California’s New Normal

In this week's newsletter, wildfires force a quarterly magazine to examine breaking news.


Quarterly magazines don’t often comment on fast-moving stories—we prefer to consider the future and to examine the past. But as I type this, wildfires are raging in Northernand Southern California, and I—along with hundreds of thousands of others—am enduring a PG&E power outage. I’ve jerry-rigged my laptop to a car battery and set up my iPhone as a Wi-Fi hot spot. My situation is hardly dire. Californians are losing their homes, medical patients may not receive care, first responders are risking their lives, and many of our friends and family—including several Alta contributors—have been evacuated. This is the new normal in California.

Last year, Patrick Michels and Eric Sagara, journalists at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, penned an Alta cover story on the October 2017 fires that devastated Sonoma County. Our cover photo showed a smoke-stained firefighter with flames whipping up behind him. The article faulted zoning and development policies that allow these tragedies to continue despite homeowners’ exhaustive preventative measures. On Monday, parts of that same region were ordered to evacuate. 

But California’s wildfires aren’t just battled by firefighters on the ground. In Alta, Summer 2019, Bonnie Tsui visited with CalFire’s aerial fleet for her story, “Uncontrolled Burn,” and explored the challenges of an endless fire season. One of Tsui’s subjects, Battalion Chief Shem Hawkins, tackled a blaze from above his own neighborhood: Hawkins grew up in Paradise, California, a town that burned almost exactly a year ago. 

Residents of fire-threatened cities often have only a few minutes before they need to evacuate. It’s important for everyone to be prepared. In 2018, I interviewed survival experts to rate emergency “go bags” and learn best practices for customizing my family’s own. Make sure your survival kits are fully equipped by checking in with our report

Meanwhile, the ongoing wildfires will make Halloween extra spooky this year: many neighborhoods normally inundated with trick-or-treaters may be without power and in some instances are without clean air. I wonder how many kids will venture outside in search of candy tonight—and how many will dress up as firefighters. 

And finally, back to our regularly scheduled programming: nearly 250 years ago, Spanish military leader Gaspar de Portolá and his soldiers spotted San Francisco Bay and completed the first overland Spanish expedition through California. Among the group was Father Junípero Serra, the founder of California’s missions and who today is regarded as a controversial figure for converting indigenous peoples to Catholicism, often by force. (Last year, Alta editors dropped the priest’s name from the “Our Inspiration” section of the masthead.) History has soured, rightly so, on Serra, but not on Portolá. 

In his new book, Alta California, author Nick Neely laces up his hiking boots and retraces Portolá’s route. In our Fall 2019 Book Guide, Dean Kuipers calls Neely’s Alta Californiaa landmark work of history” and “a rich and detailed portrait of what is.” We’re such big fans of Neely’s work, Alta is hosting two author events with him. The first, on Monday, November 4, will be held at Books Inc.’s Palo Alto location at 7 p.m. On Tuesday, November 5, Neely will join Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst for a conversation at Book Passage at 7 p.m. Both events are free to the public.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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