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In this week's newsletter: Investigating the response to last October’s deadly California wildfires, a year photographing America’s patriot camps for youth, a look at Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ hate crime priorities and more.

Warning system down: California's deadliest fires 

It used to be that there was a discrete wildfire season – a period of time when fire risk was highest. But now, across the country, that season is getting longer. And in many places, wildfire season is happening year-round.

Last October, more than 170 wildfires ripped across Northern California, burning more than 9,000 buildings, causing millions in damage and killing 44 people. It was the deadliest fire incident in the state’s history. Ahead of this week’s brand-new episode, reporters at KQED in San Francisco combed through hundreds of 911 calls to figure out what went wrong.

Here’s what they learned:
  • Downed power lines contributed to the disaster and caused cascading failures. As more lines went down, it caused overloads – and explosions – elsewhere.
  • Cal Fire and PG&E, the local utility company, could have pre-emptively powered down large portions of the power grid during the high wind event, as officials routinely do in Southern California. That didn’t happen.
  • Fires had been approaching Coffey Park, in the city of Santa Rosa, for four hours before residents were warned. Fearing mass panic and clogged roads, officials decided not to issue sweeping evacuation orders. The systems they did use were either opt-in or telephone calls to landlines, which only about half of Americans now use. Consequently, only a small portion of residents at risk actually received alerts and warnings of any kind.
  • Meanwhile, most county agencies had different terms and protocols for warnings. One call shows fire officials requesting a “reverse 911” – a targeted evacuation order – from a local operator who had no idea what the term meant.
  • The problem, it turned out, was systemic: Each county in California (there are 58) uses different technologies, with different names, to alert people.
  • It’s not just wildfires, either. Extreme weather is taxing emergency responders across the state. “We're seeing conditions like we've never seen before,” said Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “The baseline needs to change.”
Read: ‘My world was burning’: The North Bay fires and what went wrong

Patriotism, pushups and prayer

Over the past year, photographer Sarah Blesener paid visits to a host of camps aimed at instilling American kids with patriotic pride, military training and religious belief. The project, an outgrowth of similar work Blesener did in Russia, was part of the inaugural CatchLight Fellowship for young photographers, launched last spring. She also received funding from the Alexia Foundation.

For Blesener, the populist surge that pushed Donald Trump into the White House also provided fertile ground for her project.

“Overall, I wanted to look at how, as a culture, we pass down patriotic and military traditions to children,” she said. “And I think this is an extraordinarily interesting time to do this. America is so divided, and I wanted to speak to youth and see if they are as divided and what their worldview is and how they are being shaped as young adults.”

In addition to her photo essay, Blesener also recorded some lessons from her yearlong project – many of which are applicable to other young photographers looking to break into a competitive industry.

A new crackdown on hate crimes?

Since being sworn in as attorney general in February 2017, Jeff Sessions has left civil rights watchdogs worried about whether he’d take hate crimes seriously.

After all, he did argue against expanding the federal hate crime law back in 2009.

Yet a slew of recent cases, coupled with public statements promising that such crimes would remain a priority under Trump, seem to indicate that Sessions is taking the issue seriously – at least so far. Here’s a summary of recent action:

  • On Feb. 21, a Virginia man was indicted on a federal hate crime charge for threatening employees of the Arab American Institute over several years. William Patrick Syring, 60, is accused of sending hundreds of threatening emails to employees of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit, which encourages Arab Americans to participate in political and civic life. Syring previously served one year in prison for a similar crime.
  • On Feb. 27, a man in Tampa, Florida, pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges for threatening to burn down a home that was being purchased by a Muslim family. David Howard, 59, allegedly told the family, “You are not welcome here.” He faces 10 years in prison.
  • Also on Feb. 27, a 20-year-old Texas man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for assaulting a man because of his sexual orientation. Chancler Encalade admitted that he and two co-defendants used the gay dating app Grindr to arrange to meet the victim at his home. They then bound him and verbally and physically attacked him.
  • Feb. 28 saw the latest chapter of a long, strange story unfold when 19-year-old Michael Ron David Kadar, who holds both American and Israeli citizenship, was indicted on federal hate crime charges of making scores of bomb threats to Jewish places of worship and Jewish organizations in 2016 and 2017. Kadar allegedly advertised his “services” on a dark web marketplace called AlphaBay, where sending a simple threat cost $30 and sending a threat and intentionally framing someone else for it cost $45. (See this Hate Report from August for more.) 

The best reporting on North Korea and the U.S.

Trump’s Meeting with Kim Jong Un Is Another Pledge to Do What Nobody Else Can - The New York Times

Key excerpt: Shocking and yet somehow not surprising, Mr. Trump’s decision to do what no other sitting president has done and meet in person with a North Korean leader reflects an audacious and supremely self-confident approach to international affairs.

The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea - The New Yorker

Key excerpt: In 18 years of reporting, I’ve never felt as much uncertainty at the end of a project, a feeling that nobody – not the diplomats, the strategists, or the scholars who have devoted their lives to the subject – is able to describe with confidence how the other side thinks.

How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb - This American Life

Key excerpt: I had always imagined we'd figure something out. We'd reach some agreement with North Korea, or we'd do something before things got this bad. How did we get here?

Let’s Face It: North Korean Nuclear Weapons Can Hit the U.S. - New York Times

Key excerpt: Over the past few years, Americans have told ourselves one reassuring story after another: China will solve this problem for us. We can use cyberattacks to hack North Korea’s missiles. We can shoot down test missiles. The missiles are fakes, or too small to carry a nuclear payload. North Korean scientists will encounter some problem, possibly with missile guidance or re-entry, that will stop them cold.

These are all examples of wishful thinking.
Documents show: Forwarding this email to a friend is quite a gas.
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