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Earlier this year, as wildfires ravaged millions of acres in California, some of the most startling images involved the iconic Golden State trees burning, charred, or reduced to ashes.
Of course, the story is more complicated – as we reported, many landscapes need fire to be healthy – but the scale and scope of these fires and climate change suggest more destruction is imminent.
My colleague John branch took a close look at the issues in this beautiful room, and I asked him to tell us more about the experience of reporting it here:
These are the three California plant species that draw crowds from around the world. Living in very different parts of the state, they are the only ones to be honored and protected by national parks on their behalf. What they have in common is above all an ability to stay there in silence and elicit a reaction.
But 2020 hasn’t been a good year for the Coast Redwood, Joshua Tree, or Giant Redwood. Already threatened in the long term by climate change, the massive forest fires have dramatically targeted the state’s most iconic trees.
[Read about how in an alarming year for fires, more officials have turned to Indigenous communities for guidance.]
Gone are the countless ancient sequoias, thousands of ancient sequoias, and around 1.3 million Joshua trees (which, of course, are a yucca). In their place is a new sense of dread and urgency among scientists and others who see these species as more than just plants.
Over the past two months, I’ve accompanied some of the top experts in each species to the burn zones – some still smoking and off-limits to the public – with photographer Max Whittaker. What we found was, in turn, heartbreaking, surreal, and hopeful.
Heartbreaking because so many trees that stood stoically in one place, some for thousands of years, were gone in an instant. As one scientist put it in the middle of a charred landscape, “They are literally irreplaceable – unless you have 2,000 years to wait.”
Surreal to see a desert take on the color of worn charcoal to the horizon, or a lush green forest of stiff, straight redwoods transformed into a jumble of blacks and browns.
Hope because there are signs of life if you look closely enough.
The question that is overwhelming you right now in these places is what we have lost and what we have left to lose.
[Readers shared their memories of Big Basin Redwoods State Park.]
The idea of connecting the three species into one story began in August, when a wildfire in the desert swept over 40,000 acres in the Mojave National Preserve. All of us who live in California are hardened by the perpetual assaults of the past few years, the stories of burning forests and people rushing out of the way (but not always, as we all know too well). It hit me like something we had never seen before, and we hadn’t: over a million Joshua trees, set on fire.
Within weeks, it looked like most of California was on fire. (In fact, it’s about 4% of the state that burned down in 2020.) Sierra Nevada, home to a declining number of giant redwoods, has taken a heavy toll from the fires. Then the fire swept through the Santa Cruz Mountains, and among the victims was Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which is home to 4,400 acres of ancient redwoods.
Just like that, California’s three favorite trees felt the wrath of the wildfires like never before. It remains for us to ask ourselves what it all means – for the trees, for our condition, for the future. This story, along with dazzling visuals from Max and some of my talented colleagues at The Times, might help us think through all of this.
[See the full story here.]
A Sneak Peek at California’s New Contact Finder App
On Thursday, California’s new contact tracing system, CA Notify, went live. If you missed Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement, this is basically a smartphone feature that you can turn on that will notify you of potential exposure to the coronavirus by using Bluetooth to detect phones that are in multiple locations. meters from each other for some time.
If someone tests positive, that person should be given a code to enter the app, which will then alert phones that were nearby.
[Track California’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.]
As you can imagine, and as Jennifer Valentino-DeVries reported, these apps are turning out to be a bit of a tough sell, even though the technology is showing promise.
Jennifer spoke to our colleague Shira Ovid about applications and how they work in California. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation, which you can read more about in the excellent Shira On the Tech newsletter.
Shira: How does California’s virus notification technology compare to what other states are using?
Jennifer: Like a few other states, California uses technology called Exposure Notifications Express from Apple and Google. Companies send notifications to everyone’s phones to encourage people to download the health department’s exposure notification app or change phone settings to activate the technology.
California also did a pilot study – as did the University of Arizona. But in Arizona, there was an outbreak of the virus on campus early on and they felt they were able to slow the rate of transmission using these exposure alerts. In California, when exposure alert technology was tested at the University of California, San Diego, and the UCSD Health System, there was a low rate of infection at the time. It was more difficult to obtain data on the degree of flattening of the curve when the curve was already flat.
[Read the full story.]
Shira: Is California different from other states using this Express technology?
Jennifer: Not really. California is simply great. It’s a diverse state, so I’m curious to see if people are using the technology.
One way people should think of this virus warning technology is something that helps ease the burden of human contact tracing. If more people in California choose to use these alerts, perhaps contact tracers can or should spend more time on people who are unaware or cannot use smartphone alerts.
[Sign up for On Tech.]
Here’s what else to know today
Attorney General Xavier Becerra supports “Medicare for All”. Here’s how he might help make it happen. [The New York Times]
How Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton and a progressive rising star, was overthrown last month? The creator of a local website who fought the war against local leaders and journalists, openly detached from the truth, takes some credit for it. [GEN]
Disney + is going to have a lot of new Star Wars stuff and a lot of new stuff in general, as the House of the Mouse leans heavily on streaming. [The New York Times]
Confused about state travel restrictions? Here is what you need to know. [The New York Times]
And finally …
Happy Hanukkah, if you celebrate. Whether you do it or not, we wish you a restful and safe weekend. Spend it making latkes, if you feel like it.
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. PT on weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Have you been forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read each edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from UC Berkeley and has reported statewide, 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.