors (of Riverside County) or now in the California state government, whenever I meet with a governing body, I always feel like I’ve got my constituents sitting on my shoulder, and I ask myself, ‘Is this something they would like or not like?’ Certainly, coming to the state Senate has been a much more challenging experience, because you have a third dimension, which is not one that we had at a local level too much, and that’s partisanship. The partisanship is something you can cut with a knife.

Silver is a small-business owner who built a successful career as a health clinic executive, senior housing developer and business consultant.

“I think it’s important for people to know that I’m not a career politician,” Silver said. “I’m an outsider who will bring real change to Sacramento, and that will include standing up to those policies coming out of Washington when they hurt all Californians. I want to bring my experience to work on our local priorities, and to fight for the values of our Riverside County constituents … all of us.”

The Independent asked what their priorities would be if elected to the four-year term.

“I carry some very basic fundamentals with me in being an elected official,” Stone said. “One is that government has limited responsibilities, mostly ensuring that our citizens are safe and healthy; and for those who don’t have financial resources, we need to make sure that we help them, especially those who want to help themselves.

“We’ve seen public safety deteriorate with all these terrible initiatives like Prop 47 (which reduced penalties for some crimes, passed in 2014), Prop 57 (passed in 2016, it incentivizes prison inmates to take responsibility for their own rehabilitation, among other things) and AB 109 (passed in 2011 in response to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce California prison populations, it transferred certain nonviolent offenders from the state prison system to county-level supervision). These public-safety experiments have come at the cost of a lot of lives and the demise of many businesses.”

Statistics, however, don’t support Stone’s claims. A June 21 report from the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that property-crime rates have decreased slightly since 2011, when the first of these laws was enacted. While violent-crime rates have increased slightly in that time frame, they are still about 50 percent less than year 2000 levels.

Silver said her priorities would include job creation, universal healthcare for all California residents, developing a clean energy economy, career/vocational training, the expansion of affordable housing, and advocacy for immigrant communities.

We asked if universal health care was a realistic goal.

“I do think it is an achievable goal, and with my expertise in the provision of healthcare services, I think I can help move that concept into a place (where) it can work,” she said. “We do have a large economy. Certainly, there are smaller economies in the world that are providing health care for their people, and I think that with the right plan, we can make it happen here for Californians.”

The ever-increasing cost of many prescription drugs is another concern she hopes to address.

“I feel that there needs to be a particular focus on the ability to do group purchases,” Silver said. “Certainly, I’m not the first one to come up with that. When I did work in the health-care business, and we did provide service to a mostly Medicaid patient population, the key there was for independent ambulatory surgical centers to participate in group purchases of items, and that helped us turn around and provide needed goods to the population that we were serving. I think that would be one of the ways to contain costs in a larger venue like our state.”

Stone—who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Dr. Raul Ruiz in 2016—said the business climate is a top concern.

“I’ve been an active opponent to taxation since I started my political endeavors in 1992, and I’ve never voted for a tax,” Stone said. “We need to do a better job of keeping jobs in California. We’re seeing a flight of the middle class out of the state. We see the price of homes out of the reach of middle-class Californians. Look at the flight out of San Francisco—the liberal experiment that goes on (there) where you have ‘shooting galleries,’ which are places to shoot their heroin. And you see the homeless population exponentially increasing there with people bagging feces on the street, and hypodermic needles all over the place. … Even the property values here in Sacramento have been climbing like crazy. Why? Because the people in the Bay Area are trying to escape all this horrific policy that has reduced the quality of life of the people living in those areas.”

The Independent asked both candidates what solutions they would propose to combat the proliferation of wildfires in our state.

“We have to take into consideration that the dryness is part of that issue,” Silver said. “I know that in Idyllwild, they’ve had a plan, and because that plan was in place with various stop-gap measures and ways to coordinate with local fire departments at different points in time, they were able to contain the smaller fires that were initiated by embers. I think that Northern California (communities) could benefit from a plan such as the one in Idyllwild, because they knew how to control and contain. Aside from that, we’re going to have to look at climate and environmental issues to see how we can bring down the heat factor. We have to look at how we can work with a clean-energy economy to do that.”

Stone pointed out that he’s on a committee of lawmakers looking into the spate of fires.

“This has been the worst fire season that we’ve had, and it’s attributable, in some sense, to climate change, but it’s also due to our radical environmental policies that don’t allow us to go in and thin forests and get rid of the 129 million dead or dying trees in the state of California, all in the name of ‘environmental stewardship,” he said.

The estimate on the dead-tree population came from the U.S. Forest Service in December 2017.

“But at the same time as environmentalists have prohibited us from going in to clear brush and trees, look at how many acres now have been completely erased from California’s landscape,” Stone continued. “How many endangered species and animals have perished in all of these fires that maybe we could have prevented? Certainly we couldn’t have prevented those involving arson, which includes two (recent) fires in my district, the Cranston Fire and the Holy Fire. But in other areas of the state, we could have prevented some of these fires potentially, or at least (lessened) the magnitude of the fires had we cleared the brush.”

The facts don’t necessarily support Stone’s position—particularly his placement of blame on environmentalists for the fires. According to an article from Aug. 7 in The Sacramento Bee, “As of 2015, through the national forests, national parks, Bureau of Land Management, and others, the federal government manages more than 40 percent of California’s total (forest) acreage. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, by comparison, manages a little more than 30 percent. The Trump administration’s own budget request for the current fiscal year and the coming one proposed slashing tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service budgets dedicated to the kind of tree clearing and other forest management work experts say is needed.”

Published in Politics

Between last year’s deadly wildfires and this summer’s fatal blazes, utilities and insurers with a huge stake in fires’ aftermath have poured more than $3.2 million into California campaign donations, and another $5.2 million into lobbying at the state Capitol—a big spike.

Also fiercely lobbying on wildfire bills: plaintiffs attorneys, local governments and electrical worker unions.

Now, in the final weeks of the Legislature’s session, lawmakers on a special wildfire committee are considering proposals to beef up safety of the electrical system and change liability laws. CALmatters reviewed new lobbying and campaign finance reports covering the first six months of the year. The takeaways:

Lobbying is up—by a lot: The state’s three big electric utilities together more than doubled their spending on lobbying during the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year. The increase was driven largely by Pacific Gas and Electric, which spent $2.2 million on lobbying this year—triple what it spent in the first half of 2017.

Between April and June this year, PG&E reported spending $1.1 million specifically lobbying on wildfire legislation.

“This is really the biggest issue facing our company today,” said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo, adding that PG&E pays for lobbying expenses with shareholder funds, not money from customers.

At issue: Who should be responsible for and pay for fire damages? Under existing law, utilities are liable if fires are traced to their equipment—even if there’s no negligence. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed changing the law to relieve utilities of some liability—protection they desperately want.

Edison, which provides power to much of Southern California, including much of the Coachella Valley, spent $1.3 million lobbying in the first half of this year—double what it spent last year.

Insurance companies are the utilities’ main adversary in this: If utilities become less liable, insurers will have to bear more of the costs from disasters. Insurance trade associations increased their spending on lobbying in the state Capitol by 51 percent this year over last.

There’s a whole lotta wining and dining going on: Most of the money utilities and insurance companies spent on lobbying went to lobbyists, lawyers and publicity campaigns. But the total also includes a lot of cocktails and steaks the companies bought for government officials they are trying to influence—nearly $69,000 worth of goodies for the first half of this year.

PG&E treated GOP Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and six of his staff members to a San Francisco Giants game in May. In July, Cannella was appointed to the committee crafting wildfire legislation. He declined to comment for this story.

Overall, PG&E spent more than $3,000 entertaining government officials, including a breakfast in February for Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who is co-chair of the wildfire committee, and a lunch in June for Todd Derum, chief of the Sonoma division of Cal Fire, the agency investigating last year’s fires. Cal Fire has said PG&E’s equipment was involved in 16 fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state safety codes. Cal Fire has not yet completed its investigation of the deadliest blaze, known as the Tubbs Fire.

Edison spent more than $45,000 entertaining officials. That included a $12,000 reception in January attended by more than 100 legislators and staff members, and a dinner in March at a Los Angeles steakhouse for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor.

The Personal Insurance Federation of California spent $14,300 entertaining lawmakers and their staff, including an $8,500 reception in March and a $4,000 soiree at a Sacramento nightclub in April. In addition, the trade association treated officials to microbrews, sushi dinners and other goodies, such as a $53 cake for an assemblywoman’s chief of staff.

Rex Frazier, the Personal Insurance Federation lobbyist, said government decisions have a huge impact on the insurance business because it is so highly regulated. “With that,” he said, “comes relationship-building with legislators.”

The victims advocacy group is funded almost entirely by lawyers: Fire victims are lobbying to preserve liability laws and pass new rules that could help prevent future wildfires. Their advocacy group Up From the Ashes is represented by a lobbyist who lost his Santa Rosa home in the fires. The group blames PG&E and Edison for not doing enough to prevent last year’s disasters, some of which were sparked by power lines too close to branches and brush.

Up From the Ashes spent about $564,000 lobbying between April and June, with about $55,000 going to a lobbying firm and the rest to a publicity campaign. Where did the money come from? Essentially, law firms involved in lawsuits against utilities.

 “We appreciate their funding so we can have a voice,” said Patrick McCallum, the lobbyist for Up From the Ashes, which represents about 600 homeowners, businesses and local governments that lost property in last year’s fires.

It’s a bipartisan love affair: The industries involved in the fight over wildfire legislation aren’t playing favorites: They’ve showered dozens of Republican and Democratic legislators with large campaign contributions and pour huge sums into committees to elect politicians from both parties.

Edison gave $1.1 million to California political campaigns this year, including $250,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party. It also gave $25,000 each to a GOP group called California Trailblazers and the Democratic campaign fighting a senator’s recall. In advance of the June primary, Edison gave $29,200 each to Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, Democratic rivals in the gubernatorial race.

PG&E has given more than $900,000 in political donations this year, including $175,000 to the California Democratic Party and $110,000 to the California Republican Party. It’s also given $25,000 to a committee that supports moderate Republicans and $40,000 to one that supports moderate Democrats.

In addition, PG&E gave $150,000 to a campaign supporting Newsom for governor, and paid nearly $400,000 to a political consulting firm that ran Brown’s campaign for governor and is helping with Newsom’s.

The Farmers insurance company gave $96,500 to the state GOP and $10,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the Newsom campaign.

One lawmaker doesn’t want PG&E’s money: On June 4, PG&E sent $1,000 to the re-election campaign for Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood. On June 30, he returned the money.

Wood declined to comment on why he sent back the PG&E money, instead saying through a spokeswoman that he did not solicit the donation.

But here’s a clue: He represents parts of Santa Rosa devastated by last year’s fires. Now he sits on the wildfire committee, where he’s questioning whether the Legislature should change liability laws before Cal Fire completes its investigations.

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

Published in Politics

Like everyone else, I hate the smoke that has become a mainstay during the summer in the West.

But as a naturalist, I know that many plants and animals in our region benefit from fire—mountain bluebirds and lodgepole pines, morel mushrooms and camas lilies, beargrass and huckleberries. Native peoples skillfully used fire as a management tool, maintaining oak savannas rich with acorns and deer. For all the damage fire does to the human world as presently organized, it is far from being an ecological catastrophe. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.

To try to see the other side of smoke. Try to imagine the life of one of the most fire-dependent birds in the world, the black-backed woodpecker. Black-backed woodpeckers are found across the boreal forests of Canada and down the great mountain ranges of the Rockies, Cascades and Sierra Nevada. Within this huge range, they are almost always found in recently burned forests. They feed on the larvae of wood-boring beetles, which they pursue with the most powerful beak strike, relative to body size, of all North American woodpeckers. What is it like to be one of these woodpeckers? Here’s the story of one; we’ll call her “BB”:

The smoke came in from the southwest, thick and yellow-gray, drifting over the Cascade crest. The scent filled BB with restless energy. Only a week before, two of her chicks had starved despite the tireless efforts of BB and her mate to find enough beetle larvae to feed them, and the single fledgling, small and weak, had been easy prey for a Cooper’s hawk. Now, with nothing to hold her to this territory—a green expanse of pine forest that harbored little food for a black-backed woodpecker—BB set out to find the fire.

The wind had carried the smoke far, and by the time she reached the burn weeks later, the fire had passed. What she found was paradise for a bird like her. Like most fires, this one had left behind an ecological mosaic, a mix of blackened snags, scorched but living trees, and mysteriously untouched patches. And BB was not the first arrival; drawn by the scent of smoke, wood-boring beetles had already taken up residence, laying their eggs in the dead and dying trees. They were already being pursued by the resident hairy woodpeckers and the first pioneering black-backs.

The next spring, the snags positively vibrated with the gnawing of beetle larvae—a continuous feast for a whole community of woodpeckers. BB was perfectly at home, her black back making her almost invisible against the charred trunks as she pounded into fire-hardened wood too resistant for the other species. Black-backs had flocked to the burn from a wide swath of the Cascades, and BB had never had so many suitors. She chose well, and in that first year on the burn, she and her mate fledged a full brood of five fine young.

In the natural cycle of post-fire recovery, the burn would have remained prime woodpecker habitat for five or six years before beetle populations dwindled, and the younger black-backs dispersed to find more recent burns. However, in this case, the natural cycle had no chance to play out. 

As the snow melted in the second spring after the fire, the quiet was shattered by the rumble of logging trucks and the whine of chainsaws. Salvage logging had begun, and the soil was compacted; the recovering herbs and shrubs were crushed; and the nutrients held in the decaying wood were hauled away. A forest of snags that was home to a diverse community of woodpeckers and cavity-nesting birds was destroyed.

BB retreated to the far side of the burn and began to excavate a nest hole with her mate, but one day, he disappeared; whether driven off by the disturbance or taken by a predator, she never knew. She wandered east, hoping to find a patch of beetle-killed lodgepole pines. Then, one hot August day, she caught a delicious scent carried on the wind: It was the smell of smoke. Heart full of joy, BB once again set off to find the fire.

Even with the eyes of an ecologist, it’s not easy to see the beauty in a freshly burned forest. But I know it is there—the wildflowers hidden beneath the ash, the woodpeckers summoned by the decaying snags.

For centuries, this landscape has owed much of its variety and vitality to fires. I may never share BB’s enthusiasm for smoke, but as I consider the exquisite adaptations her ancestors made to this environment, I find a new acceptance of this fire-prone place we have all chosen to call home.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer and conservation biologist living in Ashland, Ore.

Published in Community Voices

Like a lot of small towns in the West, my town of Ashland, Ore., is nestled in a lovely valley surrounded by conifer forests. The forests grow on public lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and last year, as in many recent years, there were fires on those lands. The town of Ashland was not threatened, but our valley filled with thick, eye-burning smoke for weeks at a time.

It was miserable. Outdoor theater and music events were cancelled, drastically affecting the summer tourist season, which is critical for our economy. Folks who would usually be out hiking, camping, fishing, birding and rafting stayed indoors. Parents kept their kids inside. Everyone got cranky. We’ve never had a summer with smoke as bad as this.

Understandably, people don’t want to go through this again next summer—or ever. Southern Californians can relate thanks to all of the devastating fall fires in the area. And so the search is on for solutions.

Some are taking this opportunity to advocate for drastic changes in public-lands forest management. The primary vehicle for this effort is the “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” H.R. 2936, often called the Westerman bill for its primary sponsor, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. In the name of making forests “resilient” to fire, it would promote logging by sharply curtailing existing environmental laws.

Among other provisions, it would restrict citizen involvement in public-lands management by limiting legal challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws; greatly expand “categorical exclusions” in areas of up to 10,000 acres where logging and post-fire salvage could occur without any environmental assessment; and eliminate the “survey and manage” program which provides data essential for informed forest management. This truly radical bill has passed the House and awaits consideration by the Senate.

Let’s be generous for a moment. Let’s say that the Westerman bill is not a cynical attempt to exploit anxiety about fire to achieve otherwise unattainable amounts of logging, long sought by the timber industry. Let’s assume that it’s a genuine attempt to solve the problem of fire—which, of course, implies: (1) that fire is a problem; and (2) that it can be solved.

Most Western conifer forests, except those along the rain-drenched Pacific Coast, are adapted to frequent fires. That is true of Southern California, as well as my region of southern Oregon, where studies of tree rings have shown that fires historically returned to a piece of ground every 15-20 years or so. Most of those fires were relatively low intensity, and many were likely set deliberately by Native Americans, who made sophisticated use of fire as a land-management tool. These fires cleared out dense thickets and fallen limbs and maintained a relatively open forest structure in many areas.

Decades of fire suppression, coupled with logging that has replaced complex mixed-age forests with uniform-aged stands and tree plantations, has certainly made things worse, increasing the likelihood of severe, stand-replacing fires. But that is increasingly overshadowed by another factor affecting wildland fire frequency and severity: climate change. There is not a single mention of the role of climate change in the Westerman bill, so it looks like I was too generous to set aside that whole cynical-exploitation thing.

Much research now supports the correlation between climate change and fire seasons that start earlier and end later, with more days of extreme “fire weather.” Such fire weather led to the devastating fires of 2017 in Northern California. Those fires burned at least 245,000 acres, destroyed almost 9,000 buildings, and cost more than $3 billion. They were almost entirely on private land, not on national forests. The severity of those fires had nothing to do with a lack of logging. The same goes for the recent fires in Southern California—for which the damage is still being tallied.

We are kidding ourselves if we think we can find a “solution” to wildlands fire and the smoke that comes with it. Such thinking denies fire its place as a natural and inevitable part of this environment where we have chosen to live. Our forests need fire, and there is no way we can exclude it. Instead of trying to log our way out of fire danger, we need to adapt ourselves to the reality of living in this fire-adapted landscape. We can, and should, practice “fireproof” landscaping around our homes, and carry out larger fuels-reduction projects in high-risk areas like the wildland-urban interface at the edge of our towns.

But we can’t “solve” fire here in the West any more than Florida can “solve” hurricanes. Both are natural phenomena—and both are bound to get worse with unchecked climate change. Our best hope of a future with ecologically appropriate forest fires and tolerable levels of smoke is to take immediate action to limit climate change.

What do you say, Congress: Want to focus on a real problem for a change?

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer and forensic biologist in Oregon.

Published in Community Voices

Beyond the devastation and personal tragedy of the fires that have ravaged California in recent months, another disaster looms: an alarming uptick in unhealthy air—and the sudden release of the carbon dioxide that drives climate change.

As millions of acres burn in a cycle of longer and more-intense fire seasons, the extensive efforts of industry and regulators to protect the environment can be partly undone in one firestorm. In particular, as raging blazes pump more carbon into the atmosphere, state officials are grappling with the potential effect on California’s ability to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state’s environmental regulations are known to be stringent, but they have limits: They apply only to human-caused emissions. Pollution generated by wildfires is all outside the grasp of state law.

“The kinds of fires we’re seeing now generate millions of tons of GHG emissions. This is significant,” said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the state Air Resources Board, a regulatory body.

In less than one week, for example, October’s wine-country fires discharged harmful emissions equal to that of every car, truck and big rig on the state’s roads in a year. The calculations from the subsequent fires in Southern California are not yet available, but given the duration and scope of the multiple blazes, they could well exceed that level.

The greenhouse gases released when forests burn not only do immediate harm, discharging carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases; they also continue to inflict damage long after the fires are put out. In a state where emissions from nearly every industry are tightly regulated, if wildfires were treated like other carbon emitters, Mother Nature would be castigated, fined and shut down.

The air board estimates that between 2001 and 2010, wildfires generated approximately 120 million tons of carbon. But Clegern said a direct comparison with regulated emissions is difficult, in part because of limited monitoring data.

“Nature doesn’t follow the rules very well,” said Jim Branham, executive officer at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that has created a plan to better harness California’s forests in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

As is so often the case in environmental catastrophes, one thing leads to another, creating what Branham calls the double whammy: Burning trees not only release powerful pollutants known as black carbon; once a forest is gone, its prodigious ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it is lost, too.

Scientists estimate that in severely burned areas, only a fraction of a scorched tree’s emissions are released during the fire, perhaps as little as 15 percent. The bulk of greenhouse gases are released over months and years as the plant dies and decomposes.

And if a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon, according to the conservancy.

Severe fires have the capacity to inflict profound damage in a short span. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the 2013 Rim Fire in central California spewed out the equivalent of the carbon-dioxide emissions from 3 million cars. That is a setback to the state’s effort to get cars off the road, another critical tool for reducing greenhouse gases.

The role of wildfires as a major source of pollution was identified a decade ago, when a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that “a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.”

It’s a measure of the dramatic ramping up of fires in the West that today, a single fire can meet that threshold.

The entire equation has been made worse by the state’s epidemic of tree death, caused by drought, disease and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service earlier this month updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

“Dead trees don’t sequester carbon,” Branham said.

Forests as carbon-chewers are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond—a goal that could be undermined by nature’s caprice. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes.

Air quality, too, is subject to state, local and federal regulations. But those standards go out the window in large fires, when soot and ash blanketing entire regions can be seen from space.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which sets air pollution standards nationally, has an “exceptional events” rule that exempts states from fines under certain extraordinary conditions.

California has invoked the rule during wildfires at least once before, in 2008, for fires in the Sacramento area. The request was accepted, according to the air board.

More recently, Sean Raffuse, an analyst at the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, came up with the “back of the envelope” calculations for October’s Sonoma County fires.

Raffuse said he used federal emissions inventories from fires and calculated that five days of ashy spew from the northern California blazes equated to the annual air pollution from every vehicle in California.

Those kinds of computations are seldom replicated, largely for lack of the necessary instruments present at fire sites. But things are changing: Researchers have been attempting to better understand the full range of environmental damage wrought by wildfires. One tool is drones that can be flown through smoke plumes to collect samples for analysis.

“We don’t have the means to measure emissions from a wildfire like we do from a tailpipe,” Branham said. “We are lagging well behind in understanding and having hard data of the effects of these fires. And most of the data are chasing reality.”

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

Published in Environment

At some point last August in Montana, Missoula County’s daily air quality updates—peppered with chatty jokes about the apocalyptic sky outside the windows and wry recommendations to avoid outdoor exercise—stopped being funny.

The gray miasma that had covered the city lost its novelty, though the fantastic sunscapes—the sharp evening shadows by early afternoon, and the ominous beauty that the poetically inclined find in destruction—lingered. Unfortunately, the blanket of gritty air did, too.

Many parts of Southern California have experienced similar air quality over the past few weeks … but you knew that already.

All the commiserating small talk with grocery-store cashiers and detailed explanations of what we were breathing and where it came from could not lift the pall, figuratively or literally. Smoke—plumes of it streaking across satellite maps—became all too familiar, even as the fires that spouted it threatened evacuations and stressed budgets to breaking.

Edward Struzik’s new book, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, describes so many North American conflagrations that they, too, begin to seem almost ordinary, as the fires seemingly burn bolder every day—just another of climate change’s many Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Struzik guides readers through the ecological, social and political factors that led to the major fires of recent decades, including the century of fire suppression that built up fuel; the changing conditions that spin fires into furies; and the inconsistent policy preparations across vast and varied fire-prone regions. The book is part prognosis, part play-by-play, and part resigned admission that as much as we know, or think we know, about how to live under perpetual threat of ever-greater disasters, nothing about future fires is guaranteed—except that they will come galloping.

The far-flung points on Struzik’s map deliver the book’s most searing message: No forest, no fire, is isolated. Story after story delivers a similar account: the lucky turns of weather versus unexpected fire behavior, and the constant complaints about inadequate resources. The research showing the global travels of smoke plumes makes the point on a molecular level, too. Mercury, arsenic, carbon, asbestos—what once was buried will be unearthed, and once it is unearthed, there is no wall to stop its spread.

Firestorm opens with the Horse River Fire, nicknamed “the Beast,” a 2016 runaway wildfire near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, that burned 2,800 homes and nearly 1.4 million acres. It consumed billions of dollars and surprised firefighters at nearly every turn, and the fact that almost everyone living nearby escaped was more miracle than management. Struzik compares the fire to a hurricane or a tornado—with the stark difference that people in a tornado’s path rarely think they can stop it.

The contrast between the extraordinary power of megafires and people’s belief in their own ability to contain them is striking. Arrogance, ignorance, careless chance—people start fires and underestimate them, ignore humbling lessons and moving closer to danger. Instead of being seen as a crucial part of integrated ecological cycles, wildfires become overwhelming, menacing, supernatural.

Struzik punctures much of the mystery by explaining soil cycles and water pollution, funding and smoke particulates. In chapters that connect science to history, he offers a clear view of what has happened and what’s at stake. But his elaborate retellings of what happened during specific fire events over the last century lose clarity in all the chaotic play-by-plays of phone calls, weather patterns and evacuation orders. Timelines get tangled; contextual asides intrude at key moments and are then left dangling. For a reader intimately familiar with these fires, the level of detail may offer some insight. But those more interested in the future, readers left to make the larger connections on their own.

The thread that weaves through every chapter is clear, however. Megafires—whether seen as natural disasters, nightmarish calamities or policy mismanagement in action—will continue. They will become worse and more frequent. The wildland-urban interface will be more threatened. That thick summer air (and, as we know in Southern California, the fall and winter air, too) will return to block out sunlight and push us back indoors to clutch our air filters and grouse about stolen blue-sky days. Struzik reminds his readers again and again that whatever has happened already, no matter how severe and stunning, isn’t done happening.

It’s clear how huge of a role humans have had in getting us here. The question left unanswered is how we might cope with what happens next.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future

By Edward Struzik

Island Press

272 pages, $30

Published in Literature

Over three months in 2016, the Soberanes fire burned 132,127 acres of central California’s coast, blazing through dry swaths of dense chaparral, mixed hardwood timber and redwoods. Costing $260 million to suppress, it became the most expensive fire in the country’s history. It wasn’t caused by lightning, which is relatively scarce in that part of the country—but by an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park.

Human-caused climate change has meant more, and bigger, wildfires throughout the country. But as astute pyrologist Bruce Springsteen once wrote, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” According to new wildfire research, the source of that spark is, more often than not, a person.

What’s more, due to these human-caused ignitions, the country’s conflagrations have grown significantly larger and more frequent, while the overall fire season has tripled in length.

Jennifer Balch, assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder, quantified just how significant humans’ role in providing that spark is. Balch and her colleagues investigated federal, state and local records provided by the Forest Service of wildfires on public and private lands from 1992 to 2012. They determined that 84 percent of the 1.5 million wildfires that burned nationally over those two decades were lit by humans, not including controlled burns intentionally lit for fire management. In total, humans started more than 1.2 million fires.

Even in parts of the country where lightning strikes cause the most fires—such as the Intermountain West—humans have increased the number, size and length of the season for wildfires overall.

By mapping the Forest Service data, Balch’s team found that fires primarily ignite in areas of human-wildland interface: roads, urban encroachment into wild spaces and the edges of agricultural fields. Areas of high human population density and fewer lightning-caused fires experience more wildfires overall. These areas include central and southern California, where lightning is dry but rare, and the East Coast, where lightning is common but often accompanied by fuel-soaking storms.

In urbanizing areas of the Intermountain West, human-ignited wildfires are increasing. This pattern can be seen along Colorado’s Front Range, where human-caused wildfires cluster where people have moved into wildlands near cities such as Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs.

Fire, as Balch pointed out, is a normal part of life.

“From making breakfast on a gas-powered stove in the morning, to turning over the car’s combustion engine ignition, people use fire every day,” Balch said. The causes of wildfires often are part of daily life, too: a cigarette flung from a car window; a power line arcing when everyone runs the air conditioner at once; a spark hitting dried vegetation when a motorist on the side of the road starts her engine.

While lightning-caused fires typically occur during the summer, human-caused fires are spread out throughout the year. Nationally, the fire season has grown by three months on average.

Balch suggests her research points to the need to rethink current fire management practices.

“Over a hundred years of fire suppression hasn’t worked. We haven’t put fire out,” Balch said. “We need to think through how we sustainably live with fire and promote more prescribed burns.”

In the past, people have been resistant to controlled burns near communities. People don’t like living near the “patchwork patterns” of a burned landscape, Balch said.

And yet humans invite fire into their lives, sometimes just for the fun of it: The most common day for wildfire ignitions in the United States was July 4, with 7,762 fires burning more than 350,000 acres in 21 years.

“Things might have been different if Independence Day was in winter,” Balch said.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

On the morning of July 23, the city of Los Angeles was covered in a dusting of ash. An apocalyptic haze muted the sun, and the sky was an eerie, unnatural pink. Just a day before, a wildfire had broken out on private land 30 miles northwest, near Santa Clarita. Within 24 hours, the Sand Fire scorched 20,000 acres, and in a week, it burned another 21,000 acres. At least 10,000 people had to evacuate before it was contained by early August.

Every day seems to bring another fire. Today, the Blue Cut fire is ravaging the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County; as of 4 p.m. today, 6,500 acres have burned, with an unknown number of structures damaged.

The most volatile fire activity in the West this year has occurred in Central and Southern California—from Big Sur to Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Bernardino—causing the closure of the Pacific Coast Highway, the destruction of hundreds of homes, and the death of at least six people. According to experts, these blazes offer a glimpse into the West’s “new normal” wildfire season that has been intensified by climate change in recent years. Warmer temperatures, less snowfall and increased drought mean that fire seasonbegins earlier in Apriland lasts longer, until November or December.

Last winter, California breathed a sigh of relief during El Niño, expecting it to drench the parched landscape after four years of drought. Northern California got more rain and remains relatively wet, but El Niño didn’t deliver enough to prevent fires in the southern part of the state.

“It’s the legacy effect of the long-term drought: these large, volatile, fast-moving wildfires in California,” says Crystal Kolden, fire science professor at the University of Idaho. By the first week of June, firefighters in California had already tackled more than 1,500 fires that burned almost 28,000 acres—twice as many acres burned as in the first half of 2015.

Looking at the West as a whole, this fire season is similar to the last couple of years—longer, hotter and harder to control— except in the Pacific Northwest, where there’s been a near-average wet, cool summer. According to a recent report from the National Interagency Fire Center, that delays the region’s greatest fire risk until later in the season. However, it has been extremely dry and hot in the Great Basin and Rockies, leading to more fire starts. Those areas should return to normal fire risk by September.

The high fire potential in California will continue during the season’s peak and through November, though, perhaps even until the first snowfall.

Typically, when the Pacific Northwest is particularly active with wildfire, the Southwest is less so, and vice versa, Kolden says, due to large-scale climate dynamics. But because of climate change in the last five to 10 years, regional wildfire seasons now often overlap. Fires are also burning a wider range of ecosystems than in the past, Kolden says. The lower-elevation sagebrush steppe is fueling fires just as much as high-elevation ponderosa forests, Southern California’s chaparral, and Idaho’s rangelands—and often, all these ecosystems are experiencing fires at the same time.

“Climate change is starting to take over,” says Kolden, “so there’s a higher probability and incidence of fires all over the West every single year.”

Two of the largest are the Soberanes Fire in California, which has burned over 76,000 acres and is only about 60 percent contained; and the Pioneer Fire near Boise, which has burned more than 76,000 acres and is about half contained. The NIFC considers both these fires its top priority because they’re proving hard to contain and near highly populated areas. As peak fire seasons stretch and overlap, firefighting resources aregetting stretched thinner. The Pioneer Fire, for example, currently has about 1,800 firefighters working on it, while the Soberanes has a record-breaking 3,800, about 1,000 down from the peak.

It’s still unclear what caused the Pioneer Fire, but an illegal campfire ignited the Soberanes blaze, and faulty hot tub wiring caused the Sand Fire. A growing percentage of wildfires are started by humans, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, particularly in Southern California, where the population in fire-danger areas is increasing exponentially. That’s part of the reason that, even though that area’s fires aren’t necessarily more severe than usual, this year’s have resulted in morehomes lost and a high fatality rate in California.

By this point, Stephens says, it’s clear that Western communities and federal agencies need to be more proactive at planning for fire and drought when building homes and structures and managing land. According to his research, we should be restoring forests by thinning and using prescribed burns at five to 10 times the rate we are now.

“If we don’t start to change the trajectory of forest conditions in the Western U.S., we’re literally going to be running out of options,” he says. “The big fires will continue to come.”

This piece originally appeared at High Country News.

Published in Environment

On this week's politically active Independent comics page: Red Meat takes some swimming lessons; This Modern World discusses the fact that we tortured some folks; Jen Sorenson wonders why the GOP blocked emergency funding for wildfire fighting; and The K Chronicles looks at a violent show featuring the original blue man group.

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As I approached a crew of firefighters on the edge of smoldering redwoods, just west of Central California’s Big Sur River, it struck me that their uniforms were orange—not the yellow you usually see on firefighters.

It was just 12 hours after the Pfeiffer Fire broke out; it started on Dec. 16 and burned around 1,000 acres, destroying more than 30 homes in the process. I had arrived in the valley a few hours earlier, and was still getting a lay of the land.

I greeted the first crew member I encountered, and asked if he would answer some questions; he just shook his head with a grin and didn’t say anything. Then a whole bunch of other heads turned my way.

“I’ll answer some questions!”

Four of them came to my side and told me of a redwood tree falling in the night and almost hitting a member of their crew. They’d been out since 2 a.m., they said, and a tree seems to fall every five minutes. They were effusive, excitable. I asked where they were from.

“We’re from Gabilan Camp, in Soledad,” one said, pointing to the decal on his helmet. “You heard of Gabilan Camp?”

Gabilan Conservation Camp was formed in 1986 as part of the California Conservation Camp program, administered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The program’s aim is to allow able-bodied (and willing) inmates to perform meaningful work for the public. And since 1947, after teaming up with Cal Fire, much of that work is firefighting.

“For the Department of Corrections, it’s the one ray of sunshine,” Gabilan Conservation Camp Commander Steve Pate said. “It’s a great program.”

There are camps closer to the Coachella Valley, too. For example, the Bautista Conservation Camp, in Hemet, is home to 107 inmates, as of Oct. 31, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website. (Two crewmembers, Victor Ferrara and Aaron Perry, actually died while battling a fire in 1990, according to the camp website.) 

Pate spoke to me on Dec. 18 from Big Sur, as he oversaw 374 inmate firefighters from throughout the state’s conservation camps, including those from Gabilan, where 134 inmate-firefighters had been assigned.

At the time we spoke, inmates made up more than 42 percent of the fire suppression personnel. “We’re the largest force out here,” Pate said.

Each of their 11 strike teams on site in Big Sur consisted of 34 inmate firefighters, and two each of correctional officers, corrections supervisors, Cal Fire captains and Cal Fire strike team leaders.

Gabilan’s inmate firefighters are convicts who have met a list of qualifications including good behavior, being medically fit, and having no convictions for sex offenses or arson. Their training begins at a prison, the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown. After passing tests for fitness and skills, they are assigned to a camp, where their lives change markedly.

“There’s a lot of freedom in the camp,” Pate said. “They’re not in cells; they have an open dorm. The doors are not locked, and they can go to the yard anytime.” He added that the food is much better than regular prison food. “Probably better than I eat every day,” he said.

When Gabilan’s inmate firefighters are not fighting fires around the state, they’re out in Monterey County, performing public-works duties. They sandbag in Carmel when a flood hits, or clear brush in the forests of Pebble Beach.

“Our crews account for $280,000 a month in labor saved by community,” Pate said. That number is conservative, he added, since it assumes minimum wage; inmate firefighters are paid $1 per hour.

I met three of them at the Pfeiffer Fire incident base on Dec. 19, after they’d come off a 24-hour shift. Pate indicated that the three prisons they came from—New Folsom, Santa Nella and Corcoran—are a far cry from Gabilan Camp.

“They’re the three hardest prisons in the state,” he said.

Melvin Gray, 47, was in prison for 11 years before coming to Gabilan, where he’s spent the last two. “It changed my whole life,” he said, adding that he plans to apply for a job with Cal Fire when his sentence is up, just four months from now. “I have something to go home to.”

Patrick Meyer, 59, voices a sentiment they all share: It’s great to be part of a team, to work together and help the community. “We’re more than a crew,” Meyer said. “We’re a family.”

Mark Nunez, 40, relays tales of locals cheering them on, driving by them on Highway 1 and saying, “We love you!”

“They don’t treat you like an inmate,” Nunez said. “It makes you feel good.”

A version of this story appeared in the Monterey County Weekly. Below: Inmate Charles Jones takes a brief break while battling the Pfeiffer Fire. Photo by Nic Coury.

Published in Environment

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