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Two Birds One Stone reopens on Wednesday, Jan. 30 as Roadhouse 29 as casual smoked-meat and barbecue eatery with no-tipping policy and a plan that pays its staff a "living wage." 

Napa teen recruits volunteers to help people stay in their homes

Emma Healy spent MLK Day directing the cleaning out of a rundown mobile home filled to the brim with surplus possessions and plain junk. And she did it with a smile.

“Service is definitely my passion,” said Healy, age 18. “I can’t imagine my life without service.”

This Napa High School senior recently created her own nonprofit, The Napa Valley Service Project, with the goal of helping those who are low income or disabled who need help with their homes.

“That’s why we’re here,” said Healy who had recruited a team of volunteers. “We want to help people safely stay in their homes.”

Healy and volunteers have already completed two larger projects: helping a World War II veteran with disabilities clear a patch of blackberry bushes at his home and assisting Rebecca Lynne Fuller shape up her mobile home in central Napa.

Fuller, 62, is almost completely blind and relies on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to get by. She’s lived in the home since 1999 but her disability has made it difficult to keep it clean and maintained. Fuller explained that a series of roommates left the rear bedroom filled to the brim with leftover belongings and trash.

“I didn’t have any way to deal with it,” she said of the debris. “I just closed off the back room and pretended it’s not there.”

To make room for a new roommate – a good friend from Lake Berryessa — Fuller needed help cleaning out that bedroom and other parts of the home.

Even though the house was full, Fuller said she gets around the home by feeling her way on the walls and furniture. “I know where my path is.”

Yes, sometimes she falls or bumps into walls. On Monday, Jan. 21, she had a black eye from on such tumble, she said.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, more than a dozen volunteers, mostly high school students, arrived ready to help Fuller reclaim her home.

“This is amazing,” said Fuller of the volunteers. “It’s blowing my mind.”

A Napa psychologist, Anne Uemura, was also volunteering her time on Monday.

Fuller “has a wonderful attitude” about letting things go, said Uemura. When the group began, a side entrance was completely impassable, she noted. But just a few hours later, it was clear. Healy’s desire to help “touches my heart,” said Uemura.

Dylan Leach, the head coach of the Vintage football team, recruited a number of his players to help with Healy’s project on Monday.

“It’s the least we can do,” said Leach. There is more to life than just school and football, he said, adding that service is an important part of the football team.

Wearing masks and gloves, several athletes and other volunteers carried out bags of old clothing and cushions, worn rugs and carpets. Two football players used bleach spray to kill mold and mildew on the floor.

Meanwhile, another volunteer, Dave Shubin of Napa, told Fuller he would fix her leaky toilet.

Asked by a volunteer about what to do with a box of VHS tapes, Fuller replied to get rid of them.

When asked about a box of audio cassette tapes, Fuller asked that they be donated. Those are new, she said.

Healy said the group was careful to be respectful of Fuller’s belongings.

As the volunteers carried out boxes and bags of refuse, little by little, the clean-out progressed.

“It’s refreshing to get some of this stuff cleared away,” said Fuller. “I’m so thankful.”

Healy said she’s visited with Fuller a number of times. As they hugged for a photo, the two said they’d developed a friendship.

Healy said she was already planning to come back to Fuller’s home to help repair an old wood porch.

As for the future of the Napa Valley Service Project, she’d like to continue networking with the community to find other people in need.

She’d also like to build a list of skilled workers such as electricians, contractors and landscapers who might be willing to help on future projects.

Her group is new but “we’re trying to help multiple families and people.”

“Part of it is just getting the word out,” said Healy. “I know there are people out there that need help but they need to hear about us.”

The teen said she was inspired to create her nonprofit after volunteering with a group called Sierra Service Project. With that group, she’s traveled to Oregon and other areas. She’s also participated in a number of local volunteer projects.

In August, Healy officially launched The Napa Valley Service Project. She’s applied for 501 c (3) nonprofit status and currently has an agreement with the Napa Methodist Church to accept donations for her group.

Healy, who has a 5.0 GPA thanks to AP and honors classes, is awaiting acceptances to college. She has applied to some on the East Coast.

“I want to either become a physician or physician assistant,” she said. “That will allow me to help more people on a broader scale.”

Healy said she does not feel overwhelmed about such an undertaking. “I am definitely ambitious,” she said. “I think of ways to get it done. I trust that we’ll figure it out and work around.”

Napa's brewers plan a downtown beer walkabout

In a first for Napa’s beer scene, downtown breweries are calling out curious drinkers for the city’s first beer-themed walkabout.

Suds seekers can take to the streets for the Napa Beer Mile on Saturday, Feb. 9, and stop on the trek at Napa’s six participating breweries from noon until the last brewery closes.

Organizer St. Clair Brown on Vallejo Street will serve as the check-in point, where a $35 check-in fee gets beer walkers a stamp card of all the breweries to hit. From there, walkers will take ad hoc paths of their choosing, collecting stamps and discounts as they go.

For those who reach all six, a full stamp card will earn a Napa Beer Mile hat that can be collected at any one of the brewery stops. The mile begins when St. Clair Brown opens for check-in and will take walkers between Tannery Bend Beerworks, Napa Palisades Saloon, Downtown Joe’s, Trade Brewing and Stone Brewing – Napa.

St. Clair Brown president and co-owner Laina Brown credits staffer Christina Summers with the concept, which has been several months in the making. “She came to me and said ‘Why doesn’t Napa have its own beer trail? There are a bunch basically within a mile!’ We ran the idea by the other brewers and everyone was super excited,” Brown said.

Organizers hope the Beer Mile, the first hops happening of its kind in the city’s downtown, will bring new notice to the area’s growing standing as a craft beer locale. Half of the breweries on walkers’ paths opened in the last two years. The latest, Stone Brewing – Napa, appeared to validate the idea of Napa as a beer town worthy of attention from breweries of its size and stature with its opening in 2017 at the historic Borreo Building downtown.

Pushing that image a step further, the bid behind the Beer Mile, Brown says, is now “to unify the six craft breweries in peoples’ minds and hopefully get them thinking about Napa as a real craft beer community in its own right.”

Beer milers may note the absence of one significant downtown beer name from the list of stops, however, with Fieldwork Brewing at the Oxbow Market having turned down a place in the event, organizers said.

But at the six breweries taking part, milers can expect a range of discounted drafts for the day, like the $4 beers at St. Clair Brown that on other days go for $7.50.

Tim Carl Photography 

St. Clair Brown co-owner and winemaker/brewmaster Elaine St. Clair, at right, pours in her Vallejo Street tasting room. The winery/brewery worked to organize the inaugural Napa Beer Mile and will serve as the event's check-in point.  

California utility equipment sparked more than 2,000 fires in 3 1/2 years

SACRAMENTO — Equipment owned by California’s three largest utilities ignited more than 2,000 fires in three and a half years — a timespan in which state regulators cited and fined the companies nine times for electrical safety violations.

How the state regulates utilities is under growing scrutiny following unprecedented wildfires suspected to have been caused by power line issues, blazes that have destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of people.

Lacking the manpower and sophisticated technology necessary to monitor more than 250,000 miles of power lines across the state, regulators rely on something of an honor system, with utilities responsible for ensuring all trees and vegetation are cut back far enough from electrical equipment before the onset of dry, high-fire danger conditions.

Destructive wildfires in Paradise, wine country, Ventura County and other areas have prompted California lawmakers to consider new ways to improve regulatory oversight and hold utilities more accountable for prevention.

The California Public Utilities Commission has never fined an electrical utility company for failing to meet safety standards before a wildfire strikes. Instead, the agency fines the utilities for violations after investigations into fires find wrongdoing — and the process can drag on for years.

“The CPUC oversight of investor-owned utilities to prevent electrical or utility-caused wildfires is devastatingly absent,” said John Fiske, a lawyer who represents wildfire victims. “When you’re looking at areas that look like they’ve been bombed in a war zone, and to know that can be prevented with enforcement and oversight, it’s widely upsetting.”

Investor-owned utilities are required to file annual reports with state regulators detailing even the smallest of spot fires linked to electrical equipment. Most of the blazes are less than 10 acres in size. And many of the most destructive wildfires in recent years are not included in the data because utilities are hesitant to tie their equipment to costly blazes before state investigations conclude.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility providing electricity from Eureka to Bakersfield, reported 1,552 equipment-related fires from June 2014 through the end of 2017. Southern California Edison, the electricity supplier for 15 million people mostly south of Fresno County, reported 347 fires in that time. Serving a 4,100-square-mile area from San Clemente to the Mexican border, San Diego Gas & Electric disclosed 115 fires in the time period.

Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the safety and enforcement division at the commission, said the agency uses the data to gain insight into the cause of ignitions and found that electrical lines making contact with vegetation and other line malfunctions sparked most of the fires. The data do not include any determinations on fault or show if the utilities violated safety laws.

Malashenko said that simply because the data show there were fires related in some way to a utility’s equipment does not mean those fires are connected to safety violations and should trigger a fine or citation. But lawmakers suggest the severity of recent blazes and high number of fires proves the state’s methods to prevent disaster aren’t working.

In most cases, enforcement follows investigations into massive wildfires that decimate towns and neighborhoods. In a three-and-a-half-year period ending in 2017, CPUC said it issued nine citations and fines related to electrical safety violations against the utilities — including $8.3 million against PG&E for the Butte fire and an additional $15 million against Edison for multiple power outages in Long Beach in 2015.

As another form of punishment, the commission has also denied requests by utilities to recover losses from ratepayers if investigations discover negligence and district attorneys file criminal charges for wrongdoing. If utility equipment is tied to wildfires, the companies also face civil suits for damages. Fire-related costs led PG&E this month to announce plans to file for bankruptcy, potentially facing $30 billion in legal liability from the recent wildfires.

This year, lawmakers in Sacramento are raising questions about wildfire prevention and electrical safety oversight, and are considering new legislation to address the issues.

Ideas include small adjustments, such as providing CPUC with more explicit prevention guidelines and assigning a state representative to monitor safety at the utilities. More radical changes, including the creation of a new state entity to enforce safety or investing in sweeping technological advancements to provide regulators with better data, may require additional taxpayer dollars and would be more difficult to accomplish.

“We are in a new reality now,” state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said. “No one has felt that more than the IOUs, the insurance companies and more importantly, the victims in these cases. It is our responsibility to evaluate it all. Working together with the governor, I think we realize changes need to happen.”

Years-long drought, dry brush, dead trees, strong winds and outdated electrical infrastructure have made California more prone to combustion. More than 1.6 million acres burned and 100 lives were lost in 2018. Under mounting political pressure, state legislators asked for information from CPUC, the agency responsible for making sure public utilities operate safely.

Some couldn’t believe what they learned.

Michael Picker, president of the CPUC, testified at a state Capitol hearing last year that the commission is primarily an economic regulator with a central focus of making sure companies provide energy to consumers at reasonable rates. Picker told lawmakers the agency had neither the technology nor manpower to ensure safety compliance on its own.

“I was stunned,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who led the committee. “To me, we don’t have any bigger issue than this.”

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said given the dire wildfire threat, lawmakers cannot wait “for an agency to come up to speed with keeping our communities safe.”

“Their leadership has testified that they are behind the curve on safety regulations,” Jackson said. “I think, frankly, what we need do is rethink the system.”

A team of 19 people at the California Public Utilities Commission conducts on-the-ground preventive safety audits and spot checks, while also investigating wildfires. But inspections cover only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines and 4.2 million utility poles that deliver electricity to homes and businesses throughout the state. Malashenko has requested 13 more positions dedicated to wildfire safety and enforcement next year.

“It’s not as if we actually go out in the same way that we do for rail lines, for electric and telecommunication lines,” Picker said to lawmakers last year. “There’s just too many miles for us to be able to match the 37,000-person workforce, say, at PG&E.”

Unsatisfied with PG&E’s management of its electrical infrastructure, U.S. District Judge William Alsup proposed earlier this month that the company inspect all 100,000 miles of its power lines and trim vegetation before the 2019 fire season begins.

Alsup cited the susceptibility of PG&E’s distribution lines coming into contact with trees during high-wind events as the most prevalent cause of 2017 and 2018 wildfires linked to the company’s equipment. On Wednesday, the company said performing inspections and cutting back vegetation could cost at least $75 billion and the job would be impossible to complete in the given time.

Concerns over wildfire safety are not limited to enforcement. Some say new technology is vital to solving the crisis.

In his first week in office, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to modernize the state’s system for procuring technology contracts and emphasized working with the private sector to address fire detection. Newsom’s state budget proposes $9.2 million for the CPUC to address “oversight of investor-owned utility compliance with legislative requirements to reduce the risk of utility-caused wildfires” and review new wildfire mitigation plans required by the Legislature.

Malashenko applauded the governor’s attention to technology. The state and companies such as PG&E need more data and better systems to understand wildfire risks and address prevention, she said.

CPUC officials can’t say if fires linked to utility equipment in the data on wildfire ignitions were caused by safety violations, or if the policies requiring the companies to maintain vegetation clearances around power lines are working. The agency is currently matching its records to investigative findings from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to gain a clearer picture of the problem, although Malashenko says the efforts have taken a back seat to the 2018 wildfires.

Technological advancements, such as better real-time weather modeling, would more accurately determine the conditions that drive wildfires. Aerial drone patrols could ensure that required vegetation clearance is constantly maintained. While humans can offer only subjective assessments on the ground, technology can provide more granular detail and identify risks and trends based on the specific threats in a local area, she said.

California, Malashenko argues, already has the most stringent safety requirements and the largest electric safety program in the nation. At least for now, state regulators are largely drawing a road map to prevent wildfires as they go.

“Yes, maybe there’s some opportunity to do more inspections, but...what is the end goal here?” Malashenko said. “Are we really going to make that much of a difference if we just increase the current system? We need to take a step back and really rethink it and design a program that addresses this challenge.”