Newsletter: Welcome to the new dystopia


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Oct. 11, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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An estimated 2 million people were left without power at some point over the last two days, after a bankrupt utility that could not guarantee the safety of its own equipment took preventive measures to avoid potential deadly infernos sparked by windblown power lines.

By Thursday afternoon, peak fire danger had passed and the embattled utility in question had completed its electrical shutdown. But it will still take days to fully restore power, as thousands of on-the-ground personnel aided by dozens of helicopters must visually inspect miles of transmission and distribution lines and make necessary repairs.


Is this the setting for the new must-read dystopian young-adult novel everyone is talking about? No, it’s just life in the world’s fifth-largest economy, nearly two decades into the 21st century — where ailing infrastructure and climate change-worsened fire seasons combine for their own kind of dystopia.

And in the famously cutting-edge state where the internet was invented and most tech companies reside, PG&E couldn’t even keep its overburdened website functioning amid the surge of traffic. In San Francisco, the company placed security barricades outside its headquarters for “the safety of our employees.”

If — as critics and boosters alike often remind us — California represents the future, then one can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding.

PG&E customers endured the sweeping outages “because the giant utility lags behind other California electricity providers in assessing wildfire risk and deploying systems to target shutdowns based on the most severe wildfire risks,” reporters Joseph Serna and James Rainey explained in a story on the chaos.

[Read the story: “PG&E’s blackouts were ‘not surgical by any stretch.’ Its systems may be to blame” in the Los Angeles Times]

The economic toll of the shut-offs across Northern California could total in the millions or even billions, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The most vulnerable among us were disproportionately affected, particularly the elderly and those who rely on electricity to power medical equipment. For many others, the plunge into darkness was more of an inconvenience marked by spoiled food and long lines, but the burdens were heaviest on those who could least afford it.

Gov. Gavin Newsom tore into PG&E on Thursday, calling the mass power outages “unacceptable” and the result of the bankrupt utility’s own long legacy of mistakes. This “happened because of decisions that were deferred, delayed or not made by the largest investor-owned utility in the state of California and one of the largest in the nation,” the governor said at a news conference.


How did the PG&E shut-offs affect different communities? Here’s some local reporting from outlets around Northern California:

  • For Paradise and Magalia residents in Butte County, the loss of power was unfortunately nothing new — the current outage was the third in the area in the last three weeks. The frequent and lengthy PG&E outages are exacerbating already high food needs in an area where many people rely on fixed incomes and benefits like food stamps, and the broader community is still recovering from last year’s devastating Camp fire. Chico Enterprise-Record
  • Berkeley reached out to vulnerable residents during the shut-off, but their evacuation call prompted criticism. Hundreds of Twitter users were angered by messages from the city telling Berkeley Hills residents with accessibility needs to “use their own resources to get out,” or call 911 if they can’t. Berkeleyside
  • On Thursday, Santa Rosa authorities had responded to 17 vehicle collisions at intersections with malfunctioning traffic lights. (Reminder: A malfunctioning traffic light should be treated as a four-way stop.) Santa Rosa Press-Democrat
  • In Napa Valley, wineries were doing what they could to stay functional during an important time for harvesting, with some employing generators of varying sizes and capacities, and others working around the absence of electricity, doing things by hand or taking advantage of the natural light provided by daylight hours. Napa Valley Register
  • And the outages also hit wine country in the middle of wedding season, leaving wedding planners, caterers and venues scrambling to rent generators, adjust plans and make sure the “I dos” still get done. San Francisco Chronicle

Meanwhile, in Southern California, firefighters battled several growing blazes fueled by strong Santa Ana winds. Southern California Edison warned that power could be cut off to more than 173,000 customers in parts of eight counties. The utility ultimately cut power to nearly 13,000 customers in parts of San Bernardino, Ventura, Kern and Los Angeles counties Thursday as firefighters battled the Sandalwood fire in Riverside County and other growing blazes.

[See the map: “Where SoCal Edison may shut off power in California” in the Los Angeles Times]

The Sandalwood fire: In Riverside County, a wind-driven fire destroyed dozens of homes Thursday afternoon and threatened many more in a mobile home community.

The Reche fire: A fast-moving fire near Moreno Valley burned 400 acres and triggered mandatory evacuations. It was one of several fires burning in the Inland Empire.

The Saddleridge fire: In Sylmar, a blaze that started on the north side of the 210 Freeway about 9 p.m. jumped the freeway and pushed toward the community, forcing evacuations and the closure of the 210 and 5 freeways.

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



Who you know: The Los Angeles County assessor’s office allegedly gave favorable treatment to connected taxpayers, allowing them to pay lower property taxes for years and costing the county millions of dollars in lost revenue, according to a whistleblower lawsuit filed by three employees. Los Angeles Times

L.A.’s only national cemetery for veterans is finally taking applications again after being closed to new burials since 1978. LAist

Beloved Times columnist Sandy Banks has returned after a four-year hiatus. Here’s her first column back on the beat. Los Angeles Times

The pathos of the small-fry streamer: As the mega-corporations swoop in, smaller streaming services such as Tubi, Pluto TV and Crunchyroll find a way to compete. Los Angeles Times

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Tijuana has become an unlikely hub for Japanese anime fans: The city now boasts three anime cafes and multiple anime conventions throughout the year. San Diego Union-Tribune


California’s workplace sexual harassment laws were strengthened Thursday when Newsom signed workplace protection laws that were vetoed by his predecessor last year. The new laws will give victims of sexual harassment more time to file complaints in California and ban forced arbitration as a condition of employment. Los Angeles Times

Nearly 600 former Environmental Protection Agency officials have called for an investigation into the Trump administration in response to threats from the EPA targeting California. Los Angeles Times

Stockton’s mayor doesn’t like Andrew Yang’s universal basic income plan. Here’s why Michael Tubbs — the man behind the first universal basic income experiment led by a U.S. city — doesn’t support the presidential candidate’s proposal. Sacramento Bee

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs poses for a portrait at City Hall in downtown Stockton this April.
(Max Whittaker / For The Times)

How lawmakers are upending the California lifestyle to fight a housing shortage: SB 50 may have been stopped in its tracks, but over the last four years, a suite of smaller proposals has quietly chipped away at zoning for only single-family homes, attracting comparably little blowback. Los Angeles Times


Winds kick up dust and harm air quality in Coachella Valley and across inland southern California. Desert Sun


Wage inequality is surging in California — and not just on the coast. Here’s why. Los Angeles Times


The radical guidebook embraced by Google workers and Uber drivers: A book based on ideas associated with a labor group from the early 20th century has provided a blueprint for workers trying to organize without a formal union in the tech and ride-hailing industries. New York Times

Defense industry personnel and military operations continue to be a significant driver of San Diego’s economy and, according to a new report, are projected to grow in the coming years. San Diego Union-Tribune

As California rents soar, Monterey County offers free camping and RV parking, with a catch. A person must commit to at least 20 hours of volunteer service per week at the parks. Salinas Californian

Ed Ruscha said that the Desert X collaboration with Saudi Arabia is “like inviting Hitler to a tea party.” The iconic L.A. artist is one of three Desert X board members to resign over the Coachella Valley-based contemporary art biennial’s decision to work with the Saudi government. Desert Sun

Meet Joseph Jacinto Mora, the king of California pictorial cartography. CityLab



Los Angeles: sunny, 87. San Diego: sunny, 79. San Francisco: sunny, 79. San Jose: partly sunny, 82. Sacramento: sunny, 81. More weather is here.


“Strong ankled, sun burned, almost naked,
The daughters of California
Educate reluctant humanists;
Drive into their skulls with tennis balls
The unhappy realization
That nature is still stronger than man.”

–Kenneth Rexroth, “Vitamins and Roughage” (1966)

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.