Death toll rises to 32 in religious violence in India’s capital

By Aftab Ahmed

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – At least 32 people have been killed in the deadliest violence to engulf India’s capital New Delhi for decades as a heavy deployment of security forces brought an uneasy calm on Thursday, a police official said.

The violence began over a disputed new citizenship law on Monday but led to clashes between Muslims and Hindus in which hundreds were injured. Many suffered gunshot wounds, while arson, looting and stone-throwing has also taken place.

“The death count is now at 32,” Delhi police spokesman Anil Mittal said, adding the “entire area is peaceful now.”

Men remove debris in a riot affected area following clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

At the heart of the unrest is a citizenship law which makes it easier for non-Muslims from some neighboring Muslim-dominated countries to gain Indian citizenship.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the new law adopted last December is of “great concern” and she was worried by reports of police inaction in the face of assaults against Muslims by other groups.

“I appeal to all political leaders to prevent violence,” Bachelet said in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Critics say the law is biased against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has denied having any prejudice against India’s 180 million Muslims, saying that law is required to help persecuted minorities.

New Delhi has been the epicenter for protests against the new law, with students and large sections of the Muslim community leading the protests.

As the wounded were brought to hospitals on Thursday, the focus shifted on the overnight transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar, a Delhi High Court judge who was hearing a petition into the riots and had criticized government and police inaction on Wednesday.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the transfer was routine and had been recommended by the Supreme Court collegium earlier this month.

Opposition Congress party leader Manish Tiwari said every lawyer and judge in India should strongly protest what he called a crude attempt to intimidate the judiciary.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said inflammatory speeches at the protests over the new citizenship law in the last few months and the tacit support of some opposition leaders was behind the violence.

“The investigation is on,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who romped to re-election last May, also withdrew Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in August with the objective of tightening New Delhi’s grip on the restive region, which is also claimed by full by Pakistan.

For months the government imposed severe restrictions in Kashmir including cutting telephone and internet lines, while keeping hundreds of people, including mainstream political leaders, in custody for fear that they could whip up mass protests. Some restrictions have since been eased.

Bachelet said the Indian government continued to impose excessive restrictions on the use of social media in the region, even though some political leaders have been released, and ordinary life may be returning to normal in some respects.

(Reporting by Aftab Ahmed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

India’s Modi appeals for calm as riot toll rises to 20

By Devjyot Ghoshal and Manoj Kumar

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for calm on Wednesday after days of clashes between Hindus and minority Muslims over a controversial citizenship law in some of the worst sectarian violence in the capital in decades.

Twenty people were killed and nearly 200 wounded in the violence, a doctor said, with many suffering gunshot wounds amid looting and arson attacks that coincided with a visit to India by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Police and paramilitary forces patrolled the streets in far greater numbers on Wednesday. Parts of the riot-hit areas were deserted.

“Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times,” Modi said in a tweet.

Modi’s appeal came after a storm of criticism from opposition parties of the government’s failure to control the violence, despite the use of tear gas, pellets and smoke grenades.

Sonia Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party, called for the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah, who is directly responsible for law and order in the capital.

The violence erupted between thousands demonstrating for and against the new citizenship law introduced by Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

The Citizenship Amendment Act makes it easier for non-Muslims from some neighboring Muslim-dominated countries to gain Indian citizenship.

Critics say the law is biased against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has denied it has any bias against India’s more than 180 million Muslims.

A firefighter walks past damaged shops at a tyre market after they were set on fire by a mob in a riot affected area after clashes erupted between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Reuters witnesses saw mobs wielding sticks and pipes walking down streets in parts of northeast Delhi on Tuesday, amid arson attacks and looting. Thick clouds of black smoke billowed from a tyre market that was set ablaze.

Many of the wounded had suffered gunshot injuries, hospital officials said. At least two mosques in northeast Delhi were set on fire.

On Wednesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a tweet that it was alarmed by the violence and it urged the Indian government “to rein in mobs and protect religious minorities and others who have been targeted”.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Manoj Kumar; Additional reporting by Aftab Ahmed, Danish Siddiqui and Zeba Siddiqui; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)

Suspected Japanese arsonist is ex-convict who believed studio stole his novel: media

A man placed flowers near the torced Kyoto Animation building to mourn the victims of the arson attack, in Kyoto, Japan, July 19, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Tim Kelly

KYOTO, Japan (Reuters) – A man suspected of torching an animation studio and killing 33 people in Japan’s worst mass killing in two decades had been convicted of robbery and carried out the attack because he believed his novel had been plagiarized, media said on Friday.

Public broadcaster NHK, which identified the 41-year-old man as Shinji Aoba, citing police, said he served time in prison for robbing a convenience store east of Tokyo in 2012 and, after his release, lived in facilities for former convicts. He had also received care for mental illness, NHK said.

The attack on Thursday in the ancient capital of Kyoto, targeting the well-known animation studio, Kyoto Animation, killed 33 people and 10 were in critical condition, authorities said. Most of the dead were killed by carbon dioxide inhalation, NHK said.

It was the worst mass killing in a country with one of the world’s lowest crime rates since a suspected arson attack in Tokyo killed 44 people in 2001.

Aoba wheeled a trolley carrying at least one bucket of petrol to the entrance of the building before dousing the area, shouting “die” and setting it ablaze on Thursday, broadcaster Nippon TV said, citing police.

“I did it,” Aoba told police when he was detained, Kyodo news said, adding that he had started the fire because he believed the studio had stolen his novel.

Police declined to comment. Aoba was under anesthesia because of burns he suffered and police were unable to question him, Nippon TV said.

He “seemed to be discontented, he seemed to get angry, shouting something about how he had been plagiarized”, a woman who saw him being detained told reporters.

“I imagine many of the people who died were in their twenties,” said 71-year-old Kozo Tsujii, fighting back tears after laying flowers near the studio in the rain. He said he drives by the studio on his daily commute.

“I’m just very, very sad that these people who are so much younger than me passed away so prematurely,” he said.

The studio had about 160 employees with an average age of 33, according to its website. That makes it a relatively young company in rapidly graying Japan.

Tributes to the victims lit up social media, with world leaders and Apple Inc’s <AAPL.O> chief executive offering condolences.

‘I’LL KILL YOU’

Aoba, a resident of the Tokyo suburb of Saitama, some 480 km (300 miles) east of the ancient capital of Kyoto, was believed to have bought two 20-liter cans at a hardware store and prepared the petrol in a park near the studio, Nippon TV said.

He traveled to the area by train, the broadcaster said.

NHK showed footage of him lying on his back as he spoke to a police officer at the time of his detention, shoeless and with apparent burns on his right leg below the knee.

He had no connection with Kyoto Animation, NHK said.

None of the victims’ identities had been disclosed as of Friday. There were 74 people inside the building when the fire started, Kyodo said.

Last month, Aoba had a confrontation when he complained to a neighbor about noise in the apartment building, the Mainichi newspaper reported.

When the neighbor said the noise was coming from another apartment, Aoba grabbed the neighbor’s shirt and said: “Shut up, I’ll kill you,” the newspaper said.

BODIES PILED UP

The fire that tore through the building spread so fast not only because it was fueled by petrol, but because it was funneled up a spiral staircase and there were no sprinklers to douse it, experts said.

Nineteen of the 33 who died were found on a staircase leading up to the roof from the third floor, bodies piled on top of each other, Kyodo said, citing authorities.

Firefighters arriving soon after the fire began found the door to the roof was shut but could be opened from the outside, Kyodo said.

The victims may have rushed up the stairs to escape the blaze and found themselves unable to open the door, it added.

The fire wasn’t put out until early on Friday.

Police investigators searched the smoldering shell of the building for evidence in an investigation that Kyodo said covered suspected arson, murder and attempted murder.

Two petrol cans, a rucksack and a trolley were found near the site, and television images showed what appeared to be five long knives laid out by police as possible evidence outside the three-story building.

Kyoto Animation, in a quiet suburb about 20 minutes by train from the center of Kyoto, produces popular “anime” series such as the “Sound! Euphonium”.

Its “Free! Road to the World – The Dream” movie is due for release this month.

“I love fighting games, all things about Japan,” said Blake Henderson, a 26-year-old Alabama native and fan of the anime studio who had come to the scene of the blaze to pay his respects.

“I love Japan so much and this one incident won’t change my entire perspective on Japan. But it still hurts.”

(Reporting by Tim Kelly in KYOTO and Chang-Ran Kim, Linda Sieg, William Mallard, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies in TOKYO; Writing by William Mallard and David Dolan; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)

Accused California synagogue shooter charged with federal hate crimes

FILE PHOTO - John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court near public defender John O'Connell (L) and a San Diego County Bailiff during an arraignment hearing in San Diego, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda/Pool via REUTERS

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A California nursing student accused of a deadly shooting spree in a San Diego-area synagogue and arson at a nearby mosque was charged on Thursday with 109 counts of federal hate crimes and civil rights violations, prosecutors said.

John Earnest, 19, was already charged in state court with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder in the April 27 attack at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, which left one worshipper dead and three others wounded, including a rabbi.

In the federal complaint, Earnest faces one count for each of the people in the synagogue at the time of the shooting, including 12 children, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said.

“The complaint alleges the defendant violently targeted members of the synagogue and mosque for no other reason than his hatred of the Jewish people and those of the Muslim faith,” Brewer said at a news conference.

Earnest pleaded not guilty to the state charges, and to one count of arson on a house of worship stemming from a pre-dawn fire that damaged the Islamic Center of Escondido on March 24. No one was injured in the blaze.

Earnest, who was enrolled at the California State University at San Marcos, was arrested shortly after the synagogue shooting north of San Diego. Authorities linked him to the arson through an online manifesto in which they say he claimed responsibility for setting fire to the mosque.

The author of the violently anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim screed also professed to have drawn inspiration from the gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand earlier in March.

The state charges allege that the synagogue shooting was perpetrated as a hate crime. If convicted of those charges, Earnest would face life in prison without parole, or the death penalty.

In the separate federal criminal complaint filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Diego, Earnest was charged with 54 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and bodily injury, plus 54 counts of violating federal hate-crime statutes, Brewer said.

Earnest also was charged with causing damage to religious property involving use of a dangerous weapon or fire.

Authorities said Earnest stalked into the Poway synagogue during Sabbath prayers on the last day of the week-long Jewish Passover holiday and opened fire, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60. The rabbi, one of three others wounded in the attack, was shot in the hand and lost an index finger.

The gunman’s weapon apparently jammed and he was chased from the temple by a former Army sergeant in the congregation, then sped away in a car as an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent shot at the getaway vehicle. Earnest pulled over and surrendered to police soon afterward.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Adler)

Accused California gunman pleads not guilty in synagogue murder, mosque arson

A crowd watches on screen the funeral for Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the sole fatality of the Saturday synagogue shooting at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 29, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

By Jennifer McEntee

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A 19-year-old man accused of killing one worshipper and wounding three others in a shooting spree in a California synagogue pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to murder and attempted-murder charges in an attack prosecutors are treating as a hate crime.

John Earnest, arrested shortly after Saturday’s bloodshed at the Chabad of Poway synagogue north of San Diego, also pleaded not guilty to a single count of arson on a house of worship stemming from a nearby mosque that was set on fire in March.

Appearing behind a glass partition for his arraignment in San Diego County Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon, Earnest stood expressionless and spoke faintly as he gave one-word answers to procedural questions put to him by the judge.

The lanky defendant – a nursing student enrolled at California State University at San Marcos – wore dark-rimmed glasses with his hair combed straight forward.

Ordering him to remain held without bail, Judge Joseph Brannigan said Earnest would pose “an obvious and extraordinary risk” to the public if he were to be released pending trial.

The proceeding was attended by six Hasidic Jewish men who sat in the front row of the courtroom, dressed in the traditional dark garb of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox faithful.

Authorities said Earnest stalked into the Poway synagogue during Sabbath prayers on the last day of the week-long Jewish Passover holiday and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing 60-year-old worshipper Lori Gilbert-Kaye

Three others were wounded in the attack, including the rabbi, who was shot in the hand and lost an index finger.

John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court during an arraignment hearing in San Diego, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda/Pool via REUTERS

John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court during an arraignment hearing in San Diego, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda/Pool via REUTERS

RAMBLING MANIFESTO

The gunman, whose weapon apparently jammed, was chased out of the temple by a former Army sergeant in the congregation, then sped away in a car, escaping an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent who shot at the getaway vehicle but missed the suspect. Earnest pulled over and surrendered to police soon afterward.

Authorities said later they believed Earnest was the author of a rambling, violently anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim “manifesto” found posted on the internet under his name.

In it, the writer claimed responsibility for a pre-dawn arson fire on March 24 that damaged the Islamic Center of Escondido, a town about 15 miles (24 km) north of Poway, and professed to have drawn his inspiration from the gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques earlier that month in New Zealand.

Saturday’s bloodshed near San Diego came six months to the day after 11 worshippers were fatally shot at a Pittsburgh synagogue in a massacre that ranks as the deadliest ever on American Jewry. The accused gunman in that attack was arrested.

Authorities said Earnest had no prior criminal record.

Besides the charge of committing arson at a place of worship, he is charged with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder. The criminal complaint, filed on Monday, also alleges the synagogue shooting was perpetrated as a hate crime. His public defender entered not guilty pleas to all charges on his behalf during Tuesday’s hearing.

If convicted, he would face life in prison without parole, or the death penalty, the district attorney’s office said.

District Attorney Summer Stephan told reporters afterward Earnest had legally purchased the murder weapon, although current California law generally prohibits rifles and shotguns from being sold to anyone under 21. The state’s legal age limit for such firearms was raised from 18 starting this year.

In addition to the murder weapon, Stephan said, police found five loaded ammunition magazines and another 50 rounds of bullets in Earnest’s vehicle when he was arrested.

(Reporting by Jennifer McEntee in San Diego; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)

Battle against Ebola being lost amid militarized response, MSF says

FILE PHOTO: A mother of a child, suspected of dying from Ebola, cries outside a hospital during the funeral in Beni, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The battle against Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo is failing because ordinary people do not trust health workers and an overly militarized response is alienating patients and families, the medical charity MSF said on Thursday.

Last week Medecins Sans Frontres (Doctors Without Borders) suspended medical activities at the focal point of the epidemic after two of its facilities were torched by unidentified assailants.

MSF’s international president Joanne Liu said the outbreak, which has killed 569 people, would not be beaten unless the community trusted the authorities and were treated humanely.

“The existing atmosphere can only be described as toxic,” Liu told reporters in Geneva.

Ebola responders were increasingly seen as the enemy, with more than 30 attacks and incidents against the Ebola response in the past month alone, she said.

The epidemic is in a region of Congo that is prey to armed groups and violence where officials are prone to see threats through a security lens and to use force.

“There is a lot of militarization of the Ebola response,” she said. “Using police to force people into complying with health measures is not only unethical, it’s totally counterproductive. The communities are not the enemy.”

Involvement of security and police forces merely deepened suspicions that Ebola was being used as a political tool, she said.

A spokeswoman for Congo’s Health Ministry said there appeared to be confusion about the security forces’ role.

“The police and the army are not involved in Ebola response activities and their role has never been to enforce sanitary measures,” Jessica Ilunga said.

The Interior Ministry has been asked to guarantee security, as it is unacceptable for health officials to be threatened and attacked, or for the threat of violence to stop families burying their loved ones in a dignified and safe manner, she said.

MSF was insisting on security before it returned to its damaged facilities, she said. Local officials, unlike international staffers, did not have the privilege of being evacuated for security reasons, she said.

Liu said there were still signs the outbreak – the second worst ever – was not being brought under control.

Forty percent of deaths were outside medical centers, meaning patients had not sought care, and 35 percent of new patients were not linked to existing cases, meaning the spread of the disease was not being tracked.

“Ebola still has the upper hand,” Liu said.

Villagers saw fleets of cars racing to pick up a single sick person and vast amounts of money pouring in. Some were instructed to wash their hands but had no soap to do so.

“They see their relatives sprayed with chlorine and wrapped in plastic bags, buried without ceremony. Then they see their possessions burned,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini in Kinshasa; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Firefighter killed battling largest blaze in California history

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A firefighter has been killed battling the largest wildfire in Californian history that has been stoked by prime fire weather conditions as it has destroyed dozens of homes.

The unidentified firefighter was killed on Monday while battling the Ranch Fire, one of two blazes that make up the Mendocino Complex, which has already charred about 349,000 acres (141,200 hectares), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said.

A general view of the aftermath from the Holy fire, in McVicker Canyon, California, U.S., August 11, 2018 in this still image from social media obtained on August 12, 2018. CARLA HARPER/via REUTERS

A general view of the aftermath from the Holy fire, in McVicker Canyon, California, U.S., August 11, 2018 in this still image from social media obtained on August 12, 2018. CARLA HARPER/via REUTERS

The Utah firefighter was airlifted to a hospital where he died, fire officials said during a news conference late on Monday.

“We are extremely heartbroken for this loss,” Mendocino Complex incident commander Sean Kavanaugh said, adding that officials will release more information as it becomes available.

The firefighter was the sixth person killed battling California’s intense wildfires this year, which have been some of the most destructive in more than a decade as they have forced tens of thousands to evacuate.

The Mendocino Complex, which has destroyed 146 homes since it began on July 27, has been stoked by persistent hot, dry and windy conditions. Crews have been able to cut containment lines around 68 percent of the northern California fire, Cal Fire said.

The complex is one of about 110 major wildfires burning across the western United States which have burned more than 8,900 sq miles (23,000 sq km), an area larger than the state of New Jersey, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Though temperatures had dropped from their triple-digit highs in recent days, they were expected to stay above 90 degrees F (32 C) through Friday. The cooler temperatures gave firefighters on Monday a chance to attack the string of major wildfires across California, fire officials said.

Another massive blaze, the Carr Fire, has blackened about 207,000 acres and killed eight people in and around Shasta County, north of Sacramento near the Oregon state line. It was 63 percent contained as of Monday afternoon, Cal Fire said.

In Southern California, the Holy Fire, which authorities say was set on Aug. 6 by a disgruntled homeowner in an Orange County canyon, was 59 percent contained after torching more than 22,000 acres and destroying a dozen cabins.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by David Stamp)

No apology, no resignation: pressure grows on Greek government over fire deaths

Aristides Katsaros' burnt house is seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

By Angeliki Koutantou

MATI, Greece (Reuters) – Greece’s opposition accused the government on Friday of arrogance and an utter failure to protect lives in responding to a devastating wildfire as questions remained unanswered over how at least 86 people died in the town of Mati.

Survivors of one of the worst Greek disasters in living memory already heckled a government minister when he visited the scene less than 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens on Thursday.

But on Friday an official three days of mourning declared by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ended, and his opponents immediately went on the offensive.

The main opposition New Democracy party criticized a government news conference on Thursday night where not one word of apology was heard. “This government has just added unbridled cheek to its abject failure in protecting lives and people’s property,” said New Democracy spokeswoman Maria Spyraki.

Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas told the news conference that the government suspected arson was behind Monday night’s blaze, which trapped dozens of people in their cars trying to escape a wall of flames.

The left-led government defended itself, saying there had been no time to evacuate people because the blaze spread very quickly.

But pressure is growing on the government, which is trailing New Democracy in opinion polls, as the death toll was expected to rise further and the questions on how people got trapped piled up.

Tsipras has not been seen in public since Tuesday when he declared the three days of national mourning for the dead. A cabinet meeting was scheduled for 1400 GMT on Friday.

Politicians’ criticism reflected anger among the survivors. “They left us alone to burn like mice,” Chryssa, one of the survivors in Mati, told Skai television. “No one came here to apologize, to submit his resignation, no one.”

Toskas said he had offered his resignation but Tsipras rejected it. “A day after the tragedy, mainly to have my conscience clear and not because of mistakes, I offered my resignation to the prime minister, who told me it’s a time to fight,” Toskas told reporters on Thursday.

Fofi Gennimata, who leads the socialist PASOK party, said the government carried a huge political responsibility.

“Why didn’t they protect the people by implementing on time the available plan for an organized and coordinated evacuation in the areas that were threatened?” she said. “They have confessed they let people burn helplessly.”

ONE-OFF PAYMENTS

The government has announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro ($11,600) payment for families of the victims. Their spouses and near relatives were also offered public sector jobs. But many felt that was not enough to ease the pain and wanted authorities to assume responsibility for the scale of the devastation.

About 300 firefighters and volunteers were still combing the area on Friday for dozens still missing. More than 500 homes were destroyed, and the fire brigade said some closed-up homes had not yet been checked.

Haphazard and unlicensed building, a feature of many areas across Greece, was also blamed. Many routes to the beach were walled off.

Mortuary staff in Athens, shocked at the sight of burnt bodies including children, were expected to conclude post-mortems later on Friday after relatives of victims provided information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati, which is popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic were a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas; editing by David Stamp)

Raging wildfire in Southern California forces thousands to flee

Image of Cranston Fire in California, arson suspect has been arrested abc news channel 3 CBS local 2

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Thousands of residents in Southern California were forced from their homes by a raging wildfire which remained unchecked early on Thursday as it pushed toward their mountain resort communities.

The so-called Cranston Fire, believed to have been started by arson, grew rapidly by noon to cover 4,700 acres (1,900 hectares) around 90 miles (145 kms) east of Los Angeles in the San Jacinto Mountains, the San Bernardino National Forest agency said on Twitter.

The blaze forced 3,200 people to evacuate in communities such as Idyllwild, Mountain Center and Lake Hemet as it destroyed five structures and threatened 2,100 homes, the agency said.

Brandon McGlover, 32, of Temecula, was arrested on Wednesday and accused of starting multiple fires including the Cranston Fire, fire officials said in a statement.

The fire along with dozens of others through the U.S. West were being supercharged by extreme temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 C), erratic winds and low humidity, factors that were expected to remain in the region through Thursday.

To the northeast, the Ferguson Fire forced the heart of the Yosemite National Park to close on Wednesday after the blaze burning just to the west jumped fire lines overnight, pouring thick smoke into the valley and forcing visitors to pack up camp and flee.

Heavy black smoke from the 41,500-acre wildfire, which broke out on July 13 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains some 170 miles east of San Francisco, prompted Yosemite park officials to shut the main visitor hub of Yosemite Valley as well as Wawona and Mariposa Grove.

The smoke reduced visibility and posed health risks to visitors in the popular tourist destination as well as park employees, Mackensen said.

A firefighter died and seven others have been hurt battling the flames, which were 25 percent contained as of Wednesday afternoon.

The blaze is one of some 60 major wildfires burning in the United States this week that have scorched an area of about 1.2 million acres (485,620 hectares). Most are in western states, with blazes also in central Texas and Wisconsin, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

As of July 25, wildfires had burned through 3.94 million acres (1.59 million hectares) this year, above the 10-year average for the same period of 3.54 million acres (1.43 million hectares), it said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by David Holmes)

Danish man charged with starting destructive Colorado wildfire

FILE PHOTO: Flames rise from a treeline near an emergency vehicle during efforts to contain the Spring Creek Fire in Costilla County, Colorado, U.S. June 27, 2018. Costilla County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Danish national accused of starting the second-largest wildfire on record in Colorado was charged on Thursday with 141 counts of first-degree arson for each building destroyed in the massive blaze, court documents showed.

Jesper Joergensen, 52, was advised of the felony charges in Costilla County Court via a telephone hook-up from the county jail where he is being held on a $50,000 bond for igniting the Spring Creek Fire in southern Colorado on June 27.

The blaze has scorched nearly 108,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, although wetter weather and mild temperatures this week have allowed crews to carve containment lines around 83 percent of the fire by Thursday afternoon, according to the InciWeb federal tracking website.

It is unclear from the charging documents how many of the 141 structures destroyed are homes.  Fire managers earlier said more than 130 homes had been reduced to ash.

Joergensen’s court-appointed attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Joergensen denied to police that he intentionally started the fire, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

U.S. wildfires have already burned more than 3.3 million acres (1.3 million hectares) this year, more than the annual average of about 2.6 million acres over the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) tracking website.

The American West has been particularly hit hard by wildfires this season, with 50 active fires burning in the region on Thursday, the agency said.

Colorado has suffered 589 fires so far this year, burning a total of 431,540 acres up to Tuesday morning, according to preliminary data provided by NIFC. That is nearly four times the 111,667 acres burned in all of 2017 in the state, according to NIFC data.

Joergensen told investigators that he thought a fire he lit for cooking while camping in the area was extinguished, but that the next day he saw a fire burning in the tinder-dry brush 20 feet away from his camper, police said.

Joergensen was in the United States on a visa which had expired and was living in the country illegally, the police affidavit said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has placed an immigration detainer on Joergensen for possible deportation proceedings whenever he is released from state custody, the agency said in a statement. He is due back in court in August.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Grant McCool)