Newsletter: Essential California — Fires, drought and the Delta variant

A woman takes a photo of smoke and flames as they rise over a mountain
Jessica Bell takes a video as the Dixie fire burns along Highway 70 in the Plumas National Forest last week.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It is Saturday, July 24.

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

Fire updates. As large swaths of California burn, firefighters struggled to contain the flames. Meanwhile, new information has emerged about the causes of some of the blazes that scorched the state in the last year.

Utility equipment from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. may have sparked the Dixie fire, according to a report the utility company filed. It is now the largest fire in the state this year.

A couple whose gender-reveal party sparked the 2020 El Dorado fire was charged with involuntary manslaughter. A firefighter was killed battling the flames, which injured two more fighters and 13 other people.

Delta wreaks havoc on COVID progress. A spate of new coronavirus infections is striking California’s healthcare system, pushing COVID-19 hospitalizations to levels not seen since early spring. But as some counties bring back mask rules, will Gov. Gavin Newsom? It’s a thorny question as the recall approaches.

Tuition goes up. University of California regents, citing the need for financial stability and more grant aid, approved a tuition increase Thursday following widespread student protests and two years of debate.

Far-right rage and violence. Dueling protests outside a Koreatown spa over transgender rights prompted a large police response and resulted in more than a dozen arrests. What happened? It started with a viral video in conservative media.

Diamonds, gold, luxury homes. In one of the more lurid scams that swindlers across the U.S. mounted as the government sent pandemic aid to businesses, an L.A. family was behind an $18-million COVID-19 fraud.

The Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene show. After a third venue canceled the duo’s appearance, Gaetz and Greene took the “protest against communism” to Riverside. Columnist Robin Abcarian says canceling their exhibition played right into their hands.


Changes at Disney. Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise cultural changes aren’t just “woke” — they’re necessary. The ride developed a reputation for racist depictions of Indigenous people as tourist attractions, attackers or cannibals. Disney also decided to move many of its California jobs to Florida to take advantage of tax breaks that state is offering.

When your well runs dry. One of America’s hottest cities, California’s Needles, is down to one water well. What happens if the taps go dry? Across California and the West, the drought is causing many wells to dry up, but few other communities are looking at their single water lifeline going to zero.

The Queen Mary is on life support. Long Beach considers its options for the Queen Mary, including sinking the ship. The retired ocean liner could cost the city up to $175 million to preserve, but it could cost even more — up to $190 million — to recycle it for scrap or sink it into the ocean.

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1. Steve Lopez: Are you mad about the new mask mandate? Blame Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson. Los Angeles Times

2. How protests over transgender rights at an L.A. spa ended in violence. Los Angeles Times

3. From the archives: Forced sterilization was once seen as path to a better world. Los Angeles Times

4. Short-term rentals and high-end buyers are wiping out affordable housing in Joshua Tree, residents say. The Daily Yonder


5. California’s cliffs are collapsing one by one. The Atlantic

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ICYMI, here are this week’s great reads

25 years behind the scenes. At least in the public imagination, the male hosts in front of the camera are the people most responsible for “The Daily Show’s” improbable rise from Comedy Central’s answer to “SportsCenter” to a powerful force in American politics. But the Great Man Theory overlooks the contributions of two women essential to the series’ success: its creators.

California is leading the drive toward electric cars, but as companies move toward scraping the seabed for battery materials, alarmed oceanographers and advocates warn they are literally in uncharted waters. It’s just one act in a fast-unfolding, ethically challenging and economically complex drama that stretches around the world, from the cobalt mines of Congo to the corridors of the Biden White House to fragile desert habitats where vast deposits of lithium lie beneath the ground.

Traffic is back and it’s bad. But if you live in L.A., you already knew that. With memories of clear freeways in 2020, the big question is how the city and its drivers can get those better driving conditions to stick around.

Today’s week-in-review newsletter was curated by Laura Blasey and Seth Liss. Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints and ideas to