U.S. bishops delay action on clergy abuse at Vatican’s request

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (R), president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks with other attendees at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will delay action to deal with a crisis involving sexual abuse of minors by clergy until after a global meeting in February at the request of the Vatican, conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said on Monday.

The Catholic Church worldwide is reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors, deeply damaging confidence in the Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a press conference at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a press conference at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said the Congregation for Bishops in Rome had sent a letter asking U.S. bishops to wait until after the Vatican-convened global meeting on sex abuse takes place in February.

“We have accepted with disappointment this particular event that took place this morning,” Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said at a media conference on Monday, the opening day of the conference. “We have not lessened in any of our resolve for actions.”

In the United States, 13 state attorneys general have launched statewide investigations into sexual abuse by clergy.

In August, an 884-page report made public by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro stated that Roman Catholic priests in the state sexually abused nearly 1,000 children over a 70-year period and silenced victims through “the weaponization of faith” and a systematic cover-up campaign by their bishops.

The conference of bishops had expected to focus this week on measures to combat abuse, including establishing a new code of conduct, according to a September statement.

“We humbly welcome and are grateful for the assistance of the whole people of God in holding us accountable,” the statement said.

Terry McKiernan, co-director of victims’ advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, said the Pope’s intervention in this week’s conference was a frustrating setback.

“This situation is so terrible that the only way that it’s really going to be solved is if bishops convincingly demonstrate their remorse and concern,” McKiernan told Reuters in a phone interview.

DiNardo called the delay “a bump in the road” on Monday but said it does not reflect U.S. bishops’ lack of determination to deal with the issue.

“We were all set to move to reach an action stage here this week,” DiNardo said. “I don’t look upon any of this as a change in direction for the Catholic bishops of the United States.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Gas-laden truck set afire, three stabbed, one dead in Australia terror attack

A burnt out vehicle is surrounded by police tape on Bourke Street in central Melbourne, Australia, November 9, 2018. AAP/James Ross/via REUTERS

By Tom Westbrook and Sonali Paul

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A Somali-born man set fire to a pickup truck laden with gas cylinders in the center of the Australian city of Melbourne on Friday and stabbed three people, killing one, before he was shot by police in a rampage they called an act of terrorism.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, without providing any evidence.

The utility truck carrying barbecue gas cylinders burned on busy Bourke Street just before the evening rush hour as the driver stabbed bystanders and attacked police.

The cylinders did not explode and the fire was put out in 10 minutes, by which point the attack was over.

“We are still trying to piece together whether the vehicle was lit then he got out the car or whether he got out the car and then the vehicle took flame,” Victoria Police Commissioner Graham Ashton told reporters.

Video posted to Twitter and broadcast on television showed the man swinging a knife at two police officers, while his truck burned in the background.

One of the officers shot the man and he collapsed to the ground clutching his chest, the video showed. Other footage showed two stab victims lying on the ground nearby.

The attacker, who police said was 31, died in hospital, as did one of the victims, Ashton said. “From what we know of that individual, we are treating this as a terrorism incident,” he said of the attacker.

Asked about what the attacker had been planning, Ashton referred to the gas cylinders in the car and said: “You could make certain assumptions from that.”

Victoria police declined to comment when contacted about Islamic State’s claim. The militant group also claimed responsibility for a deadly siege in the city in 2017 when a Somali man was killed by police after taking a woman hostage.

Ashton said there was no longer a threat to the public, but that security would be boosted at horse races and Remembrance Day memorials over the weekend.

Policemen stop members of the public from walking towards the Bourke Street mall in central Melbourne, Australia, November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sonali Paul

Policemen stop members of the public from walking towards the Bourke Street mall in central Melbourne, Australia, November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Sonali Paul

NO WARNING

Police did not identify the attacker but Ashton said the man was known to them and intelligence authorities because of family associations.

All of the victims were men, Ashton said. He declined to release their names because police were still in the process of contacting families.

Police later said the two wounded men were aged 26 and 58.

Asked if the attacker had recently traveled to Syria he said: “That is something we might be able to talk more about tomorrow.”

A staunch U.S. ally, Australia has been on alert for such violence after a Sydney cafe siege in 2014, and its intelligence agencies have stepped up scrutiny, though there was no warning of the latest attack.

Authorities say Australia’s vigilance has helped to foil at least a dozen plots, including a plan to attack downtown Melbourne at Christmas in 2016.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement released on Twitter: “Australia will never be intimidated by these appalling attacks.”

TEN MINUTES OF CHAOS

Video posted to social media showed chaotic scenes as bystanders scattered while the attacker fought with police and his victims lay bleeding on the footpath.

One man charged at the tall attacker, who was wearing a long black shirt, with a shopping trolley just before police drew their weapons.

A witness, Markel Villasin, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio: “Bystanders were yelling out ‘just shoot him, just shoot him’.” They did.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the attack was “an evil, terrifying thing that’s happened in our city”.

Warning text messages were sent after the attack and police sealed off the downtown area, usually busy with shoppers and diners on a Friday evening. Some cordons were lifted later, though the immediate crime scene would be sealed until Saturday, police said.

Memories remain fresh of a fatal but not terror-related attack on the same street last year, in which a man drove his car at pedestrians at high speed, killing six people and wounding about 30. That prompted the city to install hundreds of security bollards. The driver is on trial.

In December 2014, two hostages were killed during a 17-hour siege by a “lone wolf” gunman, inspired by Islamic State militants, in a cafe in Sydney.

(Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Australia offers rare national apology to victims of child sex abuse

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison stands before delivering the National Apology to survivors of child sexual abuse in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, October 22, 2018. AAP/Mick Tsikas/via REUTERS

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday offered a rare national apology, only the second since 2008, to victims of institutional child sexual abuse and their families, bringing some survivors to tears.

The gesture followed a five-year inquiry into child sexual abuse that delved into more than 8,000 cases of sexual misconduct, most of them at religious and state-run institutions responsible for keeping children safe.

A woman reacts as she watches Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison deliver the National Apology to victims and survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse outside Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, October 22, 2018. AAP/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS

A woman reacts as she watches Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison deliver the National Apology to victims and survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse outside Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, October 22, 2018. AAP/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS

“Today, as a nation, we confront our failure to listen, to believe, and to provide justice,” Morrison told lawmakers in the Australian capital, Canberra.

“We say sorry. To the children we failed, sorry. To the parents whose trust was betrayed and who have struggled to pick up the pieces, sorry.”

Expressions of national regret such as Monday’s are reserved for egregious misdeeds in which the state has played a role.

In the previous instance in 2008, then prime minister Kevin Rudd apologized to members of the Stolen Generations of indigenous Australians, forcibly taken from their families and communities as young children under assimilation policies.

Morrison also repeated Monday’s apology in a speech to nearly 800 victims, some of whom began to cry, images broadcast on television showed.

“It was very, very intense to be in that room,” Graeme, a victim who identified himself only by his first name, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“I looked around and I thought to myself there is not a room of stronger people anywhere in the country.”

He added, “I am proud to be a victim and I am proud of all victims.”

Morrison vowed tougher oversight, although some victims say the government has failed to do enough.

“If they think saying sorry is going to finish it, it’s not,” Tony Wardley, who suffered abuse in the 1980s, told the broadcaster. “There’s still so much to be done.”

Australia set up a redressal scheme this year to pay abuse victims compensation of up to A$150,000 ($106,000) each.

But the conservative government has yet to decide if it will adopt recommendations from the wide-ranging national inquiry, most notably one requiring Catholic priests to report child abuse they may learn about in the confessional.

In August, a top Catholic body, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said it would not comply with proposed state laws.

($1=1.4086 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Pope orders investigation of bishop as U.S. Church leaders meet on abuse crisis

Pope Francis meets U.S. Catholic Church leaders Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Archbishop of Los Angeles JosŽ Horacio G—mez, Cardinal Sean Patrick OÕMalley, Archbishop of Boston, and Monsignor Brian Bransfield, General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, during a private audience at the Vatican, September 13, 2018. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis has ordered an investigation of an American bishop accused of sexual misconduct with adults and accepted his resignation, the Vatican and U.S. Church officials said on Thursday.

The announcement was made as the pope was meeting U.S. Catholic Church leaders to discuss the fallout from a scandal involving a former American cardinal and demands from an archbishop that the pontiff step down.

The Catholic Church worldwide is reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors. Surveys show plummeting confidence in the Church the United States, Chile, Australia, and Ireland where the scandal has hit hardest, as well as in other countries.

The bishop who resigned is Michael J. Bransfield, 75, of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. The Vatican said the pope had appointed Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to run the diocese until a new bishop is appointed.

Neither the Vatican nor the Archdiocese of Baltimore gave any details of the specific allegations against Bransfield.

Neither Bransfield nor his legal representative could immediately be reached for comment.

The archdiocese of Baltimore’s website said the pope had instructed Lori to conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of adults by Bransfield.

“My primary concern is for the care and support of the priests and people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston at this difficult time,” Lori said in a statement.

“I further pledge to conduct a thorough investigation in search of the truth into the troubling allegations against Bishop Bransfield and to work closely with the clergy, religious and lay leaders of the diocese until the appointment of a new bishop,” he said.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Despair for Australian farmers as drought kills livestock

Farmer Kevin Tongue stands in a dried-up dam on his drought-effected property of 'Glenwood' located on the outskirts of the town of Tamworth, north-west of Sydney in Australia, August 25, 2018. Picture taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jill Gralow

By Jill Gralow

TAMWORTH, Australia (Reuters) – In better times, the dam on farmer Kevin Tongue’s property is three meters (yards) deep with water. It’s now been empty for three months.

The worst drought in living memory is sweeping through Australia’s east, the country’s main food bowl, decimating wheat and barley crops and leaving grazing land parched.

Tongue, his wife and two sons hand-feed their 300 breeding cows and 1,300 sheep with grain and fodder bought and transported from other parts of the country as drought-hit local supplies run out.

“It’s been a huge financial effect on everyone. Not just buying hay and things like that, but you know, we’ve got no winter crop and that’s probably a third of our income that we won’t have,” Tongue told Reuters on his farm near the town of Tamworth about 300 kilometers (188 miles) inland from Sydney in the eastern state of New South Wales (NSW).

Forecasters have dramatically cut anticipated wheat yields for the country’s most important crop three months before the harvest.

Glencore Agriculture has forecast a wheat crop in NSW of just 2.4 million tonnes, less than a third of the average annual yield of 7.4 million tonnes.

Tongue said the despair in the farming community was palpable.

“When you have some strange woman come up crying on your shoulder, saying, ‘I can’t find hay, I can’t find grain, what am I going to do?’ I’m just not in a position to say I can help you but, yeah, it is very hard.”

The east coast has received some recent sporadic rain, though it has not been enough to save crops. A sustained break of the “big dry” is required to enable grazing to resume.

NSW is the country’s most-populous state and produces a quarter of Australia’s agriculture by value. The state government has officially declared a drought.

Sheep eat feed put out by farmer Kevin Tongue on his drought-effected property of 'Glenwood' located on the outskirts of the town of Tamworth, north-west of Sydney in Australia, August 25, 2018. Picture taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jill Gralow

Sheep eat feed put out by farmer Kevin Tongue on his drought-effected property of ‘Glenwood’ located on the outskirts of the town of Tamworth, north-west of Sydney in Australia, August 25, 2018. Picture taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jill Gralow

On ‘Te-Angie’, north-east of Tamworth, Richard Ogilvie said he had lost in excess of A$40,000 ($29,264) in income on his Hereford cattle station as grazing pastures turned to dust and feed costs soared.

This will lead to a loss of about A$200,000 ($146,320) longer term due to the reduction in breeding cattle, he said.

Many farmers, including Ogilvie, have been forced to shoot starving cattle, which he said was putting a big strain on the family.

“The ongoing thing is not to dwell and get down too much with the ongoing days of dragging cattle out of dams and shooting the ones that can’t get up,” he said.

Australia’s federal government and the NSW state government have pledged several billions dollars in aid for drought-afflicted farmers.

Australia recorded its fifth-driest July on record last month. For NSW, the January-to-July period was the driest since 1965 and marked seven consecutive months of below-average rainfall for the state. ($1=1.3669 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Jill Gralow in TAMWORTH; editing by Jonathan Barrett and Neil Fullick)

Global wheat supply to crisis levels; big China stocks won’t provide relief

FILE PHOTO: Arnaud Caron, a French farmer drives an old Mc Cormick F8-413 combine as he harvests his last field of wheat, in Vauvillers, northern France, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Nigel Hunt

LONDON (Reuters) – A scorching hot, dry summer has ended five years of plenty in many wheat producing countries and drawn down the reserves of major exporters to their lowest level since 2007/08, when low grain stocks contributed to food riots across Africa and Asia.

Although global stocks are expected to hit an all-time high of 273 million tonnes at the start of the 2018/19 grain marketing season, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, the problem is nearly half of it is in China, which is not likely to release any onto global markets.

Experts predict that by the end of the season, the eight major exporters will be left with 20 percent of world stocks – just 26 days of cover – down from one-third a decade ago.

The USDA estimates that China, which consumes 16 percent of the world’s wheat, will hold 46 percent of its stocks at the beginning of the season, which starts around now, and more than half by the end.

The 126.8 million tonnes China is estimated to hold is up 135 percent from 54 million five years earlier.

“People need to get rid of China stocks (in their calculations) … if you do that, it’s just exceptionally tight,” said Dan Basse, president of AgResource Co in Chicago.

A repeat of the 2007/2008 crisis, which forced many countries to limit or ban exports, is unlikely in the absence of other drivers at the time, including $150-per-barrel crude oil.

The recent three-year high for wheat prices of $5.93 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade pales in comparison to the high of $13.34-1/2 a bushel in February 2008.

Importers in North Africa also appear to be better placed this time, with higher stocks of their own.

“It could have an impact on food inflation but in North African countries they have a good crop this year, fortunately, so their reliance is not as big as in the past years,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“I don’t think we want to be alarmist in terms of consequences,” he added.

China started stockpiling wheat in 2006, setting a guaranteed floor price to ensure food security and stability.

At around $9.75 a bushel as of last week, Chinese prices are now so high that they cannot sell internationally without incurring a major loss.

Rabobank analyst Charles Clack said he expected China to continue to build stocks into next year but in the long-term, it would look to reduce reserves by curbing domestic production, reducing imports or conducting internal auctions.

“It will be a slow process … I wouldn’t expect exports to come flying out anytime soon,” he said.

Government wheat reserves now total nearly 74 million tonnes, according to Shanghai JC Intelligence Co Ltd, most of it from 2014-2017 but a small amount as old as 2013.

Sylvia Shi, analyst at JC Intelligence, said China would continue to import wheat it cannot produce in sufficient volumes to help meet a growing appetite for high-protein varieties for products like bread and other baked products as diets become Westernised.

DROUGHT

The wheat crop in several of the world’s biggest exporters – Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States – has suffered this year.

A spring drought in the Black Sea bread baskets Russia and Ukraine was swiftly followed by a summer heatwave in the European Union. Dry weather now also threatens crops in another important exporter, Australia.

Evidence of the serious harm done has grown as harvesting progresses.

Forecasts for the 28-member European Union have repeatedly been cut, with Germany set for its lowest grain harvest in 24 years after crops wilted under the highest summer temperatures since records began in 1881.

Russia’s agriculture ministry held a meeting with grain traders on Friday to discuss export volumes.

The ministry denied export limits were discussed but traders, some of whom were at the meeting, said curbs might be imposed later in the season following complaints from domestic meat producers about the rising cost of animal feed.

The United States is best placed to capitalize on a shortfall in global supply, with much higher stocks than rival exporters and rising production.

The outlook provides a much-needed boost for U.S. farmers caught in the crossfire of a trade war with China, a huge importer of U.S. soybeans and corn, as well as Mexico and Japan, two of the top buyers of U.S. wheat.

“The winner in the long term is the U.S. as they should get some demand flow back to them. It has been several years since we have seen the U.S. be in a position to get demand,” said Matt Ammermann, a commodity risk manager with INTL FCStone.

The Black Sea and Europe look set to lose market share, Ammermann said.

Canada, one of the world’s biggest high-quality wheat exporters, is expected to enjoy bigger yields than last year, according to a recent crop tour. But patchy rains have left crops highly variable across the western provinces.

“We don’t have a bin-buster coming. I just don’t see how we can push exports too much higher,” said Paterson Grain trader Rhyl Doyle.

SOUTHERN RESPONSE

The two major wheat exporters in the southern hemisphere, Argentina and Australia, are still months away from harvest.

A record crop is forecast in Argentina but production in Australia is expected to fall to the lowest level in more than a decade due to drought across the east coast.

Francisco Abello, who manages 7,000 hectares of land in western and north-central Buenos Aires province, said he and other growers are out to take advantage of high prices by investing in fertilizers to increase yields.

“We are having a great start to the season,” Abello said. “The ground was moist at planting time. Then it was cold and dry, which are the best conditions for the early wheat growing season.”

The Buenos Aires Grains Exchange has a preliminary wheat harvest estimate of 19 million tonnes, above what it says is the current record of 17.75 million tonnes.

In Australia, the outlook is less rosy. Analysts said production could fall below 20 million tonnes for the first time since 2008, although it is still likely to be well in excess of that year’s crop of just 13 million tonnes.

“The west of the country is looking good so the largest producing region could produce a crop in excess of 9 million tonnes alone. That may keep the headline number up,” said Phin Ziebell, an agribusiness economist at the National Australia Bank. “But with dry weather reducing output on the east, it could reduce exports nationally.”

(Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen in Chicago, Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu in Beijing, Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Sybille de La Hamaide and Valerie Parent in Paris, Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires and Colin Packham in Sydney; Graphics by Amanda Cooper; Editing by Veronica Brown and Sonya Hepinstall)

Pope vows no more cover ups on sexual abuse in letter to Catholics

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis delivers a speech after a meeting with Patriarchs of the churches of the Middle East at the St. Nicholas Basilica in Bari, southern Italy July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis, facing sexual abuse crises in several countries, wrote an unprecedented letter to all Catholics on Monday, asking each one of them to help root out “this culture of death” and vowing there would be no more cover-ups.

In a highly personal letter addressed to “the people of God,” Church language for all members, the pope appeared to be launching an appeal for all Catholics to face the crisis together and not let it tear the Church apart.

The Catholic Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, and Ireland – where the pope is making a two-day visit this weekend – are reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors. Numerous surveys have pointed to plummeting confidence in the Church in those countries and elsewhere.

In his letter, the pope referred to the suffering endured by minors due to sexual abuse at the hands of a “significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

The Vatican said it was the first time a pope had written to all of the world’s some 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse. Past letters on sexual abuse scandals have been addressed to bishops and faithful of individual countries.

“We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death,” he said.

Quoting a Gospel passage that says “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” Francis added:

“(Those words) forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the

gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis wrote.

Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse expressed disappointment. “More actions, less words,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based resource center that tracks cases of clerical abuse worldwide.

“He needs an effective discipline process for bishops and religious superiors who are known to have enabled abuse,” she said.

Last week a grand jury in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years.

CRYING OUT TO HEAVEN

He acknowledged that “the heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept

quiet or silenced”.

“Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the implementation of a zero tolerance had been “delayed” in some places.

Victims groups have said that while new policies have been put into place in several countries to alert civil authorities about cases of abuse, the pope still needed to do more to hold accountable bishops who covered it up, mostly by moving priests from parish to parish.

In his first direct response to the U.S. grand jury report, Francis said that while most cases it listed “belong to the past,” it was clear that the abuse cited “was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced”.

Last month, Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and one of the U.S. Church’s most prominent figures, stepped down as a cardinal after accusations that he abused two minors about 50 years ago and later abused adult seminarians.

He was believed to be the first cardinal to lose his red hat in nearly a century and the first ever for alleged sexual abuse.

In May, all 34 of Chile’s bishops offered their resignation to the pope over a widening sexual abuse crisis there. He has so far accepted five of the resignations.

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin, editing by Steve Scherer, Richard Balmforth)

Firefighters battle to save communities from epic California fire

FILE PHOTO: A firefighter knocks down hotspots to slow the spread of the River Fire (Mendocino Complex) in Lakeport, California, U.S. July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greaves/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews battling the second-largest wildfire ever recorded in California fought on Monday to keep flames from descending a ridge into foothill communities, as reinforcements arrived from as far away as Alaska.

The Mendocino Complex Fire, made up of two separate conflagrations that merged at the southern tip of the Mendocino National Forest, had burned 273,664 acres (110,748 hectares) as of Monday morning and was still growing, on track to potentially become the largest in state history.

“Unfortunately, they’re not going to get a break anytime soon,” National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Hurley said of firefighters who had cut buffer lines around 30 percent of the blaze as of Monday. “It’s pretty doggone hot and dry, and it’s going to stay that way.”

Hurley said some temperatures could reach 110 degrees (43 Celsius) in Northern California over the next few days with 15-mile-per-hour (24 kph) winds fanning the flames. Environmentalists and some politicians say the uptick in the intensity of the state’s wildfire season may be linked in part to climate change.

The Mendocino Complex, which has destroyed 75 homes and forced thousands to flee, is the largest of eight major wildfires burning out of control across California, prompting U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday to declare a “major disaster” in the state.

“California wildfires are being magnified made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

A total of nearly 3,000 people were fighting the flames, including firefighters from Arizona, Washington, and Alaska.

Some 200 soldiers from the 14th Brigade Engineer Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, have also been called in to help in one of the most destructive fire seasons on record.

On Sunday, 140 fire managers and specialists from Australia and New Zealand underwent special training and were outfitted with safety gear at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise before being deployed to battle fires in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Crews battling the Mendocino Complex on Monday were focusing on keeping flames from breaking through fire lines on a ridge above the foothill communities of Nice, Lucerne, Glen Haven, and Clearlake Oaks, said Tricia Austin of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“If it were to be carried outside of those lines they have on the ridge, it could sweep down into those communities, that’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Austin said.

Elsewhere in California, the two-week-old Carr Fire on Saturday claimed the life of 21-year-old apprentice lineman Jay Ayeta, who died when his vehicle crashed as he worked with crews in dangerous terrain in Shasta County, according to PG&E corporation.

He was the seventh person killed in that blaze, which has scorched more than 160,000 acres (64,750 hectares) in the scenic Shasta-Trinity region north of Sacramento.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Jonathan Allen in New York, Laura Zuckerman in Pinedale, Wyoming and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sandra Maler)

Record number of U.S. Marines to train in Australia in symbolic challenge to China

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Marines aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship stand in formation during a ceremony marking the start of Talisman Saber 2017, a biennial joint military exercise between the United States and Australia aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship on the the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sydney, Australia, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United States will deploy a record number of Marines to train in Australia, the Australian defense minister said on Friday, as Washington seeks to counter what it describes as Chinese aggression in the region.

Payne said 1,587 U.S. Marines will spend six months training in Australia’s remote north, an increase of nearly 27 percent on its 2017 rotation for the program known as the Force Posture Initiatives.

“The U.S. military plays a vital role in underwriting security and stability across the Indo-Pacific, and the Force Posture Initiatives will be an essential component in preserving stability and security over the coming decades,” Defence Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

The deployment, first introduced in 2011 as part of a U.S. “pivot” to Asia, has emerged as a key indicator of Washington’s commitment to the region under U.S. President Donald Trump and his willingness to counter Chinese influence in a region where tensions have spiked amid disputes over the South China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route that is also believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.

In a move likely to irk Beijing, the U.S. Marines will train with personnel from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, some of which also have claims in the South China Sea.

“China will monitor whatever the U.S. does and it would prefer that the United States not work with the Asian countries included in these exercises,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

“Beijing would like to deal one-on-one with Southeast Asia nations that have counter claims,” he said.

The U.S. Marines will also bring additional military equipment, including helicopters and F-18 jets, Payne said.

The military deployment also threatens to further weaken Australia-Chinese relations.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality in the dispute to protect its economic relationship with China.

But bilateral relations have soured in recent months after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China was improperly interfering in Canberra’s affairs, an accusation that triggered a rare protest from Beijing.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait)

Hundreds flee Australian bushfires that kill cattle, destroy homes

Smoke rises from a destroyed home after a bushfire swept through the town of Tathra, located on the south-east coast of New South Wales in Australia, March 19, 2018. AAP/Dean Lewins/via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities urged people to remain alert on Monday as bushfires that have destroyed dozens of homes, killed cattle and forced hundreds of residents to flee continued to burn out of control in the southeast of the country.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported on Monday but the bushfires have caused extensive damage in rural areas of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s two most populous states. More than 100 houses were damaged or destroyed, authorities said.

“At this stage (there have been) no lives lost,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at a news conference in the small NSW coastal town of Tathra.

“It is just a great credit to the firefighters, to the volunteers, the emergency workers – all of the community has pulled together and provided such great support,” he said.

The fires, believed to have been sparked by lightning on Saturday, were fanned by dry, hot winds as temperatures reached 41 degrees Celsius (106 Fahrenheit) on Sunday.

Emergency officials said conditions should ease later on Monday but “watch and act” warnings remained in place for five locations.

A house thats has been destroyed by a bushfire can be seen near the town of Cobden, located south west of Melbourne in Australia, March 18, 2018. AAP/David Crosling/via REUTERS

A house thats has been destroyed by a bushfire can be seen near the town of Cobden, located south west of Melbourne in Australia, March 18, 2018. AAP/David Crosling/via REUTERS

The fire also set off an argument among Australia’s politicians on whether climate change was a contributing factor to the blazes.

“You can’t attribute any particular event, whether it’s a flood or fire or a drought …to climate change. We are the land of droughts and flooding rains, we’re the land of bushfires,” Turnbull said.

Authorities said some 69 houses were destroyed and a further 39 were damaged and 30 caravans or cabins were also wiped out in Tathra, where residents fled to the beach on Sunday to avoid the flames as flying embers quickly carried the firefront forward.

About 700 residents were evacuated to centers set up at the nearby town of Bega and several schools in affected areas were closed on Monday.

NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers earlier told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that five of 22 fires had not yet been contained.

“There’s still a lot of fire around the landscape,” he said, warning that it would still be several days before they were extinguished.

About 280 firefighters were battling the blazes, while 22,000 homes were without power in the region after high winds brought down trees, Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said late on Sunday.

Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers, fueled by highly flammable eucalyptus trees.

In January, hundreds of holidaymakers had to be evacuated by boat from the beaches of the Royal National Park south of Sydney when they became trapped by bushfires.

The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people and injured more than 400.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE; Editing by Susan Fenton and Paul Tait)