Northern California wildfires kill three, force evacuation of thousands

By Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – A northern California wildfire raging in the foothills of the Cascade range has claimed three lives, officials said on Monday, as a separate blaze prompted mass evacuations and spread turmoil to the famed wine-producing regions of Napa and Sonoma counties.

The three fatalities in the so-called Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which erupted on Sunday near Redding, about 200 miles north of San Francisco, were reported by the county sheriff and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire). They were all civilians.

No further details about the victims or how they perished were immediately provided. But the deaths bring to 29 the number of people killed since mid-August in a California wildfire season of historic proportions.

The Zogg fire, which has destroyed 146 structures and charred 31,000 acres of grassy hillsides and oak woodlands thick with dry scrub, coincided with the outbreak of another conflagration in the heart of California’s wine country north of the Bay area.

That blaze, dubbed the Glass Fire, has spread across 36,000 acres of similar terrain in Napa and Sonoma counties since early Sunday, incinerating more than 100 homes and other buildings, forcing thousands of residents to flee and threatening world-renowned vineyards, according to CalFire.

Both fires were listed at zero containment as of Monday evening. The cause of each was under investigation.

They marked the latest flashpoints in a destructive spate of wildfires this summer across the Western United States.

In California this year, wildfires have scorched 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares) since January – far exceeding any single year in state history. They have been stoked by intense, prolonged bouts of heat, high winds and other weather extremes that scientists attribute to climate change.

More than 7,000 homes and other structures have burned statewide so far this year.

LANDMARK CHATEAU BURNS

The Glass Fire broke out in Napa Valley before dawn near Calistoga before merging with two other blazes into a larger eruption of flames straddling western Napa County and an adjacent swath of Sonoma County.

In one notable property loss, the mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery in St. Helena – a familiar landmark along the Silverado Trail road running the length of the Napa Valley – went up in flames on Sunday night.

An estimated 60,000 residents have been placed under evacuation orders or advisories in Sonoma and Napa counties combined, but no injuries have been reported.

Not everyone heeded evacuation orders.

In 2017, roughly 5% of Santa Rosa’s homes were lost when downed power lines sparked a devastating firestorm in October that swept the region, killing 19 people.

HARVEST SEASON SMOKE

The Glass Fire struck about midway through the region’s traditional grape-harvesting season, already disrupted by a spate of large fires earlier this summer.

Several Napa Valley growers said recently they would forgo a 2020 vintage altogether due to smoke contamination of ripening grapes waiting to be picked.

The 475 vintners in Napa Valley alone account for just 4% of the state’s grape harvest but half the retail value of all California wines sold. Sonoma County, too, has become a premiere viticulture region with some 450 wineries and a million acres of vineyards.

The full impact on the region’s wine business remains to be seen and will differ for each grower, depending on how far along they are in the harvest, said Teresa Wall, spokeswoman for the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.

“There are some who were close to wrapping up, and some who were still planning to leave their grapes hanging out there for a while,” she said.

The fires caused major upheavals for the area’s most vulnerable residents already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Adventist Health St. Helena hospital was forced to evacuate patients on Sunday, the second time in a month following a lightning-sparked wildfire in August.

On Monday, residents at Oakmont Gardens, a Santa Rosa retirement community, leaned on walkers and waited to board a bus taking them to safety, their face masks doubling as protection against smoke and COVID-19.

Over 100,000 homes and business have suffered power outages across northern California since Sunday, some from precautionary shutoffs of transmission lines to reduce wildfire risks in the midst of extremely windy, hot, dry weather, Pacific Gas and Electric Co reported.

Red-flag warnings for extreme wildfire risks remained posted for much of Northern California, forecasting low humidity and gale-force wind gusts.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam in Santa Rosa, California; Writing and additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney, Gerry Doyle & Shri Navaratnam)

Meatpackers deny workers benefits for COVID-19 deaths, illnesses

By Tom Hals and Tom Polansek

(Reuters) – Saul Sanchez died in April, one of six workers with fatal COVID-19 infections at meatpacker JBS USA’s slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, the site of one of the earliest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at a U.S. meatpacking plant.

Before getting sick, the 78-year-old Sanchez only left home to work on the fabrication line, where cattle carcasses are sliced into cuts of beef, and to go to his church, with its five-person congregation, said his daughter, Betty Rangel. She said no one else got infected in the family or at Bible Missionary Church, which could not be reached for comment.

JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, denied the family’s application for workers’ compensation benefits, along with those filed by the families of two other Greeley workers who died of COVID-19, said lawyers handling the three claims. Families of the three other Greeley workers who died also sought compensation, a union representative said, but Reuters could not determine the status of their claims.

JBS has said the employees’ COVID-19 infections were not work-related in denying the claims, according to responses the company gave to employees, which were reviewed by Reuters.

As more Americans return to workplaces, the experience of JBS employees shows the difficulty of linking infections to employment and getting compensation for medical care and lost wages.

“That is the ultimate question: How can you prove it?” said Nick Fogel, an attorney specializing in workers’ compensation at the firm Burg Simpson in Colorado.

The meatpacking industry has suffered severe coronavirus outbreaks, in part because production-line workers often work side-by-side for long shifts. Companies including JBS, Tyson Foods Inc and WH Group Ltd’s Smithfield Foods closed about 20 plants this spring after outbreaks, prompting President Donald Trump in April to order the plants to stay open to ensure the nation’s meat supply. The White House declined to comment on the industry’s rejections of workers’ claims. The U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment.

Tyson has also denied workers’ compensation claims stemming from a big outbreak in Iowa, workers’ attorneys told Reuters. Smithfield workers at a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, also hit by a major outbreak, have generally not filed claims, a union official said, in part because the company has paid infected workers’ wages and medical bills.

Smithfield declined to comment on workers’ compensation. Tyson said it reviews claims on a case-by-case basis, but declined to disclose how often it rejects them. JBS acknowledged rejecting claims but declined to say how often. It called the denials consistent with the law, without elaborating.

Workers can challenge companies’ denials in an administrative process that varies by state but typically resembles a court hearing. The burden of proof, however, usually falls on the worker to prove a claim was wrongfully denied.

The full picture of how the meatpacking industry has handled COVID-related workers’ compensation remains murky because of a lack of national claims data. Reuters requested data from seven states where JBS or its affiliates have plants that had coronavirus outbreaks. Only three states provided data in any detail; all show a pattern of rejections.

In Minnesota, where JBS had a major outbreak, meatpacking employees filed 930 workers’ compensation claims involving COVID-19 as of Sept. 11, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. None were accepted, 717 were rejected and 213 were under review. The agency did not identify the employers.

The Minnesota Department of Health said only two meatpacking plants there had significant coronavirus outbreaks: a JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, and a poultry plant in Cold Spring run by Pilgrim’s Pride Corp <PPC.O>, which is majority-owned by JBS.

Tom Atkinson, a Minnesota workers’ compensation attorney who has represented meatpacking workers, estimates up to 100 COVID-19 claims were filed by employees at the Worthington plant.

In Utah, seven JBS workers filed claims related to COVID-19 by Aug. 1 and all were denied, according to the state’s Labor Commission. At least 385 workers at a JBS beef plant in Hyrum, Utah, tested positive for COVID-19.

In Colorado, 69% of the 2,294 worker compensation claims for COVID-19 had been denied as of Sept. 12. Although the state does not break down the denials by industry, a JBS spokesman told Reuters the company is rejecting claims in Colorado and that it uses the same claim-review procedures nationwide.

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett did not answer the question of whether JBS employees were infected on the job and declined comment on individual workers’ claims. He said the company has outsourced claim reviews to a third-party administrator.

“Given the widespread nature of viral spread, our third-party claims administrator reviews each case thoroughly and independently,” said Bruett.

The administrator, Sedgwick, did not respond to a request for comment. Bruett, also a spokesman for Pilgrim’s Pride, did not respond to questions about infections and claims at its Minnesota plant.

At the JBS plant in Greeley, where Sanchez worked before he died, at least 291 of about 6,000 workers were infected, according to state data. The company, in its written response to the family’s claim, said that his infection was “not work-related,” without spelling out its reasoning. The two sides are now litigating the matter in Colorado’s workers’ compensation system.

Under Colorado law, a workers’ compensation death benefit provides about two-thirds of the deceased worker’s salary to the surviving spouse and pays medical expenses not covered by insurance. If JBS had not denied the Sanchez family’s claim, that would have provided his widow a steady income and paid uncovered medical bills totaling about $10,000, according to his daughter.

“They don’t care,” Rangel said of JBS. “They are all about the big profits, and they are not going to give any money out.”

MASS INFECTIONS, LITTLE COMPENSATION

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents 250,000 U.S. meatpacking and food-processing workers, said last week at least 122 meatpacking workers have died of COVID-19 and more than 18,000 had missed work because they were infected or potentially exposed.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said on Sept. 11 that it had cited JBS for failing to protect workers at the Greeley plant from the virus. OSHA cited Smithfield this month for failing to protect workers at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant, where the agency said nearly 1,300 workers contracted the coronavirus and four died.

Smithfield and JBS said the citations had no merit because they concerned conditions in plants before OSHA issued COVID-19 guidance for the industry. OSHA said it stands by the citations.

Workers’ compensation is generally the only way to recoup medical expenses and lost wages for work-related injuries and deaths. The system protects employers from lawsuits, with few exceptions, and allows workers to collect benefits without having to prove fault or negligence. But the system was designed for factory accidents, not airborne illnesses.

In response to the coronavirus, governors and lawmakers in at least 14 states have made it easier for some employees to collect workers compensation for COVID-19 by putting the burden on companies and insurers to prove an infection did not occur at work. But most of the changes, which vary by state, only apply to workers in healthcare or emergency services. A similar proposal failed to gain support in Colorado.

Mark Dopp, general counsel for the North American Meat Institute, a trade association that represents meatpackers, said it is difficult to determine where workers get infections given extensive sanitation efforts taken by meat plants and workers’ daily travel to and from the plants.

Tyson in April closed its Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Ben Roth, a local workers’ compensation attorney, said five families of employees who died filed workers compensation claims for death benefits, and all were denied.

He said meat-processing companies have an incentive to deny every claim because admitting they caused even one infection can expose the firms to liability for all workers contracting COVID-19.

“That undercuts the argument that they want to make across the board: that you can’t prove you got it here and not at a grocery store,” Roth said.

Tyson said it follows state laws for workers’ compensation. The company noted that Iowa law states that disease with an equal likelihood of being contracted outside the workplace are “not compensable as an occupational disease.”

In Colorado, Sylvia Martinez runs a group called Latinos Unidos of Greeley and said she knows of more than 20 JBS workers who applied for workers compensation and were denied. Many plant workers are not native English speakers and sought out her group for guidance, she said, adding that many don’t understand their rights and fear being fired. The company’s rejections have discouraged more claims, Martinez said.

“If you deny five or 10, those workers will tell their co-workers,” she said.

‘WHO IS GOING TO HIRE HIM?’

JBS also contested the claim of Alfredo Hernandez, 55, a custodian who worked at the Greeley plant for 31 years. He became infected and was hospitalized in March. He still relies on supplemental oxygen and hasn’t returned to work, said his wife, Rosario Hernandez.

Generall y, companies approve claims if it looks probable that an employee was injured or sickened at work, said Erika Alverson, the attorney representing Hernandez. But JBS, she said, is arguing workers could have contracted COVID-19 anywhere.

“They’re getting into, where did our clients go, what were they doing during that time, who was coming into their house, what did their spouse do, was there any other form of exposure?” said Alverson, of the Denver firm Alverson and O’Brien.

A judge will decide the Hernandez case in an administrative hearing. In the meantime, the Hernandez family has only his disability benefits – a portion of his salary – to cover his medical and insurance costs, Rosario Hernandez said.

“We’re getting bunches of bills,” she said.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

Oregon inmates find redemption in fighting wildfires

By Adrees Latif

PAISLEY, Ore. (Reuters) – In the flames, they are finding redemption.

The 10 Oregon prisoners carry chainsaws, axes, shovels and hoes into the biggest wildfires the state has seen in a century.

Banding together, they form lines in the forest and trudge up the steep ashen slopes of the Cascade Mountains, hunting embers that could reignite flames.

The men are part of a seven-decade-old state-run program that aims to do two basic things: Rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them a trade, and provide extra boots on the ground for intense wildfire seasons.

A dozen such crews have worked fires in Oregon this month, which has seen over 1 million acres burn and nine people die during this year’s wildfire season.

The men in a crew working the forested mountains near Paisley, Oregon, last week were mostly young and fit. They had to be to scale the punishing terrain. Ankle-deep ash slicked hills and meant the men slipped two steps back for each stride forward.

Many were violent offenders – armed robberies and assaults were common convictions – but none were in prison for homicide or sexual crimes. Most say they have personalities that feed off adrenaline. The highs that crime brought landed them in jail. All say they are blessed to have found a legal, alternative rush.

“This gives us a different opportunity, rather than going back to something that we already know, which is guns, gangs, violence and drugs,” said Eddie Correia, 36, who is about halfway through his six-year sentence for an assault conviction.

Correia’s crew had 10 prisoners who spent their days fighting fires and another 10 who slept and worked in an Oregon Department of Forestry support camp, picking up trash, serving food and providing other services. They earn $6 a day for their labor.

The men wake at 6:30 a.m. each day in Oregon’s cold early fall dawn. They dress in sweatshirts emblazoned with the word INMATE and make their way to a makeshift breakfast area, where they sip coffee, stamp their feet to ward off the chill and chat about the chore that awaits them.

Around them, the flat green pastures of the Fremont National Forest run right up to the fire-devastated mountains, where billows of white smoke float upward from the flames.

The men prep their equipment before heading out, using files to sharpen axes and triple checking their bright yellow backpacks to make sure all their gear is there.

Armando Gomez-Zacarias, 24, who has just over three years left on a 7-1/2 year sentence for robbery, said the work gave him “a nice adrenaline rush.”

The physical toll, he emphasized, was brutal.

“It’s like running 100 laps on the track without stopping and carrying 50 pounds of weight,” he said.

Correia, who has fought fires in the program since 2018 and wants to continue after he is released from jail, said the strenuous work and danger fostered a camaraderie impossible to replicate inside prison walls.

Those connections and sense of purpose, he said, “have helped me deal with a lot of my own demons.”

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Paisley, Oregon; Additional reporting and writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Richard Chang)

Coronavirus deaths rise above a million in ‘agonizing’ global milestone

By Jane Wardell

(Reuters) – The global coronavirus death toll rose past a million on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, a grim statistic in a pandemic that has devastated the global economy, overloaded health systems and changed the way people live.

The number of deaths from the novel coronavirus this year is now double the number of people who die annually from malaria – and the death rate has increased in recent weeks as infections surge in several countries.

“Our world has reached an agonizing milestone,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

“It’s a mind-numbing figure. Yet we must never lose sight of each and every individual life. They were fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues.”

It took just three months for COVID-19 deaths to double from half a million, an accelerating rate of fatalities since the first death was recorded in China in early January.

More than 5,400 people are dying around the world every 24 hours, according to Reuters calculations based on September averages, overwhelming funeral businesses and cemeteries.

That equates to about 226 people an hour, or one person every 16 seconds. In the time it takes to watch a 90-minute soccer match, 340 people die on average.

(Reuters interactive graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2VqS5PS)

“So many people have lost so many people and haven’t had the chance to say goodbye,” World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“…Many, many of the people who died died alone in medical circumstances where it’s a terribly difficult and lonely death.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world had to unite to fight the virus.

“History will judge us on the decisions we do and don’t make in the months ahead,” he said in the Independent newspaper.

INFECTIONS RISING

Experts remain concerned that the official figures for deaths and cases globally significantly under-represent the real tally because of inadequate testing and recording and the possibility of concealment by some countries.

The response to the pandemic has pitted proponents of health measures like lockdowns against those intent on sustaining politically sensitive economic growth, with approaches differing from country to country.

The United States, Brazil and India, which together account for nearly 45% of all COVID-19 deaths globally, have all lifted social distancing measures in recent weeks.

“The American people should anticipate that cases will rise in the days ahead,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned on Monday. U.S. deaths stood at 205,132 and cases at 7.18 million by late Monday.

India, meanwhile, has recorded the highest daily growth in infections in the world, with an average of 87,500 new cases a day since the beginning of September.

On current trends, India will overtake the United States as the country with the most confirmed cases by the end of the year, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pushes ahead with easing lockdown measures in a bid to support a struggling economy.

Despite the surge in cases, India’s death toll of 96,318, and pace of growth of fatalities, remains below those of the United States, Britain and Brazil. India on Tuesday reported its smallest rise in deaths since Aug. 3, continuing a recent easing trend that has baffled experts.

In Europe, which accounts for nearly 25% of deaths, the WHO has warned of a worrying spread in western Europe just weeks away from the winter flu season.

The WHO has also warned the pandemic still needs major control interventions amid rising cases in Latin America, where many countries have started to resume normal life.

Much of Asia, the first region affected by the pandemic, is experiencing a relative lull after emerging from a second wave.

The high number of deaths has led to changes burial rites around the world, with morgues and funeral businesses overwhelmed and loved ones often barred from bidding farewell in person.

In Israel, the custom of washing the bodies of Muslim deceased is not permitted, and instead of being shrouded in cloth, they must be wrapped in a plastic body bag. The Jewish tradition of Shiva where people go to the home of mourning relatives for seven days has also been disrupted.

In Italy, Catholics have been buried without funerals or a blessing from a priest, while in Iraq former militiamen dropped their guns to dig graves at a specially created cemetery and learned how to conduct both Christian and Muslim burials.

In some parts of Indonesia, bereaved families have barged into hospitals to claim bodies, fearing their relatives might not be given a proper burial.

The United States, Indonesia, Bolivia, South Africa and Yemen have all had to locate new burial sites as cemeteries fill up.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell; additional reporting by Shaina Ahluwalia, Seerat Gupta and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Supreme Court nominee Barrett readies for meetings this week on Capitol Hill

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, will begin meeting with senators this week as Republicans push ahead with a rapid Senate confirmation process ahead of November’s presidential election over the objections of Democrats.

Barrett will meet Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT) at the U.S. Capitol, Graham’s office said. She will meet with several other committee Republicans earlier in the day.

Trump on Saturday announced Barrett, 48, as his selection to replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18 at age 87. Barrett, who would be the fifth woman to serve on the high court, said she would be a justice in the mold of the late staunch conservative Antonin Scalia.

Her confirmation by the Senate would result in a 6-3 conservative majority on the court.

Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate and are aiming to hold a vote before the Nov. 3 election, in accordance with Trump’s wishes.

Trump, who is running for a second term against Democrat Joe Biden, has said he wants nine justices on the court so that it will have a full complement to tackle any election-related legal issues and possibly decide the outcome in his favor.

The only time in U.S. history the Supreme Court has had to resolve a presidential election was in 2000.

Barrett’s meetings with senators are taking place ahead of a multiday confirmation hearing scheduled to begin on Oct. 12, when she will face questions about her judicial philosophy and approach to the law.

Graham told Fox News on Sunday that the panel will likely vote on the nomination on Oct. 22, setting up a final vote on the Senate floor by the end of the month.

Democrats object to Republicans pushing through the nomination so close to the election, saying that the winner of the contest should get to pick the nominee.

Trump’s nomination of Barrett is the first time since 1956 that a U.S. president has moved to fill a Supreme Court vacancy so close to an election.

Democratic opposition to Barrett has so far been focused on her possible role as a deciding vote in a case before the Supreme Court in which Trump and fellow Republicans are asking the justices to strike down the Obamacare health law known formally as the Affordable Care Act. If confirmed quickly, Barrett could be on the bench when the justices hear oral arguments on Nov. 10.

A key provision of the law that would be thrown out if the court struck it down requires insurance companies to provide coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Some Democrats have said they will refuse to meet with Barrett but others, including some on the committee, have said they intend to engage in the process so they can ask Barrett directly about issues such as healthcare and abortion. Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, will talk to her by phone or in a Zoom meeting, a spokesman said.

Conservative activists are hoping that a 6-3 conservative majority will move the court to the right by curbing abortion rights, expanding gun rights and upholding voting restrictions.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

Chicago mayor loosens COVID-related capacity restrictions for businesses including bars, restaurants

(Reuters) – Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday loosened COVID-19-related capacity restrictions for businesses such as bars, restaurants and health clubs, a move that will go into effect later this week.

The new guidelines, which will take effect on Thursday, will increase indoor capacity to 40% for certain businesses, reopen bars for indoor service and increase maximum group sizes for fitness classes and after-school programming, a statement from the mayor’s office said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. CDC reports 204,328 coronavirus deaths

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday reported 7,095,422 cases of the new coronavirus, an increase of 36,335 cases from its previous count, and said that the number of deaths had risen by 295 to 204,328.

The CDC reported its tally of cases of the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, caused by a new coronavirus, as of 4 p.m. ET on Sept. 27, compared with its previous report a day earlier.

The CDC figures do not necessarily reflect cases reported by individual states.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru; Editing by Devika Syamnath)

California wine country fire quadruples in size, more evacuations ordered

By Adrees Latif and Jonathan Allen

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – A wildfire in northern California’s Napa Valley wine country more than quadrupled in size overnight to some 11,000 acres (4,450 hectares), burning homes and vineyards and forcing officials to order thousands of residents to evacuate on Monday.

As the small city of Santa Rosa emptied out around him, Jas Sihota stationed himself on his front porch with his garden hose close at hand, darting out every 15 minutes or so to douse spot fires around neighboring houses seeded by wind-blown embers under a hazy red sun.

Sihota, a radiology technician at a nearby hospital, had not slept in some 24 hours since the blaze, since named the Glass Fire, ignited on Sunday morning near Calistoga about 60 miles (96.5 km) north of San Francisco.

“I wouldn’t have a house if I didn’t stay,” said Sihota, adding that neither would some of his neighbors. At least 10 homes elsewhere on the street beyond the reach of his hose were destroyed.

He weighed when he might finally grab some sleep, wondering if he could stay up perhaps another six hours on adrenaline. “I’m not going to do it till I feel comfortable,” he said.

It was the latest inferno in a historically destructive year throughout the U.S. West. In California alone, wildfires so far have scorched more than 3.7 million acres, far exceeding any single year in state history.

Since Aug. 15, fires in the state have killed 26 people and destroyed more than 7,000 structures. Climate change has contributed to wildfires’ growing intensity, scientists say.

Early on Monday, new evacuation orders were issued in Sonoma and Napa counties, including parts of the cities of Santa Rosa and St. Helena.

Residents at Oakmont Gardens, a retirement community in Santa Rosa, leaned on walkers as they waited to board a bus taking them to safety, their face masks doubling as protection against smoke and the novel coronavirus.

More than a thousand firefighters are battling the Glass Fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), some in planes that trailed red plumes of fire retardant over the region’s famed vineyards. None of it had been contained as of Monday morning, said Cal Fire, which was also monitoring 26 other major wildfires in the state.

The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning through to the end of Monday, forecasting low humidity and gusts of wind up to 55 miles per hour (89 km per hour) through certain canyons. The fire also prompted evacuation of the 151-bed Adventist Health St. Helena hospital on Sunday for a second time in recent weeks after lightning-sparked blazes swept through the area in August.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Santa Rosa and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Stephen Lam in Santa Rosa and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio and Bill Berkrot)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise in 27 states for two straight weeks

(Reuters) – The number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen for two weeks in a row in 27 out of 50 states, with North Carolina and New Mexico both reporting increases above 50% last week, according to a Reuters analysis.

The United States recorded 316,000 new cases in the week ended Sept. 27, up 10% from the previous seven days and the highest in six weeks, according to the analysis of state and county data.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told ABC News that the country was “not in a good place.”

“There are states that are starting to show (an) uptick in cases and even some increases in hospitalizations in some states. And, I hope not, but we very well might start seeing increases in deaths,” he said, without naming the states.

North Carolina reported a 60% jump in new cases to 13,799 last week, while New Mexico saw new infections rise 55% to 1,265. Texas also reported a 60% jump in new cases to 49,559, though that included a backlog of several thousand cases.

Deaths from COVID-19 have generally declined for the past six weeks, though still stand at more than 5,000 lives lost a week. Deaths are a lagging indicator and generally rise weeks after a surge in cases.

Testing in the country set a record of over 880,000 tests a day, surpassing the previous high in July of 820,000.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 held steady at about 5%, well below a recent peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, 28 states have positive test rates above the 5% level that the World Health Organization considers concerning. The highest positive test rates are 26% in South Dakota, 21% in Idaho and 19% in Wisconsin.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S., Greece call for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in east Mediterranean

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) – The United States and Greece called on Monday for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the east Mediterranean as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a two-day trip to Greece amid increased regional tension over energy resources.

NATO allies Greece and Turkey, at loggerheads on a range of issues, have agreed to resume exploratory talks over contested maritime claims following weeks of tensions.

“The United States and Greece … reaffirmed their belief that maritime delimitation issues should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law,” the United States and Greece, also NATO allies, said in a joint statement after Pompeo met his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias.

The United States also welcomed Greece’s readiness to seek maritime agreements with its neighbors in the region, they said after meeting in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Tensions escalated last month after Turkey dispatched the Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel, escorted by gunboats, into a disputed area thought to be rich in energy resources, following a maritime agreement signed between Greece and Egypt.

Turkey has said the pact infringes on its own continental shelf. The agreement also overlaps with maritime zones Turkey agreed with Libya last year, decried as illegal by Greece.

Ankara recalled the Oruc Reis this month, saying it wished to give diplomacy a chance.

Pompeo has previously said the United States is “deeply concerned” about Turkish actions in the east Mediterranean.

ENERGY TIES

The United States also hopes to build up its energy ties with Greece, which seeks to become an energy hub in the Balkans and help Europe to diversify its energy resources.

Athens already imports large quantities of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG). It is developing a floating LNG storage and regasification unit off the port of Alexandroupolis, which is expected to channel gas to Bulgaria via the Interconnector Greece – Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline and from there to central Europe by early 2023.

ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Greece’s Hellenic Petroleum have set up a joint venture that will look for gas and oil off the Greek island of Crete.

The United States has also expressed interest in the privatization of the ports of Alexandroupolis and Kavala in northern Greece.

Pompeo and Greek Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis also signed on Monday a science and technology agreement. The two countries want to collaborate on artificial intelligence, cyber security, 5G and privatization of strategic infrastructure, their joint statement said.

Pompeo was due to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and to visit the Souda military base on Crete on Tuesday.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)