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Grist talks wildfire on NPR’s Talk of the Nation

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Susie Cagle

Last week, I told the story of how my family's house burned down in a 1977 wildfire -- and about watching a fire burn on the hill above it, threatening to torch it a second time. Today, I was really glad to have the opportunity to speak about living in wildfire country on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

It was especially great to hear from folks around the country, mainly the Western bits, who are also living with wildfires -- and the reality that they are burning hotter, faster, and farther than ever, thanks in part to human-caused climate change.

We may have a good deal of disaster fatigue out here, but I think we're under no delusion of safety. As much of the Western half of the country suffers through a drought heading into another hot summer, we're essentially all watching the fire on the hill now, hoping it doesn't dart down into our canyon, but knowing that it very may well.

On the plus side, it sounds like those fire-preventing, dry-brush-chomping goats are working great in some places!

Read the piece that inspired the interview: Survival and stubbornness in California wildfire country.

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This guy tried to make his street safer, and ended up in jail

Ever skitter across a busy street, dodging cars, thinking, "Holy hell, this completely legal pedestrian activity sure would be easier with a little bit of helpful infrastructure"? Of course you have. Well, last week, Anthony Cardenas of Vallejo, Calif., did too, and then he took matters into his own hands.

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"Fifty-two-year-old Anthony Cardenas was arrested Thursday morning in Vallejo and booked into Solano County Jail on suspicion of felony vandalism," the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Friday. The vandalism in question: Painting a crosswalk in the street.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Do helmets really keep cyclists safer?

Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York, creates images that prompt conversations about compassion, struggle, and humanity. Sometimes they're sad, sometimes they're funny, and sometimes they're WTF -- but rarely do they prompt the kind of snarly debate that swirled on Facebook in response to yesterday's photo of a man and a kid riding a bike through the city.

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Humans of New York

Here's a taste of what people had to say:

"Motorists have no respect for bicyclists. NYC especially. Dad needs to wear a helmet, & needs to have his vulnerable child wear one."

"Omg wa wa wa no helmets. How the hell did we all survive the 70s an 80s."

"wah wah wah tell that to people who have permanent brain damage from falling off of a bike."

"noone wears helmets in The Netherlands. Kids go to school on their parents bikes. Sometimes 2 kids per bike."

"What a foolish statement. NYC is not The Netherlands."

It's certainly not, dear commenter! "Dying while cycling is three to five times more likely in America than in Denmark, Germany or the Netherlands," The Economist wrote in 2011. And the vast majority of cyclists who died in the U.S. were not wearing helmets.

Currently 21 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., have laws requiring helmets for kids under 18. Only Australia and New Zealand require everyone to wear a helmet all the time (and some of those cyclists are none too pleased about it). Most of Europe could not be bothered with any of this -- they're too busy riding everywhere, helmet-free, with multiple kids hanging tight on their back racks. And they are way, way, way safer than us.

So what's the deal? Does riding with a helmet actually make you safer, or are you better off bare?

Read more: Cities

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Living with fire: Survival and stubbornness in California wildfire country

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My brother Michael and I stayed in the house for a day and a half after they declared the mandatory evacuation. We watched the fire on the mountains, watched it get closer. We both had come to expect this day. After all, this house had burned before.

Santa Barbara is an affluent town, and our house -- a two-bedroom with a downstairs in-law apartment -- is tucked into one of its nicest neighborhoods, in a canyon just outside the city limits.

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Susie Cagle

But ours wasn't the first house to stand in this spot. The original one, which belonged to my grandmother, burned to the foundation in the 1977 Sycamore Canyon blaze. Sparked by a guy and his girlfriend whose kite struck a power line, a raging late July firestorm whipped through the canyon, burning more than 200 homes. It took only about seven hours.

My father was living with my grandmother at the time. They got out safely but lost everything, except some family photos and the dog.

My grandmother rebuilt, and after she died in 2001 and left my father the house, he moved back in. But on Nov. 13, 2008, a fire in the same hills looked ready to take this house out, too.

Michael was 18 and home alone.

"I got home from school and I went into the house, and I remember two things being very out of place," he tells me now, years later. "There was kind of this faint smell of burning wood. And then the other one was a lady running down the street screaming, 'Fire!'"


Michael remembers thinking about that 1977 conflagration as he watched the the Tea Fire, as they called it, sizzle toward the house a little more than 31 years later.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Poverty moves to the suburbs

At one time, escaping the dirty, dangerous city was a privilege. Now the wealthy are flocking back for newly "livable," walkable neighborhoods that are safer than they've been in decades. New residents are remaking cities in their own image, driving prices way up, and ultimately pushing poorer city dwellers out to the suburbs.

A new report from the Brookings Institution, "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America," reveals how formerly affluent bedroom communities have faltered in recent years. Brookings researchers found that between 2000 and 2011, the rate of poverty in the American suburbs grew by nearly two-thirds -- more than twice as fast as it did in cities. "The federal government spends $82 billion a year across more than 80 programs to address poverty in place," the study notes. "But the spread-out nature of suburban poverty, and the lack of expert public and nonprofit service providers in suburbs, mean that most of those dollars remain focused on urban communities."

Here's a chart showing the increase in suburban vs. urban poverty in the last few decades:

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To some degree, it makes sense that there are more poor people in the suburbs than there are in cities: Three times as many people live in the suburbs as in urban centers in the U.S. What's really notable here is the rate of change.

But this report doesn't really say that cities are winning. If anything, it says we're all losing -- you'll notice that both of those trend lines in the graph are on the rise. It's further evidence of the growing wealth chasm and how it dictates our choices.

Suburban poverty isn't the epidemic -- poverty is. Regardless, Brookings seems to have offended suburban champions who argue that white-picket-fence, car-friendly living is the real American way of life.

Read more: Cities

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Is the sharing economy skidding out?

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Susie Cagle

May hasn't gone so hot for some of the sharing economy's most promising entrepreneurs. 2012 might have hinted of challenges to come, but so far 2013 has overdelivered. In the last two weeks, New York regulators and courts have essentially shut three of these companies down, at least temporarily.

SideCar Technologies, a donation-based rideshare start-up, ceased its New York business after a judge said even free rides from the company would violate the city's laws governing cars-for-hire, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Then last week, RelayRides, which allows car owners to rent out their vehicles, came under fire from the state Financial Services Department for what officials called "repeated false advertising and violations of insurance law, which are putting the public at risk." Basically: RelayRides told car owners that the company's insurance policy covered them 100 percent in the case of a car renter, say, mowing down a pedestrian, but the car owners could actually be found liable.

But the issue really came to a head this week, when a New York judge deemed vacation rental middle-people Airbnb illegal in New York City and New York state. Airbnb's services violate laws against underground and underregulated hotels, as well as a state-wide ban on short-term rentals enacted in 2011. Airbnb is now lobbying in Albany to change the law, but the East Village host who rented out his apartment for a few days and was made an example of got slapped with a $2,400 fine.

Last year, California cracked down on ridesharing and car-hire start-ups. The state hasn't shut them down -- it's looking for a way to regulate them within the current system -- but it's asking a lot of the same questions about insurance and liability that are vexing New York.

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Can we blame climate change for the tornado that took out Moore, Okla.?

It was a quiet year for tornadoes -- until last week, that is. A string of twisters has ravaged the middle of the country over the past several days, culminating in a two-mile-wide tornado tearing up Moore, Okla., Monday afternoon. So far at least 37 people have been confirmed dead in Oklahoma, and that toll is expected to rise.

The weather has twisted a few of our fellow greenies on the internet into a tizzy. "Extreme storm, climate change, OMFG!" they cry. We almost had a seizure reading this missive from the Wonkette folks, and we're fairly sure they had one while writing it.

But the science on tornadoes and climate change isn't clear enough to OMFG about it just yet.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Listen to your conscience, Grist readers

Grist is currently in the middle of our spring fundraising drive. We're aiming to collect 2,500 of your generous gifts of support by tomorrow, and then we won't bug you about this again for a while! If you're reading this, you're probably already familiar with the great green work Grist does every day. But don't take our word for it. Just listen to your conscience. Susie Cagle

Read more: Living

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Heady Colo. farmers plowing ahead with hemp farming

What do you do when the federal government won't let you plant a sustainable, super-useful crop on your own land? Well, if you're Ryan Loflin, you do it anyway.

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As of this week, Loflin has planted America's first real crop of industrial hemp in more than a half-century.

The 40-year-old farmer from Springfield, Colo., has been scheming for months. "I believe this is really going to revitalize and strengthen farm communities," Loflin told the Denver Post in April. Now he's leased 60 acres of his father's alfalfa farm to plant and tend the hundreds of hemp starters he's already been grooming.

Hemp, for those who aren't familiar, is a variety of cannabis that -- sorry kids! -- won't get you high. Strong, nutritious, and super sustainable to grow, hemp is used for everything from rope to cereal. It requires few herbicides, and has even been called carbon negative by some boosters. And while it's illegal to grow it in the U.S., it's not illegal to sell. Right now imported hemp -- the only legal kind -- accounts for about $500 million in annual U.S. sales, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

So what if it were homegrown, Loflin-style?

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These cartoon bears care more about the environment than you do

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Lopi LaRoe

Smokey the Bear always seemed like a pretty reasonable bear-dude to me. He doesn't appear to have any other politics beyond encouraging campers to douse their fires. But that's not how artist Lopi LaRoe sees Smokey. Last fall, LaRoe radicalized the U.S. Forest Service's stern spokesbear in artwork and merchandise.

"This is Smokey waking up and saying, 'Oh you didn’t do that to my environment.' Smokey wants to fight the corporations and protect the air and the water and the plants and the animals and the people," LaRoe tells Waging Non-Violence.

Turns out the U.S. Forest Service is not super into that, and has threatened LaRoe with legal action if she doesn't stop selling Smokey the Anti-Fracker merchandise plus remove all her images from the web.

But considering how reasonable that Smokey always seemed, it got us thinking: What other cartoon bears might be wishing they could get political, were it not for their overlords? We checked in with a few to get their response.

Read more: Climate & Energy