Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Feb. 11, and I’m Jared Servantez, the City Desk’s night editor, filling in for Justin Ray.
Early February is not a time Southern Californians expect to evacuate their homes under threat of wind-whipped flames. But wildfire is increasingly becoming a year-round concern.
Driven by unseasonable heat and gusty Santa Ana winds, two brush fires brought acrid smoke, evacuation orders and flaming fronts — harbingers of a difficult fire year to come for parched Southern California, my colleagues Hannah Fry, Cindy Carcamo and Gregory Yee write.
In coastal Orange County, where the Emerald fire broke out around 4 a.m. in the wilderness area between Laguna Beach and the community of Emerald Bay, deputies knocked on doors and called out from patrol car loudspeakers, trying to wake sleeping residents and urge them to leave. With winds gusting up to 40 mph, the urgency was great.
Fire crews mounted an attack, including from above with firefighting helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and were able to get a handle on the 145-acre blaze, preventing any of the multimillion-dollar homes in the area from burning. Evacuation orders were lifted at 3 p.m.
While they worked to contain that fire Thursday afternoon, another blaze broke out dangerously close to homes, this time near Whittier. At seven acres, the Sycamore fire had a much smaller footprint, but the flames charging up a hillside near Sycamore Park destroyed two homes and damaged another, the L.A. County Fire Department said. One person was taken to a hospital with burns and was expected to survive.
Within hours, firefighters had halted the blaze’s progress, though they, too, faced hot and dry conditions, with temperatures in the 80s and 18% humidity.
And with these winter heat waves and extended droughts becoming increasingly common, fire officials say it may be time for Californians to rethink the meaning of “fire season.”
“We no longer have a fire season. We have a fire year,” Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said as his crews battled the Emerald fire. “This is supposed to be the middle of winter, and we’re anticipating 80- to 90-degree weather. Even though the hillsides are green, it doesn’t take but low humidity and wind to cause fires to occur.
“If this is any sign of what’s to come throughout the rest of the winter and spring, we’re in for a long year.”
After a 2021 fire season that saw mountain towns destroyed and wildfires burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other for the first time in recorded history, a string of powerful storms hit California in December, replenishing thirsty reservoirs, bolstering the snowpack and perhaps assuaging the fears of a fire-weary state.
The reprieve, it seems, was short-lived.
January and February are typically the two wettest months in Southern California. But as my colleague Paul Duginski writes, an unusually strong high-pressure system has denied the region any meaningful rain since those drenching storms of December.
The storm track flowing from the Gulf of Alaska is forecast to change course next week, making its way around that high pressure to bring much cooler temperatures, and possibly a few showers, to the West Coast.
But time is running out. California generally has only the rest of February and March to get meaningful precipitation before the rainy season comes to a close. If brush and other dry fuels go without rain for another several weeks, the Golden State could be facing another year of catastrophic wildfires in 2022.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California, brought to you by newsletter editor Scott Sandell:
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Los Angeles County is on track to relax some outdoor mask rules as COVID-19 hospitalizations drop. The number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized in the county has dropped below 2,500, and if they stay that way for seven consecutive days, county health officials will lift face-covering requirements at outdoor “mega events” and outdoor spaces at K-12 schools and child-care settings. Fontana News Room
New L.A. Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho previews elements of an ambitious 100-day plan. Carvalho said Thursday that he would expand high-quality school choices so that every family would have access to the program they want without having to put their child on a bus to get there. Fontana News Room
L.A. voters are angry and think elected officials aren’t equipped to solve homelessness. The professional pollsters who led a series of diverse focus groups said they were stunned by the depth of feeling and unanimity across party affiliation, socioeconomic standing, race and ethnicity. “The degradation of life in L.A. is exponential, and I don’t see an end. The politicians are doofuses,” said one voter. Fontana News Room
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THE SUPER BOWL
Super Bowl LVI could be the hottest ever played. The Rams face the Cincinnati Bengals in SoFi Stadium on Sunday, and the National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory for parts of Southern California. Part of the reason for the heat alerts is “for the influx of visitors not expecting 92 in L.A.” Fontana News Room
Kickoff time, how to watch and more: Here’s everything you need to know about the game. Fontana News Room
Go Rams, sure, but are you more stoked to see Dr. Dre? Here’s your Super Bowl halftime playlist. Fontana News Room
The best guacamole you can buy. Cooking columnist Ben Mims put the store-bought stuff to the test. Fontana News Room
CRIME AND COURTS
The California Supreme Court has denied a potential bid for freedom by Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rejection of her parole. The court refused to hear Van Houten’s appeal of a lower-court ruling in December that denied her petition for a review. Associated Press
Did Sacramento-based Sutter Health overcharge insurers? The healthcare giant began defending itself against a $1.2-billion class-action lawsuit alleging that it illegally used its market power to negotiate insurance contracts that resulted in inflated premiums for about 3 million employers and individuals. Sacramento Bee
“Uncle Fred’s not coming back baby. Do you know how hard it is to break that to a four year old?” Activists and family members of Fred Holder — a 28-year-old man who was fatally shot by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies over the summer — have been gathering daily outside the sheriff’s station in Norwalk. L.A. Taco
As the drought continues, Southern California offers millions to buy Sacramento Valley water. The Metropolitan Water District’s board has directed its staff to negotiate the purchase of as much as 100,000 acre-feet of water from the valley. Sacramento Bee
Come for the comfort food, stay for the jungle oasis at this L.A. chef’s plant-filled cafes. For nearly 14 years, Yuko Watanabe has brought her unique approach to Japanese comfort food and biophilic design to her three restaurants. Fontana News Room
Salesforce’s newest workplace: a 75-acre redwood forest with yoga and group cooking in Scotts Valley. San Francisco Chronicle
Coming soon to the Monterey Bay Aquarium: an exhibition of deep-sea creatures. Travel + Leisure
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Los Angeles: sunny, 85. San Diego: sunny, 79. San Francisco: mostly sunny, 71. San Jose: mostly sunny, 79. Fresno: sunny, 77. Sacramento: sunny, 73.
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Today’s California memory comes from Calvin Lau:
My dad lived in Los Angeles and decided to invite many of his friends over to watch the very first AFL-NFL Championship Game on TV. Back in those days there were local blackouts on the local NBC and CBS channels. What to do? We had recently installed an antenna rotor on his home’s roof. Dutifully, we turned the rotor dial south toward San Diego. MAGIC! We watched the game and had the very first Super Bowl party in Los Angeles.
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
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