Newsletter: Fires, blackouts and the year that was

The Kincade fire in Sonoma County.
(Kent Porter / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Dec. 27, and here’s a look at the year that was.

We asked our readers to tell us about how this year’s headlines affected their lives, and more than 70 of you wrote in to share your experiences. Here’s what people said.

[See also: “In 2019, California was rocked by earthquakes, blackouts and wildfires” in the Los Angeles Times]

Fires and blackouts


From Granada Hills to the North Bay and beyond, readers wrote in about the pervasive smell of wildfire smoke, the fear of evacuating homes, the wait for possible evacuations to come.

“It feels like there’s an entire season where Californians call each other and say, ‘If you have to evacuate, I have a guest room,’ which is crazy, but totally normal,” said Lindsay Coony from Santa Barbara. K.J. Kovacs in Los Angeles said that “the fires in particular and the climate crisis in general” had “sharpened an already pervasive sense of ‘Time is running out.’”

Many people who grew up in California but have left, or whose children have settled here, told us how they had followed the coverage with “sympathy and horror,” as Kathleen Lawrence, whose family still lives in Santa Barbara, put it.

The blackouts and fires also had economic impacts for many, like Paul G. Smith of Calistoga, who said his tasting room had lost money as wine country suffered blackouts and had seen fewer tourists.

In a variation on one of the year’s most common refrains, Bry McKown of Oakland expressed anger at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. “It was infuriating to get instructions by PG&E to ‘make a plan’ when that investor-owned utility had obviously ignored real fire safety and maintenance programs for decades,” he wrote. “I learned PG&E’s business model is obsolete in an era of climate change.”

Gun violence


In a year marred by multiple mass shootings in California, many of you wrote about how they shattered your personal sense of safety.

Writing from San Luis Obispo, Beth Anderson said the July shooting at the famed Gilroy Garlic Festival had been a “tipping point” for her. “My whole life I’ve been a pragmatic optimist,” she wrote. “The Gilroy slaughter darkened my entire worldview. I bought a handgun & took shooting lessons. I’m wary of everyone I encounter ... in parking lots, in traffic, in the grocery store.”

Macy Kwon, a student in Sherman Oaks and a member of the Los Angeles Times High School Insider team, said gun violence had had a “profound effect” on her school community, which has faced two recent gun threats. But it was November’s deadly shooting at Saugus High School that “truly wrecked me,” she wrote. “With the shooting in Santa Clarita, fear became a creeping companion at the back of my mind.“


Many readers wrote in about how they felt the Ridgecrest earthquakes in July. For John M. Kelley in Bakersfield, they echoed the many other temblors he’d experienced during his more than eight decades in California. He recalled the 1933 Long Beach earthquake when he was a 5-year-old boy, and being dispatched with his pump truck to fight potential refinery fires after the massive Tehachapi quake in 1952.



We asked you about the biggest change you saw in your city or town this year. From Silicon Valley to the San Fernando Valley, up and down the coast, in big cities and small towns, your answer was overwhelmingly homelessness.

The crisis seemed to affect every corner of California, but it also elicited wildly divergent responses. While some readers were angry about the presence of nearby encampments, others were radicalized into action to help their unhoused neighbors.

Anita Coleman from Irvine said the reactions in her community had changed her life. “For the last 13 years I’ve been a stay-at-home wife and mom, contented with my life in Irvine,” she wrote. But after witnessing the vitriol directed toward homeless people at a March City Council meeting, she was moved to use her professional skills as a former professor and digital librarian to launch a community education campaign about homelessness and advocate for more housing in her city.

The broader housing crisis

For many readers, the high cost of housing came paired with the sense that California has become an increasingly unequal place, where families like theirs can no longer easily carve out a life.

“To think that in my lifetime California has become the state with the greatest level of inequality is tragic to me,” said Fritzi Lareau, who said she was born in Santa Monica in 1947 and was writing from Redwood City. “My daughter cannot afford to live in the Bay Area (she is a teacher) and moved to Mendocino County.”


“Every day I live in fear that I’ll get a letter or phone call from our landlord saying she’s selling the house,” April Martin wrote from West Oakland. “I think I’m gonna start living in a van because I no longer want to spend more than half of my income on rent. The Bay Area is unlivable for artists like myself.”

Tyler Jensen in San Diego said that even with a six-figure salary, he still found himself putting about half of his net pay toward rent, making it difficult to save.

Affording health care

In an issue by no means unique to California, several readers wrote about how the high cost of healthcare — specifically prescription medication and hospital stays — had affected their lives.

Gretchen Webster in Carlsbad, who has a heart condition, talked about how she had had to turn down numerous drugs she had been prescribed because of the cost. “I see other senior citizens who live on Social Security, depriving themselves of food to afford these outrageously priced drugs,” she wrote.

All news is local

Sue Chehrenegar in Beverly Hills wrote that the biggest change this year in her city was “a new traffic light at an intersection near my home.”


Edith Goetzman, an 87-year-old in Yorba Linda, answered the same question with a response about a new shopping center that had been erected at the intersection of Lake View Avenue and Yorba Linda Boulevard, which brought “a glut of fast-food vendors and an overpriced grocery store.” But the year wasn’t all bad for her: It also brought a brand-new public library to town.

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


California’s wild winter begins with pounding rain, tornado warnings and heavy snow. A fast-moving winter storm barreled into Southern California early Thursday, bringing snow that closed the 5 Freeway in the Grapevine, Angeles Crest Highway and the 15 Freeway in the Cajon Pass and rain that flooded freeways across Los Angeles County. Los Angeles Times

A sweeping new law that aims to rewrite the rules of the internet in California is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, and businesses are scrambling to keep up. Most businesses with a website and customers in California — which is to say most large businesses in the nation — must follow the new regimen, which is supposed to make online life more transparent and less creepy for users. The only problem? Nobody’s sure how the new rules work. Los Angeles Times



An Eagle Rock church is wiping out $5.3 million in medical debt for poor L.A.-area families. Using more than $50,000 worth of donations from parishioners, the church is working with a debt-forgiveness nonprofit to help erase bills for 5,555 households who earn less than twice the federal poverty level. Los Angeles Times

Good luck getting a family of four into a professional sports event for $100 — not in good seats, but any seats. The Times asked the 11 major professional teams that call Los Angeles and Orange County home whether a family of four could attend a weekend game for $100 — tickets, parking and something to eat and drink, with discouraging results. Los Angeles Times

Here are the 15 best L.A. dishes of 2019, according to our restaurant critics. Los Angeles Times

Spoon by H’s signature pork belly and dumpling soup, from Yoonjin Hwang’s sunlit Beverly Boulevard cafe.
(Silvia Razgova/Silvia Razgova)

This Bell Gardens couple is making legit Puerto Rican coquito, but you’ll need some Instagram savvy to acquire a bottle. (Coquito is a “silky, coconut milk and cinnamon drink with rum that goes down dangerously easy.”) L.A. Taco

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.



Seeing a Central American surge, Mexicans join the asylum line at the U.S. border. Mexican nationals now account for slightly more than half of the 21,000 or so people on various asylum waiting lists in Mexican border towns, which is a major increase from a year ago. Los Angeles Times


Two years in, California’s legal marijuana industry is stuck. Should voters step in? Los Angeles Times


The California Supreme Court will allow therapists to challenge a law that requires them to report patients who reveal they have looked at child pornography. Los Angeles Times



A brief tornado warning jolted Orange County residents. Many received an emergency alert shortly after midnight Thursday on their cell phones, stating “TORNADO WARNING,” then “Take shelter now.” It was canceled about 10 minutes later as the storm weakened. Orange County Register

Meanwhile, a tornado did touch down in Ventura County on Thursday morning. Damage was limited to trees, roof tiles and canopies. LAist

One eccentric socialite is to blame for California’s wild pig problem. The state’s feral wild boars are the direct result of George Gordon Moore’s hunting escapades in the 1920s. SFGATE


Pour one out for the Martinez News-Gazette: After 161 years of publishing, the paper plans to print its last edition on Sunday, marking “a painful end for one of the only news agencies committed to covering the city of nearly 40,000, which serves as the seat of Contra Costa County.” It’s uncertain whether the news outlet will continue publishing online. San Francisco Chronicle


U.S.-China trade tensions have meant tough times for the San Diego lobster industry. The average price paid to fishermen for spiny lobsters caught off the San Diego coast — many of which are shipped to China — is nearly half what it was a few years ago. KPBS

Population growth in the Bay Area hit a 15-year low, echoing broader trends across the state. Mercury News

Tribal casinos remain a last refuge for California smokers, at least for now. Tribes can set the rules for their casinos, and only three of California’s 69 casinos are entirely smoke-free. San Francisco Chronicle

Three Desert Sun journalists spent nearly a week with the Purépecha in the eastern Coachella Valley to chronicle how the indigenous community maintains its traditions through its celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Desert Sun

The Sacramento Amazon warehouse’s injury rate is among the highest in United States. Holidays make it worse. Sacramento Bee

In cramped San Francisco, a hotel turned a “needlessly large” hallway into 15 new rooms. Each room is about 185 square feet, roughly 120 square feet less than typical rooms in the Hyatt. San Francisco Chronicle


The quick action of employees at a Lodi McDonald’s helped a woman escape from her abusive boyfriend. Fearing for her life, the woman had told her boyfriend she needed to use the bathroom at the McDonald’s, then asked employees to call 911 and help hide her. Modesto Bee


Los Angeles: sunny, 64. San Diego: sunny, 61. San Francisco: partly sunny, 56. San Jose: partly sunny, 57. Sacramento: sunny, 54. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Bill Deverell:

“When I was a kid, we lived at Travis Air Force Base, where my dad was stationed. My parents knew that late 1960s California was worth seeing. We took many a family camping trip to Big Sur. I remember being there with the hippies. They’d play a game with toilet plungers, tossing them into the air so they’d come down with a thwack near a chalk line some thirty or forty feet away. They played for hours and hours — their sense of time likely altered — and they always had room enough for me and my big sister to play along.”

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.