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October 2018, Volume 24, Number 4

California: Fires, Poverty

California had its worst fire season in 2018 in a decade; 14,000 firefighters were fighting 16 major fires in August 2018. The Mendocino Complex fire near Clear Lake was the largest in the state's history, surpassing the 282,000 acres that were burned in the Thomas Fire in Ventura county in 2017. The Ferguson Fire briefly closed Yosemite National Park.

Three of the 30 largest wildfires since 2000 were burning in August 2018, when over a million acres had burned. Fires in California account for 10 percent of US acres burned. Alaska, which is four times larger than California, had the most acres burnt.

Investigations find that 95 percent of wildfires are started by humans, and the state aggressively tries to collect fire costs from culprits.

High summer temperatures and smoke in the air combined to limit outside activities. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said that the air was "very unhealthy" during many days in July and August. The state regulates heat stress among workers employed outside, but does not prescribe minimum air quality for outdoor work.

Of the top 20 wildfires in California, about half occurred in the last decade. There are many reasons for more and larger wildfires, including drought that provides the fuel for fires and high winds to spread them. California forests contain 130 million dead trees, many killed by bark beetles and the prolonged drought.

Californians are building homes in areas that were previously not developed. Human activity is believed to cause over 80 percent of the state's wildfires, as when power lines serving rural homes spark during high winds. The Carr Fire near Redding was caused by the rim of flat tire sending sparks into nearby brush. Some ecologists believe that cities and counties should buy land prone to burn and prohibit development to avoid destructive wildfires.

Governor Jerry Brown said that the state would have to "re-examine the way we manage our forests, the way we build our houses?how we build them, where we build them?and how much we invest in our fire protection services." By some estimates, the wildfires of 2018 will release more carbon into the atmosphere than has been saved by state policies to slow global warming.

The California Natural Resources Agency's fourth long-term report in August 2018 that concluded global warming of up to eight degrees by 2100 will lead to more extreme weather and wildfires in the state, including sea levels that will rise up to eight feet and threaten housing built on what were previously coastal marshes. The state's 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires periodic assessments of weather risks, aims to reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels.

Despite rising wildfire risks, over a million more houses are expected to be built in areas of high wildfire danger by 2050. There were 600,000 homes in fire-prone areas of western states in 1940, and over seven million today.

Poverty. Some 14.3 percent of California residents had incomes below the poverty line in 2016, which was $24,300 for a family of four. The California Poverty Measure (CPM), which includes more sources of income such as non-cash welfare benefits and adjusts for the state's higher housing costs, found that 19.4 percent or 7.4 million state residents were poor, defined as having an income less than $31,000 for a family of four.

By county, the CPM was 24 percent in Los Angeles and Santa Cruz counties and 12 percent in El Dorado county. San Joaquin Valley counties had poverty rates of 19-20 percent.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the federal government 38 times since President Trump took office. Nine of these suits involve immigration and 21 involve environmental issues. As of July 2018, California won partial relief in 12 court rulings and lost three; most of the suits are pending.

AB 450, the Immigrant Worker Protection Act, makes it unlawful for employers to give federal immigration agents access to non-public areas of workplaces without a warrant; prohibits employers from allowing ICE agents to review employee records without a warrant; and does not allow employers to re-verify work eligibility unless specifically required to do so by federal law. In July 2018, however, a federal judge enjoined the state from enforcing these provisions of AB 450.

About 30 percent of California's jobs require state licenses, most of which are issued or monitored by boards regulated by the Department of Consumer Affairs. The Legislature in 2018 approved AB 2138 to limit the authority of licensing boards to deny licenses to people if their arrests or convictions are more than seven years old, noting that eight million California adults have an arrest or conviction. More than 20 state boards, including those that regulate cosmetologists, physicians, nurses, engineers and psychologists, oppose relaxing restrictions on licenses for criminals.

Water. The federal Central Valley Project can move 13 million acre-feet of water from north to south via 600 miles of canals, while the State Water Project can move six million acre feet of water via 700 miles of canals. The State Water Project that created the Oroville Dam and California Aqueduct anticipated a peripheral canal to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin river Delta. The canal was not built in the 1960s, and voters rejected the peripheral canal in a 1982 referendum.

Governor Jerry Brown proposed Waterfix in 2015, two $15 billion tunnels to move water under the Delta and achieve the same goal as the peripheral canal, that is, move water from north to south while protecting the Delta.

Cadiz Inc has been trying to sell 50,000 acre feet of water a year from its land in the Mojave Desert to consumers in southern California since 2008. The federal government blocked the Cadiz Water Project's proposed pipeline in 2015, but reversed its stance in 2018, prompting the state legislature to impose new reviews in 2018.

California's budget includes $100 billion for the 13.2 million people enrolled in Medi-Cal in 2018-19. An analysis of super users found that one percent of those covered, 132,000 people, accounted for 27 percent of Medi-Cal spending, and five percent accounted for 52 percent. Many Medi-Cal super users have mental and other persistent problems, and use hospitals as a means of obtaining support for these issues.

An eighth of California homeowners have earthquake insurance, raising the question of what happens if a major earthquake destroys many of the state's homes. The government-authorized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac agencies could lose up to $100 billion in a major earthquake due to uninsured mortgages in the state. The California Earthquake Authority says that the cost of insuring a $500,000 house in the Bay Area is $3,000 a year, with homeowners absorbing the first five percent of losses.

Train. Governor Jerry Brown supports building a $100 billion bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the largest public works project underway in the US. The train is controversial; the High-Speed Rail Authority began construction in order to make it more difficult to abandon the project. Only a third of the money to complete the railroad is in hand, and opponents hope that a new governor in 2019 may slow or stop the project, while proponents hope that completing 120 miles from Bakersfield to Madera will increase support for completion.

California voters approved a $10 billion ballot initiative in 2008 to build high-speed rail that would make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than two hours and 40 minutes, an average speed of 164 miles an hour over the 438 mile stretch. Supporters expect 40 million passengers a year.

Critics say that the California train is unlikely to achieve its speed targets. The Japanese Shinkansen averages 145 miles an hour between Tokyo and Osaka, and the French TGV averages 121 miles an hour between Paris and Lyon. Slower speeds may reduce ridership.

Beaches. California's Constitution makes property below the mean tide line open to the public. The Coastal Act of 1976 mandates that public access to the state's 1,100 miles of ocean beaches be maximized consistent with "constitutionally protected rights of private property owners."

Billionaire Vinod Khosla bought a 53-acre beach village south of Half Moon Bay in 2008, and has tried to prevent public access to Martin's Beach. Khosla sued the government entities that told him to maintain public access to the beach, which he refused to do, instead opting to take his case to the US Supreme Court, which refused his appeal, so that Khosla will be required to provide access to the beach.