CVIndependent

Wed12022020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

There’s a lot of news on this Sept. 11, so let’s get right to it:

• The West Coast is on fire. The New York Times has started a live-updates page regarding the horrific blazes, the deadliest of which is near Portland, Ore., where dozens of people are either dead or missing, and half a million people face possible evacuation orders. Key quote: “‘We are preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the numbers of structures that have been lost,’ said Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.”

• Our friends at Willamette Week, the Pulitzer-winning alternative newsweekly in Portland, are also doing fantastic coverage of the fires up there. Check it out.

• In Northern California, at least 10 are dead, with 16 reported missing, due to the North Complex fire in Butte County. According to the Los Angeles Times: “The collective scale of the infernos that have scarred the state over the last month is staggering: at least 20 fatalities, tens of thousands of structures destroyed and more than 3.1 million acres burned—the most recorded in a single year.”

• Of course, no tragedy these days can take place without conspiracy theories and misinformation popping up. The New York Times, via SFGate, looked at the insane and baseless claims, making their way around social media, that some of the West Coast wildfires were started by Antifa. Key quote: “Several law enforcement agencies in Oregon said they had been flooded with inquiries about rumors that activists were responsible. On Thursday, several journalists reporting on fires near the city of Molalla, Oregon, said they had been confronted by a group of armed people who were worried about unverified reports of arsonists in the area.”

• All the fires have created poor air quality throughout much of the west—and in Los Angeles, the smoky air prompted the county to shut down COVID-19 testing sites. Yikes.

• Related to the fires, here’s a speck of good news: Gov. Gavin Newsom today signed a bill that will make it easier for former inmates who served as volunteer firefighters to become badly needed professional firefighters. “For decades, thousands of inmate firefighters have battled wildfires across the state, working alongside professional firefighters in the scorching heat and smoke,” reports NBC News. “Yet the men and women prisoners who throw themselves in danger to help save lives and property often find it impossible to put their firefighting skills to use after their release, even in a state desperate for such labor.

• Related to COVID-19 testing: Riverside County is asking people, whether they’re symptomatic or not, to go get tested for COVID-19. In recent weeks, the number of county residents getting tested has fallen—to the point that it’s messing up the county’s hopes of moving into the next reopening tier. According to a news release: “Riverside County reached the positivity rate that will allow it to move to the red tier (7.8 percent), but the case rate remains higher than the state’s requirement. This week, the state began adjusting the case rate higher for counties that are not meeting the state’s daily average testing volume, which brought Riverside County’s case rate from 7.4 to 8.6. While Riverside County has the volume to test 4,000 people a day, only half that number have been getting tested at county and state testing sites in recent weeks.”

The Associated Press, via SFGate, reports that the testing backlog that was a huge problem in the state a month ago is gone, as the state increases testing capacity and fewer people get tested. “California's typical turnaround time for coronavirus tests has dropped to less than two days, state health officials said Thursday, a mark that allows for effective isolation and quarantine of those who are infected to limit the spread. Test results now are available from laboratories within 1.3 days on average, down from the five- to seven business days that officials commonly reported last month.”

• Regular readers know the Daily Digest rule about studies—they usually need to be taken with a massive grain of figurative salt. Well, such is the case with a new CDC study, which led to this alarming CNN headline: “Adults with Covid-19 about 'twice as likely' to say they have dined at a restaurant, CDC study suggests.” However, the study, of 314 people who were tested in July at 11 facilities around the country, has a massive flaw or two: “The study comes with some limitations, including … the question assessing dining at a restaurant did not distinguish between indoor versus outdoor dining.” That seems like a big distinction, no?!

• Well here’s something weird: Some researchers think the coronavirus may have been spreading in Los Angeles in December—before China even announced the outbreak in Wuhan. According to the Los Angeles Times: “The researchers didn’t conduct any diagnostic tests, so they can’t say with certainty when doctors first encountered anyone infected with the virus that came to be known as SARS-CoV-2. But if the coronavirus had indeed been spreading under the radar since around Christmas, the pattern of patient visits to UCLA facilities would have looked a lot like what actually happened, they wrote in a study published Thursday in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.”

• Related: A group of engineering professors, writing for The Conversation, take a look at the 6-foot coronavirus rule—and the limitations it has. They say to think about COVID-19 the way you’d think of cigarette smoke at a bar: “There is no safe distance in a poorly ventilated room, unfortunately. Good ventilation and filtration strategies that bring in fresh air are critical to reduce aerosol concentration levels, just as opening windows can clear out a smoke-filled room.”

• The New York Daily News reported today—on the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks—this: “The Trump administration has secretly siphoned nearly $4 million away from a program that tracks and treats FDNY firefighters and medics suffering from 9/11 related illnesses.” Key quote: “Here we have sick World Trade Center-exposed firefighters and EMS workers, at a time when the city is having difficult financial circumstances due to COVID-19, and we’re not getting the money we need to be able to treat these heroes,” said (Dr. David) Prezant, the FDNY’s Chief Medical Officer. “And for years, they wouldn’t even tell us—we never ever received a letter telling us this.

• It’s come to this: The Washington Post has started tracking the number of teachers who have died of COVID-19 this fall across the country. So far, the tally is six.

• Health Net and Carol’s Kitchen are offering a free flu-shot clinic, open to all Riverside County residents, on Monday, Sept. 14, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the James A. Venable Community Center, at 50390 Carmen Ave., up in Cabazon. If interested, get there early, as the supply of shots is limited.

The city of Palm Springs really wants you to participate in the 2020 Census! From the city: “On Wednesday, Sept. 16 the five members of the City Council will kick off a friendly competition to see whose district can get the highest Census response rate by hosting drive-by caravans throughout their respective districts to urge residents to respond. The caravans will kick off at 5:30 p.m. from the parking lot of the Palm Springs Public Library, 300 S. Sunrise Way, with several representatives from city departments, business, nonprofit and neighborhood organizations on hand.” Get details on that and more here. (Full disclosure: The city has paid for Census-outreach advertising at CVIndependent.com and in the Daily Digest; however, this item is not related to that purchase.)

The much-ballyhooed Virgin Hotel will not be built in Palm Springs after all. Per KESQ: “(Developer) Grit and Virgin also agreed to use the hotel site to instead build a 62-unit condominium complex instead of a hotel.” Hmm.

• I took this week off from the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast, but Shann, John, Brad and Dr. Laura were all there, as were The Standard’s Nino Eilets, event-producer Daniel Vaillancourt, and the fabulous Debra Ann Mumm, the founder of the Create Center for the Arts!

• And finally, after all of that, you may need a drink. Our beer writer, Brett Newton, thinks perhaps you should consider mead for that drink … even though mead isn’t a beer. Check out what he has to say.

Have a great weekend, everyone. If you haven’t yet voted in the first round of the Independent’s Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll, please do so by clicking here—voting closes on Monday! And you appreciate this Daily Digest and the other local journalism produced by the Independent, please consider financially helping out by clicking here and becoming a Supporter of the Independent. Be safe; the Daily Digest will return on Monday.

Published in Daily Digest

Now that Labor Day Weekend is in the figurative rearview mirror, a lot of people are starting to look toward the holidays—and with that, people will come to the realization that, as with everything else since February, things will be quite different this year.

My husband I have already started talking about our holiday plans. Our family gatherings are pretty small; most of our closest relatives have passed away, and the ones who are left are scattered across the country—except for my mom, and Garrett’s dad and stepmom, all of whom live in Reno. In recent years, we’ve spent Christmas with the three of them, either here or in Reno.

We’ve decided that we’ll likely do the same this year. We’ll probably all get COVID-19 tests before we get together to minimize the risk. There are only five of us, so it seems doable, if still perhaps a little scary.

Last year, the parents visited us in Palm Springs, and we all went to a large, chosen-family dinner on Christmas day at a friend’s house. There were 30 or so people there, and it was absolutely amazing. Such large family gatherings would be incredibly irresponsible this year—at least as things stand now.

Now, it is possible that there could be some sort of advancement between now and then; Christmas is still 3 1/2 months away, after all, and the arrival of inexpensive, speedy, no-lab-needed COVID-19 tests could make larger gatherings more feasible. Maybe.

Then again, there’s also talk of a fall-and-winter combination COVID and influenza surge.

Damn it, 2020.

Before we get to today’s news, two pleas. First: If you have the means, please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent, so we can keep producing quality local journalism; click here to do so. Second: If you haven’t yet voted in the first round of the Independent’s Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll, please do so by clicking here. Thanks!

Today’s news:

• You’ve probably heard this already, but just in case you haven’t, brace yourself for epic stupidity: The El Dorado Fire, which has burned 7,000 acres so far near Yucaipa and is responsible for the choking smoke in the valley today, was started by morons using a pyrotechnic device at a gender-reveal party.

• Related: Due to the dry, convection-oven-like conditions ’round these parts, the U.S. Forest Service is closing access to Southern California’s national forests, because you never know when cretins may show up, even though it’s 110 degrees and as dry as a popcorn fart, TO SET OFF INCENDIARY DEVICES TO ANNOUNCE THE GENITALIA OF A YET-TO-BE-BORN CHILD. Arrrgh!

• OK, it’s time for a drink! I’ve been enjoying the Boulevardier recently. Unfamiliar? It’s like a Negroni, but with whiskey instead of gin. Here’s a recipe. They’re quite lovely, even if the trademark bitterness from the Campari takes some getting used to. From the Independent archives: Cocktail scribe Kevin Carlow suggests adding walnut to things to make the drink even more festive—far more festive and infinitely less dangerous than a fire-tinged gender-reveal party!

• OK, whew. Now that we’ve calmed down a bit, let’s get back to the fire-related news: More than 2 million acres have burned this year so far in Californiaand that’s a new record.

• Related: The Los Angeles Times looks at the massive toll the August Dome Fire took on the Joshua tree forest. Key quote: “Preserve botanist Drew Kaiser estimated that about a quarter of the sprawling Cima Dome Joshua tree forest—which extends beyond the preserve boundaries north of Interstate 15—was destroyed. But that quarter is a place that some desert lovers call one of their favorite spots on the planet.

The Washington Post over the weekend broke this story: “Louis DeJoy’s prolific campaign fundraising, which helped position him as a top Republican power broker in North Carolina and ultimately as head of the U.S. Postal Service, was bolstered for more than a decade by a practice that left many employees feeling pressured to make political contributions to GOP candidates—money DeJoy later reimbursed through bonuses, former employees say.” That, of course, is quite illegal.

• Some sort-of good news: Some Californians on unemployment will soon be seeing an extra $900 show up, following President Trump’s executive order.

• Here’s some not-so-good and certainly more bonkers news related to Trump: In response to a tweet claiming California has implemented the use of the 1619 Project in schools (which hasn’t happened), the president threatened to withhold funding from schools that do so. What’s the 1619 Project? It “teaches American history beginning with the arrival of slaves to Virginia in the year 1619 and focuses on the contributions of Black Americans.” Sigh.

• Back to some good news: The Wall Street Journal looks at the fantastic success of an initiative to recruit poll workers, thanks to large companies giving employees paid time off to volunteer. Key quote: “Power the Polls, an initiative to recruit low-risk poll workers to staff in-person voting locations on Election Day and during early voting in October, has joined with more than 70 companies, including Starbucks Corp. and Patagonia, to connect people who want to volunteer during the election with counties that offer training. Last week the Civic Alliance, the group behind the campaign, said it surpassed its goal of recruiting 250,000 volunteer poll workers through its corporate partnerships and now has more than 350,000 people signed on to help with the election.”

A federal judge will hear arguments regarding the Trump administration’s plans to end U.S. Census work early. Key quote, from the San Francisco Chronicle: “(U.S. District Judge Lucy) Koh will hear arguments Sept. 17 on requests by the plaintiffs for an injunction that would reverse the one-month speedup. They sought an immediate restraining order after the Justice Department told Koh in a court filing that the Census Bureau ‘has already begun taking steps to conclude field operations,’ which ‘are scheduled to be wound down throughout September by geographic regions based on response rates within those regions.’”

• OK, I am just going to leave this New York Times headline right here, shake my head and walk away: “Trump Emerges as Inspiration for Germany’s Far Right: Among German conspiracy theorists, ultranationalists and neo-Nazis, the American president is surfacing as a rallying cry, or even as a potential ‘liberator.’

• While movie theaters aren’t yet open here, they’re open in about two-thirds of the country—and this weekend, Tenet became the first major release since … well, you know, to open only in theaters. The New York Times looks at how the film did at the box office—and what that means for other upcoming releases.

• Finally, as Labor Day 2020 comes to an end: A professor, writing for The Conversation, looks at the philosophy of Simone Weil, who helped change the way people look at work in the early 20th century. Key quote: “Work must be seen in its larger context, for if it isn’t, laborers may soon feel like cogs in a machine, winding a nut onto a bolt or moving papers from an inbox to an outbox. To do work well, people need to understand the context of work and how it makes a difference in the lives of others.

Be safe. Be kind. Wear a mask around others. Wash your hands. Thanks for reading; the Daily Digest will be back Wednesday.

Published in Daily Digest

Today is one of the biggest, craziest news days I have ever seen. Let’s get right to it:

The reverberations of the shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday in Kenosha, Wis., continue to intensify. First and most awful: A 17-year-old was arrested after allegedly shooting three people, two fatally, at a protest in Kenosha late last night.

• Buzzfeed is reporting that the alleged shooter, Kyle Rittenhouse, was front and center in the crowd at a January Trump rally in January. “Kyle Howard Rittenhouse’s social media presence is filled with him posing with weapons, posting ‘Blue Lives Matter,’ and supporting Trump for president. Footage from the Des Moines, Iowa, rally on Jan. 30 shows Rittenhouse feet away from the president, in the front row, to the left of the podium. He posted a TikTok video from the event.”

• To protest the shooting of Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to not take the court for Game 5 of their best-of-seven NBA playoff series against the Orlando Magic this afternoon—a moment unparalleled in modern sports history. Shortly thereafter, all of today’s NBA playoff games were postponed, as were all of today’s scheduled WNBA games. The players’ strike then spread to Major League Soccer as well as Major League Baseball, where several games—including the game involving the Milwaukee Brewers—have been called off in protest.

Jacob Blake’s family says he is paralyzed and dealing with serious internal injuries.

A professor of labor and employment relations from Penn State, writing for The Conversation, says police unions should not be considered part of the broader U.S. labor movement. Key quote: “Exclusively protecting the interests of their members, without consideration for other workers, also sets police unions apart from other labor groups. Yes, the first priority of any union is to fight for their members, but most other unions see that fight in the context of a larger movement that fights for all workers. Police unions do not see themselves as part of this movement. With one exception—the International Union of Police Associations, which represents just 2.7 percent of American police—law enforcement unions are not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the U.S. labor body that unites all unions.”

• In other news: Hurricane Laura is approaching Texas and Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane, and more than a half-million people have been told to evacuate. It could be the most intense storm to hit that area in recorded history, and is drawing a lot of comparisons to Hurricane Katrina. “Some areas when they wake up Thursday morning, they’re not going to believe what happened,” Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist at the hurricane center, told NBC News. “What doesn’t get blown down by the wind could easily get knocked down by the rising ocean waters pushing well inland.”

• The CDC just issued new guidelines regarding COVID-19 testing that have left public-health experts around the country completely baffled: According to CNN: “The new guidelines raise the bar on who should get tested, advising that some people without symptoms probably don't need it—even if they've been in close contact with an infected person.” According to CNN, the Trump administration pressured the CDC to make the change. Unbelievable.

• Where was Dr. Anthony Fauci when these changes were being made? In surgery. Yes, really. According to Axios: “Anthony Fauci was in the operating room under general anesthesia last Thursday when the White House coronavirus task force approved the narrowing of CDC testing recommendations to exclude asymptomatic individuals, according to CNN's Sanjay Gupta.” Fauci also told Gupta he’s “concerned about the interpretation of these recommendations and worried it will give people the incorrect assumption that asymptomatic spread is not of great concern. In fact, it is."

• Heading in the opposite direction: Gov. Newsom today announced plans for the state to double its COVID-19 testing capacity, and reduce turn-around time. However, note the dates—this is not happening right away. The opening paragraph of the news release: “Governor Gavin Newsom today announced that California has signed a groundbreaking contract with a major diagnostics company, which will allow California to process up to an additional 150,000 COVID-19 diagnostic tests a day, with a contractual turnaround time of 24-48 hours. The goal is to stand up a laboratory facility and begin processing tens of thousands of additional tests by November 1 and run at full capacity by ­no later than March 1, 2021.”

• Given that March date above, this is related: The Conversation breaks down the reasons why it’s going to take quite a while to get vaccine produced at a large-enough scale. Key quote: “The shrinking and outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing capacity has reached into all sectors. Vaccines are no exception. … When a coronavirus vaccine is approved, production of other vaccines will need to continue as well. With the flu season each year and children being born every day, you can’t simply reallocate all existing vaccine manufacturing capacity to COVID-19 vaccine production. New additional capacity will be needed.”

The New York Times has started a college COVID-19 case tracker. The takeaway: “A New York Times survey of more than 1,500 American colleges and universities—including every four-year public institution, every private college that competes in NCAA sports and others that identified cases—has revealed at least 26,000 cases and 64 deaths since the pandemic began.”

The University of Alabama at Birmingham is working on a different vaccine, of sortsone that can be taken as a nasal spray.

You know all that furor you saw on social media regarding Melania Trump’s revamp of the White House Rose Garden? Well, it is all a bunch of inaccurate nonsense.

• Public health experts around the country are keeping their eyes out for possible coronavirus cases that spread at the massive Sturgis Motorcycle Rally a week and a half ago. According to The Associated Press: “An analysis of anonymous cell phone data from Camber Systems, a firm that aggregates cell phone activity for health researchers, found that 61 percent of all the counties in the U.S. have been visited by someone who attended Sturgis, creating a travel hub that was comparable to a major U.S. city.”

• Related: Genetic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 reveals that the annual leadership meeting of drug-company Biogen, late in February in Boston, became a super-spreader event for the coronavirus. Key quote: “A sweeping study of nearly 800 coronavirus genomes … has found that viruses carrying the conference’s characteristic mutation infected hundreds of people in the Boston area, as well as victims from Alaska to Senegal to Luxembourg. As of mid-July, the variant had been found in about one-third of the cases sequenced in Massachusetts and 3 percent of all genomes studied thus far in the United States.”

• The business devastation as a result of the pandemic-caused economic shutdown is unparalleled, as revealed by a San Francisco Chamber of Commerce study showing that more than half of the storefronts in SF have closed since COVID-19 arrived.

• Related and local: Local restaurants continue to announce closures. Evzin Mediterranean Cuisine's owner announced on social media today that both locations will be no more after this weekend.

• From the Independent: Indie music venues across the country are asking Congress to offer them a lifeline—including the renowned Pappy and Harriet’s. Pappy’s owner Robyn Celia answered questions from the Independent about the effort—and how Pappy’s is surviving the shutdown.

• Also from the Independent, a little bit of positive news: The Palm Springs Cultural Center has big plans for the fall, even though the doors to the building will likely remain closed through at least the end of the year. A lot of events—including showings for the annual LGBT film fest Cinema Diverse—will take place around the Cultural Center’s new drive-in screen.

• Here’s this week’s District 4 COVID-19 report from the county. (District 4 is the Coachella Valley and points eastward.) Same as last week: Hospitalizations and cases are ticking down; the weekly positivity rate remains crazy high; I remain confused as to the methodology behind the positivity numbers.

• MedPage Today explains the reasons why scientists remain unsure about the efficacy of convalescent plasma, which received emergency-use authorization from the FDA in a somewhat controversial fashion. The main reason: The biggest study of the plasma so far “was observational only, with no untreated control group. That makes the findings merely hypothesis-generating, and can't offer any firm conclusions. That's fine for issuing an emergency use authorization (EUA), but not so much for making claims about survival benefit, independent researchers said.”

The San Jose Mercury News did an amazing story on Vacaville resident Chad Little. He lost his house to a fire in 2015—and decided he was not going to go through that experience again, so he stayed behind to fight the fire himself … and when the water went out, he turned to the wettest thing he could find to fight the blaze: A 30-pack of Bud Light.

If you’re someone who prays, please pray for coastal Texas and Louisiana, as well as for Jacob Blake. Stay safe, everyone—and thanks for reading the Independent.

Published in Daily Digest

Happy Friday, all. On one hand, we’re one week closer to the end of the pandemic.

On the other, we’re one week closer to the end … period. Sigh.

So … let’s get to the news:

• Fires continue to devastate California, especially in the northern part of the state. As the Los Angeles Times grimly puts it: “A series of wildfires burning an area larger than the state of Rhode Island have depleted California’s firefighting resources and triggered requests for help from across the West, the East Coast and even as far as Australia.” 

Among the things being threatened by the fires: A major power plant.

• Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified before Congress today, pledging to make sure vote-by-mail ballots were handled in a timely fashion, and saying it was “outrageous” to suggest that he—a major Trump donor—would intentionally mess things up to help the president. There was also this, according to The New York Times: “Under intense pressure from Democrats, however, he refused to reverse other steps, like removing hundreds of blue mailboxes and mail-sorting machines, that he said his predecessors had initiated in response to a steady decline in mail volume.”

The so-called Golden State Killer was sentenced to multiple life-in-prison sentences today, after agreeing to a plea deal in June that meant he’d avoid the death penalty. The Associated Press, via SFGate, has the details.

• The president has made several alarming election-related statements as of late—including a threat to send law enforcement officers to polling locations to monitor things. Would it be legal for him to do such a thing? CNN says probably would not be.

In other Trump-related news: The endless fight to not turn over his tax returns continues.

Our partners at CalMatters look at one of the more contentious proposals being debated by the California Legislature. The lede: “It doesn’t sound like an idea that would generate much controversy in a statehouse dominated by Democrats: Should more California workers be assured they can return to their jobs if they take time off to care for a sick family member or new baby? But a proposal to do just that has caused a major rift among Democrats in the California Capitol. As lawmakers enter the final week of the legislative session, it’s shaping up as a bitter fight and casting uncertainty on a key piece of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to advance what he calls a ‘parents’ agenda.’”

• From the Independent comes a piece regarding something else the Legislature is pondering during these final days of the session—an expansion of protections for farmworkers and, by extension, a significant part of the food-supply chain. Key quote, from Assemblyperson Eduardo Garcia: “We’re talking about PPE investments, greater testing and permanent housing for our farmworkers. Then, of course, we’re talking about transparency and accountability to make sure that we’re accounting for farmworkers who test positive (for COVID-19) to make sure that we isolate them and keep others safe from becoming infected. We’re not asking for things outside the norm. We’re asking for greater investment in, and attention to, a very important part of our essential workforce that ties directly into our strong economy as it relates to the $50 billion agriculture industry.”

Native American communities are being hammered by COVID-19. MedPage Today examines the reasons why, with the help of some recently completed studies and data-crunching.

• The Los Angeles Times takes a fascinating look at the case of Qian Lang, who became the first—and, for weeks, only known—COVID-19 victim identified in Los Angeles. He was also one of the first patients to get treated with remdesivir. Key quote: “The 38-year-old salesman played an important role, not widely known until now, in a frantic race to understand the deadly new virus before it hit the United States in full force. Public health officials and researchers looked to him as a real-time, flesh-and-blood case study.

Can you imagine working as a school nurse these days? According to The New York Times: “School nurses are already in short supply, with less than 40 percent of schools employing one full time before the pandemic. Now those overburdened health care specialists are finding themselves on the front lines of a risky, high-stakes experiment in protecting public health as districts reopen their doors amid spiking caseloads in many parts of the country.”

Also from The New York Times comes a story about an amazing piece of anecdotal evidence supporting immunity in recovered COVID-19 patients, regarding an outbreak on a Seattle fishing vessel: “More than a hundred crew members aboard the American Dynasty were stricken by the infection over 18 days at sea. But three sailors who initially carried antibodies remained virus-free, according to a new report.”

• Chin up, buttercup! A professor of medicine, writing for The Conversation, offers nine reasons to be optimistic that we will, in fact, have a widely available COVID-19 vaccine next year.

• Also from The Conversation: If it seems sometimes like Democrats and Republicans these days are living in alternate realities … well, that’s because we kind of are—and the pandemic has only served to make those “realities” even more different.

• Partially because of the pandemic, and partially because of a heightened awareness of racism and inequities in the restaurant industry, there will be no more James Beard restaurant awards until 2022. The San Francisco Chronicle explains.

• I returned to the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast this week to discuss COVID-19, Palm Springs city government and varied other things with hosts John Taylor, Shann Carr and Brad Fuhr, as well as fellow guest Dr. Laura Rush. See and hear what we have to say here.

Finally … in some parts of California, ash is falling from the skies due to the wildfires. But in Switzerland, it’s cocoa power that’s falling from the skies.

That’s enough for the week! Please, have a safe, enjoyable and enriching weekend. Oh, and wear a mask when you’re around others—and please consider throwing a few bucks our way to support independent local journalism, but only if you can afford to do so. The Daily Digest will be back Monday.

Published in Daily Digest

California, to be frank, is a mess right now: According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, there are 367 major fires burning statewide right now.

Let me repeat that, because it’s shocking: There are 367 major fires burning right now.

The Los Angeles Times has a summary here. I also recommend checking out SFGate.com for free coverage of the various fires in Northern California. This is bad, folks.

Other news of the day:

• The Post Office, to be frank, is a mess right now. The American College of Physicians issued a statement expressing concern that the recent slowdowns in delivery could kill people: “Across the country millions of patients regularly depend on the U.S. mail to receive their prescription medications. There are already reports from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which fills 80 percent of its prescriptions by mail, that veterans have experienced significant delays in their mail-order prescription drugs. A delay in receiving a necessary prescription could be life-threatening.”

Did you know the U.S. Postal Service delivers live poultry? Yes, it does, and the delays are causing horrifying problems with that, too.

• The recent uproar over the USPS dismantling has caused major Trump donor and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to say further operational changes will be suspended until after the election. But he hasn’t said whether the USPS would undo the changes already made.

Why in the world, in 2020, is California subject to rolling blackouts due to a lack of electricity? Our partners at CalMatters offer this helpful explainer.

• Let’s take a break from all of the heinous news for this: The Census is hiring temp workers. According to an email to the Independent: “The U.S. Census Bureau is hiring hundreds of workers for temporary jobs available in Riverside County for the 2020 Census. The 2020 Census Jobs website is now accepting applications for Census Takers at pay of $17 per hour. Census takers will visit the households that have not responded to the census, speaking with residents, and using electronic devices (such as smartphones issued by the Census Bureau) to collect census data. Census takers will follow local public health guidelines when they visit, and will be wearing masks. Census takers must complete a virtual COVID-19 training on social distancing protocols and other health and safety guidance before beginning their work in neighborhoods. Apply now at 2020census.gov/jobs or call 1-855-JOB-2020 (562-2020).”

Here’s the weekly District 4 COVID-19 report, from Riverside County. (District 4 is the Coachella Valley and points eastward.) Again, it shows hospitalizations trending down, cases slightly trending down (maybe), and a crazy-high 16.4 percent weekly positivity rate. Worst of all, we lost 20 more of our friends and neighbors.

• Meanwhile, Eisenhower Health’s latest stats show the weekly positivity rate at their facilities trending downward, and currently in (the high) single digits. So … I remain confused.

Desert Hot Springs has been the hardest-hit valley city when it comes to unemployment during the pandemic. That’s the conclusion of data-crunching by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership; see the breakdown here.

• From the Independent: Chef Andie Hubka is known for her three highly regarded restaurants in Indio and La Quinta, as well as her Cooking With Class school. Where other valley chefs have cut back service during this era of takeout and patio dining, Hubka has actually gone in the opposite direction by launching a brand-new concept, Citrine. Andrew Smith explains.

• Also from the Independent: Wine columnist Katie Finn looks at how South Africa has turned to alcohol prohibition as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19but that move, enforced at times with brutal violence, has devastated the country’s wine industry.

• The FDA was getting set to give emergency authorization for the use of blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients as a treatment for the disease—but then federal health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, stepped in and stopped the authorization, saying the science isn’t clear yet. The New York Times explains.

• Speaking of unclear science: In this space, we recently linked to one of many articles, all from reliable sources, about a study regarding the effectiveness of various face masks. One of the key takeaways, as reported, was that neck gaiters could actually make matters worse. Well … as Science News reports, that conclusion may not be accurate. One of the problems: “The study was meant to figure out how to evaluate masks, not compare their effectiveness.”

• Keep in mind what the last two stories have said about the vagaries of reporting on studies these days when we bring you this lede, from MedPage Today: “More data from observational studies, this time in hospitalized patients, indicated that famotidine (Pepcid AC), which is used to treat heartburn, was associated with improved clinical outcomes in COVID-19 patients.” The story goes on to make it clear that more research is needed before definitive conclusions are drawn.

• Here’s something that can be definitively said: It’s very important that people get flu shots this year. A nursing professor, writing for The Conversation, explains why. Key quote: “As a health care professional, I urge everyone to get the flu vaccine in September. Please do not wait for flu cases to start to peak. The flu vaccine takes up to two weeks to reach peak effectiveness, so getting the vaccine in September will help provide the best protection as the flu increases in October and later in the season.”

• Also from The Conversation: A recent survey of essential workers in Massachusetts revealed that far more Black and Latino workers don’t feel safe on the job than white workers. Here is why—and why that’s important.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism nonprofit ProPublica doesn’t mince words regarding COVID-19 and Sin City: “Las Vegas casinos reopened June 4, and they have become a likely hotbed for the spread of the novel coronavirus, public health experts said. But if tourists return home and then test positive for COVID-19, the limitations of contact tracing in the midst of a pandemic make it unlikely such an outbreak would be identified.”

• CNBC looks at the status of that extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits that President Trump has promised. So far, 11 states have been approved for the money (California is not one of them)—but a whole lot of people are going to be left out regardless.

• Finally, Taiwan—a country which has done a much better job of managing the coronavirus than the United States has—recently hosted a 10,000-person arena concert. Time magazine explains how the experience was different, thanks to the specter of SARS-CoV-2.

That’s enough for the day. Count your blessings. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. If you have the means, please consider supporting quality independent local journalism by becoming a Supporter of the Independent. The Daily Digest will return Friday.

Published in Daily Digest

On this week's completely woke weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips talks to Li'l Trumpy about Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan's move to Canada; Red Meat watches as Milkman Dan tries to give Karen a gift; This Modern World returns to the Stupidverse for commentary on the Iran mess; Jen Sorensen ponders Rupert Murdoch's media take on the Australian wildfires; and The K Chronicles has mixed feelings about his son's sudden interest in his old music.

Published in Comics

Anthony Rendon arrived feeling a little punchy. At 51, the speaker of the California Assembly is adjusting to life as a new dad—and his 3-month-old baby hadn’t slept well the night before.

“She was up at 1:30, 3, 4:30. And then once she woke up at 4:30, she didn’t fall asleep until 6,” Rendon said. “So that’s my life.”

The Los Angeles politician—sporting a black hoodie and Converse high tops as he sat for an interview in his district office—assumed one of California’s most-powerful roles in the spring of 2016. As the Assembly’s Democratic leader, he’s negotiated $200 billion state budgets with two Senate leaders and two governors. He’s overseen a political operation that resulted in Democrats winning a historically huge majority of more than 75 percent.

And yet around the Capitol, he’s probably best known for his low profile, rarely calling press conferences and opting not to author any bills so his members can share the spotlight. His style—at turns cerebral and self-deprecating—is unusual in a statehouse that attracts its share of showboats.

So it was with a certain understatement, as well as exhaustion, that Rendon, clutching a cup of coffee, shared his expectations for 2020—in the Capitol, at the ballot and for his family. Here are condensed highlights from our December interview.

So who gives a better baby present, Gavin Newsom or Jerry Brown?

I like Jerry Brown very much. And I’m not asking that he send a present, but he didn’t. Gavin Newsom and his wife sent a very nice gift. … It was a onesie. … It says “One California” or something. Get it? It’s a play on words. It’s a onesie. It’s very cute. And I meant to take a picture of her in it and send it to him, but I haven’t done that. I’m glad you reminded me.

You’re the first speaker in a while to have a young family. Recent legislative leaders either didn’t have children or had much older children. Do you think having a baby is going to impact your ability to do such a demanding job?

It impacts all aspects of my life. I think I’ll have to make adjustments, for sure. … Being speaker is a demanding job. And I’m sure being a parent is a demanding job as well. So something will have to give.

March of 2020 will mark four years that you’ve been assembly speaker. And if you remain speaker until the end of the legislative session—

That’s ominous.

… You’ll become the longest-serving speaker since Willie Brown. So, any fears of restless colleagues who might mount a challenge?

It’s not something that’s on my mind right now. I haven’t heard any rumblings. 

Your caucus grew a lot in 2018 because of the seats you successfully flipped. Then it got even bigger when GOP Assemblyman Brian Maienschein switched parties. What was that like to have a Republican in your caucus? Is it as easy as just switching jerseys and joining your team, or is there any awkwardness in having a former opponent as a colleague?

It probably sounds ludicrous … but I was amazed how seamless it was. When Brian announced that he was switching, I had a meeting with the caucus and said, “Hey, this is what he wants to do, and how do you guys feel about it?” And I almost felt like I was overpreparing them, because they were all like, “Cool.” (Even as a Republican) Brian voted with us so often.

More recently, local Assemblyman Chad Mayes left the Republican Party as well. He’s now registered with no party preference. But if he wanted to caucus with the Democrats, would you allow it?

I don’t know. I’d probably have to ask the caucus how they felt about it. He doesn’t seem to want to. I saw him (a few days ago). He feels pretty liberated to not be a member of a party. … I don’t think he wants to become a Democrat, and I don’t think he wants to caucus with us. I don’t think he wants to caucus with Republicans (either).

How are you feeling about your Assembly races in 2020? Do you think you can hold your 61-seat mega-majority?

I have mixed feelings about it. The weather forecast is complicated. On the one hand, there’s a lot of very anti-Republican sentiment. … With Donald Trump on the ballot, you have to think that we’re going to do very well. That being said, we also know that there is very much an anti-incumbent tendency out there, and we just have more incumbents than they do. People are very angry around the issue of housing affordability and homelessness. We see that polling everywhere, in every district throughout the state. So I don’t think we can say, “Democrat X is running against Donald Trump” or “running against a Republican.” We have to tell a story about what we’ve done. … Just railing against Donald Trump, I don’t think that’s fair to Californians to do that.

Why?

I’m really impressed with the work that we’ve done … and also because … we have candidates who have incredible qualifications and have had incredible life experiences. You take someone like Thu-Ha Nguyen (challenging GOP Assemblyman Tyler Diep) in Orange County, who’s a cancer researcher, and a mom, and a council member. And I think to reduce all of that to just, “She’s battling Donald Trump,” I think is overly simplistic. And it’s also very—it’s a short horizon. I mean, Donald Trump will be gone someday, and the party needs to stand for something. And we will.

So how do you feel about Gavin Newsom’s approach? He’s been very much framing himself as the leader of the resistance and fighting Trump all the time. How do you feel about that?

That works for him. A lot of what he does is about the resources from the federal government, and that’s a different dynamic. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I’m interested in. But I get why he does it. … Whether it’s high speed rail funds or water—that’s very real for (him).

How do you feel about the landscape for the Democratic presidential nomination?

I haven’t been following it all that closely. … I want to be supportive of a Democrat who could beat Donald Trump.

You were a Kamala Harris supporter early on. So with her out of the race, have you picked a candidate you’re going to endorse?

No … I don’t know if I will. I might. I’ve had Mr. Steyer call me, and the South Bend mayor called me. (Rendon turned to his staff member and asked to be reminded of his name.)

A lot of the policies the Democratic candidates are proposing are things that California is already doing to some degree—like $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization, carbon pricing and paid family leave. Do you think that the nation wants to be more like California?

The California label is probably not a good thing in a lot of parts of the country for whatever reason. But I think in terms of policy, the state certainly has a story to tell. So I’m not surprised that some of our ideas are being put up there as models to follow. … We’re proud of our economy, and we’re proud of the $15 minimum wage, and all the stuff we’ve done on the environment. And at the same time, how many tens of thousands of people go to sleep every night in this state without a home? And we have long-lasting water problems, quality and supply. We have too many people in prison. So I think it’s important for us as Democrats to be honest. And it is very difficult to do that in election years.

On criminal-justice issues, California has been on a long course of reversing tough-on-crime policies of the past. Do you think the state has gone too far in any way? Or if you think we haven’t gone far enough, what’s left to do?

In our House, we passed the (parolee right to) vote bill. (ACA 6 would allow parolees to vote after they complete their prison sentences, if voters approve.) I’d like to see that get on the ballot and have Californians take a look at that. What we ask for in our society is for people who’ve done bad things to do their time and then become engaged citizens. And as long as you’re not allowing that, then you’re not living up to your principles.

A few months ago, my colleague Dan Morain wrote about the murder your brother-in-law John Lam was an accomplice to 16 years ago. Jerry Brown reduced his sentence, and Gavin Newsom made a final call allowing his release. Have you had any insights on criminal justice issues from this experience in your family?

I have. He was released on Oct. 10th. He’s in transitional housing. And you know, my wife and I are very fortunate. We have resources at our disposal. I’ve been on paternity leave. My wife is self-employed, so we have a lot of time that we can spend with him, and we take him out a lot. … When I pick him up, I sometimes look at the other guys at the home and wonder to what extent they don’t have those things, and what that means for them moving forward. So in the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about the things that we do or don’t do after (someone is released from prison) and the hurdles that people have. That is something that I’ve taken away from the experience.

Looking ahead, what are your priorities for 2020?

No surprise to you or anybody, wildfires and housing affordability/homelessness issues are on everyone’s mind—this sort of unresolved, you know, enigma, that is PG&E and where that goes moving forward.

So on wildfire, what can you do?

It’s a very good question. People (in Northern California) are constantly talking about insurance issues. 

What about on homelessness?

A lot of what we want to do is relating to oversight of the money and the opportunities that we’ve given to local governments. … It’s incumbent upon cities to do something, and it’s incumbent upon us to provide oversight.

Do you anticipate the Legislature responding to pressure from initiatives that are in the process of qualifying for the ballot? Like the challenge from Uber and Lyft on AB 5, the new California law that treats more contract workers as employees—would you pass a law to keep that off the ballot?

I don’t believe we would. I felt as though we were doing a tremendous favor to a lot of people by even addressing that. We could have easily just let it go and let the court ruling stand. I have no interest in getting involved in that. I think we’ve been quite good to those people.

A few years ago, there was a push to do a constitutional amendment asking voters to repeal the Proposition 209 ban (from 1996) on affirmative action. Given the 2020 electorate, do you want that to be something the Legislature does, give that to the voters this year?

I’m glad you brought that up. … I would like to see 209 repealed. That being said, if we are going to get something on the ballot, and get it passed in November, from a political standpoint, it almost seems too late. You have to raise a lot of money. You have to have your ducks lined up. And I haven’t seen that from any of the activist groups that have been talking about that. It’s disappointing that people sometimes seem to want to jam things on the ballot. Good intentions, but (they) don’t go through the very simple political steps of raising money and having a proper coalition to get something passed by voters.

What about a repeal of the death penalty? Would you want to see the Legislature put that on the ballot for the people?

I’ve been opposed to the death penalty for a long time. … But as long as it’s not being carried out (because Newsom halted executions by executive order), there doesn’t seem to be a rush.

Anything you hope will go differently this year in working with Gov. Newsom?

There were some bumps in the road with Gavin early on. At the time, it was hard to contextualize. It was just irritating. But when you think about it, yeah, it makes sense: It’s a whole new team, whole new relationships. So I think things will get better. And I don’t know that we necessarily need to tweak any individual thing. I think it’s just learning people’s tendencies and learning how people like to communicate

One last question: How do you feel about having another Anthony Rendon in L.A.? (A Major League Baseball player by the same name recently left the Washington Nationals for the Los Angeles Angels.)

It’s a lot. After my wife and I had a baby, our first date with a baby sitter was the night he hit a big homerun in Game 6 of the World Series. And I got 69 texts … That includes people who sent texts saying, “Oh, aren’t you glad I’m not sending you another Anthony Rendon text?” That’s included in that total. Just for the record.

What were most of the texts saying?

“Oh, you hit a home run tonight! Ha ha ha.” Oh, so clever. I’ve never heard that one before. I’ve literally been following this guy since he was Freshman of the Year at Rice University. I know he exists. I don’t need another freakin’ person to tell me that he exists.

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

Published in Politics

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

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