Newsletter: Fires expand across the state

VIDEO | 01:16
California wildfires burn more than 349,000 acres

Wildfires in Northern and Central California have scorched more than 349,000 acres, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Aug. 21, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

How do you safely house legions of evacuees fleeing from fires during a pandemic? It’s not easy.

In Santa Cruz County, where the CZU Lightning Complex fire rages on, officials issued a news release Thursday afternoon asking out-of-town visitors to leave immediately to free up more space for evacuees at county hotels, motels and vacation rentals. With local shelters nearing capacity, officials urged evacuating residents to first seek refuge with family and friends, if possible, before heading to a shelter or calling the Red Cross for assistance finding one.

[Previously: “‘No one is ready for it.’ Fleeing a raging fire amid the coronavirus pandemic” in the Los Angeles Times]


As of Thursday night, numerous areas had already been evacuated, and the campus of UC Santa Cruz remained on evacuation warning, until an evacuation order was issued for the campus later in the evening. (A quick note on fire terminology: An “evacuation order” is a mandatory directive to leave immediately; an “evacuation warning” means pack a bag and begin to voluntarily leave your home in a safe manner, if you choose.)

“The scale of existing and anticipated evacuation orders is unprecedented and the need to safely house evacuees is critical,” county officials wrote, encouraging people with capacity to accommodate evacuees to share leads on social media networks.

That’s exactly what Sophie Lev and other members of Santa Cruz Mutual Aid have been doing. The group, which formed this spring as a response to the coronavirus, had previously worked to share financial resources and meet other basic needs for community members during the pandemic.

But as skies darkened and ash rained down over the coastal college town on Wednesday, their group text pivoted to organizing fire relief. Lev, a 23-year-old outdoor educator and nanny, worked to set up a spreadsheet for lodging needs and offers for fire evacuees. After that, Lev packed up necessities, old journals, instruments and sentimental objects and preemptively relocated to a family friend’s home in Berkeley.

Within the white squares of the Google doc, members of the Santa Cruz community — along with Californians from as far away as the East Bay — offer up spare rooms, spaces for trailers, yards for camping and even help with moving.

The details of the entries speak to the shared precariousness of the moment. A woman offering a spare room, food and a shower notes that her own home remains outside the evacuation warning zone — for now. A man offering a backyard to camp in notes that visitors can stay “at least tonight, likely more - unless we’re evacuated.”


The mutual aid group isn’t a nonprofit or official organization. “This is just people who care really deeply about helping and supporting each other coming together in a moment of crisis in a pretty ad hoc way,” Lev explained.

Fires continued to expand across the state on Thursday, most critically in the North Bay and Santa Cruz mountains. The fires have killed at least five people and destroyed more than 500 structures. My colleagues report that from the Salinas Valley to wine country, smoke as thick as fog in some places made it feel as if flames were everywhere.

[Read the story: “It’s déjà vu in the Bay Area as fires again force evacuations and cloud the skies” in the Los Angeles Times]

More than 60,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes from the threat of the fires, which have been propelled by erratic winds near the coast and hampered by resources stretched thin by dozens of blazes. As of Thursday evening, nearly 100,000 residents were under evacuation warnings.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom appeared onscreen during the final night of the Democratic National Convention in a two-minute cellphone video shot while in transit to a wildfire evacuation center in Watsonville. He had made the decision earlier in the day to scrap a previous prerecorded address.

“Climate change is real,” he said in the cellphone video. The governor said climate change deniers like President Trump should visit to see firsthand the wreckage it has wrought, and took aim at Trump for suggesting California should be denied federal wildfire relief because the state hasn’t raked enough leaves.


Anyway, here’s a quick look at where the major fires stand. As of Thursday night, the SCU Lightning Complex fire had burned 157,475 acres in multiple locations generally east of Silicon Valley and the East Bay and west of the Central Valley and was 5% contained. The LNU Lightning Complex fire in the North Bay had burned 215,000 acres, and the CZU August Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz mountains had burned 48,000 acres, with both at 0% containment.

More fire coverage:

  • Northern California was home to perhaps the world’s worst air quality Thursday. In many neighborhoods, a layer of ash has covered the ground, distributed by gusty winds and adding to the pollution that is clouding much of the area. Los Angeles Times
  • How do you keep wildfire smoke out of your house and car? Here are some tips. Sacramento Bee
  • The wildfires have been so intense that they’re frying the remote cameras that monitor them. It’s a first for the network of about 500 cameras that monitor wildfire activity across the state. San Francisco Chronicle
  • The CZU August Lightning Complex fire has inflicted serious damage on Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The fate of the majestic big trees at California’s oldest state park remains unknown. Los Angeles Times

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

No deal yet in Sacramento to help struggling California renters: With less than two weeks before a statewide moratorium on renter evictions expires, California lawmakers on Thursday declined to back a plan that would have provided tax credits for landlords while sending a separate proposal that would protect tenants back for additional negotiations with Gov. Newsom. Three other bills dealing with affordable housing and homelessness were also sidelined for the year as the Senate and Assembly appropriations committees rushed to meet an end-of-the-month deadline for acting. Los Angeles Times

Threat of rolling blackouts wanes: With a near weeklong heat wave tapering off and successful energy conservation efforts, California officials said power outages are not expected through the weekend. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. coronavirus cases dropping so low officials could soon seek to reopen schools: Despite disturbing numbers of young people dying of COVID-19, Los Angeles County’s chief medical officer said Thursday that new coronavirus cases may soon drop enough to allow officials to apply for waivers to reopen elementary schools. Los Angeles Times

Two suspects have been arrested in connection with the robbery and beating of a group of transgender women in Hollywood earlier this week that police are now calling a hate crime. Los Angeles Times


In an alternate and undeniably better universe, the summer movie season would be winding down right about now. Instead, Hollywood finds itself trying to salvage what little remains of a summer battered to near oblivion by the COVID-19 pandemic. Los Angeles Times

How does an unknown British actress played a role in the downfall of two Hollywood moguls? That’s the question that has riveted, if not rocked, the industry this week. Los Angeles Times

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Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination on the final night of the party’s convention, making his case for a major course correction in the country, forcefully laying out his vision for a return to calm and stability in the most consequential speech of his half-century in politics. Los Angeles Times

Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, could also make history. It’s been an unlikely journey for the 55-year-old Los Angeles entertainment lawyer, who now finds himself in the inner circle of a presidential campaign. Los Angeles Times

Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

How Kamala Harris forged close ties with Big Tech: Silicon Valley has enthusiastically backed Harris since she first ran for state attorney general in California a decade ago. New York Times

Rotting food, dead animals and chaos at postal facilities amid cutbacks: Accounts of conditions from employees at California mail facilities provide a glimpse of what some say are the consequences of widespread cutbacks in staffing and equipment recently imposed by the Postal Service. Los Angeles Times


Uber and Lyft have staved off a California shutdown with an emergency stay granted Thursday by an appeals court. Los Angeles Times

Stephen K. Bannon was charged Thursday in New York with fraud for his role in an online fundraising scheme, We Build the Wall, which raised $25 million. Bannon, who once worked in Hollywood, guided President Trump’s 2016 campaign in its final months and served as a senior White House advisor. Los Angeles Times


Orange County reported its first coronavirus-related death of a child. The teenage girl had underlying medical conditions, the county’s health department said in a news release. Los Angeles Times


The San Francisco Chronicle has a new editor in chief: Welcome back to California, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz! Garcia-Ruiz will begin work on Sept. 21 and had been the Washington Post’s managing editor for digital operations since 2013. San Francisco Chronicle


Adios, Peter Thiel: Palantir has relocated its headquarters from Silicon Valley to Denver. Bloomberg

The greatest summer movie of all time? For weeks, film critic Justin Chang has led readers in rounds of voting to determine the “ultimate” summer movie. Finally, a winner has been crowned — and it’s not “Jaws.” Los Angeles Times

A poem to start your Friday: “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde. Poetry Foundation

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 91. San Diego: cloudy, 82. San Francisco: windy, 75. San Jose: partly sunny, 84. Fresno: sunny, 102. Sacramento: sunny, 98. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Georgia Leynaert:

In 1949, our family moved into a new house in the new neighborhood of Westchester. We children spent our time exploring the great outdoors. Our favorite jaunt was going to the “bean field.” A few blocks from home, we found open fields filled with ponds, tadpoles, frogs, mice, birds and rabbits. We ran around the tall grass looking for treasures and fun. Only some rusty railroad tracks said, “civilization.” But, alas, in the 1960s, those tracks evolved into the 405 Freeway. So, as you’re on the 405, please keep in mind that between La Tijera and Sepulveda, there used to be a children’s paradise.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)


Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.