Newsletter: Essential California Week in Review: Trial by fire

A ship passes beneath the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.
San Francisco is darkened by an orange haze Wednesday as wildfires burn across Northern California.
(Philip Pacheco / Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It is Saturday, Sept. 12.

Here’s a look at the top stories of the last week:

California burning. At least 19 people are dead. More than 3.1 million acres of California have burned — the most recorded in a single year. In the mountain communities of Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties, North Complex fire killed at least 10 people as it mushroomed. In the Sierra, the Creek fire moved so quickly that hundreds of people had to be rescued as the flames closed in on unaware campers and hikers.

Different year, same crisis. Experts say climate change has made fires more intense and more frequent. But you don’t need to tell the residents of Butte County that. They’ve been here before, and fire is once again threatening Paradise, Calif., two years after the deadliest fire in state history. On Friday, standing amid charred trees, Gov. Gavin Newsom slammed President Trump for failing to fight climate change. “This is a climate damn emergency,” he said.

Bad air quality. Rarely have so many Californians been exposed to such gloomy, unhealthy air. Experts say a variety of factors, including the fires, the weather and extreme heat, combined to create the poor conditions — which included the single worst smog reading L.A. had seen in 30 years. Have questions? We want to know what you’re wondering.

Life on Mars. The skies around the Bay Area and other parts of Northern California took on a surreal glow Wednesday as smoke from a variety of fires shrouded the region. From San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, social media was filled with images of ominous red and orange landscapes.

Growing strain. A majority of Los Angeles households face serious financial problems due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Latinos and Black residents bearing the brunt of the economic toll, according to a new poll conducted in the nation’s four largest cities.


Closed indefinitely. No school campus in Los Angeles County will be allowed to reopen to all K-12 students until at least November, county health officials said Thursday. Separately, the California Supreme Court refused to overturn Gov. Gavin Newsom’s school closure directives, rejecting a suit brought by Orange County and others.

Revisiting the timeline. Was the novel coronavirus on the loose in Los Angeles way back in December, before the World Health Organization was even aware of an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China? A new analysis of medical records from UCLA hospitals and clinics suggests that’s a possibility.

Nothing spookier. Facing a pandemic Halloween, L.A. County public health officials effectively banned trick-or-treating, haunted houses and other celebrations — and then walked back the ban after a backlash. Still, trick-or-treating remains “not recommended.”

Bullet train slows. California’s ambitious plan has faced years of setbacks. But now the viability of even a scaled-down $20.4-billion train is becoming uncertain as construction costs rise in the San Joaquin Valley, expected revenues are under pressure and land acquisition problems mount.

And the Oscar goes to ... inclusion. On Tuesday, the film academy announced new representation standards for films to be eligible to compete for best picture. The decision was met with strong reactions — good and bad — but academy leaders stood by their choices.

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1. Another Facebook worker quits in disgust, saying the company “is on the wrong side of history.” The Washington Post

2. Photos: Surreal orange skies as wildfire smoke blocks sun in Bay Area. Los Angeles Times

3. Ready for an evacuation? Here’s what to pack. Los Angeles Times

4. Plague-bearing fleas spark closures at popular Lake Tahoe sites. SFGATE

5. Seven people were shot to death at marijuana grow house in Inland Empire, authorities say. Los Angeles Times

ICYMI, here are this week’s great reads

She’s trying to fill the void in Salvadoran cookbooks. Will publishers listen? Los Angeles Times

The ethics of pausing a vaccine trial in the midst of a pandemic: An interesting Q&A about AstraZeneca’s decision and the ethics of vaccine trials in the time of coronavirus. Stat News

From the archives: Tom Junod’s 2016 story “The Falling Man,” about one of the most controversial photographs of Sept. 11, 2001. Esquire

Poem of the week: “A Meeting” by Edith Wharton.

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. (And a giant thanks to the legendary Laura Blasey for all her help on the Saturday edition.)