Business / Economy

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Newsom Declares Drought Emergency Across California

Posted By on Wed, Oct 20, 2021 at 9:44 AM

A U.S. Department of Agriculture field manager walks along the parched ground in a pomegranate orchard at Wolfskill Experimental Orchards near Davis. - PHOTO BY ANNE WERNIKOFF, CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
  • A U.S. Department of Agriculture field manager walks along the parched ground in a pomegranate orchard at Wolfskill Experimental Orchards near Davis.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday declared a drought emergency for the entire state of California, as conservation efforts continue to fall far short of state targets.

Newsom also authorized California’s water regulators to ban wasteful water use, such as spraying down public sidewalks, and directed his Office of Emergency Services to fund drinking water as needed. But he stopped short of issuing any statewide conservation mandates.

“As the western U.S. faces a potential third year of drought, it’s critical that Californians across the state redouble our efforts to save water in every way possible,” Newsom said in a statement.

The announcement extends drought emergencies, already declared in 50 counties, to the eight remaining counties where conditions had thus far not been deemed severe enough: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Imperial, San Francisco and Ventura.

The emergency declarations are aimed at easing responses to the deepening drought — such as emergency bottled water purchases or construction to bolster water supplies — by reducing environmental and other regulations. Under the proclamation, local water suppliers must begin preparing for the possibility of a dry year ahead.

“We think we’ll be able to manage through this year,” said David Pettijohn, director of water resources at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “Next year is the issue. And we don’t know what the water year is going to look like. Nobody can predict the weather.”

But California’s water watchers say that without a conservation mandate, California is losing time, and water. “We know mandates are more effective than voluntary calls,” said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. “It takes time to ramp up, and because of the delay in asking Californians to save water this spring, we are further behind than we should be.”

Conservation improving, but still short of goals

New data released today by the State Water Resources Control Board reveals that Californians cut their water use at home by 5 percent in August compared to August 2020, an improvement over the reductions of less than 2 percent in July but still far short of the voluntary 15 percent cuts Newsom urged in July.

The hard-hit North Coast, where the state’s first drought emergencies were declared in April, continued to show the biggest drops in household water use — with an 18.3 percent decrease compared to August of last year. Conservation numbers tapered off moving south, with the San Francisco Bay Area conserving nearly 10 percent more water than last August.

The South Coast region — which includes Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties — showed an improvement over July, when water use was roughly even with last year. In August, residents used about 3.1 percent less water than they did in August 2020.

“Those numbers are a little bit misleading, frankly,” said Pettijohn, pointing to existing conservation measures including mandatory outdoor watering restrictions. “Looking at one month, in one year, compared to the same exact month in the current year, it’s really not a true measure of what the efforts in the city have been.”

The current reductions in water use are on top of conservation that has continued since the last drought. In 2020, Californians were already using about 16% less water in their homes and businesses statewide compared to 2013, according to water board data analyst Marielle Pinheiro.

This August was both the hottest and driest on record, according to the governor’s office. And the increased conservation, even during an exceptionally dry month, “is especially significant,” Pinheiro said at the water board meeting today.

“Once you’ve learned to save water, why turn the water on when you’re brushing your teeth?” said former water board chairperson Felicia Marcus, who led the response during the last drought under former Gov. Jerry Brown. “The glass half full view of that is that messaging is starting to take hold.”

Still, Newsha Ajami, director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford University, was surprised that Newsom didn’t declare a statewide water conservation mandate today.

“We really need to reduce per capita water use significantly in some areas of the state,” she said. “If this drought lingers longer and we end up having a few more dry years we are going to have a lot more communities experiencing water scarcity and water access issues.”

An unknown water year ahead

Newsom’s announcement comes at a pivotal moment for California’s water.

The state just closed out its second-driest water year on record, with nearly 88 percent of California now in the clutches of extreme drought, or worse. By the end of September, statewide reservoir storage had hit 60 percent of average, with Lake Oroville setting a new record low.

“It’s amazing that in the second dry year, we’re in as scary a position if not scarier than what we faced in that last drought. It’s almost beyond comprehension,” Marcus said. “It’s a stunning challenge.”

State officials have warned water providers south of the Delta relying on state water allocations that they might be cut off completely next year.

“We’re starting with record low (reservoir) storage,” Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said last month. “We would have to have north of 140 percent of (average) precipitation to generate average runoff into the reservoirs that would begin filling that hole.”

“It’s amazing that in the second dry year, we’re in as scary a position if not scarier than what we faced in that last drought. It’s almost beyond comprehension.”

Felicia Marcus, former chairperson, State Water Resources Control Board

Now, California is on the cusp of its rainy season, from November to April, when it receives almost all of its yearly precipitation.

A series of storms are expected to reach Northern California this week, with another that could unleash some rain over Southern California as soon as this weekend, according to Chad Hecht, a meteorology staff researcher with the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Precipitation forecasts range from eight inches in the Sierras over the next seven days, to less than half an inch in Southern California, said Julie Kalansky, the center’s deputy director.

While the rain is unlikely to substantially refill empty reservoirs, it could help prepare thirsty soils for more rains to come.

For these storms, “the runoff from them may not be very high, but they’ll help moisten the soils. So if we get more, hopefully you get more runoff that you know can go into reservoirs or streams and ecosystems,” Kalansky said.

But the water year ahead remains murky: Cooler than average temperatures in the tropical Pacific herald the arrival of La Niña conditions, which the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center reports have an 87 percent chance of continuing between December and February.

La Niña can stir up storm tracks, changing how much precipitation falls on California. But the results vary — especially for Northern California — making it difficult to predict what this means for rain and snowfall in the northern two-thirds of the state, Kalansky said.

For Southern California, on the other hand, La Niña tends to foretell a drier year. “It doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily going to have a really dry year, but we typically don’t get really wet years when it’s a La Niña,” she said.

Overall, Kalansky said, “it’s still yet to be decided on whether or not this year is going to be wet or dry and what this means for drought. We just don’t have those answers yet.”

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Monday, October 18, 2021

Port Backlogs Sum up California’s COVID Crisis

Posted By on Mon, Oct 18, 2021 at 5:53 AM

The extent to which California’s — and the country and world’s — challenges are interconnected was exemplified by President Joe Biden’s Wednesday announcement that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will move toward 24/7 operations to help unsnarl massive supply chain backlogs.

Still, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said Sunday during a CNN interview that the situation is not ending anytime soon.

"Well, certainly, a lot of the challenges that we have been experiencing this year will continue into next year," Buttigieg said on State of the Union. "But there are both short-term and long-term steps that we can take to do something about it. Look, part of what's happening isn't just the supply side. It's the demand side. Demand is off the charts. Retail sales are through the roof."

Before the pandemic, usually just one cargo ship had to anchor near the ports — which together handle 40 percent of containers entering the U.S. — while waiting to unload its goods. On Tuesday, there were 58 — down from a record 73 in mid-September. The massive pileup can be traced to, among other things, port closures in China, factory lockdowns in Vietnam, an uptick in online purchases from consumers stuck at home with stimulus checks to spend, and an unprecedented shortage of truckers and warehouse workers needed to transport items from the ports.

The logjam may have also caused Orange County’s largest oil spill in three decades: Officials’ prevailing theory is that a ship anchor pierced an undersea pipeline. And it apparently helped port truckers win $30 million in wage theft settlements announced Tuesday — because truckers are typically classified as independent contractors, they weren’t paid for time spent waiting in hours-long lines at the backed-up ports.

Sailors on the anchored container ships have also been stuck in limbo, resulting in an uptick of medical issues, food shortages, violent fights and reports of depression and suicidal thoughts. To pass the time, said Merry-Jo Dickie, a ship custodian, “they do a lot of shopping online” — ironically, one of the very things contributing to the ship backlog in the first place.

Experts and labor advocates say the supply chain breakdown reflects the extent to which workers are mentally and physically breaking down.

Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union: “One of the major problems with the current state of logistics is the shortage of port truck drivers. They are not paid a living wage and are largely treated as indentured servants.”

The North Coast Journal contributed to this report.
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Friday, October 15, 2021

Hospitals Brace for Strikes as California Workers Protest Staff Shortages

Posted By on Fri, Oct 15, 2021 at 3:43 PM

Hospital staffers and union organizers waved signs and banners in protest over staffing shortages at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Roseville on Oct. 14, 2021. - PHOTO BY FRED GREAVES FOR CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters
  • Hospital staffers and union organizers waved signs and banners in protest over staffing shortages at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Roseville on Oct. 14, 2021.

As weary health care workers across California enter the 19th month of the pandemic, thousands are walking off the job and onto the picket line, demanding more staffing.

The strikes and rallies threaten to cripple hospital operations that have been inundated by the COVID-19 Delta surge as well as patients seeking long-delayed care.

More than two dozen hospitals across the state — including some Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health facilities and USC Keck Medicine — have experienced strikes by engineers, janitorial staff, respiratory therapists, nurses, midwives, physical therapists and technicians over the past four months.

This week, nearly a third of all California hospitals reported “critical staffing shortages” to the federal government, with more predicting shortages in the coming week. Hospitals are unable to meet the state’s required staff-to-patient ratios for nurses or schedule adequate numbers of other critical personnel.

In the Central Valley, the region hit hardest by the Delta surge, National Guard medics have been deployed since September to assist area hospitals.

The reason for the shortages? Record patient volumes at the same time that many workers have been driven away from the bedside by burnout, early retirement and the seemingly unending stress of the pandemic.

Flourish logoA Flourish chart

SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West estimates that about 10 percent of its members — close to 10,000 people — have retired, left the profession, or taken extended leaves of absence during the pandemic.

“What’s really important is that 10 percent doesn’t turn into 15 percent, does not turn into 20 percent. There’s not enough temporary staff out there to fix what’s going on,” said Dave Regan, president of SEIU-UHW.

The shortages are an untenable scenario, unions say — one that has persisted for many years brought to a boiling point by the pandemic.

Since the pandemic began, union grievances with hospitals are increasingly about inadequate staffing, although bargaining over pay remains a key issue.

Money matters when it comes to holding onto workers, they say, especially because temporary staff brought on for pandemic response often make more than regular employees. In some instances, traveling nurses have been paid $10,000 per week at California hospitals with severe staffing needs.

“You’re paying exorbitant amounts for travelers while the existing workforce makes exactly the same amount (as before the pandemic),” Regan said.

Striking to “stop the bleeding”

Early in the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced efforts to expand the health care workforce through a volunteer health corps. Although tens of thousands signed up, most people didn’t have the necessary medical skills, and only 14 volunteers worked out.

The California Department of Public Health also signed a $500 million contract to help hospitals pay for emergency health care workers like traveling nurses. That contract expired in June.

Unions say those efforts are a Band-aid on a larger problem. Instead, they say policymakers should get hospitals to try harder to retain their current employees.

“Right now, hospitals, the health industry, the state of California, you need to do a lot more so that it doesn’t get worse,” Regan said. “We’re doing very little as a state to support this workforce that has been under a really unique set of pressures.”

In an early attempt to stop the churn, SEIU-UHW sponsored a bill that would have provided hazard pay retention bonuses to health workers. Opposed by the hospital association. the bill died after a third reading in the Assembly and did not make it to the Senate.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat from Torrance who introduced the bill, said the hospitals’ claims that they couldn’t afford hazard pay were unfounded since they received billions in federal pandemic funds, some “specifically earmarked for hazard pay and bonuses for frontline workers.”

“The state made a decision that they were not going to provide financial incentives to recognize and retain healthcare workers, and we think that’s shortsighted,” Regan said.

Over the summer, hundreds of nurses at hospitals, including USC’s Keck Medicine, San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital and Riverside Community Hospital, staged strikes over inadequate staffing and safety concerns.

Now more than 700 hospital engineers employed by Kaiser Permanente facilities in Northern California have been striking for four weeks, demanding higher wages.

In Antioch, more than 350 workers at Sutter Delta ended a week-long strike over inadequate staffing Friday but have yet to reach a contract agreement with their employer.

In the Victor Valley and Roseville, hundreds of workers staged recent rallies and vigils to highlight what they’re calling a “worker crisis.” Advocates say their upcoming schedules are packed with pickets planned in solidarity with other unions.

“We’re doing very little as a state to support this workforce that has been under a really unique set of pressures.”

Dave Regan, SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West

And perhaps the strongest flexing of union muscle has come in Southern California, where members of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, or UNAC/UHCP, voted overwhelmingly to approve a strike against Kaiser Permanente if negotiations remain at a standstill. Should a strike materialize in the coming weeks, more than 24,000 members would walk out of the health care giant’s medical centers and clinics in more than a dozen cities.

Although the dollars and cents of bargaining vary from union to union, the common thread is clear: They want employers to “stop the bleeding” of health care workers fleeing the profession and invest more in recruiting and retaining staff.

The union found 72 percent of its members — which includes nurses, occupational and physical therapists, midwives and other medical staff — were struggling with anxiety and burnout, and between 42 to 45 percent reported depression and insomnia. About 74 percent said staffing was a primary concern.

How hospitals are responding to shortages

Hospitals say it is not as easy as hiring more employees. With so many people leaving the workforce, there aren’t enough candidates to fill the gap. Even support staff like janitors, cafeteria workers, clerks and assistants are in short supply.

“There is no question there is a shortage of health care workforce. We have far fewer people in the workforce today than we did when the pandemic started,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, spokesperson for the California Hospital Association.

Many hospitals have offered employees shift bonuses, child care subsidies and temporary housing to keep them from spreading the virus to family members while keeping them at patients’ bedside. But it hasn’t been enough.

“I don’t know that it’s anybody’s first choice, but we are in a situation where we have to rely on the travelers (traveling nurses),” Emerson-Shea said. “Hospitals would much rather have their permanent staff, but in this situation, with as long as it has been and the workforce dynamics so complex, we need both.”

“We have far fewer people in the workforce today than we did when the pandemic started.”

Jan Emerson-Shea, California Hospital Association

The state hospital association has asked state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly to assist hospitals with workforce concerns in part by reinstating funding for traveling workers and making it easier for hospitals to get exemptions from the state’s strict nurse-to-patient ratios. In a written response, Ghaly said the state would continue helping designated surge hospitals pay for extra staff and was working to expedite nursing ratio waivers for heavily impacted regions.

“There’s no resolution yet, but the conversations are occurring, which is important because we are not through the pandemic,” Emerson-Shea said.

Like many industries, hospitals rely on historic averages to predict the need for employees. The average number of patients in a given time period determines how many employees will be scheduled each day. The problem, workers say, is that using the average means frequently they are working with minimal staff.

“There needs to be a massive paradigm shift of how hospitals treat clinicians, and that’s less just-in-time staffing and less just-in-time supplies,” said Gerard Brogan, director of nursing practice at the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United.

Sibilia Espinoza, a registered nurse, stands in the ICU of Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center wearing full protective equipment. Her union, UNAC/UHCP, voted overwhelmingly to strike in part because of staffing conditions during the pandemic.

Peter Sidhu, a former intensive care nurse at the Kaiser Woodland Hills Medical Center, said the union has filed staffing grievances each year for the past seven years. During the pandemic, the strain has gotten worse. Woodland Hills Medical Center is one of the facilities that may be affected by a strike.

“Between the first surge and second surge, we had several months where there was zero planning. There were no new grad programs, there was no new hiring,” Sidhu said.

“So going into that second surge, which was really bad here in California, we knew we were in trouble,” Sidhu said. With adequate staffing prior to the pandemic and efforts to increase staff levels in between surges, workers would not have burned out so rapidly, he contends.

Bargaining over salaries and benefits between Kaiser and Alliance of Health Care Unions, which includes the Southern California group UNAC/UHCP, stalled at the end of September after five months. The strike authorization is the first of its kind for UNAC/UHCP in the past 26 years, and members say long-standing staffing issues and burnout contributed to employee dissatisfaction.

“The vote to authorize a strike by union members is disappointing, especially because our members and communities are continuing to face the challenges of the ongoing pandemic,” Arlene Peasnall, Kaiser’s senior vice president of human resources, said in a statement. “In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff.”

‘Burnout can only be getting worse’

In a recent study by the UC San Francisco Health Workforce Research Center on Long-Term Care, the number of nurses aged 55 to 64 planning on quitting or retiring in the next two years jumped nearly 14 percent between 2018 and 2020, setting up the field for a five-year shortage.

Joanne Spetz, the center’s associate director of research and lead study author, said new graduates before the pandemic sometimes struggled to find employment while employers frequently complained about not being able to find enough experienced nurses to hire. But the overall number of nurses in the workforce was enough then.

Now, with nurses reducing their hours or quitting, the state is in a more tenuous position. About 7% fewer nurses reported working full-time in 2020 compared to 2018, and sharp declines in employment were seen among nurses 55 years and older, according to the study.

“We’re looking at having a shortage in the short term,” she said. “The wild card is, with the pandemic lasting this long, burnout can only be getting worse. What if we have a bunch of 30 to 35 year-old nurses who say ‘screw this,’ then we’re losing a lot of years of working life from these nurses.”

“One day you walk in and your unit is full, and two days later you walk in and a large portion of those patients have passed away.”

Peter Sidhu, former intensive care nurse

Sidhu is one of those experienced nurses who found himself reeling from the dual forces of COVID-19’s brutal emotional toll and short staffing.

He had volunteered to work with the first COVID-19 patient that arrived at his ICU in March 2020. That first patient quickly turned into dozens each day, with many dying.

“One day you walk in and your unit is full, and two days later you walk in and a large portion of those patients have passed away. You’re double-stacking body bags,” Sidhu said.

He struggled with anxiety, anger and insomnia before his shifts, knowing there would be more patients than nurses could care for, and that they would have no time for breaks. He said he was told that under the state’s temporary emergency waiver of nurse-to-patient ratios he would have to take on more patients.

A year into the pandemic, Sidhu called it quits and now works as the union’s treasurer. Of the eight members in his original ICU nursing team, only two remain working, he said.

“I’m 42, and I was planning on working at the bedside until I turn 60,” Sidhu said. “And then after COVID, I said ‘I am done.’ I was super-done.”

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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

How Much Do Wildfires Really Cost California’s Economy?

Posted By on Wed, Oct 13, 2021 at 9:31 AM

Cook Martha Garcia preps food in the kitchen at Verde Mexican Rotisserie in South Lake Tahoe on Oct. 6, 2021. Domi Chavarria, the owner of Verde Mexican Rotisserie, lost about $10K worth of inventory when they shut down for two weeks due to the Caldor Fire evacuation. - SALGU WISSMATH FOR CALMATTERS
  • Salgu Wissmath for CalMatters
  • Cook Martha Garcia preps food in the kitchen at Verde Mexican Rotisserie in South Lake Tahoe on Oct. 6, 2021. Domi Chavarria, the owner of Verde Mexican Rotisserie, lost about $10K worth of inventory when they shut down for two weeks due to the Caldor Fire evacuation.
Not a single structure burned down in the city of South Lake Tahoe. And yet, the threat of the fast approaching Caldor Fire cost surrounding El Dorado County tens of millions of dollars, if not more.

In South Lake Tahoe, Domi ​​Chavarria, co-owner of Verde Mexican Rotisserie, felt the devastation of the Caldor Fire even before the city was evacuated in August. Smoke had blanketed the city, and the tourists had mostly left. When the evacuation orders came down, Verde was stocked with food, almost all of which went bad during the more than two weeks the restaurant ultimately remained closed. Produce wilted; proteins went bad; prepared sauces couldn’t be used.

“All that stuff, none of that’s made to last weeks — it’s all made the last days,” says Chavarria. He estimates the lost inventory was worth between $10,000 and $13,000. None of it was covered by his insurance.

Losses like Chavarria’s add up — to at least $50.3 million in lost economic activity for El Dorado County, according to an initial estimate shared with CalMatters.

Food inventory from the Verde Mexican Rotisserie restaurant had to be discarded after a 2 week evacuation order due to the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe. Domi Chavarria, the owner of Verde Mexican Rotisserie, lost about $10K worth of inventory when they shut down for two weeks due to the Caldor Fire evacuation. Photo courtesy of Domi Chavarria.
Food inventory from the Verde Mexican Rotisserie restaurant had to be discarded after a two-week evacuation order due to the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe. Photo courtesy of Domi Chavarria.

Knowing the true cost of wildfires could spur more ambitious action from both government and the private sector, experts say. For instance, tracking the costs systematically over several years could help policymakers figure out which fire prevention and mitigation strategies are most cost effective.

But right now, California has an incomplete understanding of how much wildfires cost the state each year.

The costs of business disruption, the cost of damage to uninsured homes, the cost of ecosystem damage, and the cost of secondary health impacts — such as those caused by wildfire smoke — aren’t being tracked.

Right now, we don’t have a comprehensive picture of the economic harm wildfires cause each year, according to Teresa Feo, senior science officer at the California Council on Science and Technology and lead author of a 2020 report from the council on the cost of wildfires in California.

“There isn’t a statewide systematic tracking effort to figure out these costs,” says Feo. She said it took only about a month of digging into the question to realize: ”Oh no, you can’t come up with a number, this is actually impossible with the existing data.”

The state does not track or estimate the cost of wildfires in a way that accounts for public health costs or ecological damage on a regular basis, confirmed Heather Williams, communications director for California Natural Resources Agency. “Those would always be a moving target since health impacts can occur years later. But with more research being funded, this may be more feasible to help the state better understand the economic and ecological impacts so we can continue to make science-based informed policy decisions,” Williams wrote in an email.

The different costs of wildfires

The initial analysis of the Caldor Fire’s economic impact was prepared by Tom Harris, an economist at the University of Nevada, Reno, for the Tahoe Prosperity Center, an economic development organization for the Lake Tahoe Basin. It estimates the combined losses of El Dorado and Nevada’s Douglas County at $93 million. And, says Harris, that preliminary estimate is low: It doesn’t include the losses in sectors like rental homes or recreation businesses. Nor does it include the lost economic activity caused by residents evacuating, and it doesn’t take into account the healthcare costs associated with wildfire smoke exposure.

Some costs are more immediate — the cost of Chavarria’s rotted food, for instance, and the fact that the fire took place over Labor Day weekend.

Domi Chavarria poses for a portrait at his restaurant Verde Mexican Rotisserie in South Lake Tahoe on Oct. 6, 2021. Domi Chavarria, the owner of Verde Mexican Rotisserie, lost about $10K worth of inventory when they shut down for two weeks due to the Caldor Fire evacuation. Salgu Wissmath for CalMatters
Domi Chavarria poses for a portrait at his restaurant Verde Mexican Rotisserie in South Lake Tahoe on Oct. 6, 2021. Photo by Salgu Wissmath for CalMatters

“That’s not a slow weekend in Tahoe,” says Chavarria. Tourism is about 63 percent of the Tahoe basin’s economy, according to a 2018 report from Tahoe Prosperity Center.

Between the slowdown in business due to smoke and the evacuation, Verde lost several weeks of revenue. Chavarria says that a month of sales for the restaurant is more than $100,000. Verde’s employees also went without paychecks for the two weeks the restaurant was shut down.

Nicole Smith, co-founder and taproom manager of South Lake Brewing Company, said her business fared better than many, partially because none of the beer went bad. But between the loss of sales in the company’s own taproom and the beer it sells to other local businesses, the brewery lost somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 of revenue during the evacuation, estimates Smith.

In addition to lost business, some figures are easier to pin down, like the amount Cal Fire spends on fire suppression.

But the state, for example, does not systematically track deaths and health conditions linked to wildfire smoke exposure. The costs associated with smoke may be the largest costs we’re missing, says Feo. One study produced by public health department researchers and academics tracked the use of Medi-Cal services during San Diego’s 2007 fall fire season. It found that during the peak fire period, emergency room visits for respiratory conditions increased by 34 percent and visits for asthma increased by 113 percent. Especially concerning was a 136 percent increase in ER visits for children four and younger for asthma. That finding, the authors wrote, “is cause for particular concern because of the potential for long-term harm to children’s lung development.”

A systematic effort to track wildfire smoke effects would be especially profound, says Feo, because it reaches so far beyond the location of the fire. In 2018, for example, smoke from the Camp Fire clogged San Francisco, a city more than a 100 miles away. If you can put figures on the impact of smoke across the whole state, “who’s impacted by the fire suddenly changes very dramatically, and therefore who benefits from the prevention and mitigation changes,” she said.

Different approaches to wildfire data

The current approach to assessing the aftermath of wildfires is a hodgepodge of research looking into different aspects that is not led by any one agency.

A smattering of data collection efforts includes:

  • The California Air Resources Board is funding a study of the health impact of wildfire smoke statewide for 2017, 2018 and 2020, which will be ready in three or four years;
  • The board is also funding a study of lost work days due to wildfire smoke, which will be ready in a couple of years;
  • Cal Fire is also increasing funding for research into forest health;
  • The Department of Insurance tabulates the damage to insured homes for some major wildfires, but does not track damage from all wildfires each year;
  • And a variety of academic studies.

Academic research on the cost of wildfires tends to come out several years later, and different studies focus on different fires using different methodologies. That makes it difficult to compare the findings, or track the costs over time.

These studies are also conducted based on the interests of the particular researcher, says Louise Comfort, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a faculty affiliate at UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society Policy Lab. “That doesn’t give us a comprehensive view,” Comfort says. She credits an UC-system wide effort to study the impacts of wildfires as a step in the right direction, but says the results are still not coming in in a standardized way.

The state may be in the best position to lead the effort on tracking the economic impact of wildfires. “The only thing that would give us a comprehensive view is if the state really said, ‘We want this kind of information,” says Comfort. But the state agencies shouldn’t go it alone, she says, they should engage experts in the university system.

Cook Isaura Martinez preps food in the kitchen at Verde Mexican Rotisserie in South Lake Tahoe on Oct. 6, 2021. Domi Chavarria, the owner of Verde Mexican Rotisserie, lost about $10K worth of inventory when they shut down for two weeks due to the Caldor Fire evacuation. Salgu Wissmath for CalMatters
Cook Isaura Martinez preps food in the kitchen at Verde Mexican Rotisserie in South Lake Tahoe on Oct. 6, 2021. Photo by Salgu Wissmath for CalMatters

Without statewide, systematically published numbers, it’s more difficult to compare how different regions are suffering from wildfires, or to assess the cost effectiveness of different wildfire prevention strategies. And it may be more challenging to justify spending on expensive, but nonetheless cost-effective, mitigation or prevention programs.

That’s a question that comes up when talking about spending taxpayer dollars, Feo said.

While wildfire costs aren’t tracked, there are some academic studies that attempt to estimate those costs and produce mind boggling figures. In 2020, for example, a team of researchers studied the nationwide impact of California’s 2018 wildfire season, and estimated that its economic damage totaled $148.5 billion.

The study, published in Nature Sustainability, captured direct capital costs, such as buildings burning down; health costs, including those related to air pollution exposure; and indirect losses such as the economic disruption of lost hours working, as well as disruption to regional and national supply chains.

The costs identified in that study exceed that of any disaster in the U.S. between the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, other than Hurricane Katrina, says Adam Rose, a research professor at University of Southern California and an expert in energy and environmental economics.

Rose said that a standardized methodology for assessing the total cost of wildfires should be established and applied on a regular basis — and it needs to be one that can be implemented relatively rapidly, as opposed to several years after a fire. That would allow a whole field of researchers to help track these costs, and would make their findings comparable. In addition to helping make the political case for government-led fire-prevention efforts, those numbers might spur private sector action on fire prevention efforts.

But not all experts said that measuring the costs associated with each wildfire season is important. William Siembieda, a professor emeritus at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and senior member of a Cal Poly team that prepared several of the state’s annual hazard mitigation plans, says he doesn’t know how policymakers would make use of those numbers.

What would be useful, Siembieda says, is for cities to model the economic impact of different levels of fire damage. What would be the cost if 5 percent of the city burned? What if 10 percent or 20 percent burned?

With those estimates, local officials could decide whether they’re prepared to eat that loss, insure against the risk, or pursue other strategies.

What’s next for victims?

For a couple weeks now, South Lake Tahoe residents and business owners have been reopening their restaurants, shops, and adventure outfits, taking stock of what happened. When Lisa Schafer, co-owner of Wildwood Makers Market, returned to the city and drove to her shop for the first time, she felt waves of different emotions. There was the fear she’d been holding on to — that her hometown, her house, and her business would all burn to a crisp. There was the gratitude she felt for the fact that they had all been spared.

“I cried the whole drive,” she said.

Her shop, which sells jewelry, wall decor, embroidery kits and other gifts, smelled smoky for her first few days back. It wasn’t a pleasant campfire smell; “it smelled like beef jerky.”

Business didn’t return to normal immediately; tourists didn’t rush back to the area. All told, Shafer lost about 60 percent of sales in September. Her insurance won’t cover that loss of business.

It’s clear, she says, that these fires are not going away. She said she wishes there were some sort of automatic aid for businesses and individuals impacted by the fire.

Ultimately, Wildwood Makers Market will bounce back from loss of business, Schafer said. But if something happens in the winter that disrupts the holiday shopping season, that could be “catastrophic,” she says. “One more hit would not be good for us.”

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

770 New Laws Coming to California

Posted By on Tue, Oct 12, 2021 at 2:27 PM

You’d be forgiven for not knowing Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the largest expansion of California’s college financial aid system in a generation — he did so during the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants’ first playoff game Friday night.

Hours later, it was all over: Newsom signed his final bills on Saturday, a day ahead of the Oct. 10 deadline to act on the 836 proposals state lawmakers sent to his desk. Of those, he signed 770 (92 percent) and vetoed 66 (7.9 percent), according to Sacramento lobbyist Chris Micheli.

Here’s a look at the significant new laws coming to the Golden State — as well as ideas Newsom prevented from becoming law.

Signed into law:


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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Newsom is Running Out of Time to Sign Bills

Posted By on Thu, Oct 7, 2021 at 2:46 PM

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs legislation at CSU Northridge to improve college affordability and increase access to higher education. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GOVERNOR’S PRESS OFFICE
  • Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Press Office
  • Gov. Gavin Newsom signs legislation at CSU Northridge to improve college affordability and increase access to higher education.
T-minus three days.

That’s how much time Gov. Gavin Newsom has left to decide the fate of the remaining bills on his desk — and as the deadline draws nearer, the buildup for big-ticket and contentious proposals is getting more intense.

The direct impact of Newsom’s decisions was particularly apparent Wednesday, when he signed a stack of higher education bills — including one that makes it easier for community college students to transfer to a CSU or UC campus — while onstage at CSU Northridge, surrounded by lawmakers and pom pom-waving cheerleaders. “Eat your heart out, Texas! Eat your heart out, Florida!” Newsom yelled — referring to California’s $47.1 billion higher education budget — as the audience cheered. “Eat your heart out, Tennessee! Eat your heart out, fill-in-the-damn-blank!”

Conspicuously absent from the package, however, was a bill that would usher in the most consequential reforms to California’s financial aid system in a generation.

Also Wednesday, Newsom launched the Governor’s Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education, which has as one of its stated goals providing “young people with the tools necessary to recognize and respond to on-campus instances of anti-Semitism and bigotry.” The move comes as some Holocaust survivors urge Newsom to veto a bill that would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. Citing anti-Semitic content, Jewish groups were some of the most vocal critics of early drafts of California’s ethnic studies model curriculum — which the state Board of Education approved in March after taking into account more than 100,000 public comments.

Here’s a look at other noteworthy bills Newsom signed or vetoed in the past few days.

Signed into law:


The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 4,524,853 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 69,184 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 50,081,818 vaccine doses, and 70.9% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the results of the Newsom recall election and the top 21 bills state lawmakers sent to Newsom’s desk.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Flights to Tahoe Coming in November

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 2021 at 12:17 PM

Another new airline is coming to town, this time with nonstop flights to the Reno-Tahoe airport beginning Nov. 9.

According to a news release, ExpressJet's line aha! will operate the flight on
Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, departing California Redwood Coast – Humboldt County Airport at 11:25 a.m. and arriving in Reno-Tahoe at 12:35 p.m.

The returns flights will run on the same days, leaving Reno-Tahoe at 9:30 a.m. and arriving in Humboldt County at 10:40 a.m.

“We are extremely excited to welcome another new airline partner, aha!, to ACV and Humboldt County,” Cody Roggatz, aviation director for Humboldt County, said in the release. “This new service will provide Humboldt County Residents nonstop airline access to all of the entertainment and adventure options exclusive to the greater Reno-Tahoe Region through their local hometown airport.”

Find more information below:
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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Open Door Breaks Ground on New Arcata Health Center

Posted By on Thu, Sep 23, 2021 at 12:27 PM

A second round of dirt shoveling at the groundbreaking event was done by Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer, Open Door Community Health Centers President Tory Starr, Assemblymember Jim Wood, Arcata Mayor Brett Watson, Arcata City Planner Joe Mateer,  Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson, former state Assembly and Senate member and former Arcata city council member and Third District Supervisor Wesley Chesbro and Arcata Community Development Director David Loya. - MARK LARSON
  • Mark Larson
  • A second round of dirt shoveling at the groundbreaking event was done by Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer, Open Door Community Health Centers President Tory Starr, Assemblymember Jim Wood, Arcata Mayor Brett Watson, Arcata City Planner Joe Mateer, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson, former state Assembly and Senate member and former Arcata city council member and Third District Supervisor Wesley Chesbro and Arcata Community Development Director David Loya.

A host of local officials gathered in a dirt lot on Foster Avenue Tuesday afternoon to get their golden shovels dirty and celebrate the groundbreaking of the state-of-the-art Arcata Community Health Center, which is slated to open in 2023.

Once complete, the 33,000 square-foot facility will use a solar array — and an emergency backup generator — to power 35 exam rooms and a laboratory that will treat an estimated 40,000 patients per year — both adults and children — receiving primary care. The center will consolidate Open Door Community Health Centers’ two existing Arcata clinics — North Country Clinic and Humboldt Open Door Clinic — in a facility that meets “the same standards” as Open Door’s new health centers in Crescent City, Eureka and Fortuna.

An artist's rendering of what the Arcata Community Health Center will look like once complete. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • An artist's rendering of what the Arcata Community Health Center will look like once complete.

Continue reading »

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Nonstop to Vegas

Posted By on Thu, Sep 23, 2021 at 7:52 AM

An Avelo flight touches down in Las Vegas. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • An Avelo flight touches down in Las Vegas.
Wanna go to Vegas?

Avelo Airlines announced this morning that it will begin offering twice weekly nonstop flights from Humboldt County to Las Vegas, Nevada, in November.

“We are excited to add this second popular vacation and entertainment destination to our Eureka/Arcata schedule,” Avelo Chairman and CEO Andrew Levy said in a press release. “Getting to Vegas from the Humboldt Bay Area is now easier and more affordable than ever. The addition of Las Vegas to our existing Los Angeles service demonstrates our commitment to providing more choice and convenient access to the places our customers want to go go at everyday low fares.”

Just how low are those fares? Well, the company says they will start as low as $29 one-way, though that’s for a limited number of seats and “additional fees for carry-on and checked bags, assigned seats and other optional services may apply.”

The flights will operate on Thursdays and Sundays, leaving Humboldt County at 3 p.m. Thursdays (arriving in Vegas at 4:45 p.m.) and returning from Vegas at 5:25 p.m. Sundays (arriving in McKinleyville at 7:25 p.m.). The service begins Nov. 18.

Find the full press release from Avelo here.
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Thursday, September 16, 2021

North Coast Journal Inc. Purchases Ferndale Enterprise

Posted By on Thu, Sep 16, 2021 at 12:39 PM

The North Coast Journal Inc. has purchased The Ferndale Enterprise, keeping the 143-year-old weekly newspaper in local hands, and will take over publishing the paper next month.

Caroline Titus, who has served as editor and publisher of the award-winning Enterprise for 25 years, said she’s excited to start another chapter in life and to have found a local buyer for the iconic paper.

“After putting to bed more than 1,300 consecutive issues, it’s time I take a break,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier that such a reputable and prestigious publication has purchased Ferndale’s history book and the oldest business in town. It just feels so right.”

Titus, who purchased The Enterprise in 1998 and has served as its editor — and essentially its one-person staff — since 1995 plans to continue reporting for the Enterprise as a contributing editor.

Journal Publisher Melissa Sanderson, who purchased North Coast Journal Inc. from its longtime owners in April, plans to expand the Cream City’s paper to cover the entire Eel River Valley, which has been without regular newspaper coverage since the Humboldt Beacon closed in 2011.

“As a lifelong resident of the Eel River Valley, I’m honored to be trusted with this amazing piece of Humboldt County history,” Sanderson said. “I can’t thank Caroline enough for her 26 years of dedicated work and keeping this important First Amendment publication alive and thriving for our community."

The Enterprise, which published its first edition in May of 1878 and has continuously published since, has earned renown throughout the journalism industry for its unflinching coverage of local issues while stacking up more than 35 state and national awards. In 2019, Titus was named the Cal Press Foundation’s Justus F. Craemer Newspaper Executive of the Year and, in 2016, she won freedom of information and government transparency awards from the First Amendment Coalition, the Nor Cal Society of Professional Journalists and the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

“Caroline Titus’ news operation has served Ferndale with honor,” said Joe Wirt, director of affiliate relations with the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “It has also inspired and impressed publishers throughout the state and across the country. May The Enterprise continue to uphold the ideals of California newspapers.”

Journal news editor Thadeus Greenson said the Journal’s editorial staff is excited to take the baton from Titus and help write the paper’s next chapter.

“I’m humbled to carry on The Enterprise’s 143-year tradition of gathering the news that Ferndale needs to know, and excited to work toward bringing regular, reliable and impactful news coverage back to the entire Eel River Valley,” he said.

Sanderson, who can be reached at or 498-8370, said she is excited about the expansion of North Coast Journal Inc. and what the future holds for its publications. She is happy to answer any questions — and to hear any ideas — the community may have.

For information on purchasing subscriptions to the Journal and The Enterprise, visit For information about advertising opportunities, contact North Coast Journal Inc. Sales Manager Kyle Windham at or 496-2950.
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