Earlier this year, as wildfires tore through millions of acres of California, some of the most startling images were of the Golden State’s iconic trees burning, charred or reduced to ash.
Of course, the story is more complicated — as we’ve reported, many landscapes need fire to be healthy — but the scale and scope of these blazes and the changing climate suggest more destruction is looming.
They are California’s three plant species that attract crowds from around the world. Living in vastly different parts of the state, they are the only ones honored and protected by national parks in their name. What they have in common is mostly an ability to silently stand there and elicit a reaction.
But 2020 was not a good year for the coast redwood, the Joshua tree or the giant sequoia. Already under long-term threat by the changing climate, the enormous wildfires took dramatic aim at the state’s most iconic trees.
[Read about how in an alarming year for fires, more officials have turned to Indigenous communities for guidance.]
Gone are countless old-growth redwoods, thousands of ancient sequoias and an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees (which, of course, are a yucca). In their place is a newfound sense of both dread and urgency among scientists and others who see these species as more than just plants.
Over the past couple of months, I have accompanied some of the foremost experts of each species into the burn areas — some still smoldering and off-limits to the public — with the photographer Max Whittaker. What we found was, at turns, heartbreaking, surreal and hopeful.
Heartbreaking because so many trees that had stood stoically in one place, some for thousands of years, were gone in an instant. As one scientist said amid a charred landscape, “They are literally irreplaceable — unless you have 2,000 years to wait.”
Surreal to see a desert turned the color of spent charcoal all the way to the horizon, or a lush green forest of rigid-straight redwoods turned into a jumble of blacks and browns.
Hopeful because there are signs of life, if you look hard enough.
The question that overwhelms you in these places right now is what we have lost, and what we have left to lose.
[Readers shared their memories of Big Basin Redwoods State Park.]
The idea of linking the three species together into one story began in August, when a desert wildfire whipped across more than 40,000 acres in Mojave National Preserve. All of us who live in California have become hardened by the perennial assault the past few years, the stories of forests aflame and people rushing out of the way (but not always, as we know too well). This struck me as something we had not seen before, and we hadn’t: More than a million Joshua trees, torched.
Within weeks, it seemed most of California was on fire. (In reality, it was about 4 percent of the state that burned in 2020.) The Sierra Nevada, home to a shrinking number of giant sequoias, took a big brunt of the blazes. Then fire rampaged through the Santa Cruz Mountains, and among the victims was Big Basin Redwoods State Park, home to 4,400 acres of old-growth redwoods.
Just like that, all three of California’s favorite trees felt the wrath of wildfire, as never before. We are left to wonder what it all means — for the trees, for our state, for the future. This story, with some dazzling visuals from Max and some of my talented colleagues at The Times, might help us think about all that.
[See the full story here.]
A closer look at California’s new contact tracing app
On Thursday, California’s new contact tracing system, CA Notify, went live. If you missed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement, it is essentially a smartphone feature you can opt into that will notify you of potential coronavirus exposure by using Bluetooth to detect which phones have been within several feet of one another for a certain amount of time.
If someone tests positive, that person should receive a code to enter into the app, which will then alert the phones that had been in proximity.
[Track California’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.]
Jennifer spoke to our colleague Shira Ovide about the apps and how they’re working in California. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation, which you can read more of in Shira’s excellent On Tech newsletter.
Shira: How does the California virus notification technology compare with what other states are using?
Jennifer: Like a few other states, California is using the technology called Exposure Notifications Express from Apple and Google. The companies push notifications to everyone’s phones to encourage people to download the health department’s exposure notification app or to change the phone’s settings to turn on the technology.
California also did a pilot study — as did the University of Arizona. But in Arizona, there was a virus outbreak on campus in the beginning, and they estimated they were able to slow the rate of transmission with the help of these exposure alerts. In California, when the exposure alert technology was tested at the University of California, San Diego and the U.C.S.D. Health System, there was a small infection rate at the time. It was more difficult to get data on how much this flattened the curve when the curve was already flat.
[Read the full story.]
Shira: Is California different from other states using this Express technology?
Jennifer: Not really. California is just big. It’s a diverse state, so I’m curious to see whether people use the technology.
One way people should think about this virus alert technology is something that helps alleviate the burden on contact tracing by humans. If more people in California elect to use these alerts, maybe contact tracers can or should devote more time to people who aren’t aware of or able to use the smartphone alerts.
[Sign up for On Tech.]
Here’s what else to know today
Attorney General Xavier Becerra supports “Medicare for All.” Here’s how he could help make it happen. [The New York Times]
How did Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton and a rising progressive star, get unseated last month? The creator of a local website that waged war against local leaders and journalists, openly divorced from truth, is taking some credit. [GEN]
Disney+ is going to have a lot of new Star Wars stuff and a lot of new stuff in general, as the House of Mouse leans hard into streaming. [The New York Times]
Confused about the state’s travel restrictions? Here’s what to know. [The New York Times]
And finally …
Happy Hanukkah, if you celebrate. Whether or not you do, we wish you a restful, safe weekend. Spend it making latkes, if you’re so inclined.
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.