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Hunted by forest fires, Californians rethink their will to rebuild

Since the camp fire, Mr Singer and his wife, Shannon, rent an apartment in Chico, about 20 miles away, while navigating the various headaches – insurance, zoning, construction, planning – needed to rebuild their house. They also started a nonprofit, Paradise Stronger, which is using their experience in fitness coaching to provide mental health care to residents facing trauma from the disaster. At first, they pledged to be part of Paradise’s ambitious revival plan to rebuild the entire city from the ground up, which includes more parks and green spaces, fire-fighting landscaping, and road routes. improved evacuation and warning systems.

But then came the fire season of 2020, which pushed a hellish new vocabulary into the lexicon – “mega-fire”, “hot drought”. High winds, which force preventative power cuts, are now common practice. In October, the Singers found themselves evacuating their land again, except this time the fire was both on the way and had already had its party.

“This time around, the area that was evacuated first was exactly where our house would have been,” said Mr Singer, 43. “All you could see was smoke. PTSD was rampant. “

His wife decided she had had enough.

“She turned to me and said, ‘I’m not sure I want to rebuild. I’m not sure that’s where I want to be anymore, ”Singer said. For his part, he says, he would be willing to hang in there – but not at the expense of his relationship.

“I see the vision for this city, and I want to be a part of it, but not if it means my marriage,” Singer said.

For now, the couple have hit the pause button on their rebuilding plans. If they go ahead, they also plan to spend $ 100,000 out of pocket. Their rebuilding plans are for a smaller but more fire-safe home on the same property, and the estimated cost is $ 250,000. They received $ 145,000 for the structure that burned down; like nearly 60% of American households, they learned after the fact that they were grossly underinsured.

Many insurers have also abandoned policies in areas deemed too risky: the California Department of Insurance in October reported that home insurers’ refusals to renew policies had increased by 31% statewide in 2019, and that this percentage had increased to 61% in postal codes. with high fire risk.

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After the forest fires, mourn the loss of the California giants

Times climate editor Hannah Fairfield liked the idea. And in October, after many Zoom talks with scientists and some complicated arrangements to visit the burnt areas (some of which were still closed to the public), photographer Max Whittaker and I made the first of our reporting trips. Themes of shock and urgency emerged, even among cool-headed scientists. I would later emphasize the point of the article by writing:

In very different parts of the state, in independent ecosystems separated by hundreds of kilometers, scientists are drawing the same conclusion. If the last few years of wildfires were a statement on climate change, 2020 was the exclamation point.

What we found in the Blackened Forests was, in turn, heartbreaking, surreal, and hopeful.

Heartbreaking because so many massive trees that stood stoically in one place, some for thousands of years, were suffocated in an instant. As one scientist put it amid a charred landscape of giant sequoias, “They are literally irreplaceable – unless you have 2,000 years to wait.”

Surreal because that’s the only way to describe a desert that has taken the color of worn charcoal to the horizon (“It will never come back as it was,” the park botanist said). Or a lush green forest of stiff, straight redwoods transformed into a jumble of blacks and browns (“The forest I saw as a child won’t be back for a while,” said one environmentalist).

Hope because there are signs of life if you look closely enough.

But this is not a story of false optimism. The story we published – which I wrote, which Max photographed, and which a team of Times reporters wrapped in a hauntingly beautiful visual feast – was about dead trees, but also something a little more difficult to capture: our blurred sense of timelessness and continuity. .

Standing in these places presented questions that seemed overwhelming, but very much in line for 2020: What have we lost? And what do we have left to lose?

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Emergency aid for forest fire victims

Hello.

There is always remaining votes to count in California. There are races to call, winners and losers to be determined. But the elections did not stop the state’s many other long-standing crises.

My colleague Ivan Penn wrote this dispatch, recalling that for the victims of forest fires, the pandemic has only aggravated the difficulties:

A trustee overseeing a $ 13.5 billion compensation fund earlier this month ordered emergency payments of up to $ 25,000 to some of the people who lost property or were injured in wildfires caused by Pacific Gas & Electric, the California utility.

The trustee, John K. economy to seize.

“The general state of affairs for these people is so dire it’s almost hard to describe,” said Mr Trotter, a retired state court judge who was appointed to oversee the fund. by a federal bankruptcy court. “Covid and the forest fires this season have just added to their misery. If that doesn’t constitute a humanitarian crisis, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2019 after accumulating an estimated liability of $ 30 billion for forest fires caused by its equipment. The company emerged from bankruptcy in July, but investigators continued to cite the utility for causing additional fires. Investigators last month said PG&E caused the 2019 Kincade fire and collected utility equipment related to the Zogg fire this year.

[Read about how PG&E raced to improve safety before fire season this year.]

In a statement on emergency payments, Mr Trotter noted that areas devastated by the fires include a “disproportionate number of retirees, invalids, veterans and economically disadvantaged”. Many have lived in their cars, in emergency tent communities, or in Federal Emergency Management Agency camps.

Mr Trotter said the coronavirus had also made it difficult to access victims of the PG&E wildfires who had not yet filed for payment from the wildfire fund. Although they have filed claims during the PG&E bankruptcy process, they still have to submit one to the trustee for payment.

“The pandemic has really hampered the ability of lawyers to stay in touch with their own clients,” Mr. Trotter said. “This calls for help. To receive payment, you must submit a complaint questionnaire. “

Steven Kane, a San Diego attorney who represents some of the wildfire victims, said he had to close an office he set up near the fires due to the inability to meet in person with clients , but that he had continued to have complaints filed. .

“It’s a combination of circumstances,” Kane said. “Covid is definitely one of them. It is certainly for one of our clients who died of Covid.

PG&E said it has taken steps to reduce the fires and protect the 16 million people in its service area, including weather stations to track storms, cameras and devices to shut off power remotely.

[Read about withering criticism regulators leveled at PG&E over last year’s blackouts.]

The company has also, over the past two years, cut power to millions of its customers – sometimes for up to a week – to prevent its equipment from starting a fire. The strategy, pioneered by San Diego Gas & Electric, has angered some customers, especially during the pandemic when kids need their home computers for distance learning.

Late last month, the California Public Advocates Office, a consumer representative at the California Public Utilities Commission, called for additional fines of nearly $ 166 million against PG&E for its widespread use of cutting power at its customers last year.

During recent power outages, PG&E said its security improvements helped reduce the number of customers losing power.

(This article is part of California today newsletter. Register to have it delivered to your inbox.)


California public health officials on Tuesday announced that 11 counties would be cut to more restrictive levels in the state’s reopening system, highlighting what officials said was a worrying increase in coronavirus cases even as the state continues to add testing capabilities. No county has been moved to less restrictive levels.

[Track Covid-19 cases by California county and see other maps for the U.S. and the world.]

While California is yet to see the kind of surge hammering other states, Tuesday’s announcement was one of the state’s most serious reopening setbacks since the summer.

“The virus does not go away just because we have had enough,” Dr Mark Ghaly, Secretary of State for Health, said in his weekly. Report.

Much of the spread now, he said, is likely to be in gatherings at home, indoors, or people becoming too lax to wear masks and distance themselves from indoor or outdoor businesses.

San Francisco officials, who throughout the pandemic have been more cautious than required by the state, have closed indoor dining doors and suspended plans to reopen schools, even though the county does not. has not been moved to a more restrictive level.

[Read how the reopening tiers work.]

The counties of San Diego, Sacramento and Stanislaus were brought back to the most restrictive purple level, meaning that most of the domestic businesses that had been allowed to reopen must also close – although, as The Modesto Bee reported. , later that day, the Stanislaus County senior public health official called the designation a mistake and planned to challenge it.

San Diego was one of the most populous counties to start in the second-most restrictive red tier when Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the new tiered system at the end of August, and he barely made it to avoid further closures since then. Its move to the purple level is disheartening for county leaders who hope to keep the drums low while allowing meals inside – even at reduced capacity – to resume.

About the elections:

  • It’s official: Proposition 15 failed. The measure would have updated commercial property tax rules in an effort to inject more funding into schools and local governments. Learn more here. [The New York Times]

  • Michelle Steel, the Republican challenger, defeated incumbent Democrat Harley Rouda for the 48th California Congressional District in Orange County. Mr. Rouda won the seat in the ‘blue wave’ of 2018. [The Orange County Register]

View all California election results here. [The New York Times]

  • “Jones Day, leave our ballots”, read a mural outside the law firm’s offices in San Francisco last week. Lawyers for Jones Day and Porter Wright are uncomfortable representing President Trump in his election prosecutions, fearing that they will undermine the electoral system and attract negative attention. [The New York Times]

  • Los Angeles County Supervisory Board escalated power struggle with Sheriff Alex Villanueva and voted to explore ways to remove him from office. [The Los Angeles Times]


Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from UC Berkeley, and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles – but she always wants to see more. Follow us here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UC Berkeley.

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Polling centers open after a week of forest fires

Hello.

The Blue Ridge and Silverado fires that started this week in Orange County have prompted tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes and seriously injured two firefighters. Evacuation orders were lifted Thursday and the fires are both more than 30% contained, according to CalFire.

Voting centers will be open for in-person voting starting Friday morning. I spoke with Neal Kelley, chief electoral officer for Orange County, about how the vote was affected by the two large active fires.

Have any ballot papers been damaged by the fires?

Mr Kelley said the ballot boxes that had been closed because they were in evacuation areas were then emptied. “I had to go in with the escorts from the Sheriff’s Department to be able to retrieve the ballots that were there,” he told me. “We were able to get them out safely.”

Although the boxes were not completely unscathed, they are made of solid steel and were able to withstand high temperatures.

Are certain places where the ballot papers are dropped off?

The ballot box played a huge role in this year’s elections. According to Mr. Kelley, more than 700,000 ballots have already been returned with an equal number of people using drop boxes and the postal service.

“Voters are embracing our secure drop boxes and using them in large quantities,” he said.

Earlier this week, authorities had to close four boxes, which were in evacuation areas. But as of Thursday, they have all been reopened since the evacuation orders were lifted.

You can go to the county voting website to search for drop-off locations.

Have some polling centers been closed?

As the fires drew dangerously close to residential communities, officials shut down two polling centers, the Foothill Ranch Library in Irvine and the Canyons Library in Silverado Canyon. Both will be open to receive voters on Friday morning.

Thanks to the California model of the Voter’s Choice Act, residents of Orange County are not tied to a particular polling place. They can vote at any polling center in the county.

Can you still vote if you left your ballot at home during your evacuation?

Voters who could have fled their homes without their mail-in ballot can still vote without them.

“They can go to one of our polling centers and we can print them out a replacement mail ballot if that’s what they choose to use,” Kelley said. “If you do not wish to use your postal ballot, we will provide you with a ballot upon request and allow you to vote in person.”

[Read our guide to the California races to watch.]

What is the plan to replace the drop boxes and voting centers that have been affected by the fires?

Even with all voting centers open as planned, Orange County will deploy four mobile voting centers on Saturday near the affected areas.

Mobile voting centers are trailers that can be deployed anywhere in the county and serve as portable voting centers. Mr. Kelley describes them essentially as a “desk on wheels,” with full on-demand voting and recording capabilities.

“These mobile solutions give people the opportunity to have additional locations on top of what we have already planned,he said.

Learn more about the elections:

  • If you are hospitalized in California, you may be able to vote without leaving your bed. [Los Angeles Times]

  • Verification of the signature of ballots is imperfect, which can result in the rejection or contestation of huge amounts of votes this year. [Los Angeles Times]

  • Ballots mailed to the Bay Area are pouring in and the amount is “staggering”, according to election officials. [San Francisco Chronicle]


  • Tiny homes would help solve Sacramento’s homeless crisis. Almost three years after the first call to action, there are a few small houses used by the city to shelter the homeless. [The Sacramento Bee]

  • Officials have suggested that the success of two Los Angeles sports teams, the Lakers and Dodgers, may be the source of the spread of coronavirus in the region. [Politico]

  • Tech executives appearing on Capitol Hill have become a routine. Wednesday’s Senate hearing with the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google was the fifth time Mark Zuckerberg has testified before Congress since April 2018. [The New York Times]

  • Disneyland is recalling hundreds of employees on leave after announcing the reopening of part of California Adventure in November. [The Hollywood Reporter]

  • Hotels and tourism organizations offer nearby locals and leisure travelers low rates and additional perks. Here’s how to stay in six US cities. [The New York Times]


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. PT on weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Have you received this email? Sign up for California Today here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at UC Berkeley, and has reported statewide, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles – but she still wants see more. Follow us here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UC Berkeley.