August 30, 2011

A touch of paint brings a desert town to life

A traveling muralist brightens buildings — and maybe prospects — in Needles.

Dan Louden paints a mural on an office wall in Needles. A relative newcomer in the town, he is popular among residents. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)

By Phil Willon
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Needles, Calif — Along old U.S. Route 66, the once-kitschy Overland Motel is crumbling, vacant lots pock downtown and, as if this remote desert outpost weren't suffering enough, the last car dealership folded up and left behind a blanket of empty asphalt.

Not a pretty picture for travelers who might pull off the highway for a burger or to spend the night.

Then, about five months ago, a man with a sun-stained face and paint-crusted fingernails drifted in, and the tiny old railroad town of Needles started looking a little brighter.

The first mural popped up on a bare cinder-block wall at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant: A giant Santa Fe locomotive chugging by a roadside sign for the "Route 66 Original Diner."

Another appeared at the Valero gas station, with two space aliens that look like ET driving down Route 66 in a 1950s Buick. Elvis and Marilyn took over the side wall of the Econo Smog with their two-tone Ford Fairlane convertible parked at the Colorado River. Marilyn sported aviators and the King, white leathers.

All pay homage to U.S. Route 66, the Mother Road, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and right through the heart of Needles before it was retired from the federal highway system in 1985. Other larger-than-life odes appeared seemingly overnight at the Needles Point Pharmacy and Liquor Store, Deco Food Service, the local Chevron station, the Miranda Car Wash and the local Best Western — more than a dozen murals in just a few months, and more are in the works.

The man behind the brush, Dan Louden, spent 30 years bouncing around truck stops in the West, hand-painting any long-hauler's piece de resistance on the cabs or trailers. He painted Harleys for the Hells Angels in San Bernardino — until that got a little too dicey for him — and hand-lettered signs for fish markets, high schools and auto parts stores all the way up to Seattle. He's pinstriped more hot rods than he can remember.

"I do it because there's a lot of fringe benefits that come with this. You travel, you do what you want," said Louden, 52, who grew up in Diamond Bar. "I just love the desert. I don't like living in big cities. I don't like the traffic. Out here you can sleep with the door unlocked."

Susan Alexis, owner of the Wagon Wheel, said that a couple years back, Louden did odd jobs for her and others around town, but they didn't know he was a master with a few cans of paint.

When he mentioned it to her while breezing through town earlier this year, she hired him on the spot. Alexis had wanted to paint the restaurant's side wall ever since noticing how ugly the bank of cinder blocks looked on Google Maps' street view.

"I just wanted to bring some nostalgia to the building. We have so much history here, but our town doesn't reflect it," Alexis said. "Now, everyone around town is talking about the guy."

Louden said he's been drawing and painting ever since he was a kid but never pursued it. Then one day, when he was about 20, he delivered paint to an "old school" sign shop in Yucaipa and his life changed forever.

Louden has a house outside of Kingman, Ariz., that he shares with his girlfriend, Vicky Bowden, a former nurse from Lone Pine.

With work pouring in, they have camped out at the Needles Inn for weeks at a time, working almost every day. It help that he's affordable — $500 for a mural covering the side of a small building — and fast. Most jobs are wrapped up in a day. When they overheat in the scorching Mojave sun, they take a dip in the Colorado.

"It's certainly brightened up downtown, and hopefully it'll help bring more tourists in," said Needles Mayor Edward Paget. "It's not like this was planned. People are doing it on their own — and they're being greatly encouraged by both myself and the City Council to improve downtown."

Most of the businesses hiring Louden have stuck to a Route 66 theme, honoring the highway that lighted up Needles during its last heyday. In November, the town also is celebrating the 85th anniversary of the road. Needles earned a certain fame when it was named in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

"It was outrageously reasonable, and I think he captured the feel of the small town," said Needles accountant Michael Burger, who hired Louden to liven up his office building earlier this month. "It's a nice thing he's doing for the town."

Burger had a snapshot of his restored '57 Chevy truck and handed it to Louden, telling him to use that and then "do whatever you want." Twelve hours later, his building was covered with the gang from the Peanuts comic, including Snoopy's brother Spike from Needles — one of the town's biggest celebrities. Charlie Brown is at the wheel of the truck.

Louden also was hired to paint a memorial inside the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Station in Needles honoring Deputy Russell Dean Roberts, who was killed in 1995 while investigating an accident in the town.

Capt. Marty Brown of the county Fire Department also wants to hire Louden to paint the station in Needles.

"We just need to give the front a facelift — maybe to look like an old-school fire station," Brown said. "The firefighters will probably have to pay for it out of pocket, since it's pretty unlikely we're going to pay for that with public funds."

Louden says times are tough for everyone these days, which is why he keeps his prices low. He can afford to, he said, because there's more work than he can handle.

"The first sign painter I ever ran into told me that if you learn how to do this, you'll never go hungry. And he's absolutely right," Louden said. "You'll always find someone who needs something done."

August 29, 2011

Ivanpah plant closer to completion

Construction workers build the 493 foot solar receiver tower for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, five miles out of Primm, Nevada on Monday. (Al Cuizon/Staff Photographer)

Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
Contra Costa Times

IVANPAH - A white crane towers over the Mojave Desert floor where hundreds of workers gather below and inside a hulking gray structure that is part of a multi-million dollar bet that solar energy will prove a reliable technology for powering California homes and businesses.

Sitting on 3,600 acres of public land near the Nevada state line, the solar project - its formal name is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station - has been under construction for nearly a year. Its backers say that upon completion in 2013, the solar plant will be capable of providing electricity to some 140,000 homes.

"This is one of the crown jewels that we have in our growing solar energy program," John O'Brien, a senior vice president for NRG Energy, said during a media tour of the Ivanpah site Monday.

BrightSource Energy, based in Oakland, is the Ivanpah project's designer and developer. The company has hired San Francisco-based Bechtel to build the power plant.

NRG, based in Princeton, N.J., has signed up to invest up to $300 million in the solar plant. BrightSource has also received a $168 million commitment from Google.

The U.S. Department of Energy is also providing support to the project in the form of a $1.6 billion loan guarantee.

That money is paying for the construction of the massive gray edifice where construction workers - about 480 people work directly for the project - assemble in the dusty, scorching Mojave environment.

As of Monday, construction crews have raised the edifice to 120 feet of a planned 469 feet. The project's design calls for two additional towers and the 175,000 mirrors that have yet to be installed around the towers to capture the sun's energy.

The mirrors, the precise term is heliostats, do not convert sunlight into electrical energy as photovoltaic solar panels do. Instead, the mirrors are designed to track and reflect the sun's rays to boilers installed at the summits of each tower. Water inside the boilers vaporizes and the resulting steam flows through pipes to power turbines where electricity is generated.

"We basically take a boiler that's similar to what you have in a high-efficiency (fossil) fuel plant," BrightSource president John M. Wollard said.

Upon completion, the Ivanpah complex's gross output is expected to reach 392 megawatts. A recent fuel burning plant, Southern California Edison's Mountainview Power Plant in Redlands, began commercial operation in 2005 and can produce 1,045 megawatts.

Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric have already signed on to buy power from the Ivanpah plant. California law requires utilities to obtain one-third of their electrical power from alternative sources such as solar by 2020.

BrightSource is not the only solar project planned in the Mojave Desert. The California Energy Commission's list of planned projects includes the Calico Solar Project near Barstow, the Abengoa Solar Project between Barstow and Kramer Junction, and the city of Victorville's hybrid gas-solar project as being in the pre-construction stage.

Although solar energy is typically considered to be environmentally friendly when compared to power plants that burn coal or natural gas, large-scale solar projects in the Mojave Desert often receive scrutiny from environmentalists who are concerned about impacts to desert lands, particularly as construction may reduce habitats for the endangered California desert tortoise.

Accordingly, the environmental review process for another proposed solar plant, the Stateline Solar Farm, is at its earliest stages. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is collecting public comments on Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar's plan to build a photovoltaic solar plant near BrightSource's project.

Those comments will be used to prepare an environmental report required to include an assessment of how construction would affect tortoise habitats and other environmental considerations.

August 23, 2011

New Fire Tax Could Affect Thousands of San Bernardino Residents

Irony: Fee is assessed on structures--protection Cal Fire does not provide.

Dan Wilson
Best Syndication

SAN BERNARDINO Calif. – Today the County Board of Supervisors made their position known on the fire tax by passing a unanimous resolution in opposition to it.

According to George Watson, Chief of Staff for Supervisor Neil Derry, the resolution calls for resending [sic] of the tax. “I am committed to waging an ongoing and sustained battle against this illegal tax,” Supervisor Derry said.

Initially the tax was to be $150 per household living in the wildland areas serviced by Cal Fire. First District Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt tells Best Syndication that the money goes to the state’s fire protection agency. “The irony is that Cal Fire does not provide structure protection, although the fee is assessed on structures”, Mitzelfelt said.

The tax / fee could be assessed against tens of thousands of residents of San Bernardino County. The good news is that the fee was lowered from $150 to $90 per year and there are discounts available for residents who provide defensible space between their home and brush and trees.

Those with the lowest incomes could be weighed-down the most. “The High Desert has the highest unemployment in the region and our residents cannot be burdened with additional taxes when so many are struggling to make ends meet”, Supervisor Mitzelfelt said.

“This is an example of the majority in the Legislature’s irresponsible, unfair, and possibly illegal effort to balance its out-of-control budget on the backs of local residents, who already pay taxes and fees for this service.”

Watson tells Best Syndication that the assessment is on habitable structures only, not garages or sheds. According to David Zook, spokesperson for Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, the fee will be assessed on “inhabitable” structures.

“When the legislature passed the bill it was meant to cover a shortfall in the Cal Fire budget, but because the way it was written the money could go to local fire agencies”, Watson told Best Syndication.

California Governor Jerry Brown may change that. According to Chief of Staff Watson the governor wants to make sure the money goes to the state and not the local agencies.

August 9, 2011

Pioneertown Locals Fight Potential Wind Farm


Palm Springs - Leaders in our Valley are looking toward clean energy jobs to get people back to work - that means more solar and wind power.

However, just up Highway 62, a group is fighting a potential wind farm in Pioneertown. That's where Portland-based Element Power is already leasing 4,030 acres from the Bureau of Land Management for green-energy production.

The proposed project is still very early in the testing phase - for now the company is only allowed to place four 60-meter tall meteorological testing towers to check the wind viability in the area but local residents are already furious about the project.

Pioneertown local Elyzabeth Turvey built her home overlooking the mesas surrounding the tourist destination.

"It's peaceful, it's beautiful, the stars at night are clear and the shooting stars are amazing - and the views," Turvey said. The meteorological towers have her worried about the development of the land.

"With that, it means roads and fencing and everything else involved with it," Turvery said. "I do not want it to look like Desert Hot Springs."

The project manager from Element Power, Jackie Kossman, says the project still has about two years of testing before the company will decide whether building a farm in the area is worth the investment. Then, it is up to the Bureau of Land Management to approve any projects. While the BLM is allowing Element Power to test the site, any project proposal will be accompanied by environmental reports and public comment.

"People have ample opportunity - well, maybe not ample, but they certainly have an opportunity to contribute their voices to this project," said Mickey Quillman, of the Barstow Field Office.

Quillman says he has been inundated with emails about the project. He encourages locals to get involved in the public process.

August 5, 2011

Murder victim found in desert in 1971 identified

Beddie Walraven
Los Angeles Times

San Bernardino County - The remains of a woman who was murdered and dumped in the Mojave Desert in 1946 have been identified through a DNA match, officials said Friday.

The discovery that scattered, unidentified bones found in 1971 are the remains of 25-year-old Beddie Walraven came after years of painstaking work by San Bernardino County coroner investigators and scientists at the state attorney general’s DNA laboratory in Richmond.

“It’s one of the older cases we had that’s been solved with DNA,” said Sandy Fatland, a coroner spokeswoman. “It’s amazing what they can do now … Every day, everything is becoming more refined."

Walraven was reported missing in May 1946. In 1975, a man arrested for an unrelated crime told Santa Ana police he had killed Walraven 29 years before and dumped her body in the Mojave Desert near Baker -– then, as now, a remote expanse that hides secrets well.

It was only recently that authorities had the technology to match the man’s story to the bones. In late 2005, highly degraded biological samples were sent to the state lab where it took five years for scientists to develop a usable DNA profile. Meanwhile, San Bernardino County coroner investigators located two relatives of Walraven in Texas who provided DNA samples that were used for comparison.

“Something from the 1940s -– I’ve never heard or seen anything like that,” said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, a Santa Ana police spokesman.

Bertagna said homicide investigators were looking Friday for old files that would provide details of the case and whether the man –- now dead -- who confessed to Walraven’s murder was ever charged or convicted.