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California's Record-Breaking Heat

 September 17, 2021 at 9:58 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:01 This week on round table, the heat is on and it's more than just a weather story. How climate change is killing us and why it's getting harder to recruit the first responders we need to deal with the state's buyers. Also, we check in with San Diego is Latino and Latin X reporters. As they mentor a new generation of journalists during Hispanic heritage month, I'm Christina, Kim and KPBS round table starts. Now Speaker 2: 00:29 [inaudible] Speaker 3: 00:33 Disasters. Aren't going to stop. That's the nature of the climate threat, but we know we know what we have to do. We just need to summon the courage and the creativity to do it. Yes. We face a crisis. We face a crisis with an unprecedented opportunity to create good jobs to teacher create industries of the future to win the future, to save the planet. Speaker 1: 00:56 That's president Joe Biden, wrapping up a tour of Western states this week in Colorado in the midst of addressing COVID-19 and helping California's governor survivor recall vote Biden is taking his time out west to push for his trillion dollar plan to beat back the effects of climate change effects that more and more people are feeling America is wrapping up the hottest summer since the dust bowl. According to the national weather agency, NOAA temperatures were nearly three degrees hotter than average. It can be hard to quantify that, but let me tell you, I can tell the difference when it's 90 degrees in my home instead of 87 degrees in California and several other Western states, it was the hottest summer on record. So what does this mean for our daily lives and what can we expect in the future here to help us parse this all out is Haley Smith. She's an environment reporter for the LA times. Welcome back to Roundtable Hailey. Speaker 4: 01:48 Hi, thanks so much for having me. Speaker 1: 01:50 We're seeing extreme weather all over the country. The Gulf coast just got hit with its second major storm in a matter of weeks. And it's often these weather events like storms that capture people's attention and come to define climate change. But you say that extreme heat is among the deadliest natural disasters. How has high heat impacted people this summer? Speaker 4: 02:10 Absolutely. So the devastating heat wave that blanketed much of the Pacific Northwest in June has been linked to hundreds of deaths, including immigrant farm workers and the elderly that heat wave was also estimated to have killed more than a billion, uh, sea creatures off the coast of Vancouver. And it's been linked to a near complete loss of young Chinook salmon in the Sacramento river because of abnormally warm waters. So heat waves are definitely dangerous, not just for people, but for most living creatures. Speaker 1: 02:42 You just alluded to this, but high heat, of course doesn't impact everyone equally, who is most vulnerable in California as the weather begins to heat up and really what's being done to address these inequities. Speaker 4: 02:54 Well, elderly people are certainly among the most vulnerable because as you, your cardiovascular system starts to deteriorate, which means that it often has to go into overdrive just to keep you cool. Experts told me that high temperatures, and that's not just temperatures in the hundreds, but even in the eighties and nineties can be really dangerous for the elderly. For that reason. Extreme heat has also been linked to increases in early deliveries among pregnant women, which can endanger both the mother and the child. And of course the heat poses, a danger to people who spend a lot of time outdoors. So farm workers, people experiencing homelessness in terms of what's being done. The answer is sort of, sadly, not too much cities do do things like open cooling centers, but those became dangerous for a different reason during the pandemic. And then climate warming overall, as we know, is a major existential crisis, Speaker 1: 03:49 Right? I know San Diego activates cooling centers when it gets really hot, as well as many other cities. And as you mentioned, you know, COVID-19 made it hard to gather people in these cool spaces, but you also in your reporting brought up a good point on the dependence of air conditioning. How does, you know, using air conditioning feed into this cycle of a mission that causes climate change in the first place? Speaker 4: 04:09 Well, so this is sort of the great irony, right? Air conditioning is starting to become a necessity in California and will likely only be more so in the years to come. But air conditioners also use energy and contribute to emissions that sort of exacerbate that climate change cycle that's driving the warming in the first place. So during heat waves, especially air conditioners pull a ton of energy from the state's electric grid because everyone is running them at the same time. Last week, it got so critical that the California independent system operator, which runs most of the state's power grid asked for an emergency declaration that would allow some of their gas fired power plants to generate more power, even if it meant violating air pollution limits. So again, they're trying to keep people safe and cool, but it's all part of this sort of worsening cycle that we're getting stuck in. Of course, Speaker 1: 05:02 When we talk about heat and climate change in California, that really translates to fire each year, our fire season continues to grow longer and longer. It's pretty much a year round season. Now I know you were recently up by the Calder fire, just south of lake Tahoe. When you were reporting there, did you get a sense of why, you know, areas like south lake Tahoe are becoming more vulnerable to fire and you know, how climate change is really contributing to Speaker 4: 05:28 Yeah, you bring up a great point because he and fire are sort of inextricably linked at this point, increasing heat. And also the worsening drought in California are really priming the state's landscape to burn. So they're sort of baking all the vegetation so that even the smallest spark 10 ignite a fire and leave it with a ton of fuel to feed on. So for that reason, there are many things about fire this year that are unusual, including the fact that that Kaldor fire and also the Dixie fire further north of it became the first two fires to ever burn from one side of the Sierra to the other. And not only were they the first two fires to do that, but they both did it within the same month. And the Kaldor fire also made an unexpected sort of performance when it sort of jumped over a granite Ridge that many people thought would act as a barrier between the fire and the Tahoe basin. At some point, the fire behavior was so erratic that winds were sending embers into the air that we're landing more than a mile away, which often would ignite a new fire. So long story short, all of these factors, heat and dryness and the drought are all sort of contributing to this crazy unexpected, unprecedented fire behavior we're seeing this year, Speaker 1: 06:41 No as part of that kind of erratic fire behavior, especially in the culture of fire, you, you noted that the fire appeared to burn at much higher elevations. Why were firefighters saying that's so unusual? Speaker 4: 06:54 [inaudible] so we've already documented that California's fires are getting faster and larger and more frequent, but as these recent studies have found, and as we saw with the Kaldor fire, they're also literally reaching new Heights as they're advancing higher up mountains. So in the past higher elevation areas, if you think like 8,000 feet or more, we're usually pretty moist things to rain and snow pack, but all the heat and the drought have once again, dried that vegetation out, evaporated a lot of that water, which is enabling the fires to climb further up these mountains and reach new elevations. So in the Sierras, for example, researchers said, fires are burning about 1400 feet higher in elevation than they were in the 1980s. Speaker 1: 07:39 You know, you mentioned in this last fire that you were covering the Calder flyer that, you know, it was able to jump from the Sierras and that it's just been such kind of erratic, an unexpected fire behavior. Are there lessons that we can already learn from that fire? Speaker 4: 07:54 Absolutely. Well, unfortunately the lesson is that fire behavior is becoming increasingly unpredictable. And so forest management is becoming more important than ever and just, you know, preparing communities ahead of time. So these really sort of unpredictable fires is hugely important. Meaning having evacuation plans in place, meaning cities also need to prepare ahead of time for mass evacuations. What we've seen in the past, and this happened in the Kaldor fire is traffic jams when everyone is trying to get out of town and there's one road out and they're trying to evacuate quickly. So thinking ahead, planning for exit routes and things that might go wrong is probably going to become increasingly necessary in years to come, Speaker 1: 08:36 Uh, report that 2 million acres have burned so far in 2021. When you talked with firefighters and other experts, can you just put into context what 2 million acres really means and how that's going to impact the state's climate and just other firefighting efforts? Speaker 4: 08:52 Sure. So for context, 2020 was the worst wildfire season in California as recorded history and about 4.2 million acres burned that year. That record shattered previous records by more than twice, I think nearly three times. So this year we are already on pace with where we were at the same time in 2020, and it's worth noting that many of the really big fires last year, including the Creek fire, the glass fire, and the Bobcat fire here in Los Angeles, didn't even start until September. So we're just reaching the peak of fire season right now. And it doesn't necessarily further climate change so much as it is indicative of climate change. Speaker 1: 09:36 I just said it we're really in the midst of that kind of peak fire risk time. Do you have a sense of what we can expect in the short term in Southern California? Speaker 4: 09:46 Yes. I feel like I'm just being Debbie downer today, but the honest answer is that the outlook is not great for the remainder of the year. It's largely for more heat and more dryness. And that's worrisome because we still haven't had much rain. So vegetation that was critically dry going into the summer is just going to be that much dryer coming out of it. That said some of the other fire factors like wind and lightning are harder to predict, especially weeks or months out. So there's still a chance we could get lucky Speaker 1: 10:18 Haley, you just said, you, you feel like you're bringing the bearer of bad news, but you are keeping us informed. I do want to have just one question that I think our listeners can also benefit from. It can just seem like the world is ending, you know, these high, high heat temperatures. We've all been living through these fires that are always burning. I mean, how do you keep kind of an optimism that is also based in reality, even as you report on this and you look towards solutions, Speaker 4: 10:46 To be honest with you, this is a question that I think about all the time. I think, you know, it's maybe a cliche, but there's this expression about looking for the helpers. Look at the firefighters who are putting their lives on the line every day. Look at the people who are trying to make a difference for farm workers and the homeless people that are suffering in these heat waves. And, um, just try to focus on the small things that we can do personally, because we've got some big problems to face in the years to come. Speaker 1: 11:13 I've been talking with Haley Smith. She covers the environment for the LA times. Thank you, Hayley. Thanks so much. Whenever we talk about heat and climate, we're also talking about economics and equity who can afford to be safe. We often mentioned those most vulnerable, but it also extends to those who take on the job of trying to protect our communities. It's dangerous work. And with the rising cost of living in California, more and more folks are deciding it's just not worth it. Just ask Escondido, fire, chief, Rick votes. Speaker 5: 11:42 A lot of people think that, uh, you know, there's thousands of people standing in line to get jobs as paramedics and firefighters. And that's that might've been true 20, 25 years ago, but boy, we've seen a change. San Speaker 1: 11:53 Diego county fire stations are becoming increasingly understaffed that raises so many questions about public safety when disaster strikes and just how much we're willing to go to invest in our climate future KPBS, north county reporter, Tonya thorn covered this recently and she joins us now. Hey Tanya, Hey Christina. Okay. So the average price for a local home in San Diego county now exceeds $700,000. According to CoreLogic housing is a big factor in how people decide what jobs they pursue. And as you found, a lot of firefighters just can't afford to live here. What kind of pay can an entry-level firefighter? Speaker 6: 12:31 Yeah, Christina, you know, housing is a huge factor on where people decide to pursue any job opportunity. And through this report, I learned that firefighter pay varies from city to city and county to county and the requirements to be a firefighter vary too. So pay is really going to depend on where you apply on what education you have and what the fire department itself is requiring for entry-level or any firefighters that decide to look for a job there. One example though, an entry-level firefighter in Poway can look to make between 60 to $90,000 a year, depending on their experience, if they were to apply today. Speaker 1: 13:08 I know you talked with Dave Miller from Palomar college fire academy. Here's some of what he had to say about that. Very challenge of recruiting and retaining folks locally. Speaker 7: 13:17 And I'll be honest with you. If you go north of the San Diego county line, there is a significant jump in pay and often a reduction in requirements. Speaker 1: 13:27 So what I'm hearing here is that San Diego county is losing firefighters to other counties that pay more and are maybe more safe. Where are firefighters heading? Speaker 6: 13:36 Sadly? Yes. Uh, one of the fire chiefs I spoke to said that their department recently lost six firefighters that went to work for orange county and LA county fire departments. He said the pay can have a 30% increase maybe in those areas. So this really leaves San Diego with a staffing shortage and a disadvantage because orange county and LA are so close and also other departments in LA or orange county or other counties can also have less entry requirements or they can even provide training onsite. So recruits that are graduating the academy are more likely to look into those areas before even considering San Diego for a job Speaker 1: 14:15 This summer, president Joe Biden issued an executive order to raise the pay of federal firefighters. What is that going to do here locally for us? Speaker 6: 14:23 Well, locally, I think most would think that this includes all firefighters, right? But this only includes fed fire in San Diego and they mostly work out of military bases. So we may see it in Miramar, on camp Pendleton and also the forest service stations. And I believe the closest one to us is in the Cleveland national forest and that covers wild land fires. Speaker 1: 14:46 So I think a lot of people are probably thinking who exactly gets to decide the funding for these fire agencies and ultimately their salaries. Speaker 6: 14:54 So it really varies from county to county, city, to city department, to department, but locally, most fire departments here within our cities are funded through the city and that can be through sales tax, through property taxes. And that really does come down to the voters. So if voters decide on a property tax increase, that could mean that fire departments could expand into more staffing into higher pay. And also unions come into play because unions represent many of these firefighters. And so there has to be a negotiation between the city and the fire firefighters in order to come to a fair, Speaker 1: 15:34 We heard from Escondido fire, chief, Rick Vogt at the top of this, he actually has a larger role as the head of the county's fire chief association. Did he say anything about current efforts to secure more money or really just how prepare at San Diego county is to fight fires this season? Speaker 6: 15:50 Yeah, well, you know, Rick Vogt told me that one of the things that they're doing are looking into grants to fund some of these positions, but, you know, with grant money, once that runs out, that position could ultimately be terminated. And again, we're looking at a staff shortage and when you have competitive markets, you know, really close to us, orange county and LA county, we really have to go and talk to our city and our policy makers into increasing funding and making these positions more appealing for graduates. So we need to make these positions more appealing for them so that we can increase, you know, our staff within our fire departments. And that's ultimately going to really have us prepared for any type of fire as we approached fire season. But again, he did say that, you know, we partner with a lot of different entities, so there's Cal fire, all the different cities and departments work together. Whenever there is a fire that comes up and, you know, we all see it. We see firefighters coming in from different states and cities just helping each other out when something happens Speaker 1: 16:52 A lot to keep following up on. I've been talking with KPBS, north county reporter, Tanya thorn. Thank you so much, Speaker 6: 16:58 Tanya, thanks, Christina Speaker 1: 17:05 Heat. Isn't just impacting who can afford to work and live in San Diego. In some cases it's actually cutting into workers' wages in a special report this week, KPBS Eric Anderson spoke to climate researcher, Christina doll, Speaker 8: 17:17 A recent report, too hot to work from the union of concerned. Scientists finds outdoor workers face higher risks as the number of extreme heat days goes up. And the intensity of heat spells increases Speaker 4: 17:31 Now in the middle of the century, outdoor workers are going to increasingly lose work time because it's too hot to work. And in many cases that's going to mean that they will lose out on potential earnings as well. Speaker 1: 17:44 That's an estimated $55 billion in wages lost by 2050. Check it and other stories out on or on the KBB S YouTube channel Speaker 1: 18:01 Here on round table. We spotlight the important stories being told by reporters in our region. The networks that help them thrive is a big part of the work they do. We wanted to carve out a few minutes to check in on one of those. And the [inaudible] is a neighborhood reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. She's also the president of the San Diego and Tijuana chapter of the national association of Hispanic journalists also called an AHJ. They have a lot going on to celebrate Hispanic heritage month, which began Wednesday, welcome back to round table. And there, Speaker 9: 18:32 Hey, great to be here with you before Speaker 1: 18:33 We dive in. I just have to ask your thoughts on Hispanic heritage month. I know there's a lot of tension around the labels people use from Hispanic to that Dino to Latin X or Latino. What do you, what do you think of this month? How are you thinking about it, especially now? Speaker 9: 18:48 Yeah, I mean, it's always been really interesting to me, I guess, growing up, I never realized that it was that big of a thing until I started working in media. You know, we're always looking for stories for Hispanic heritage month and this is kind of a conversation that we always have with NHA and as a board, um, especially with like what we should do for this month. Um, and different things like that. But I mean, personally, uh, I, I love seeing a focus on, on stories of Latinos in our community, but, you know, I think that should just be something that happens year round. So exactly kind of, uh, my day. Yeah, Speaker 1: 19:25 Exactly. That's exactly why some folks are critical, right. They're kind of wary of one month being dedicated to them and their stories instead of say like a whole year or every day, but there is a sense that this month allows for the cleaning of space. You kind of already mentioned this, but what do you think is the power or the opportunity of this month and really how has NH J kind of capitalizing on that? Speaker 9: 19:46 I mean, in terms of the power of this month, I really do think, like, as you said, it's, it's unfortunate that like there has to be one month, right? Like we'd want to see these incredible stories of so many people in our communities all year round, but I think it also helps, you know, at least reporters I'm thinking like us as reporters with NHA, it helps us bring some of these stories that maybe might not be kind of stories that our editors are interested in. And so it gives us an opportunity to highlight people. We might not be able to highlight normally. And also for reporters who aren't Latino, it might give them an opportunity to increase their sources or build out their sources with communities and people who they might not interact with daily. So it's an opportunity to highlight the greater community in general. Speaker 1: 20:31 Well, I know NAS, Jay is teaming up with someone familiar to KPBS listeners, former border reporter, and current LA times columnist, gene Guerrero. What do you have going on in the local chapter? Speaker 9: 20:40 Yeah, yeah. So we're celebrating our 2021 scholarship program and our scholarship recipients. We have two young ladies who are actually journalism students at San Diego state university. And we wanted to, you know, kind of host a little celebration for them. We're going to have a luncheon, uh, at HEDIS brew house in Logan Heights on October 9th, from 12 to 2:00 PM, it's going to be fun where you're going to have tacos and drinks and head shots for people. And we're also going to have Jean who's going to give our keynote speech. Uh, she's always been a great supporter of our organization and she is, you know, suspend mentor for so many of us. Um, I've always looked up to her and I always still do so, so we'll have her, and then we'll give away the, the $3,000, which will be split between the scholarship winners. How do these scholars Speaker 1: 21:29 Chef's work? And why is NH J kind of focused really on this next generally generation of, Speaker 9: 21:34 Yeah. So I mean, our scholarship program is, is pretty simple. We, we don't grade the actual scholarships and other chapter does that for us. So, you know, we just opened up the application to any, any student who is interested in working in, in Spanish language media, or having a focus in the Latino community. And that all goes back to not just increasing representation of Latinos in the newsroom, but also increasing our presentations of Latinos in our coverage. So the focus is to have, you know, award someone who has a dedication for uplifting the stories of Latinos in our community every year. I think this is our fourth year doing the scholarship. And every year we've been able to fundraise more money and that be that money is usually donated. Uh, we've had for the second year in a row, uh, the San Diego Union-Tribune donated a thousand dollars and then everything else just comes from our members who are supportive of our mission and our goals. Speaker 1: 22:29 I'm glad that you brought up newsroom diversity. I think, you know, this year, last year, we're talking a lot about how we need to diversify our workspaces and newsrooms are definitely a big part of that. I know Latinos make up more than 30% of San Diego county, but that's rarely what we see in our local newsrooms, particularly at the editor level. You've kind of alluded to this already, but why is it important to have Latinos in the news making the news? Speaker 9: 22:53 Yeah, I mean, and not just Latinos, right? We w we want to have newsrooms that represent our community, right? We want more black reporters, more Asian reporters, more LGBTQ reporters in our newsrooms and having individuals and having a diverse group of individuals in the newsroom means that you're coming at stories with a different lens, right? You have the ability to connect with different communities, sometimes even speak. The language was just huge. I mean, being able to speak a language, some of these communities like really gives you a lot of access, and it really helps you write or produce a better story when you're able to connect with individuals in their own language and being able to identify certain cultural barriers or obstacles that might present themselves when you're working on the story, or just identifying story ideas in general, you know, being able to familiarize yourself with these communities. That's why it's important to uplift these voices. Speaker 1: 23:48 It's clear and age J plays a huge role for journalists here. So for folks listening who want to support the work that you're doing, Speaker 9: 23:55 Can they do? Yeah, they can donate to our scholarship. We have a go fund me page. You can just search 20, 21 and H J scholarship and donate there. Or you can purchase tickets to our event, even if you can't make it, or whatever reason, the proceeds from our scholarship event will go to next year scholarship. So the more tickets we sell, the more money we'll be able to give out next year, Speaker 1: 24:17 I've been talking with Andrea Lopez via [inaudible] president of the San Diego Tijuana chapter of the national association of Hispanic journalists. Thank you so much, Andrea. Thank you. And before we say goodbye, we can't end the week without touching on the story that had all eyes on California. Speaker 10: 24:33 No, it's not the only thing that was expressed tonight. Uh, I want to focus on what we said yes. To, as a state, we said yes, to science. We said, yes, to vaccines. We said, yes, to ending this pandemic, we said yes to people's right, to vote without fear of fake fraud or voter suppression. We said yes to women's fundamental, constitutional right to decide for herself what she does with her body, her fate and future Speaker 1: 25:05 Governor Gavin Newsome is staying put. And so are all the major issues still on his plate with nearly $300 million spent on the recall. A lot of people are wondering, should the recall system be reformed a question we know we'll be tackling on round table, but for now, as we head into the weekend, a shout out to all our election workers and volunteers during this latest exercise in California's democracy. Thank you for tuning in to this week's edition of the KPBS round table. And thank you to my guest, Hailey Smith from the LA times, Tonya thorn from KPBS news and union Tribune, reporter and local NIH, J chapter president. And they are Lopez [inaudible]. If you missed any part of our show, you can listen any time on the KPBS round table podcast. I'm going to see Nick Kim, join us next week on the round.

California experiences its hottest summer on record as supersized wildfires burn millions of acres, and local Hispanic journalists mentor the next generation of reporters.