Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Wildfire

Lake Tahoe Restoration Act would improve water clarity, protect against wildfires



The ongoing effort to maintain Lake Tahoe got a bipartisan push Wednesday, when Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer joined Nevada's two senators to introduce the proposed Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which would authorize $415 million over 10 years to improve the lake's water clarity and protect the basin from wildfire. 

The bill, co-sponsored by Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign of Nevada, proposes funding for a range of projects, including watershed restoration and storm-water management, two key factors in maintaining the lake's renowned water clarity.

In addition, the bill would set aside $136 million for fuels-reduction projects to help protect the Tahoe basin and its landowners from fires, and for removal of invasive species.

The legislation is a follow-up to a 2000 law that provided $453.8 million to maintain the environmental health of the Tahoe basin.

The tab to maintain the lake is substantial. According to Feinstein's office, in the last 10 years -- in addition to the federal funding -- Tahoe preservation efforts have required $616.6 million from California, $91.3 million from Nevada, $61.4 million from local governments and $264.4 million in in-kind contributions from the private sector.


Lake Tahoe: Judge strikes down new pier rules

-- Julie Cart 

Photo: A view of Lake Tahoe with the Sierra in the background. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Jerry Brown: a new direction on eco-issues?

Jerry budget van der brug
With all the budget cutting and tax talk coming out of Sacramento, newly elected California Gov. Jerry Brown's eco-agenda might seem to be on the back burner. But UCLA Law School's environmental policy activists are aiming to nudge it to the fore.

"California's economic future depends on its environmental health," warned a report released Thursday by the school's Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment and the Evan Frankel Environmental Law & Policy program. It cautioned that the public health costs of failing to protect natural resources "will prove to be a drain on the state's economy."

The report, "An Environmental Blueprint for California," amounts to a dense, 19-page wish list of initiatives, some of which build on former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's policies, such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80% by mid-century. Others would change course, such as tightening toxic chemical regulations that the Schwarzenegger administration had softened in response to industry opposition.

"The budget situation creates risk that many important programs will be cut," said Sean B. Hecht, executive director of UCLA's Environmental Law Center. "Some interest groups are trying incorrectly to frame environmental protection, clean energy and climate protection as detrimental to the economy." He noted that voters in November approved Proposition 26, a measure requiring two-thirds approval of governing bodies for environmental and other fees on industry.

Some of the blueprint's recommendations are tough, even politically quixotic: Increasing the gas tax to fund public transportation; pushing congestion pricing to charge drivers fees to enter traffic-choked areas; funding state parks through vehicle fees — a measure rejected by voters in the November election; hiking insurance for homes and businesses in areas of high wildfire risk; and forcing local governments to pay for firefighting in those areas.

Brown takes office "at a critical moment in California's history [when] the state's long-term prosperity is vulnerable to climate change, energy insecurity, environmental threats to public health and a growing scarcity of key resources," the report declared. "The governor has a tremendous opportunity to set our state on the right path."

Other recommendations include:

  • Paying more consumers higher prices for electricity they generate on their rooftops and feed back to the grid — a mechanism known as a "feed-in tariff." Feed-in tariffs caused solar energy to explode in Germany but have been fought by California utilities, which prefer big, centralized power plants.
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SolarCity gets $60 million in financing from PG&E Corp.


Solar panel installer SolarCity Corp. will get its newest round of financing from a more unusual source than the typical bank – PG&E Corp., parent of utility company Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Another PG&E Corp. subsidiary, Pacific Venture Capital, will provide $60 million in tax equity financing for SolarCity to install 1,000 solar power systems on homes and businesses.

The panels are expected to be put in place in 2010, with the majority in California and some in Arizona and California. SolarCity has more than 1,700 solar customers in PG&E’s service area and more than 5,000 solar customers overall, according to the company.

Through power purchase agreements, customers will buy the electricity and skip the hefty upfront cost of installing the systems themselves. SolarCity will continue to own and operate all the equipment it places on rooftops.

PG&E shareholders will foot the bill, in return for Pacific Venture Capital receiving lease revenue from SolarCity customers and the windfall from federal investment tax credits and local rebates associated with the project.

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: SolarCity workers install panels in West L.A. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

L.A.'s nature haven, reduced to wasteland

The relentless Station fire has scoured nearly 242 square miles of the Angeles National Forest, burning through not just picnic areas and campgrounds, but the raw, solitary beauty that has long been a refuge for a sprawling city.

Ridge after ridge is a ghostly gray, laid bare of vegetation from the plunging foothill canyons to the Mojave Desert. Only scattered islands of trees are un-charred -- in the deepest draws and in remote, rocky cornices on a few high ridges.

"What I saw was a pretty complete burn," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea.

The 154,000 acres burned as of Saturday constitute about a quarter of the national forest.

The area's proximity to the urban heart of Los Angeles -- and its easy access via the Angeles Crest Highway and dozens of trails switchbacking out of the foothills -- makes it one of the most heavily used parts of a forest visited by 3 million to 5 million people every year.

"This is the playground of L.A.," Florea said. "More than 70% of the open space in L.A. County is in the Angeles National Forest."

Read more here.

--Joe Mozingo

Angeles National Forest fire takes toll on wildlife

The Station fire in the San Gabriel Mountains has taken an enormous toll on the environment, a fact that was particularly evident along Angeles Crest Highway, which remained closed to public traffic this morning.

Under skies tinged corral and gray by dense smoke, mile after mile of mountain and canyon lands along both sides of the two-lane highway, Route 2, had been stripped of manzanita, sumac, sycamore and pine trees that had not previously burned in nearly half a century.

Vistas had become moonscapes of dirt, rock and ash in the Angeles National Forest. Every few hundred yards, the charred remains of a squirrel or rodents could be seen lying by the side of the road. Some creatures, however, managed to survive.

Birds, including scrub jays, flitted among rare patches of chaparral clinging to cliff sides. A female mule deer wandered along the highway. A rabbit sat forlornly on a plateau covered with gray ash. Many firefighters recalled crossing paths with surviving rattlesnakes.

Federal wildlife authorities said biologists and environmental rehabilitation specialists were expected to begin inspecting the damage and developing recovery strategies in the near future.

Nearly every firefighter had a heartbreaking story to tell about an encounter with dead or dying wildlife.

"We came across a rabbit with a broken back, and we put it out of its misery," said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Nick Shawkey. "But the majority of animals die from superheated gases that precede the fire front. Their respiratory systems get knocked out. Essentially, they suffocate."

Standing on a cliff edge and surveying the devastation, he added, "It’s sad. Really sad. But it will come back."

-- Louis Sahagun at Mt. Wilson

Big cat animal preserve in Acton readies for fire

Lions, tigers and fire -- oh my!

Flames are roaring across the street from the Shambala Preserve, an exotic animal center in Acton. But the 64 lions, tigers, leopards and other big cats that live here are staying put.

As firefighters beat back flames and helicopters fly overhead, a big male lion is sunning himself, said Chris Gallucci, vice president of operations.

The area around the preserve is under mandatory evacuation order, Gallucci said, but the crew at the preserve has decided to stay and fight the fire, if necessary.

"We have everything to fight fires on this property," Gallucci said. "Our plan is to hold in place. We have done this for 40 years. We are very good at what we do."

Read the full story here.

--My-Thuan Tran

Air quality at hazardous levels in foothill cities

Airquality The Angeles National Forest fire has reduced air quality to hazardous levels in foothill communities in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, officials say.

The cities of Altadena, La Cañada Flintridge and La Crescenta are directly affected by the smoke, as are the Los Angeles communities of Tujunga and Sunland.

The area Sunday recorded an air Quality index of 398. Anything above 100 is considered unhealthful, officials said.

"It's been a long time since we've recorded an [index] of this high a level," said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Dense smoke tends to settle into valleys when there is no wind. Some of the smoke was expected to be swept into the mountains by ocean breezes this morning, Atwood said.

"It's really time for people with heart and lung disease -- bronchitis, asthma, emphysema -- to think about leaving to a less smoky area," Atwood said.

-- Corina Knoll

Photo: Jennifer DeLeon of Littlerock works to keep a mask on the face of her 8-month-old daughter, Emily Magana, as they prepare to board the 206 Metrolink Train at the Vincent Grade-Acton Station early Monday morning for a doctor's appointment in downtown Los Angeles. The mask was provided by a Metrolink supervisor.

Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Huge amount of forest lost to Station fire

Vast swaths of the Angeles National Forest have been destroyed by the fire, with mountains on both sides of Angeles Crest Highway for 15 miles above La Canada Flintridge reduced to ash.

Driven by high winds, flames continued to burn out of control high in the mountains as they neared the Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory and onsite communication towers.

“It’s a serious situation,” said Bob Shindelar, operations branch director of California Incident Management Team 5. “Is the observatory going to make it? We’re doing everything in our power. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it is impacted by fire today or tomorrow.”

Officials said they are hoping to assess the effect of the fire on trails, campgrounds and wildlife.

--Louis Sahagun in La Canada-Flintridge

New direction for U.S. forests: Restore and conserve


Restoration and conservation: Those are the goals that will guide management of the U.S. forest system under the Obama administration, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in his first major policy address on the nation's forests.

"It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America's forestlands with an eye towards the future," he told a crowd gathered at Seattle's Seward Park.

"This will require a new approach that engages the American people and stakeholders in conserving and restoring both our national forests and our privately owned forests. It is essential that we reconnect Americans across the nation with the natural resources and landscapes that sustain us."

The address was short on policy specifics but remarkable in the generally positive reception it got both from conservation groups and the timber industry, who often find very little to agree on.

Vilsack did let drop two important points: One, that the Forest Service won't be appealing the recent federal court decision in Northern California striking down the national forest planning rules promulgated by the Bush administration -- rules designed in part to foreclose protracted litigation over management plans for the nation's 192 million acres of national forests.

The new rules, conservationists charged, relied too little on science and provided fewer guaranteed protections for wildlife. Vilsack also affirmed what the Justice Department had already quietly revealed a day earlier: that the government will uphold a 2001 ban on development in the nation's last remaining roadless wilderness areas by appealing a Wyoming federal court decision striking down the ban. (A federal appeals court has already reinstated the roadless rule.)

"The fact that they're not going to relive the past with respect to the fights ... and that they're going to go forward and do new [forest] planning rules, that's a big announcement," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle who has litigated some of the biggest forest cases in the Pacific Northwest.

"It's been a long time since we've heard anyone from the Forest Service talk about more than just timber."

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More wildfire, more bad air


An expected rise in wildfire in coming decades is bad news for western lungs.

Harvard University scientists are predicting some forms of air pollution could increase significantly across the West as more of the region's wildlands burn as a result of rising temperatures.

Smoke from wildfires contains two main kinds of carbon particles: black soot, or elemental carbon, and lighter-colored particles, called organic carbon aerosols, which are a mix of chemicals.

"In large quantities, downwind of fires, organic carbon aerosols are hazardous," said senior research fellow Jennifer Logan, who led a study examining rising wildfire rates and the impact on air quality. "The particles irritate lung tissue and the chemicals they carry are toxic. But even at low concentrations, these aerosols may be dangerous. We don't know. There is no known threshold where damage begins."

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