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California’s ‘critical’ wildfire prevention program hasn't delivered

 April 12, 2022 at 5:00 AM PDT

Good Morning, I’m Annica Colbert….it’s Tuesday, April 12th.>>>>

Wildfire prevention program hasn't delivered two years in

More on that next. But first... let’s do the headlines….######

A hearing scheduled this morning may determine the future of this year’s San Diego County fair. Last week a judge found that the contract for the carnival operator was invalid because there was evidence that the bidding process was rigged. County fair officials are now asking for the judge to stay the ruling, saying there’s not enough time to find a new carnival operator.

John Moot, the attorney for competing Talley Amusements who sued to invalidate the contract says fair officials are stalling so they can stay with the original carnival operator - Ray Cammack Shows


A former caregiver who worked at San Diego nursing homes will face a retrial on charges of sexually assaulting elder women in his care. The decision comes after a jury found Matthew Fluckiger guilty on three counts, but then deadlocked 11 to one on two other charges. Deputy District Attorney Josh Brisbane wouldn’t comment on the decision to retry the case.


In a move similar to what the city and county of San Diego have already done, President Joe Biden announced measures on monday intended to crack down on Ghost Guns. The move drew praise from San Diego city councilwoman Marni Von Wilpert, and county board of supervisors chair Nathan Fletcher. Ghost guns are guns without serial numbers, usually made from assembling purchased or homemade components. Biden says under the new rules ghost guns will be required to have serial numbers and sellers will have to be licensed and background check their buyers


From KPBS, you’re listening to San Diego News Now.
Stay with me for more of the local news you need.

California has millions of acres of overgrown forestland, primed for fueling catastrophic wildfires. In late 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a new program to dramatically speed up the state’s wildfire prevention work.

But an investigation from CapRadio and The California Newsroom found the program hasn’t resulted in a single completed project. Reporter Scott Rodd has this story.

It’s called the California Vegetation Treatment Program, or CalVTP. It was designed to fast-track the environmental approval process for fire prevention projects…without compromising environmental protections.

And if you ask state leaders how it’s going, they’ll paint a pretty rosy picture.

Here’s Wade Crowfoot, who leads the state Natural Resources Agency, at a legislative hearing in February.

“This California Vegetation Treatment Program, this essentially one-stop shop for permitting for CEQA, for Fish and Wildlife permits and for Water Board permits—is now in action. And it’s starting to be used.”

Here’s what he didn’t mention. The state originally anticipated the program would result in 45,000 acres of completed forest management work in its first year.

But more than two years in, CalVTP hasn’t led to a single completed project.

The Newsom administration declined repeated interview requests. In an email, a spokesperson characterized the program as a success…claiming it has expedited approval times.

But that’s not what the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says.

"We didn't find clear data showing that it had significantly expedited projects.”

That’s Helen Kerstein with the LAO testifying before state lawmakers in December. She added that it’s still early days with the program.

The idea behind CalVTP is pretty straightforward. The state performed one massive environmental review on over 20 million acres of state land…

If a new project falls in that huge footprint, it can use the state’s existing template instead of starting from scratch.

But project managers I talked to around the state….weren’t convinced.

“I would love to use it if it was, you know, a straightforward path to the projects we're trying to do.”

Nadia Hamey is a professional forester on the Central Coast, working on a series of ten prescribed burns. That’s when you intentionally set a fire to benefit the landscape.

Hamey says she planned to use one CalVTP application for all of the burns. But she hit a bureaucratic wall.

Now, she’s doing ten separate applications using the old system.

Forest health manager Jamie Tuitele-Lewis in Monterey County says there’s a steep learning curve to CalVTP.

“Basically we just haven't taken it up yet and felt comfortable enough with it to use it yet.”

And project manager Keith Rutledge in Mendocino County told me he hadn’t even heard of it.

“So, it’s news to me. Nobody at CalFire has brought it up. I’m looking it up as we’re talking.”

Rutledge is leading a project to clear new evacuation roads… where ... two years ago, the Oak Fire destroyed dozens of homes and buildings. His team has completed a few miles under the old environmental review system…but he says approvals have taken a while.

The Newsom administration suggested we reach out to the Yuba Water Agency.

JoAnna Lessard is overseeing a 5,400 acre project in the Yuba County foothills—one of the roughly two dozen projects approved through CalVTP.

She estimates the program reduced their approval time by about a year.

“We had the money, we had the people. We just needed the ability to get out there by completing environmental compliance. And this really did streamline that.”

The state knows it needs to do more to ramp up its fire prevention efforts.

But it’s a sluggish process that has 85-year old Luis Celaya in Mendocino County worried.

LUIS-1: "It makes me very angry, very cynical, frustrated.”

When the Oak Fire hit, Celaya and thousands of others had to evacuate using the one road that leads down the hillside.

LUIS-2: "The potential is so high that fire could happen that could be disastrous.”

Scott Rodd, CapRadio News.


A chula vista church that was providing temporary shelter to thousands of ukrainians fleeing the war continues to help … but kpbs reporter kitty alvarado says its role has changed.

Less than two weeks ago …Calvary San Diego church was bustling with Ukrainians who had just crossed the border from Tijuana, on the last leg of their journey.

But now the church has stepped back, as nonprofits with greater access to government funded services stepped in.

Not because we don’t want to be involved but we want the Ukrainians services provided medical services

That’s Joy Metzger with Calvary San Diego. She says over 2500 people found temporary shelter at the church. And they’re still working with families, helping them find transportation and host families from their church.

Sue Seydel is one of the hosts.

we wanted to help them and bless them but they have been a huge blessing to us

The Seydels are now hosting their second family… including Max Chornaboi, his wife and two children.

We love you guys you’re so amazing thanks for everything

So far 75 church families have opened their homes.

Kitty Alvarado, KPBS News


Healthcare workers in the north county say they can’t reach a deal with one of the region's largest providers.

kpbs health reporter matt hoffman has more.

In Escondido caregivers and nurses are calling on Palomar Health to bargain in good faith, after more than a year of talks still hasn’t resulted in a new contract-- Gildardo has been a food service worker for thirty years at Palomar..


This is the most hostile and racist and most anti-union, anti-work administration that I’ve ever worked with

Palomar Health officials say they have been asking employees if they would participate in a strike. Chief of Human Resources Geoff Washburn maintains that’s not intimidation and it’s the company’s right.. He also pushes back on allegations of racism.


That’s fictitious, erroneous, shameful and disappointing

We know that this was just a tactic for media attention

Palomar says their last best and final offer includes 4 percent raises over three years. The unions say their issues are wages, patient care and contracting out. MH KPBS News.


Essential workers at Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions, and Ralphs locations throughout southern California are voting this week on a new three-year contract.

KPBS Speak City Heights reporter Jacob Aere says local voting started on Monday in Chula Vista.

Unions representing food workers across Southern California came to a tentative agreement with the grocery chains on April 4.

Now they have a chance to vote to make the new terms official. Todd Walters is the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135. He describes some of what’s in the contract.

“There’s going to be some much needed wage increases coming in, those increases will be put throughout different classifications … We’ve got some improvements on some of the language in our contract, minimum hour guarantee, so that people don't have to have two or three jobs.”

Voting continues Tuesday in Escondido, and Wednesday in Mission Valley. Results are expected at the end of this week.

If the contract is ratified, the changes will be applied retroactively, going back to March 7th. Jacob Aere, KPBS News.


Coming up.... A lab at San Diego State University is helping look for very, very small life on Mars. We’ll have that story next, just after the break.

A lab on the San Diego State university campus is working on a way to figure out if there are molecular traces of life on Mars. It’s part of NASA’s Mars mission to land on the planet and examine its rocks and soil… and maybe answer the ultimate question of whether we are alone in the universe, along the way.

KPBS science and technology reporter Thomas Fudge has the story.

PhD student Jessica Torres, in a chemistry lab at San Diego State, shows me a tiny glass tube she uses to sort through molecules. She can tell by their movement what kind they are, and whether they are biological. Ultimately she hopes to see those signs of life in material gathered from Mars.

And where might you find those life signs on the surface of Mars? Where there’s no water, punishing solar rays and a high salt content?

It’s going to be a very harsh environment. So if there was life to be detected on Mars it would be in porous rocks or the underside of rocks. Somewhere that’s kind of shielded from the harsh environment that is Mars.

Life on other planets is something we imagine…or that we may assume. But so far there’s no proof that life exists anywhere but earth. Analytical chemistry professor Chris Harrison says the goal of his lab is not so much to find life on Mars, but to find evidence it once existed.

We’re looking for the building block molecules that make life function. So specifically amino acids. These are the little lego blocks that you assemble in the right sequence and you get different proteins and enzymes and the functional components of cells.”

The glass tube they use to try to sort out the life-building molecules is more narrow than a human hair. Molecules pass through it at different speeds, depending on their size and their electric charge. And that race through the tube can determine whether you are looking at, say, an amino acid. The goal is to deploy this tool on Mars itself. But Torres says NASA's Jet propulsion Laboratory, a partner in the study, has found a place like Mars to test it out. The Atacama desert in Chile.

It does receive very low rainfall throughout the year. They’ve tested their soil samples and have detected very low levels of fatty acids and other biosignatures in that soil. Which is pretty great since it means their technology would be very suitable for a Mars-like environment.

NASA has been successfully landing on Mars since the 1970s, and the first images from the planet showed a perfectly barren landscape. But eventually they did find evidence of old riverbeds, likely formed by past water flows. Today, the Mars rover Perseverance is up there. It’s parked on one of those dried up river deltas, hoping to collect sedimentary rocks that show signs of life.

Michael Meyer is NASA’s lead scientist for the Mars exploration program. He says if we find proof that life once existed on Mars, that could change our conception of life in the universe.

What is life? What do we know? All we know is us. We have one example. To any scientist one example is not enough to understand what constitutes the totality of what life is.

Finding proof of liife on Mars could demonstrate that there is nothing unique about life on earth. That, in fact, the creation of life is just a natural part of a planet’s physical and chemical evolution.

As an example… if you have volcanoes. If you have water. And you have these elements, given enough time, life will start. It could be that easy. We don’t know.

The human relationship with the Martians, we imagine, dates back to the 19th century. That’s when HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds. Science fiction author, and NASA consultant David Brin says Maris is one of the logical places to look for life.

“I think if we find life elsewhere it would be a pretty cool thing. And the number one candidate right now is not Mars, or even the clouds of Venus which were recently topics. But the ten ice roofed water worlds we know we have in the solar system now.”

He’s talking about, for example, Saturn’s moon Titan, and Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. Moons that are known to have or believed to have liquid oceans.

“Let’s say we did find that life evolved on its own, elsewhere. That suggests that life is everywhere in the cosmos. Bloody everywhere! And that’s what I believe to be the case,”

Astronomy has also identified 5,000 planets that exist in other solar systems. So the possibilities are great. But for now, we’re just looking at what may exist on our next door planetary neighbor, Mars. Thomas Fudge, KPBS news.

That’s it for the podcast today. As always you can find more San Diego news online at KPBS dot org. I’m Annica Colbert. Thanks for listening and have a great day.

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In 2019 Governor Gavin Newsom announced a new state program meant to expedite wildfire prevention projects. To date, it hasn’t accomplished a single project. Meanwhile, a Chula Vista church that was providing temporary shelter to thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war sees its role change as more refugees come through. Plus, a San Diego State University lab is helping NASA look for molecular life on Mars.