Napa County wants reliable cellphone and broadband Internet service available everywhere within its borders and to keep these services running during emergencies such as last year’s wildfires.
“Access to information—we really do need to treat it as a basic human need,” Supervisor Belia Ramos said. “We need to treat it the same as water. We need to treat it the same as electricity, heat, garbage service.”
Other supervisors agreed.
“The carriers tell the state, the regulatory authority, ‘95 percent coverage,’” Supervisor Diane Dillon said. “We know that’s not true. But to prove it, you have to prove they’re wrong. We have to pay for mapping.”
She doesn’t want communication dark holes in the county.
“Our goal here is to have this kind of access be like landline access was treated in the 1930s.” Dillon said. “Everyone should have it.”
The county has identified nine priority areas that could benefit from new fiber and cellular infrastructure. They are Browns Valley, American Canyon, Wild Horse Valley Road, Rim Rock, Monticello, Oakville, St. Helena, Pope Valley and Calistoga.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a $100,000 maximum contract with Magellan Advisors to do a fiber infrastructure engineering assessment study.
Even cities can face challenges. Ramos said she lives in suburban American Canyon. She can have only one Internet provider because fiber doesn’t run on her street. Fiber wasn’t installed on the last three blocks of her neighborhood.
Last year, Napa County found out how an emergency can wreak havoc with modern communications, just when the services are needed the most.
During the Atlas, Partrick and Tubbs fires of 2017, County emergency officials used Nixle to communicate with the public. Yet a survey of 2,000 residents found 87 percent lost cell service, 73 percent lost Internet service and 67 percent lost land-line service.
Many of those emergency Nixle messages during the early hours of the fires warning of evacuations and danger disappeared into a void. A report by the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium documented the frustration that some people felt because of the information blackout.
“We never received any type of alerts that would tell us what was happening,” one resident near the Partrick fire said in the report. “Nixle is fine, as long as there is cell service and internet.”
The October 2017 wildfires destroyed or damaged more than 340 cell tower sites in the region, a county report said. Discussions in the aftermath arose about having such things as battery backups on towers or bringing in mobile towers to replace damaged ones.
Napa County is working on communications issues as part of the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium along with Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties.
AMERICAN CANYON — American Canyon’s Watson Ranch project, approved earlier this month by the City Council, now faces a possible vote by local residents if a referendum petition circulating around town qualifies for the next election.
Several labor unions are sponsoring a referendum signature gathering drive, saying some of their members who are local residents oppose Watson Ranch.
Watson Ranch, the largest development in American Canyon’s history, would build 1,250 homes of varying size, a town center called the “Napa Valley Ruins & Gardens,” plus new roads intended to ease traffic congestion in town and on Highway 29, as well as new parks, schools, trails and more.
“We have members in or around American canyon that don’t like the project,” said Steve McCall, business manager for U.A. Local 343 representing plumbers and steamfitters. McCall said his union and three others for sheet metal workers, electricians and sprinkler fitters are supporting the referendum drive.
Some of these unions voiced formal opposition to Watson Ranch’s environmental impact report in October, saying the project would worsen traffic and air quality in American Canyon.
Union opposition to the project elicited responses from the developer claiming they were using the environmental report as leverage for a labor agreement with Watson Ranch.
“I didn’t appreciate that comment letter” on the environmental report, said developer Terry McGrath in an interview on Thursday. “But I understand why they do it. It’s all about leverage.”
McGrath said the referendum campaign caught him by surprise when he heard people were gathering signatures outside Safeway, Walmart and other locations in American Canyon, including going door-to-door in neighborhoods, starting the weekend of Nov. 10-11.
He said that at a meeting with union leaders on Nov. 6, he came away believing the two sides had reached a labor deal on the 200-room hotel that will built as part of Watson Ranch.
“We had a handshake agreement on a project labor agreement for the hotel,” McGrath said, “and as far as I knew that’s where we left off. I shook hands with some pretty high-up people inside the councils and the trades [unions] on that deal.”
“We hadn’t finalized it,” he added, “but I told them my handshake was good.”
When asked why the unions were trying to put a referendum on the ballot, McGrath declined to say. “I can’t offer an opinion on why they’re doing it,” he said.
But McGrath did say the referendum represents a threat to his project. He said if the unions collect enough signatures and qualify the referendum for the next municipal election, which wouldn’t be until 2020, all work on Watson Ranch would have to halt until the election.
Meanwhile, McCall provided a different view on talks between McGrath and the unions.
“Our position is we have met with the developer over the last couple of years,” he said, and up until now, the developer hasn’t bargained in good faith. McCall didn’t elaborate further.
“We believe there is a solution,” McCall added, but said it was related to an environmental settlement.
Before the American Canyon Planning Commission approved Watson Ranch in early October, an attorney with the firm Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo appeared before the commission and asked it to delay voting on Watson Ranch.
The firm — based in South San Francisco and Sacramento, where it conducts lobbying among other work — represents a local group called American Canyon Residents for Responsible Development, which attorney Collin McCarthy described as a “coalition of labor organizations, their members and their families.”
The group consisted of three local residents — Joel Hernandez, Pamela Lewis and James Aken — plus the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 180, Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 343, and Sheet Metal Workers Local 104, according to a lengthy letter dated Sept. 28 filled with comments on Watson Ranch’s environmental report.
The City Council on Oct. 16 first approved the Watson Ranch Specific Plan, the environmental report and a Statement of Overriding Considerations because of the project’s “significant and unavoidable impacts” on traffic and air quality. The council approved the documents a second and final time on Nov. 6.
Those gathering signatures for the referendum in American Canyon are being paid by Discovery Petition Management, according to James Hinton, a Napa resident who has helped with the campaign.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Hinton said of himself and a friend who have earned “less than $10” a signature from Discovery Petition.
When talking about “a massive project like this,” Hinton said, there are a checks and balances in our political system and “the referendum is one of those checks,” and “it’s being exercised.”
Hinton also said he walked precincts in American Canyon on Saturday, Nov. 10, and collected 18 signatures from registered voters.
City Clerk Suellen Johnston, who serves as American Canyon’s election officer, said on Friday that she had not seen the referendum petition. State law does not require referendum proponents to first file documents stating an intent to circulate a petition or the actual petition to the elections office before collecting signatures.
She said based on the number of registered voters in the city as of late October, the referendum would need 10 percent of that total, or 1,124 valid signatures, to qualify for the ballot. The unions have 30 days to collect the necessary signatures and submit them to the City Clerk’s Office for verification.
Mayor Leon Garcia supports Watson Ranch, and in a letter to the editor wrote: “Don’t allow these out of town interests to kill the dream of the citizens of American Canyon to have new schools, more parks & open space, increased local jobs, affordable housing, improved traffic and its own gathering place ... a new Town Center.”
The American Canyon Chamber of Commerce is also opposing the referendum. Once the referendum drive started collecting signatures, the Chamber began its own campaign to stop it by encouraging residents to not sign on.
“We’re trying to educate” people through social media and other means, according to chamber CEO Mandy Le.
On Nov. 13, the Chamber posted on its Facebook page saying: “It’s time to meet your neighbors and unite together to say NO TO THIS PETITION!”
The post also urged residents “Don’t answer the door!” and “Don’t be fooled!” along with telling them not to sign the petition.
Le says the “professional petitioners” collecting signatures have resorted to using false information about Watson Ranch to gain supporters for the referendum.
Some residents have posted on Nextdoor warning of the falsehoods being employed by petitioners.
One local citizen wrote on Sunday that they encountered a petitioner near the wetlands.
“I told him I’m for the project, and he said he was too and that’s why he needed my signature. The petition clearly stated the referendum [is] against [it]. Then [he] proceeded to tell me [American Canyon] had a population of 50,000 and only 1,000 were registered to vote. Blatant lies. And comical. Watch out for the liars.”
The city’s population is just over 20,000 residents, and the most recent election data says American Canyon has more than 11,000 registered voters.
Sandy Jones, the longtime park ranger who became a passionate advocate for the Bale Grist Mill and Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, died Nov. 11 of breast cancer at the age of 56.
Colleagues and fellow parks supporters say Jones was instrumental in restoring the mill, developing programs and fundraisers, and overseeing the parks’ transition from state to local control.
“Everything really bloomed under Sandy’s care,” said Jeanne Marioni, who worked closely with her. “Her leadership came from the top. Nobody worked harder than her.”
Jones developed an interest in parks while attending San Jose State University. She earned a degree in parks and recreation and spent 30 years as a state park ranger, working in Carlsbad, Half Moon Bay, Bodega Bay and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park before transferring to the Napa Valley around 2003.
Friends say her greatest passion was the 19th century Bale Grist Mill. Celebrating its history became one of the great joys of her life, and in the mid-2000s she guided the restoration of the mill, including the complex sifting apparatus upstairs.
“She brought the mill back to what it was in 1860,” said Tyler Beach, who moved to Bothe as a seasonal lifeguard and later joined the staff.
“They installed elevators for the grist, cleaners for the corn and the wheat, and a bolter that sifted the milled flour into different grades,” Beach said. “That all ran off an upstairs gear that hadn’t been in operation for 140 years or so. She got it all restored, she got all the grant money for it, and she really put her heart and soul into making sure that huge project got done.”
Jones developed a miller training program, expanded tours for students, raised money to maintain the mill, and either created or revitalized events that became annual traditions, including the Harvest Dinner, Old Mill Days, Pancake Breakfast, Winter Dinner and Pioneer Christmas.
Even as she neared the end of her fight with breast cancer, Jones worked from bed to organize the first Fiesta en el Bolino Bale, a free event geared toward Latinos. Health problems had prevented her from attending the Harvest Dinner on Sept. 8, but she attended the Fiesta a week later with the help of a motorized wheelchair.
Back when Michael Fradelizio was running the Silverado Brewing Company, he dropped by the Bale Grist Mill and was greeted by Jones. She mentioned the mill needed money for roof repairs, so Fradelizio offered to cook for a fundraiser.
The event, which became known as the first annual Harvest Dinner, drew 120 people and raised about $12,000. Fradelizio has been cooking to support the mill ever since, and Jones talked him into joining the board of the Napa Valley State Parks Association (NVSPA).
“She helped shake off the dust of the Bale Mill, not only restoring it but celebrating it,” Fradelizio said. “It was more than a job to her.”
Today, the mill embodies Jones’ vision as “a meeting place to draw people together from all walks of life,” Fradelizio said.
As a ranger, friends say Jones was an outstanding ambassador for the parks who shared her enthusiasm with visitors.
“She got to know all the campers who would come back here year after year,” Beach said. “She got to know their families and watch their kids grow up. They all loved Ranger Sandy.”
She developed or expanded programs like Bothe’s Junior Rangers, summer camp and outdoor education. During her tenure, yurts and cabins were built to accommodate campers, the Pioneer Cemetery was restored, the old visitor center was repaired and opened for expanded hours, and the Bothe pool was repaired and developed into a popular family destination.
“She was passionate about outdoor education and getting kids involved,” said Jessica Ardizzone, a park staff member who worked with Jones for almost 10 years. “She would go into classrooms and talk to students and parks and the outdoors. That really helped our program grow.”
At Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Jones served as a ranger, lived at the abandoned town of Silverado, and arranged the installation of new signs this year.
By the time the state handed over control of the two parks, Jones was the only ranger assigned to Bothe, the mill and Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Jones was “a pivotal player” who kept the parks on track during that transitional period, said Pete McGee, vice president of the NVSPA.
“She was always the personable side of the bureaucratic machine” that kept the parks running, McGee said.
Kathy Carrick, president of the NVSPA, said Jones was always her “go-to person” when the association wanted to coordinate with the Napa County Regional Park & Open Space District, which contracted with the state for Jones’ services late in her career.
“She did so much, and we have a huge learning curve that we need to overcome with her gone,” Carrick said. “She was the heart and soul of Bale Mill and Bothe.”
Colleagues also praised her ability to rally volunteers and staff to accomplish goals.
“She made it easy to want to work hard for her,” Beach said. “A lot of the employees have been here for a long time, and I think it’s because of Sandy’s attitude and Sandy’s approach to management. … She was the best boss I’ve ever had, and there’s going to be a big void here at the park without her.”
Fire crews are still working to contain the deadly inferno that leveled the town of Paradise, virtually wiping it off the map. Thousands of people are homeless, living in tents, trailers and parking lots. Dozens are dead. Hundreds are still missing.
While rain before Thanksgiving is expected to clear away the smoke and mercifully reduce fire danger, this weather change is tempered by a grim reality. Scientists say as temperatures continue to warm, drying out brush, grasses and trees into explosively flammable fuel by late summer and autumn, catastrophic fires and the unhealthy smoke they spew hundreds of miles away will almost certainly become more frequent in California and across the West in the coming years.
“Climate change is not the cause of these fires,” said Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. “But the warmer atmosphere is causing most fires to be harder to contain. They are burning bigger and hotter.”
The numbers are stark. California has warmed roughly 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980 during the autumn months of September, October and November. Rainfall in those months has fallen by about one-third over the same time. And the result has been a state increasingly on fire.
From 1980 to 1990, roughly 300,000 to 400,000 acres a year burned in California. Last year, 1.4 million acres burned. This year, so far, 1.8 million acres _ an area six times the city of Los Angeles _ of federal, state and private land has been incinerated. Similar trends are afoot in other Western states.
“We don’t even say ‘fire season’ any more. It’s year round,” said Scott McLean, deputy chief of Cal Fire, the state’s primary firefighting agency. “The climate change we are dealing with is related to that.”
Put another way, 15 of the 20 largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000. Four of the five largest have happened since 2012. And the two all-time biggest in terms of acres burned _ the Mendocino Complex Fire centered in Lake County this summer and the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last December _ both happened in the last 12 months.
“We’re in a new abnormal,” a grim Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference to discuss the Paradise disaster. “Things like this will be part of our future. Things like this and worse.”
Even Ryan Zinke, the Department of the Interior secretary in the Trump administration, which has been skeptical of climate science, conceded the changing conditions on Wednesday during a visit to Paradise.
Zinke said he did not “want to finger point” and said there were multiple reasons for the worsening fires. But those include the fact that “fire seasons have gotten longer and the temperatures have gotten hotter,” Zinke said.
The climate is warming because burning fossil fuels traps heat in the atmosphere. The 10 hottest years on Earth since modern temperature records began in 1880 all have occurred since 1998, according to NASA and NOAA. But climate change is not the only reason for the growth in wildfires, scientists and firefighters say.
Centuries ago, lightning and Native Americans clearing land burned more acres a year than are burning now in California. But those fires were mostly low-intensity affairs, helping clear dead underbrush. Today, because fire crews have put out blazes for generations, many forests have so much dead and living vegetation that they often explode out of control, wiping out large trees and seeds.
More than a century ago, it was not uncommon for whole towns to burn down. The 1871 Peshtigo Fire killed about 1,500 people in Wisconsin and Michigan, with so many fatalities that there weren’t enough survivors in some communities to identify the dead. The Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana, killing 86 and sending smoke plumes to New York. Afterward, the U.S. Forest Service set a policy of putting out fires by 10 a.m. the next morning, and radios, helicopters, planes and other equipment improved safety dramatically over the generations.
But now, with hotter, larger fires growing ever more intense in a warming world, creating “fire tornadoes” and walls of flame hundreds of feet tall, whole towns could again burn down, fire experts say.
“This is the kind of urban conflagration Americans thought they had banished in the early 20th century,” wrote Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University fire historian, last week, of the Paradise disaster. “It’s like watching measles or polio return.”
Earlier this year, California lawmakers passed a bill that promises $1 billion in state funding over the next five years in grants to cities, counties, fire departments and nonprofit groups to thin overgrown forests around towns, cut fuel breaks and conduct controlled burns to restore some natural balance.
Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at UC Berkeley, has estimated that the state and federal government will need to increase such thinning and controlled burning tenfold from current levels to make a difference. That will cost billions of dollars.
Another challenge is population growth.
From 1990 to 2010, there was a 41 percent increase in the number of houses in America’s “wild land-urban interface” _ the area where homes and forests meet, and where wildfire problems are most pronounced, according to a study last year led by the University of Wisconsin. One in three Americans now lives in those fire-prone areas.
Add to that California’s 2012-2017 drought, which killed 129 million trees, mostly in the Sierra Nevada and its foothills. That left enormous amounts of dead vegetation, primed to burn.
McLean, of Cal Fire, said the solution going forward must be more vigilance. More education campaigns to teach people how to create “defensible space” around their homes. More forest thinning. More controlled burns. More escape route drills. More firefighting equipment.
Others say that tougher building codes are needed. Some suggest burying power lines, which cause many of California’s worst fires. But that costs 10 times as much as stringing them on poles. And there are 176,000 miles of power lines in California.
While 3 degrees of warming in the past 40 years might not seem like a lot, it makes a big difference in the moisture levels of plants, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. Moisture levels in vegetation across California remain today at some of the lowest levels ever recorded, even as autumn wind conditions increase fire risk.
Normally, by mid-November, the ground and the vegetation is damp. So sparks from cars, power lines and campfires have a difficult time growing into large fires, Swain noted. But increasingly, the storms that once soaked California have been blocked in the fall and spring months because of ridges of high pressure in the Pacific Ocean. Some scientists are tying those “ridiculously resilient ridges” to changes driven by melting sea ice in the Arctic.
“Unfortunately, the later and later extent of the fire season into autumn is something we are going to have to cope with,” Swain said. “We are already starting to see it. We didn’t really get major wildfires into November and December before, but we are now. This really is a new thing.”