TIME States

Californians Turn to Private Security to Police Pot Country

Lear Marijuana Pot Weed Private Security California
Lear personnel during a raid on an illegal trespassing marijuana operation. Lear

The workings of law enforcement are hard to track in the wildlands of California's pot country

On a recent Sunday, a local gardening club gathered with their local sheriff in Laytonville, Calif., a hamlet of 1,227 people in Mendocino County, America’s cannabis cultivation capital. By some estimates, up to 90% of the town’s residents are tied to the pot industry, and the event was a chance to ask about the county’s enforcement policies. Instead, some members of the community wanted to talk about a rumor that had been making the rounds.

Over the summer, residents claimed men in military gear had been dropping onto private property from unmarked helicopters and cutting down the medicinal pot gardens of local residents. Local law enforcement have conducted helicopter raids in the area, but some worried the culprit this time was different: a private-security firm called Lear Asset Management.

The confusion was easy to understand. In the wildlands of California’s pot country, the workings of law enforcement are hard to track, and the rules for growing pot are often contradictory. To add to the mess, the various local, county, state and federal enforcement efforts don’t always communicate with each other about their efforts. The added possibility of private mercenaries, with faceless employers, fast-roping from helicopters raised alarm bells for many farmers.

Founded in 2012, Lear (the name stands for Logistical Environmental Asset Remediation) is a creature of the area’s unique cannabis culture. The company employs about 15 people, who are mostly former military: ex-U.S. Special Forces, Army Rangers and other combat veterans. They fly out on rented helicopters, wearing camouflage fatigues, body armor and keffiyehs around their necks. They are hired by large land owners to do the work of clearing trespass gardens from private property, and perform forest reclamation, sometimes funded by government grant. Deep in the woods, they cut down illegal pot plants and scrub the environmental footprint produced by the backwoods drug trade. They carry AR-15 rifles, lest they meet armed watchmen bent on defending their plots.

Paul Trouette, Lear’s CEO, says his firm was not responsible for the helicopter raids that the town’s residents complained about. “We do not do any kind of vigilante, black ops, Blackwater stuff,” he says, noting the company is licensed and regulated by the state of California, and only works on private land when summoned by the owner. Trouette is neither cop nor soldier; he is a longtime Fish and Game commissioner in Mendocino County, and the head of an organization devoted to preserving local herds of blacktail deer. Security contracting, he says, grew out of volunteer environmental reclamation. “It was a natural for our company to move into security contracting,” he says. “It’s just too much to handle for private ownership.”

 Marijuana Pot Weed Private Security California
Highly trained personnel drop into a marijuana raid. Lear

The firm’s business model is rooted in the region’s complicated relationship with weed. Rich Russell, the commander of Mendocino’s major crimes task force, has estimated that about half of the county’s residents work in the marijuana economy. Many longtime growers are remnants of the back-to-the-land movement of the Sixties, who operate within the county’s legal cultivation limits. But the county’s dense forests and ideal cultivation conditions have also been a magnet for more dangerous elements.

In recent years, small bands of criminals colonized the county’s forests, concealing grow sites on vast parcels hidden deep in the woods. In 2011, Operation Full Court Press—a three-week raid jointly carried out by local, state and federal anti-drug agencies—netted some 632,000 marijuana plants in and around the Mendocino National Forest, with a street value in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Illegal growers have a record of shooting at hikers and law enforcement; in 2011, a former local mayor was killed while looking for a marijuana plot.

The perps also produce environmental disaster. They strew trash through the woods, poison wildlife and pollute streams. The environmental devastation is an even greater problem this year. As California copes with a crippling drought, thirsty pot plants from illegal gardens are sucking up the water supply, creating a “holocaust” for fish, Trouette says.

More recently, the trespass grow sites have migrated from public land onto the vast plots owned by private citizens and timber companies. Some of them have hired Lear to deal with the problem. The company has run about nine missions across California’s pot country this year, with more planned this fall, Trouette says. And while the company’s special-ops aspect gets much of the attention, most of the work focuses on environmental reclamation.

While some of Mendocino’s challenges are unique to the region, others highlight the legal tangle that threatens the industry’s growth at a moment when boosters are trying to take marijuana mainstream. Residents are permitted to cultivate up to 25 marijuana plants for medicinal use, about four times the standard for much of the rest of the state. Federal law still prohibits pot, classifying it as a Schedule I drug on part with heroin and ecstasy. The clashing statutes produce a patchwork system of justice, with enforcement sometimes varying from county to county even within states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal. Federal money-laundering law prevent most legitimate pot businesses from banking their proceeds, forcing them to endure the safety hazards and logistical hassles of handling huge sums of cash.

In Mendocino, officials have tried to sort out the murkiness. In 2012, an experimental program that attempted to license legitimate cannabis cultivation under the supervision of the county sheriff was shut down under pressure from the local U.S. Attorney. Meanwhile, the county district attorney has pioneered a controversial program that offers reduced sentences for certain growers who are willing to pay hefty restitution charges: $500 per pound of seized pot and $50 per plant. While the approach has helped clear a case backlog and restocked the department’s coffers, critics say it allows wealthier clients to purchase leniency.

Reports of vigilante marijuana raids on private property may simply stem from a lack of legal clarity. Under the so-called “open fields doctrine” set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment does not protect undeveloped property from warrantless searches. As a result, police may be permitted to cut down private gardens without a warrant.

In the meantime, Lear has flourished, despite the concern among some local growers. But like most people in the Emerald Triangle, Trouette thinks the best thing for the locals would be for the feds to sort out all the confusion. “I think the federal government would do everybody a big favor,” he says, “by regulating this industry.”

TIME Economy

Watch How California’s Drought Will Affect Your Wallet

California’s drought means higher food prices for Americans.

The West Coast has been in a persistent drought for the past 15 years. California, which grows more than 200 different crops, is being hit the hardest. This year, about 500 million of acres of California’s land is expected to be taken out of production. The consequence: higher produce prices for all Americans.

Timothy Richards, a professor of agribusiness at Arizona State University, conducted research that predicted that 10 to 20 percent of California’s crops could be lost. On top of that, the threat of a megadrought, which can span over two decades, could result in a major economic crisis.

 

 

 

TIME policy

5 Ways California Can Imprison Fewer People

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Frank van den Bergh—Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Lessons from Texas, Illinois, Washington state and more

In 2009, overcrowding in California’s prisons had gotten so bad—140,000 inmates crammed into prisons built to house just 80,000—that federal judges ruled it violated prisoners’ civil rights. Under order to reduce the state’s prison population, Governor Brown introduced realignment in 2011, a plan to send nonviolent inmates to county jails and probation departments rather than prison.

This year, a federal court gave California two more years to reduce the inmate population of its 33 prisons to 112,100. Along with shifting responsibilities to the county, the state is looking at other measures to move people out of prison, including good-behavior credits to shorten sentences and quicker parole for people deemed suitable for release.

And this fall, Californians will vote on Proposition 47, which proposes to reduce felonies for crimes like petty theft to misdemeanors and thereby keep greater numbers of low-risk, nonviolent offenders out of prison.

What has worked in other places to address prison overcrowding without compromising public safety? How can we address recidivism and the fact that 60 percent of former prisoners commit a new crime within three years of release?

In advance of the Zócalo/California Endowment event “Why Are There So Many People in Prison?”, we asked criminal justice experts the following question: What state has lessons to teach California about reducing its prison population?

1) Texas and its investment in health solutions

I have to hand it to the Lone Star State; they do indeed do everything big. That includes reductions in its incarceration rates and costs, as well as in its crime rates, providing lessons for other states—including California.

In California we like to think we’re first in everything, but Texas began addressing over-incarceration in 2003. They passed laws that strengthened and encouraged alternatives to incarceration for certain nonviolent offenses, and increased the use of assessment tools to identify who received which forms of accountability based on their individual risks and needs.

As a result, not only did incarceration rates go down, but so too did serious and violent crime: a 12.8 percent drop since 2003. These successes allowed lawmakers to close a prison and scrap plans to build 17,000 more prison beds (saving taxpayers $2 billion).

One key lesson to learn from Texas’ success is their investment in health solutions for the health problems that many incarcerated people share: substance abuse disorders and mental illness. The state allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to residential and non-residential treatment options for people convicted of nonviolent offenses, and on enhancing in-prison treatment programs.

This included expanding drug courts to deal specifically with drug offenses—and the accountability steps needed to end cycles of addiction and crime. By 2009, the recidivism rate for people who participated in the Texas Specialized Drug Court was nearly eight times lower than defendants who had not.

Substance abuse disorders and mental illness are pervasive in California jails and prisons, which is part of the reason for our stubbornly high recidivism rate of 60 percent. The good news is that we are making strides, including increasing investments in community-based health approaches.

If we do that, California will not just have lessons to share but also healthier, safer communities.

Lenore Anderson is Executive Director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit working to reducing over-incarceration with common sense solutions that improve public safety and reduce taxpayer costs.

2) 45 other states where parole board decisions are not reviewed by the governor

To help achieve sustained reductions in incarceration, California should end the practice of allowing governors to review parole board decisions. In doing so, it would join 45 states that allow parole boards to independently determine when a prisoner is ready for community supervision.

One in four California prisoners are “lifers” sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The national rate is only 7 percent. California gained this dubious distinction because of its sentencing and parole policies, not its crime rates.

In 1988, Proposition 89 authorized the governor to reverse parole decisions in cases involving murder, and to require additional review for non-murder convictions. Parole rates plummeted as governors overturned most of the parole board’s release grants, thus warehousing hundreds of prisoners who had been deemed low-risk and ready for community supervision.

Under Governor Brown, there has been a sharp change. The parole board has found lifers eligible for parole in 15 percent of its hearings—a low figure that nonetheless exceeds the 4 percent average from the previous three decades. And Gov. Brown has approved over 80 percent of these decisions.

But why should the governor reverse even 20 percent of a governor-appointed board’s decisions? And why should the state allow any future governor to revert to virtually ending parole for lifers?

These prisoners have often committed serious violent crimes. But decades-long sentences are excessive and expensive. A Stanford University study found that former lifers with murder convictions had a “minuscule” recidivism rate—less than 1 percent. That’s much lower than the nearly 50 percent re-imprisonment rate of all California prisoners. Yet it’s achieved at the cost of $47,000 per prisoner annually. Those funds should be redirected to prevent the violence that leads to calls for severe punishment.

Twenty years ago, Texas amended its constitution to end gubernatorial parole review. It’s well past time for California to depoliticize parole.

Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., is a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a national non-profit organization engaged in research and advocacy on criminal justice issues. Her recent publications include “Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States” and “Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies.”

3) The state of Washington and its focus on rehabilitation

California’s experiment in Public Safety Realignment is being credited with closing the revolving door that keeps low-level offenders cycling through the state prison system by housing them instead in county jails and providing counties funding and flexibility to provide for these inmates. Currently the state’s 58 counties are doing their own experiments to determine how much of the realignment resources should be devoted to rehabilitative programs. But reducing California’s prison population over the long term will require the state to provide rehabilitative services like education that reduce recidivism and help to turn individuals’ lives around once they return to communities.

California can learn a great deal from the state of Washington, which has implemented a series of reforms focused on rehabilitation—on diverting offenders to treatment and other options and making serving time in prison the last option. The logic for this is clear: Analyses by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy show that cognitive-behavioral programs for adult offenders in prison and community settings can be expected to reduce recidivism rates by 6.3 percent, on average.

RAND’s recent national study on correctional education shows that adult offenders who participated in prison education programs reduced their risk of recidivating by 43 percent and that every $1 invested in these programs resulted in about $4–$5 in savings in re-incarceration costs. Beyond the stark economic benefits is the broader incentive that such rehabilitation is good for society as a whole. As a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences indicated, mass incarceration is associated with negative social and economic outcomes, which make it very difficult for ex-offenders to turn their lives around when they return, disproportionately, to disadvantaged communities.

California took a bold step in implementing the Public Safety Realignment Act. Now it should move beyond realignment to focus on rehabilitation.

Lois M. Davis is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

4) California’s own efforts at “success-oriented funding”

As California officials search for solutions to the state’s overcrowded prison system, they should consider using funding to shape a better system.

A “Success-Oriented Funding” model is a simple, yet effective approach: Lay out clear priorities for what taxpayer dollars should accomplish, then tie funding directly to achievement of those priorities. The concept is simple: Fund what works to reduce crime and incarceration, and dump what doesn’t.

Some states and cities—like Illinois and New York City—have already implemented Success-Oriented Funding programs, but California need not look outside its own borders for a model to reduce unnecessary incarceration.

Passed into law in 2009, the California Community Corrections Performance Incentive Act encourages probation offices to keep violators in the program rather than sending them back to prison by awarding counties up to 45 percent of what the state saves in prison costs. In its first year, California probation officers reduced the number of felony offenders sent back to prison by 23 percent, which saved the state nearly $180 million; of those savings, the counties received $88 million. This program promotes alternatives to incarceration that do not appear to significantly increase crime, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The state should implement Success-Oriented Funding to criminal justice budgets across the board. For example, the legislature could provide additional funding—found within prison cost savings—to prosecutors’ offices that recommend alternatives to incarceration or to law enforcement agencies that issue citations in lieu of arrests. This could move California toward a smaller prison population and a more effective, socially beneficial, and efficient criminal justice system.

Nicole Fortier is Counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and co-author of a policy proposal to reform funding streams to reduce incarceration levels across the country.

5) Mississippi and its focus on alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders

A growing number of states are recognizing that our “lock ‘em up” approach to criminal justice is breaking the bank—and the spirit of communities.

From New York to Kentucky to Georgia, states are saving resources and safely reducing the number of people behind bars. One of the latest is Mississippi, which has the nation’s second highest incarceration rate—and a history of racial injustice. This year, Mississippi passed comprehensive reform that focuses on alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders and strengthens interventions to reduce recidivism.

This moment shows us that it is possible to push forth brave initiatives and policies that preserve resources while keeping our communities safe. Here are three steps we can take to ensure that public safety is a true civil and human right for all of us.

We can shift our “incarceration only” approach; instead of building more jails and prisons designed to warehouse, we can invest in evidence-based alternatives that can reduce crime and racial injustice in our system.

We can make reentry a priority, not an afterthought. Every day in California, people who have served their time are sent back to communities with little more than $50 and a bus pass. Without the opportunities they need to get their lives back on track, nearly 65 percent end up behind bars in just three years. We can stop recidivism by eliminating barriers to reentry and investing in rehabilitation and critical support needed to help formerly incarcerated people live meaningful, productive lives—and to keep them out of prison in the first place.

We can also build a broad-based coalition to collectively champion change. This is an issue that has deep implications across many sectors, including education, health, and the economy. From businesses and law enforcement leaders to advocates for families and communities, we need all voices calling for an end to business as usual.

Cages can’t create safe and healthy communities. Criminal justice reform is one of the leading civil rights issues of our time, and we must turn around the legacy of failed policies that are costing us not just dollars but also precious human potential.

Lateefah Simon is the Program Director for the Rosenberg Foundation and a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform.

This story originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Food & Drink

Marijuana Infused Frozen Pizza Is Every Lazy Stoner’s Dream Come True

Each six-inch pie is laced with 250 mg of THC

Earlier this year, a pizzeria in Vancouver began offering pies with pot baked into them. Genius, yes, but what about the people who want to enjoy special pizza without having to leave their homes? What about them?

This is where frozen weed-laced pizzas come in. Los Angeles-based company Stoned Oven Gourmet Medibles is now peddling what it calls Stoned Oven Gourmet Pizzas, LA Weekly reports. Started by 24-year-old “ganja entrepreneur” Henry Mark, the company sells these six-inch personal pizzas — which contain 250 mg of ethanol-extracted THC — to dispensaries scattered around LA for $10 each.

“You cannot taste one bit of marijuana in there,” Mark tells LA Weekly. “This pizza is really dangerous, because you can trick anyone!” (We do not recommend using these pizzas to trick anyone.)

Mark’s advice is to eat a quarter of the pizza, drink some water, wait for a half hour and then assess the situation. Might be a good idea to have some marijuana-free frozen pizzas on hand too, so you can tend to your munchies without getting even higher. Your call.

TIME poverty

Parking Meters Aren’t Going to Fix Homelessness

Real Change Movement
An example of one of the Real Change Movement's meters Real Change Movement

The converted parking meters have mixed results around the U.S.

It’s an eye-catching way to raise money and awareness about homelessness: 14 parking meters around Pasadena, Calif., all converted to collect change for those living on the streets.

In the last few weeks, Pasadena has joined several large cities around the U.S. that have set up what are essentially “homelessness meters.” They’re retrofitted parking meters that allow passersby to donate money by depositing coins or even swipe debit or credit cards. That money then goes to homelessness charities and organizations rather than directly to the homeless themselves.

“This is a clear alternative where people contributing know that all the money will go to effective services,” Bill Huang, the Pasadena housing director, told The Los Angeles Times.

Supporters say the money goes to organizations like the United Way or local homeless groups that know how to effectively use the funds for food, support and shelter and get around the possibility of that money going to drugs or alcohol. Two of Pasadena’s meters, painted bright orange and affixed with smiley faces, have reportedly raised $270 in their first three weeks. But elsewhere around the U.S., the meters have decidedly mixed results. In Orlando, for example, 15 homelessness meters have brought in just $2,027 in three years, and that was after the city spent $2,000 getting them up and running.

“I don’t know that these meters have been very effective anywhere, certainly not in Orlando,” says Jim Wright, a University of Central Florida professor who studies homelessness. “The concept was, I believe, oversold by the advocates and too rapidly embraced by politicos trying to create the impression that they were doing something significant about the homeless problem.”

Andrae Bailey, chief executive officer of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, which collects the money from Orlando’s meters, says they were installed in 2011 without a comprehensive homeless strategy focusing primarily on housing those in need.

“We tried to do meters without having a plan to house veterans and those with mental illness and disabilities,” Bailey says. “Anything other than a housing solution for the chronic homeless is a recipe for disaster.”

In Denver, 50 homeless meters bring in around $3,000 to $6,500 total each year, according to Denver’s Road Home, which launched the Donation Meter Program in 2007. The money goes to support services like housing, shelter, mental health and support services, says Denver’s Road Home executive director Bennie Milliner.

But some housing advocates criticize the meters as merely an attempt to reduce panhandling. Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a collective of various West Coast homeless organizations, says that the installation of meters is often in conjunction with either increased enforcement of panhandling laws or additional legislation. Both Denver and Atlanta, which installed meters several years ago, have also worked to crack down on panhandlers.

“It’s a way to possibly reduce panhandling,” says Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor who studies homelessness, adding that he doesn’t see much substantive impact from the meters on truly solving the problem of homelessness in those cities.

MONEY hedge funds

Giant Pension Manager Rejects Hedge Funds—Maybe You Should Too

The influential California Public Employees' Retirement System, or Calpers, is turning its back on hedge funds just as hedge fund-like "alternative" mutual funds gain popularity with small investors.

Critics have long argued that hedge funds — unregulated, often opaque, and high-priced investment vehicles for the very wealthy — don’t live up their mystique.

Now the nation’s largest and most closely watched pension fund agrees.

On Monday, the $298 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System would be liquidating its $4 billion investment in hedge funds, which it called overly complex and costly, Bloomberg reported.

Many Wall Street critics, perhaps feeling vindicated, let out a big cheer. With his characteristic bluster, Barry Ritholtz, blogger and founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management, called the event an “earthquake.”

Exaggeration or not, Calpers is closely watched because of its size and because it has been an innovator before. It was one of the earliest big public pension funds to bet on hedge funds in the first place. Meanwhile, hedge funds have long relied on an image of sophistication and exclusivity to win customers, despite their steep investment fees. So losing a customer of Calpers stature could be a big blow.

Dropping hedge funds isn’t the only thing Calpers has done recently to simplify its investment portfolio. Last month it also said it was considering cutting back it’s holdings in actively managed stock strategies and emphasizing low-cost index funds instead. That move was similarly cheered.

What does the latest Calpers decision mean for individual investors? Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to have hedge fund holdings, which typically have high investment minimums.

But the mutual fund industry has been leaning on hedge fund’s cache to market a new investment product typically called “alternative funds.”

Alternatives have turned out to be one of the fastest growing mutual fund categories, with assets reaching nearly $150 billion, up from less than $25 billion a decade ago, according to Investment News and Morningstar.

Like the original hedge funds these often involve hard-to-parse investment fees. If your financial advisers pitches them, be sure to ask why he or she thinks they will work out better for you than they did for Calpers.

TIME poverty

Pasadena Is Repurposing Some of Its Parking Meters to Help the Homeless

The collected sums will be small, but officials say the meters, painted bright orange, are also intended to raise awareness about homeless programs

Motorists feeding the meter in Pasadena could now be helping to feed the homeless.

The Californian city is repurposing 14 of its parking meters to collect change for nonprofit programs that serve the homeless, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The collected sums will be small: the two meters so far converted have only raised about $270 in three weeks, according to the Times. Still, local officials told the Times that the meters, painted bright orange, with smiley faces and inspirational sayings, are also intended to raise awareness about the city’s homeless programs and encourage more donations to charitable organizations in general.

Some advocates for the homeless contend that the meters will hurt, not help, the homeless, because they do not put money directly into homeless hands but funnel it through organizations — and, in doing so, reinforce the belief that it is better to not give directly to the homeless because they will spend the money on drugs or alcohol.

Such advocates say some homeless people rely on direct donations to handle problems that fall outside a charitable program’s remit.

Pasadena’s meters were designed by students at the Art Center College of Design.

[Los Angeles Times]

MONEY Tech

New Law Bans Companies From Punishing Online Critics

Yelp review sticker on window
Reviewers in California need not fear retribution if they disagree with this sign. Scott Eells—Bloomberg via Getty Images

A new California law will outlaw "non-disparagement" clauses that prevent customers from posting negative reviews online.

Writing a Yelp review just got a whole lot safer thanks to a new law, signed by California governor Jerry Brown, which prohibits companies from going after customers who write negative reviews of their services.

The law, which appears to be the first of its kind in the United States, prevents companies from including “non-disparagement” clauses in their contracts with customers. The L.A. Times explains these clauses are often hidden in long user agreements that many consumers unwittingly agree to when using a service.

From now on, California businesses that try to enforce such a provision will face a civil penalty of $2,500 for their first offense, $5,000 for each repeated infraction, and an additional $10,000 fine for “a willful, intentional, or reckless violation” of the statute.

This type of legislation might seem unnecessary since forcefully silencing one’s customers seems to be a clear violation of the First Amendment. However, that hasn’t stopped a number of American companies from trying to mute criticism using just the type of contracts this bill seeks to outlaw.

MONEY’s Brad Tuttle previously reported on a series of businesses that shake down their dissatisfied clients. One upstate New York inn threatened to bill customers $500 per negative review if they hosted an event at the location and any guests took their grievances online. Another couple was pursued by a collection agency after violating an (arguably non-existent) non-disparagement clause by slamming the online retailer KlearGear on RipoffReport.com. Thankfully, a federal judge ruled in the customers’ favor.

While American courts have generally protected citizen reviewers against retribution from businesses, with or without a specific legislative mandate, that hasn’t always been the case internationally. Earlier this year, a French court fined one food blogger a total of €2,500 (about $3,200 at today’s exchange rate) after the blogger’s negative review of a restaurant appeared near the top of Google’s search results.

At least in California, online critics need not fear a similar fate.

TIME Natural Disasters

The Most Beautiful Wildfire Photos You’ll Ever See

The fire near Yosemite National Park's most popular and iconic features is still only 10% contained

At first, you don’t see the fire and smoke raging near the most beautiful section of America’s most beautiful national park. Instead, the blaze that’s burned through 4,500 acres of Yosemite blends almost seamlessly into its natural features: the fire looking an extension of the sunset; the smoke appearing nothing more than a layer of fog above the valley floor.

Photographer Stuart Palley captured the wildfire when it first began spreading early this week. He says he always thought if there was a forest fire near Half Dome, the gray granite formation that’s one of Yosemite’s most popular and iconic features, it would make for a stunning photograph. So when he heard over the weekend about the growing fire, he drove seven hours to Yosemite from Los Angeles to shoot it overnight from the vantage of nearby Glacier Point.

While much of the west and southwest are experiencing some level of drought, roughly 80% of California is suffering from “extreme drought” conditions, and about 60% of the state is experiencing “exceptional” drought as little rainfall over the last two years have brought reservoir levels to 60% of their historical average.

According to reports, the fire appears to have recently slowed. Eight helicopters and roughly 400 firefighters have been deployed to fight the wildfire, which forced the evacuation of dozens of hikers in the area surrounding Yosemite Valley. But at last estimate, the fire was only 10% contained.

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