Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Feb. 13, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.
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The embers of the 2018 Camp fire — the deadliest in California history — have long since been extinguished. But the fire’s death toll, which has fluctuated between 85 and 86, is likely to have continued to mount.
You won’t find these names in the official list of victims. But in a new report, the Chico Enterprise-Record identified at least 50 additional fatalities that medical experts and lawyers have linked to the Camp fire.
[Read the story: “Families mourn indirect, ‘forgotten’ deaths from Camp Fire” in the Chico Enterprise-Record]
As my colleague Laura Newberry wrote last year, the fire was “a case study in what can go wrong when a landscape that’s prone to wildfire is disproportionately populated by those who are least likely to escape.” When the fire hit in 2018, an estimated 25% of Paradise-area residents were 65 or older, which is nearly double the percent of residents in that age bracket statewide. Many of the known victims were elderly.
The continuing toll of deaths linked to the Camp fire has largely been composed of the elderly and already infirm, who died in the aftermath of evacuation and traumatic upheaval. And because the blaze was sparked by poorly maintained PG&E equipment, they too could be eligible for compensation from PG&E’s $13.5-billion settlement with victims from multiple California fires.
Reporter Camille von Kaenel, a Report for America corps member who covers Camp fire recovery for the Enterprise-Record, compiled the list through wrongful-death claims filed as part of the legal case against PG&E.
I spoke with Camille yesterday afternoon about her reporting. Here’s our conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How did you compile your list of 50 names from the PG&E wrongful-death claims database?
I would have never thought to do this were it not for the family that I featured in my story. I met Tammie Strong through another story, and she was the one who told me that she had filed a wrongful-death claim for the loss of her son Donovan Iverson, who passed away shortly after the fire as an indirect result of it.
I had been looking for a way to somehow tally these indirect deaths, because I knew that there were many, many indirect deaths out there. The advantage with looking at the wrongful-death claims is that they’ve already been vetted by a lawyer and medical expert — lawyers are trying to make a case that these people died as a result of the Camp fire, so they’ve had to gather evidence making that connection.
On the recommendation of some lawyers, I searched for some key terms like “the estate of” that might identify wrongful-death claims [in the database]. I was putting all this into a spreadsheet and then cross referencing it with the list of 85. Not all of the 85 were represented, but I eliminated them and still ended up with 50 names of deceased people whose families were claiming died as a result of the fire.
You quote a lawyer calling this list “the tip of the iceberg.” Why is that?
Anecdotally, there are people I’ve talked to who say their relatives died and not all of them were on the list. So I know just from my reporting that there’s people who are not on that list. And I suspect that there’s a lot more people who just didn’t think to file a wrongful-death claim or didn’t want to go through the trouble of reliving it. It’s maybe a vetted sample, but it’s not the complete number — that’s hard to figure out.
What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered in determining what counts as a disaster death? And why does an accurate count matter?
Well, I’ve encountered it personally because people were asking me why I wasn’t writing about their relatives who died as an indirect result of the Camp fire. And I didn’t have a good answer.
The [Butte County] Sheriff-Coroner Kory Honea’s position is that he’s counting deaths that are close in time and location to the disaster. Those are his legal criteria, but he’s investigated other cases.
This is a widespread conundrum after all disasters — how do you tally the complications from the disaster? The problem is that now this expanded death toll isn’t being accounted for in emergency preparedness and plans for community resilience. And vulnerable populations are already sort of undervalued and undercounted, anyway.
You have an unusual beat, focusing on the aftermath of the state’s deadliest fire. What’s your day-to-day like?
I spend a lot of time in the community. Most days, I’m in Paradise or Magalia or Concow, or even out in Chico or Butte Creek Canyon in the burn scar. Even if I’m just working out of a coffee shop, I like to be present there. I overhear things. Not everyone knows my face, but sometimes I’m recognized and people appreciate that visibility and presence. I try to turn out daily stories and then I try to do deeper dives, because that’s my mandate as a Report for America corps member.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
Rent hikes could be smaller for L.A. tenants under new plan at City Hall: Alarmed about people being “squeezed out” of their homes, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin wants to clamp down on rent increases for hundreds of thousands of tenants, tightening the rules under a longstanding city ordinance. Los Angeles Times
Everyone who has challenged the Los Angeles Police Department’s decision to place them in California’s gang database in court has had their names successfully removed, according to a Times review of records and interviews. This comes amid scrutiny over how the LAPD identifies gang members and whether its list is accurate. Los Angeles Times
Apple and Amazon are transforming Culver City. Should they pay more in taxes? Los Angeles Times
Is this Van Nuys intersection the most dangerous one in Los Angeles? A year’s worth of data from the LAPD shows 47 collisions at Sepulveda Boulevard and Sherman Way — the most of any intersection in the city. Crosstown LA
IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER
A federal judge demanded that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement temporarily restore a national toll-free hotline for detained immigrants. The hotline was shut down two weeks after being featured on the television show “Orange Is the New Black.” Los Angeles Times
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
President Trump will reportedly visit the San Joaquin Valley next week. Details about the trip remain unconfirmed. Fresno Bee
The president is also slated to attend a Palm Springs-area fundraiser next week. The campaign fundraising event will be held at Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison’s Rancho Mirage estate. Desert Sun
The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom’s homelessness plan, writing that Newsom’s budget proposal “falls short of articulating a clear strategy for curbing homelessness in California” by shifting decision-making authority away from local governments that have historically handled the bulk of homeless services in the state. Associated Press
Questions swirl around Pasadena fire chief’s reassignment. He was reassigned to the city manager’s office last week amid a long-running feud with union leaders. Pasadena Star-News
CRIME AND COURTS
California stopped charging parents for kids’ incarceration. So why are some still stuck owing thousands of dollars? Cal Matters
Deceit, disrepair and death inside a Southern California rental empire: Tens of thousands of California’s poorest tenants — many just a step away from homelessness —have endured conditions in housing run by PAMA Management, which can be dirty, dilapidated and even deadly. LAist
BART has lost nearly 10 million passengers on nights and weekends. Can the Bay Area transit agency lure them back? San Francisco Chronicle
These one-percenters are decidedly unamused by your fur and foie gras bans. The story includes a quote from a woman identified as being “a San Francisco socialite and fashion plate.” Town & Country
How an Amish family in Ohio helped bring Redding’s steam donkey back to life. (For those not in the steam donkey know, they are “steam engines that turn a large winch, or capstan. During the late 1800s and early 1900s they were used in timber harvesting to pull logs out of the forest.”) Redding Record Searchlight
Radio legend Art Laboe, the original oldie but goodie, is still on-air after nearly 80 years. Laboe will turn 95 in August. Riverside Press-Enterprise
There’s new snow at L.A.-area ski resorts in time for Presidents Day weekend. Here’s the rundown. Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles: sunny, 71. San Diego: sunny, 66. San Francisco: partly sunny, 57. San Jose: sunny, 65. Sacramento: sunny, 67. More weather is here.
Today’s California memory comes from Marge Solari:
I was born in Los Angeles in 1944. We lived in a duplex on Lorena Street and my grandparents lived next door. There were orchards behind our home and the smell of orange blossoms filled the air. In 1952 we moved to Alhambra. The last time we drove past the location where our duplex had been, there was a freeway. The climate there was the best anyone could want.
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)