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Inside San Francisco

Inside San Francisco (Nov 1st, 2019)

Today, Inside’s editorial team decided to put out a special issue about California’s wildfires. Hopefully, this is something you find educational and resourceful. If you do, please forward it along to a friend, family member, or colleague who you think would want to learn more about the fires.

Have a good weekend,

- Shane

For the first time since the Kincade fire started eight days ago, it didn’t grow overnight. According to a report from Cal Fire this morning, the 77,758-acre fire (seen here) is now at 68 percent containment. “I think you’ll see that number go up steadily over the next few days,” Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said Friday. Given firefighters’ progress on the Kincade blaze, some 700 firefighters were released yesterday into today to either head home or to help on fires burning in Southern California. That still leaves about 4,300 firefighters fighting the Kincade fire. - THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

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Half of the 20 most destructive California wildfires in history (determined by the number of burned structures) have occurred since 2015, and the Kincade Fire north of Santa Rosa may join that list before being extinguished. There's no doubt that wildfires are happening more frequently and they're becoming harder to contain.

So, why is this happening? It’s one of those dense, complex questions that really has a very simple answer, and you probably already know what it is: climate change.

The warmer climate has created longer droughts, which results in dead and dying trees (nearly 150 million as of 2018, according to the U.S. Forest Service), which is perfect kindling for any sparks in the hot, dry conditions that seem to hang around months longer than they used to. The fires themselves are self-propagating. Every acre of forest that burns add about the same amount of pollution as 10 cars do over the course of a year. For a 75,000-acre fire like the one in Sonoma County? Well, you can do the math.

California is certainly doing more than most states when it comes to taking action against climate change. But, it’s increasingly difficult for our (albeit significant) reduction in emissions to compete with the dozens of destructive blazes that spark each year. Every fire that burns perpetuates a system that has been trending in one specific direction for decades now. There’s a lot more work to be done.

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Wildfires in California aren’t going anywhere, and although some columnists have taken a doom-and-gloom approach (yes, as temperatures rise, more California forests will likely burn), there are more constructive conversations are taking place around solutions. 

How does California need to adapt to survive future fires? It will take a different approach. Better forest management and necessary PG&E overhauls, yes, but the state also needs to rethink redesigning neighborhoods and homes that can survive wildfires. Specifically, the state needs to stop building houses that are destined to burn in future blazes.

The technology and designs are already out there for fire-resistant homes, particularly in Australia, which has its own struggles with wildfires. “Bushfire-proof” homes are designed to be sealed off and to resist fires, and homes don’t have to cost a fortune. These accessible and affordable structures could reshape California’s rural landscape, particularly in areas that have burned and want to rebuild.

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Wildfires have burned in California for thousands of years, and naturally occurring wildfires have played an integral role in the state’s natural history. For example, many native plant species, including California’s iconic giant sequoias, require fires to reproduce and expand their range. Fires burn dead and decaying plant matter, returning nutrients to soil, and they thin forest canopies and undergrowth, which allows new trees to grow.

California’s first people used controlled wildfires to modify the environment around them to increase favored game species like elk and deer, and to protect themselves from predators. Fires were even used in early warfare. 

As forest management techniques improved over the years, prescribed burns have emerged as a promising way to curb wildfires. However, in California, between 1998 and 2018, the number of prescribed burns lagged far behind other areas in the US. Less than 3 percent of all controlled burns in the U.S. occurred in the Golden State, while 70 percent took place in the Southeast. For a fire-prone state like California, that’s not good.

Still, better forest management practices will likely be California’s best option for reducing the intensity of future wildfires, which will likely worsen as weather conditions across the state get warmer and drier (things have been particularly bad the past five years). However, some question whether the state should burn its forests to protect against future catastrophes.

If you’re looking for a good podcast about this, there's this one from North State Public Radio, which is called “Solutions to California’s Wildfire Problem.” The episode takes a critical look at how the state's fire-prone forests have been managed and examine how we can be better land stewards to avoid even worse wildfires in the future.

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Is it lights out for fire-causing PG&E? It’s impossible to talk about wildfires in California without mentioning Pacific Gas & Energy (PG&E). The beleaguered company filed for bankruptcy protection in January to help it deal with the estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities associated with the 2018 Camp Fire and the 2017 North Bay Fires, which were both caused by faulty PG&E equipment.  

To help prevent wildfires in 2019, the company cut power roughly 738,000 customers earlier in October, and although Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the company agreed to give customers who lost power “some credits” on their electricity bills, Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) will be one strategy to prevent wildfires across California over the next 10 years. At least, that’s what PG&E’s CEO, Bill Johnson, said. Johnson was appointed back in April, in a move that was quickly criticized by both the governor and consumer groups. 

However, PSPS weren’t enough to prevent the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which was likely ignited by a failed PG&E 230,000-volt transmission line near the blaze’s point of origin. Fire investigators are looking into whether PG&E also started a handful of other fires that burned last weekend around the Bay Area.

Given that PG&E ignored repairs on its aging power lines for years, many want to see the company dissolve. One Silicon Valley lawmaker has called for the state to take control of the company, and San Francisco bid to buy PG&E’s infrastructure in the city for $2.5 billion (PG&E politely declined the offer to sell its assets). A Vice writer made the case that PG&E customers should stop paying their bills and drive the company’s valuation to zero (even though PG&E’s shares were rallying earlier this week). 

Given that we likely won’t know what the bankruptcy court has to say about the future of PG&E until the end of the year, many of us are left to ask: what’s next for PG&E? As you ponder that question, take a look at this story, which includes some stellar PG&E-related illustrations.

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Is prison labor used to fight fires? Yes, there is a program that trains inmates for fire emergency response. It's called the Conservation Camp Program, and currently involves about 3,700 inmates, 2,600 of whom are qualified to work at the fire line. These camps operate throughout the state, so there's a good chance that every major fire burning right now has members of this program working on containment. Here's how it works, by the numbers:

  • Inmates get paid between $2.90 and $5.12 a day, depending on their training and skill level.

  • They also get an extra $1 per hour when they're in the field battling wildfires.

  • They work long shifts (24 hours on, 24 hours off), so the most an inmate can make in a full day of battling wildfires is $29.12.

  • Inmates get 2-for-1 credits, meaning every day served in the field takes two days off their prison sentence.

  • Prison labor saves California about $100 million every year.

Just a few years ago, the pay was only $2 a day. Officials approved a pay increase to try and encourage more inmates to voluntarily join the program, as it has been on the decline since 2007. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has actually blamed the program's decreased population on legislation that sought to reduce the state's prison population in general. Sen. Kamala Harris, when she was attorney general of California, argued against some of these reforms, including the 2-for-1 credits, for this exact reason.

Finally, much has been made about how difficult it can be for inmates to get firefighting jobs after their release. To address this issue, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in September to help inmates get work as part of emergency response units (though not as full-time firefighters). New reentry programs are also providing advanced training to inmates to help them pursue firefighting careers after release.

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It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of a widespread natural disaster, but there are plenty of things you can do to help those who’ve lost their homes or are living in limbo as the fires burn.

Donating money is by far the most effective way to get aid where it needs to go. Here are some donation options:

  • The United Way of the Wine Country has set up a dedicated fund to Kincade Fire Emergency Relief & Recovery. All donations are earmarked for the recovery, both short- and long-term, of those who’ve lost their homes. The Sonoma County Resilience Fund, established in 2017, works to provide housing options as well as trauma counseling for those impacted by the fires.

  • CNN’s Impact Your World project has a link with several donation options all in the same place – including the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the GlobalGiving Foundation.

  • Fidelity Charitable and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy have compiled a list of organizations accepting donations that have existing operations in California and are able to quickly deliver aid. These include the California Community Foundation, Long Angeles Regional Food Bank, and the Latino Community Foundation.

  • It also costs money to evacuate animals and help reunite lost pets with their families. KQED has an extensive list of places to donate to help our animal friends.

If you’ve already donated cash or your wallet’s a little light, here are some other things you can do.

It might be tempting to volunteer or donate in-kind goods, but this can often be more harmful than helpful. It takes significant training to volunteer in a disaster situation, and unless the goods you donate are exactly what an organization is looking for, they can become a logistical burden.

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To learn more:

  • These videos from Vox and Verge Science go into more depth on California’s wildfire epidemic, explaining why “fire season” never seems to stop.

  • Wendover Productions offers a detailed look at how those on the ground work to fight wildfires, while the video from Vice tags along with firefighters from Oregon to see how they fight forest fires.

  • NBC Los Angeles offers several infographics that explain what to do when there is a wildfire alert, and how to safely use mechanical equipment outside, take care of your car, and go camping without starting a fire.

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This newsletter was co-written by Inside Los Angeles curator Jonathan Harris and Inside San Francisco writer Shane Downing.

Editor: David Stegon, a senior editor at Inside, whose reporting experience includes cryptocurrency and technology.

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