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Gov. Jerry Brown’s Link Between Climate Change And Wildfires Is Unsupported, Fire Experts Say

By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

COWBOY CAMP, Calif. — The ash of the Rocky fire was still hot when Gov. Jerry Brown strode to a bank of television cameras beside a blackened ridge and, flanked by firefighters, delivered a battle cry against climate change.

The wilderness fire was “a real wake-up call” to reduce the carbon pollution “that is in many respects driving all of this,” he said.

“The fires are changing. … The way this fire performed, it’s not the way it usually has been. Going in lots of directions, moving fast, even without hot winds.”

“It’s a new normal,” he said in August. “California is burning.”

Brown had political reasons for his declaration.

He had just challenged Republican presidential candidates to state their agendas on global warming. He was embroiled in a fight with the oil industry over legislation to slash gasoline use in California. And he is seeking to make a mark on international negotiations on climate change that culminate in Paris in December.

But scientists who study climate change and fire behavior say their work does not show a link between this year’s wildfires and global warming, or support Brown’s assertion that fires are now unpredictable and unprecedented. There is not enough evidence, they say.

University of Colorado climate change specialist Roger Pielke said Brown is engaging in “noble-cause corruption.”

Pielke said it is easier to make a political case for change using immediate and local threats, rather than those on a global scale, especially given the subtleties of climate change research, which features probabilities subject to wide margins of error and contradiction by other findings.

“That is the nature of politics,” Pielke said, “but sometimes the science really has to matter.”

Other experts say there is, in fact, a more immediate threat: a landscape altered by a century of fire suppression, timber cutting and development.

Public attention should be focused on understanding fire risk, controlling development and making existing homes safer with fire-rated roofs and ember-resistant vents, said Richard Halsey, who founded the Chaparral Institute in San Diego.

Otherwise, he said, “the houses will keep burning down and people will keep dying.”

“I don’t believe the climate change discussion is helpful,” Halsey said.

Brown does not contend that climate change alone is making California’s fires worse, said Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the governor’s Natural Resources Agency. But she said addressing fires in the same breath as global warming “broadens the discussion and encourages us to think about the future.”
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Brown’s senior environmental adviser, Cliff Rechtschaffen, has said the governor believes climate change is not regarded with sufficient urgency and should be addressed “on a World War III footing.”

At a U.N.-sponsored panel on air pollution in September, Brown again linked wildfires and global warming.

“In California, our forest fires are more frequent, (of) greater magnitude and display completely unique characteristics,” the governor said. “We’re already being affected by climate change.”

But climate scientists’ computer models show only that global warming will bring consistently hotter weather in future decades. Their predictions that warming will bring more forest fires — mostly in the Rockies and at other higher elevations, while fires may actually decrease in Southern California — also are for future decades.

Even in a warmer world, they say, land management policies will have the greatest effect on the prevalence and intensity of fire.

A study published in August by a Columbia University team led by climatologist Park Williams concluded that global warming has indeed shown itself in California, by increasing evaporation that has aggravated the current drought. But Williams said his research, the first to tease out the degree to which global warming is affecting California weather, did not show climate change to be a major cause of the drought.

Even climate ecologists who describe a strong tie between fire frequency and weather say they cannot attribute that connection to phenomena beyond normal, multi-decade variations seen throughout California history.

“There is insufficient data,” said U.S. Forest Service ecologist Matt Jolly. His work shows that over the last 30 years, California has had an average of 18 additional days per year that are conducive to fire.

In addition, predictions of the impact that global warming will have on future fires in California vary.

A team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine recently reported that in 25 years, climate change will increase the size of fires driven by Santa Ana winds in Southern California. But their models varied on how much increase to expect: from 12 percent to 140 percent.

Predictions from a UC Merced expert include a possible decrease of such fires as dry conditions slow vegetation growth.

Today’s forest fires are indeed larger than those of the past, said National Park Service climate change scientist Patrick Gonzalez. At a symposium sponsored by Brown’s administration, Gonzalez presented research attributing that trend to policies of fighting the fires, which create thick underlayers of growth, rather than allowing them to burn.

“We are living right now with a legacy of unnatural fire suppression of approximately a century,” Gonzalez told attendees.

The Rocky fire, which began in late July in Lake County, spread quickly through mature chaparral in the Cache Creek Wilderness, creating tall plumes that sucked in air from all directions.

California fire records analyzed by the Los Angeles Times show a dozen similar fires from 2000 to 2014 that each moved quickly, spreading at more than 1,000 acres an hour. A few were driven by the notorious Santa Ana winds, but most were similar to the Rocky fire and three other fast-moving Northern California fires that followed it.

Fire behavior specialist Jeff Shelton, who provided daily forecasts for the Rocky fire and, later, the Jerusalem fire, said he could not attribute their behavior to climate change. He cited the summer’s dry weather, an abundance of fuel created by a lack of previous fires, and steep slopes that allowed the fires to spread quickly.

Ecologists said their behavior was typical of natural chaparral fires, which burn infrequently but intensely.

A regional staff member in Brown’s emergency operations office called the fires “unprecedented,” a description then used by the administration for other conflagrations.

But those burns were classic plume-dominated convection fires, fed largely by an abundance of combustible material, fire scientists said.

“They are more and more common because we have more and more fuels,” said Joaquin Ramirez of Technosylva, an international fire modeling company based in San Diego.
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A month after Brown’s visit to Cowboy Camp, a team of federal wildland managers and a chaparral researcher met at the spot and climbed to the ridge where the Rocky fire had made a 20,000-acre run in one afternoon and night.

Charred burls in the lower lands already had spurted bright green growth. Water would soon spring from dry creek beds, like a Biblical miracle, as the aquifer rose without vegetation to suck it down.

Bureau of Land Management fire manager Jeff Tunnell surveyed the mosaic of black stubble against untouched silvery green stands of manzanita and chamise, oak and pine. A fire had been due.

“One hundred years of fire suppression is building fuel beds,” Tunnell said. “Almost any year can produce a fire like this one.”
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WHAT DOES ‘WEATHER’ REALLY MEAN?
Weather, drought and climate mean different things:
Weather: conditions of the atmosphere over a short period of time, up to months
Drought: a year or more of below-average rainfall
Climate: patterns of weather over a long period, usually 30 years or more
Source: NASA

Graphic: Graphic of wildfires in recent California history. Los Angeles Times 2015

As Death Row Runs Out Of Room, California Governor Covets Space Left By The Newly Sprung

By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

With no executions in nearly a decade and newly condemned men arriving every month, the nation’s largest death row has run out of room.

Warning that there is little time to lose, Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) is asking the California Legislature for $3.2 million to open nearly 100 more cells for condemned men at San Quentin State Prison. The proposed expansion would take advantage of cells made available as the state releases low-level drug offenders and thieves under a law voters approved last year.

California’s death penalty has been the subject of a decade of litigation. One case led to a halt to executions in 2006. Another resulted in a federal judge’s ruling last July that the state’s interminably slow capital-appeals system is unconstitutionally cruel. Through it all, the death row population has grown from 646 in 2006 to 751 today.

“Until the litigation is resolved, this cost-effective proposal allows (the state Corrections Department) to safely house condemned inmates going forward,” corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said last week.

But critics of Brown’s handling of the state’s stalled death penalty say his proposal doesn’t address deeper problems with the California system. “This is a failure of Governor Brown to do the things within his power to move things forward,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that has sued California seeking to force the state to resume executions.

There are 731 men and 20 women on California’s death row. The women are housed in a maximum security unit at the Central California Women’s Facility near Chowchilla, and Brown’s proposal would not affect them.

Condemned men live at San Quentin, housed apart from other inmates in three cellblocks that Brown’s budget plans note would have overflowed already if the state last summer had not, under court order, opened a 25-cell psychiatric unit for death row inmates.

San Quentin’s death row can accommodate 715 inmates. Last week, prison officials said, 708 inmates were in those cells. Twenty-three others were scattered across the state for court hearings or held in long-term medical facilities or at prisons in other states.

The governor’s budget proposal anticipates an average of 20 new arrivals on death row yearly. He proposes putting them in 97 cells on the first two tiers of the five-tier South Block. A small portion of the funding would go to increase security, including modifying showers so condemned inmates can be shackled as they bathe. Most of the money would be spent to increase staff, and the expansion would begin in July.

“Based on the critical nature of the bed shortage, it is not feasible to delay the approval and implementation of this proposal,” the governor’s budget document says. If expansion is delayed, “San Quentin would not have beds to accommodate the condemned should any return from court, outside medical facilities, or if SQ receives any newly condemned inmates.”

The proposed expansion of death row is possible because California’s prison population outside of death row has fallen sharply, a result of court-ordered releases to reduce overcrowding and a measure approved by voters last fall allowing the release of some low-level felons. Meanwhile, without executions, the ranks of California’s condemned continue to swell.

State and federal courts since 2006 have barred the state from using its three-drug lethal-injection protocol. Brown in 2012 asked an advisory board to investigate a single-drug method, but none has been proposed, and the state lacks a court-approved method for executions.

The constitutionality of the state’s capital punishment system is also being challenged. A federal judge last July ruled that the appeals process is so slow that executions have become unlikely and random. Condemned inmates often wait years for lawyers to be appointed to their appeals and years more for the state Supreme Court to decide their cases. State Attorney General General Kamala Harris is challenging the ruling in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She argues that the lengthiness of the appeals process prevents capital punishment from being arbitrary.

Forty-nine inmates have died of cancer, drug overdose, suicide, or other causes since the last execution, including two this month. Teofilo Medina Jr., 70, who murdered three store clerks for petty cash during a robbery spree in 1984, died of cancer March 22. Leon Cooper, 54, convicted of the 1998 rape and murder of his stepdaughter, died March 18 at a Marin County hospital. Officials have not said what caused his death.

Brown’s proposal is scheduled for a hearing in late April before a budget subcommittee led by state Senator Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat and a vocal opponent of the death penalty. Last month, she and other lawmakers told a federal court that the state cannot adequately fund its capital punishment system and should abandon the effort.

But because the process continues, Hancock said in a written statement, the Legislature must pay for more death row cells.

“California is in a Catch-22 situation. We are required by the Courts to address prison overcrowding and we are required by law to provide certain minimum conditions for housing death penalty inmates,” Hancock wrote. “The Legislature can’t avoid its responsibilities in these areas, even though the courts are currently considering the constitutionality of the death penalty, and I hope will agree to end it.”

Photo: Mark Boster via Los Angeles Times/TNS

California Will End Race-Based Punishment In State Prisons

By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When a group of prisoners attacked two guards at California’s High Desert State Prison in 2006, the warden declared a full lockdown that confined African-Americans in one wing of the prison to their cells, and kept them there for 14 months.

No outdoor exercise. No rehabilitation programs or prison jobs.

This week, California agreed to give up its unique use of race-based punishment as a tool to control violence in its crowded prisons. Corrections chief Jeffrey Beard and lawyers for inmates have settled a six-year-long civil rights lawsuit, filed in 2008, over the High Desert lockdown.

The case was eventually widened to cover all prisoners and lockdown practices that had become common statewide. The agreement now goes to a federal judge for expected approval.

“We see this as a tremendous result,” said Rebekah Evenson, a staff lawyer at the Prison Law Office, which pressed the class-action litigation.

Prisons officials concurred. “We are pleased with this settlement and optimistic that it will be approved by the court,” said California Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

She said the department “has been working on the policy changes reflected in this agreement for the past two years and began implementing them in May.”

According to the settlement papers, the state has agreed to switch to a system that determines prisoner by prisoner who is to be locked down.

Officials will take into account behavior as well as whether an inmate has been identified as a member of, or someone aligned with, a prison gang, now called “security threat groups.”

According to the settlement agreement, inmates placed on lockdown will be allowed to exercise outdoors after two weeks. Full lockdowns can include the loss of privileges such as mail, phone calls, showers and visits.

Prison officials had said that using race to implement lockdowns and other restrictions on inmate movement was an important safety tool.

They cited the need to immobilize large segments of the prison population while conducting investigations after riots and other violent events, and to help hide the identities of inmates who might be helping them.

Inmates’ lawyers said the state was using race as a stand-in for gang involvement, unfairly punishing prisoners who had done nothing wrong. They said no other state in the nation used such a broad policy.

Prison lawyers cited as many as 160 race-based lockdowns lasting six weeks or longer in a given year in California.

A riot between northern and southern Mexican gangs at Pelican Bay State Prison resulted in a three-year lockdown. During that time, inmates were denied family visits, issued housing and work assignments and assigned outdoor exercise times all based on race.

The U.S. Justice Department had joined sides with inmates’ lawyers in the case, intervening a year ago and stating that California’s racial lockdowns were inconsistent with federal practices, ineffective and based on “generalized fears of racial violence.”

U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley made it clear he considered the state’s defense thin. In awarding prisoners class-action status in July, Nunley said it was “undisputed” that California had statewide lockdown policies based on race.

With that ruling, the next step in the case would have been trial.

Photo: Amy The Nurse via Flickr

GPS Monitoring Alerts Overwhelm Probation Officers In California

By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Electronic monitoring was supposed to help Los Angeles County deal with the influx of thousands of felons moved out of California’s prison system to ease overcrowding.

The nation’s largest probation department strapped GPS ankle monitors on the highest-risk of those convicts, expecting the satellite receivers to keep tabs on where they spent their days and nights, and therefore keep the public safe.

Instead, agents are drowning in a flood of meaningless data, masking alarms that could signal real danger.
County probation officers are inundated with alerts, and at times received as many as 1,000 a day. Most of the warnings mean little: a blocked signal or low battery.

The messages are routinely ignored and at times have been deleted because there were so many, officers say.
Auditors making a spot check last fall found more than a dozen cases in which officers failed to notice that the devices were dead and probationers roamed unmonitored, some for weeks.

“If we keep getting false positives, we’re not going to know the real one that means danger,” said John Tuchek, a vice president for the Assn. of Probation Supervisors.

California’s statewide system for monitoring sex offenders sends out as many as 40,000 alerts each month to state parole agents.

The consequences of ignoring such warnings can be disastrous.

In upstate New York, federal probation officers deluged with false alarms opted to disregard tampering alerts that cleared themselves within five minutes.

Because of that, no one noticed last year when a man facing child pornography charges broke the strap of his monitor and slapped it back together with duct tape. The man left the still-operational device at home, then traveled across town and raped a 10-year-old girl and stabbed her mother to death.

A U.S. District Court judge in New York released a report in April noting that probation officers in 12 of the nation’s 94 federal court districts routinely ignored short-term alerts. Federal court officials ordered the practice stopped.

In Colorado last year, officers dismissed days of tampering and dead battery alerts from a parolee’s GPS monitor. The man had slipped out of the device strapped to his ankle and killed a pizza delivery man and the state’s corrections chief, authorities said. The fugitive was shot and killed days later while attempting to flee police in Texas.

Proponents of GPS technology say improving the system is a matter of better training, smaller caseloads and more effective technology to filter the flood of data.

Steve Logan, chief executive of Satellite Tracking of People, which monitors California sex offenders, said officials and the public should not see GPS tracking as a panacea.

Electronic monitoring is “a tool … not a silver bullet, but a really, really good tool,” Logan said.

But some national GPS experts and parole officers say there are so many technological problems with GPS monitoring that it will never be as secure as officials promise.

“When these alerts are in the tens of thousands, it seems like an unwinnable situation,” said Matthew DeMichele, a
former researcher for the American Probation and Parole Association and coauthor of the Justice Department’s guide on electronic monitoring.

“In some ways, GPS vendors are selling law enforcement agencies, politicians, the public a false bag of goods,” he said.

The data overload disclosure comes as nearly every county in California is preparing for a massive expansion of the “virtual jail” — the use of GPS devices to track criminals on the street rather than incarcerate them.

The growth is being driven by a federal court order requiring the state to reduce prison crowding. In two years, California shifted more than 100,000 state inmates and parolees to local control.

The influx has required the release of lower-level criminals to make room, meaning county probation departments must monitor an increasingly dangerous population.

Last year, then-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca solicited bids from GPS tracking companies to monitor as many as 3,000 offenders released from jail, while the county Probation Department is using GPS to track hundreds of felons released from prison. Riverside County has approved $1 million to monitor up to 600 criminals.

California began using GPS tracking in 2008, when voters passed Jessica’s Law, which required round-the-clock monitoring of serious sex offenders. More than 8,000 state parolees continue to be tracked under that law.

The basic systems involve a device strapped to a person’s ankle. The monitor picks up satellite signals and transmits location information over cellular networks to a central computer.

The system is designed so that an alert is sent out if an offender tries to remove the device or enter a forbidden area, such as a school or park. But notifications go out for a variety of routine reasons, as well: GPS signals are blocked by buildings, batteries run down, cases crack and straps come loose.

There is no easy way to distinguish the cause of a notification. A prolonged lost signal might mean an escape or merely a signal blockage inside a mall.

Field tests by California corrections officials in 2011 showed the devices used to track nearly half of the sex offenders in the state reported no signals 55 percent of the time — blind spots the manufacturer attributed to buildings, cars and trees.

In most cases, each anomalous event prompts an alert to the supervising officer.

The number of e-mails is compounded by another stream of data: The county Probation Department sets its system to trigger an alert whenever a device passes a school or park.

More than 4,800 prohibited areas are designated in L.A. County, about one every square mile. That makes it difficult for an offender to go anywhere without causing a string of alerts — a total of 7,500 messages generated by about 300 probationers each month.

“Just riding the Red Line would set off 10 alerts, passing schools on the way,” said Tuchek, the union official who also works as a county probation supervisor.

One recent log showed that 65 offenders racked up 135 alerts in a single overnight shift. None resulted in an officer’s response, and the probation office wrote off one felon’s string of seven tamper alerts as a possible equipment malfunction.

The e-mail overload was made even worse because of a policy that until recently required all alerts to be sent to every probation officer supervising someone via GPS.

The combined effect, department administrators said, was that deputies on some days were greeted by more than 1,000 new alerts in their email in-boxes.

“If the probation officer receives thousands of emails for every probationer in the county, he will delete them all without reading any,” said one deputy who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the issue.

A department audit in September documented numerous cases in which alerts went unheeded. Officers, according to the audit, were unaware their charges were not being tracked for days at a time. One offender went untracked for 45 days.

Reaver Bingham, deputy chief of the county Probation Department, said most officers try to discern the most serious messages in the flood and concentrate on those.

In November, the county stopped blasting out group alert messages to reduce the email overload. Still, the system generates more than 20,000 messages a month.

Sentinel Offender Services, the Irvine-based company that provides L.A. County’s GPS monitoring system, refused to comment on the program. However, in a 28-page corrective action plan sent to the county in November, Sentinel’s chief business development officer, Mark Contestabile, discussed “the onslaught” of alerts.

The frequency of the alerts is “overwhelming to the officer,” Contestabile wrote. “This is an area of the program that must be addressed as we move forward in program development.”

Echo_29 via Flickr