Denver union, officials to reconvene as schools strike enters second day

FILE PHOTO: The Continental Divide is seen in the background behind the downtown city skyline in Denver, Colorado, U.S., November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – Thousands of Denver public school teachers are expected to strike Tuesday, disrupting classes for more than 90,000 students for a second day as union and school district officials resume talks that broke down at the weekend.

In the latest of several major strikes to hit the U.S. public school system, the teachers are seeking pay hikes and a new salary structure.

Statewide stoppages affected West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona last year, and Los Angeles teachers reached a deal last month to reduce class sizes and raise salaries by 6 percent, ending a six-week walkout.

Talks in Denver broke down on Saturday night, triggering the first walkout by teachers in the city since 1994 on Monday.

It disrupted classes for some 92,000 students but district officials kept all 207 schools open Monday, staffed by substitute teachers and administration personnel, and are expected to do so as long as the strike continues.

Denver’s 5,650-member teachers’ union says a new pay scheme has sacrificed dependable cost-of-living wage hikes for limited bonuses offered for teaching in high-poverty areas and classes with problematic students.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district had proposed a pay increase of nearly 11 percent next year. Robert Gould, lead negotiator for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s bargaining team, said the district was inflating the value of the offer.

The two sides are scheduled to reconvene for talks at 10:00 am on Tuesday, when thousands of teachers are again expected to brave freezing weather to picket outside schools before a rally at the city’s Civic Center Park.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Jann Tracey in Denver and Gina Cherelus in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by John Stonestreet)

Colorado jogger fends off, kills mountain lion on rural trail

FILE PHOTO: A mountain lion makes its way through fresh snow in the foothills outside of Golden, Colorado April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Colorado jogger fought off a mountain lion in the foothills of Horsetooth Mountain on Monday, suffering severe bites before he killed the wild animal in self-defense, authorities said.

The man, who was not identified, was jogging on a trail on the West Ridge of the Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, a mountain park about 66 miles northwest of Denver, officials said.

A juvenile mountain lion attacked him from behind, biting and clawing the man’s face, back, legs and arms, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources said in a joint release, late on Monday.

It was not disclosed how the jogger killed the animal, and no one from the CPW or the Larimer DNR was available for comment early Tuesday.

The runner was able to get to a local hospital, officials said. His injuries were serious but not life-threatening, they said.

The animal’s body was recovered near the trail and the jogger’s dropped possessions and taken to a CPW lab for a necropsy, officials said.

“The runner did everything he could to save his life,” said Mark Leslie, CPW Northeast Regional Manager. “In the event of a lion attack, you need to do anything in your power to fight back, just as this gentleman did.”

Lion attacks have caused fewer than 20 fatalities in the United States in the past 100 years. Sixteen known attacks have occurred in Colorado since 1990, officials said.

“Mountain lion attacks are not common in Colorado and it is unfortunate that the lion’s hunting instincts were triggered by the runner,” said Ty Petersburg, area wildlife manager for the CPW in a statement. “This could have had a very different outcome.”

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, writing by rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Larry King)

Colorado prosecutors set to charge man for murdering family

FILE PHOTO - Chrisopher Watts, 33, arrested on suspicion of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters, in Frederick, Colorado, U.S., is shown in this handout photo provided August 16, 2018. Weld County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – Colorado prosecutors said they plan to formally file murder charges on Monday against a man accused of killing his pregnant wife and their two young daughters, days after he told police they went missing and pleaded on TV for their safe return.

Christopher Watts, 33, has been held without bond in the Weld County jail since his arrest last week for the murders of his pregnant wife Shanann Watts, 34 and two daughters, Celeste, 3, and Bella, 4.

Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke will formally file charges against Watts on Monday and seek the release of an arrest affidavit, which has been under seal, that lays out details of the crime, his spokeswoman Krista Henery said in a telephone interview.

Shannan Watts and the children were reported missing on Tuesday from their home in Frederick, about 30 miles (50 km) north of Denver.

Watts said in an interview with Denver 7 on Tuesday that he was torn up inside about his family going missing and pleaded for their return.

“I just want them to come back,” Watts told TV station Denver 7. “My kids are my life. Those smiles light up my life. I want everybody to just come home.”

The next day he was arrested.

On Thursday authorities said they had discovered the bodies of his wife and daughters on a property owned by Anadarko Petroleum Corp., where Watts worked.

Neither Watts, nor his court-appointed attorney, have commented on the incident since his arrest.

Authorities have not confirmed local media reports that Watts confessed to killing his family, and that he strangled the two girls and stuffed their bodies inside oil barrels.

The case has drawn national media attention to the town of Frederick, a former mining town of 13,000.

Standing outside the Rock Solid Saloon in downtown Frederick, David Huston shook his head in disbelief at the murders.

“I just can’t imagine what circumstances would cause somebody to get to that point,” said the 35-year-old maintenance worker at a manufacturing plant, and the father of two.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Jon Herskovitz)

Colorado baker in case of Supreme Court sues state over ‘persecution’

FILE PHOTO: Baker Jack Phillips decorates a cake in his Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado U.S. on September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Colorado baker who won a narrow Supreme Court victory over his refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple is suing the state after it launched another case against him for declining to create a cake for a transgender woman.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in the city of Lakewood, accuses Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission of violating his constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of religion, equal protection and due process, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver on Tuesday.

“This lawsuit is necessary to stop Colorado’s continuing persecution of Phillips,” the written complaint alleges. Also named in the lawsuit are Governor John Hickenlooper and Cynthia Coffman, the state attorney general.

Phillips seeks permanent injunctions against the state from taking any enforcement action against Phillips, who the lawsuit says was “vindicated” by the Supreme Court ruling.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado’s civil rights commission was hostile toward Phillips’ Christian beliefs when it cited him for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012, but did not rule on whether he violated Colorado’s public accommodation statute.

Through a spokeswoman, the civil rights commission declined to comment on Phillips’ lawsuit.

The lawsuit stems from a complaint filed by Denver attorney Autumn Scardina with the civil rights commission in 2017, in which she claims that Phillips refused to bake a cake that “celebrates my transition from male to female,” court documents showed.

Scardina did not immediately return a phone message left at her law office.

The director of the state’s Civil Rights Division, Aubrey Elenis, ruled in June that Phillips discriminated against Scardina.

“The evidence thus demonstrates that the refusal to provide service to (Scardina) was based on (her) transgender status,” Elenis wrote in a probable cause determination.

The finding by Elenis requires both sides to resolve the issue through “compulsory mediation,” the document said.

Phillips is also seeking $100,000 in punitive damages against Elenis “for her unconstitutional actions,” according to the lawsuit.

Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado, a group that advocates for the LGBTQ community, blasted the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative Christian group whose lawyers represent Phillips.

“We have seen the ADF launch similar lawsuits across the country that target nondiscrimination laws and civil rights agencies, and this broad lawsuit they filed on behalf of Jack Phillips reads as more of the same,” Ramos said.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan WHitcomb)

Explainer: Drought creates a perfect storm for wildfires in U.S. West

Firefighters battle a fast-moving wildfire in Goleta, California, July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, New Mexico (Reuters) – Bigger and more “explosive” wildfires are raging across the U.S. West, with the area burned in Colorado already four times the size of last year’s total, as rising temperatures, drought and a buildup of forest fuels supercharge blazes.

So far this year, 3.3 million acres have burned in U.S. forests, just below the figure for this time in 2017. Last year was the second worst year on record with 10 million acres blackened, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

Around 2,600 homes have been destroyed nationally by fires year to date, according to Forest Service data. Nine U.S. wildland firefighters have been killed up to this week, compared with 14 killed in all of 2017, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. It was not immediately possible to verify how many civilians have died this year.

The number of wildfires larger than 25,000 acres on U.S. Forest Service land in the West nearly quadrupled in the decade to 2014, compared with the 1980s, according to data from the Department of the Interior.

The number of U.S. homes destroyed in wildfires almost tripled to 12,242 in 2017 from the previous year, according to U.S. Forest Service data, largely due to giant blazes in California that killed 43 people.

DROUGHT TURBOCHARGING FIRES

What’s driving the wildfires is exceptional drought conditions in large areas of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Severe droughts used to happen every four to five decades but are becoming frequent. In New Mexico, such dry periods have occurred in five years since 2000, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Kerry Jones in Albuquerque.

Nearly all of California faces abnormally dry or drought conditions, according to the Drought Monitor agency.

The state has had its worst start to the fire period in a decade, with 220,421 acres burned through Thursday morning, according to NIFC data.

In Colorado, preliminary figures show 431,540 acres have burned year to date, nearly four times the 111,667 acres blackened during all of 2017, according to NIFC data.

By August, the risk of large wildfires will be at normal levels in much of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain areas, thanks to a forecast for strong summer rains, but risk levels will remain above normal in California through October, according to NIFC data.

RISING TEMPERATURES

Rising average temperatures in the West are also stoking fires. Areas such as northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have been in long-term drought since around 2000.

“We’re in a global (temperature) change drought,” said Peter Brown, director of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Higher temperatures have helped extend the period of wildfires by 60 to 80 days each year, NIFC spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said.

“We’re not calling it a fire season anymore, we’re referring to a fire year,” she said.

An expected 1.8 Fahrenheit (1C) temperature rise by mid-century is expected to double or triple the annual acreage burned from a current 7 million acres average, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture.

UNHEALTHY FORESTS

A fire needs fuel to burn, and there is a lot of that in the U.S. West’s overgrown and often unhealthy forests.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. government pursued a fire suppression policy that sharply reduced the acreage burned but caused forests to become choked with underbrush and trees, allowing invasive species to enter. In the southwest, bark beetles have killed billions of conifers now providing fuel for infernos.

In California, invasive species like cheatgrass offer the perfect fuel for fire to spread. Millions of trees and bushes killed by California’s 2012-2017 drought are another fuel source.

“TSUNAMIS OF FLAME”

Southeast Colorado’s Spring Creek fire, the second largest in the state’s history at 108,000 acres, is an example of the kind of “perfect fire storm” menacing the West, said firefighter Ben Brack, 42, information officer on the blaze.

Burning at thousands of degrees with 300-foot-high “tsunamis of flame” fanned by erratic winds, Brack called it the most “explosive” fire he has seen. The fire has destroyed upwards of 148 homes, according to Costilla County authorities.

Brack compares such blazes to hurricanes or tornadoes for firefighters’ inability to stop them.

Fire crews get people out of the way, save what homes they can, and create fire breaks many miles from the flames. These fires may only be fully extinguished by the first snows of winter, Brack said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

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)

Firefighters gain on California wildfires as weather cooperates

A USGS geologist making observations of the fissure 8 lava channel at sunset is pictured in this July 3, 2018 fisheye lens handout photograph near the Kilauea volcano eruption in Hawaii, U.S. USGS/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Firefighters are gaining momentum as they battle several wildfires that have destroyed dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents in California.

Across the state, milder weather over the last couple of days has helped firefighters to hold the line against several blazes, allowing them to lift evacuation orders for residents forced to flee their homes.

Temperatures are expected to fall this week in parts of the state, the National Weather Service said, after scorching heat, high winds and low humidity fanned dozens of fires this summer in a particularly intense fire season across the U.S. West.

“The weather is starting to cooperate, so it’s letting firefighters get the upper hand on the fires,” said Lynette Round, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, called Cal Fire.

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.

One person has been killed and three firefighters injured in a wildfire on the California-Oregon border. That blaze, the Klamathon Fire, has torched 36,500 acres (14,770 hectares) and destroyed 82 homes since erupting on Thursday.

Shifting wind patterns remained a concern, but that fire was not expected to grow significantly overnight, a spokesman for Cal Fire said.

In western Nevada, a fire weather watch will be in effect on Wednesday as winds up to 50 miles (80 km) per hour and thunderstorms with lightning are expected in the area.

Elsewhere in the U.S. Southwest, dozens of active fires remained burning, including the 107,900-acre Spring Creek Fire, which is on pace to become the second-largest fire in Colorado’s history, according to the Denver Post newspaper.

“Near critical fire weather conditions are possible across portions of eastern Colorado Tuesday afternoon,” the National Weather Service said in an advisory.

Showers and thunderstorms are also in the forecast for parts of the region through Wednesday, the weather service said, warning of lightning and gusty winds that could create and fan wildfires.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, editing by Larry King)

Thousands evacuated ahead of fast-moving California wildfire

A house burns as firefighters battle a fast-moving wildfire that destroyed homes driven by strong wind and high temperatures forcing thousands of residents to evacuate in Goleta, California, U.S., early July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevin

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Santa Barbara County officials declared a local emergency on Saturday as a fast-moving wildfire driven by strong winds and triple-digit temperatures destroyed 20 homes and other structures and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.

The Holiday Fire, one of more than three dozen major blazes burning across the U.S. West, broke out on Friday evening near the beach community of Goleta, California, west of Santa Barbara, and raced through the seaside foothills.

Firefighters work at the site of a wildfire in Goleta, California, U.S., July 6, 2018 in this image obtained on social media. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire/via REUTERS

Firefighters work at the site of a wildfire in Goleta, California, U.S., July 6, 2018 in this image obtained on social media. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire/via REUTERS

The flames forced more than 2,000 people to flee their homes, and left thousands more without power, prompting the emergency declaration which frees additional funds for the firefighting effort.

Some 350 firefighters took advantage of a period of light winds early on Saturday to contain as much as possible of the blaze, which has burned through 50 to 80 acres (20 to 32 hectares), fire officials said.

“It was a small fire but it had a powerful punch to it,” Santa County Fire spokesman Mike Eliason said. “We’re going to hit it hard today.”

Winds were expected to pick up again as temperatures rise in the afternoon, he said.

Dozens of blazes have broken out across the western United States, fanned by scorching heat, winds and low humidity in a particularly intense fire season.

This year’s fires had burned more than 2.9 million acres (1.17 million hectares) through Friday, already more than the annual average of about 2.4 million acres (971,000 hectares) over the last 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

On Friday, the remains of an unidentified person were found near a home burned to the ground by the Klamathon fire, which broke out on Thursday near California’s border with Oregon. It marked the first fatality of the fire season in California.

A boat burns as fast-moving wildfire that destroyed homes driven by strong wind and high temperatures forcing thousands of residents to evacuate in Goleta, California, U.S., early July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevin

A boat burns as fast-moving wildfire that destroyed homes driven by strong wind and high temperatures forcing thousands of residents to evacuate in Goleta, California, U.S., early July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene BlevinsThe Klamathon, which has destroyed 15 structures and blackened nearly 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares), was only 5 percent contained as of Saturday.

Elsewhere in Northern California, the County Fire has charred 88,375 acres (35,764 hectares) in sparsely populated wooded areas of Napa and Yolo Counties.

Some 3,660 firefighters faced with inaccessible terrain, high temperatures and low humidity, were battling the fire, which was only 48 percent contained. It has destroyed 10 structures, damaged two and threatened 110.

In Colorado, officials said fire crews had made “much progress” battling the Spring Creek fire, which broke out on Juornia, ne 27 and has consumed 106,985 acres (43,295 hectares). It was 43 percent contained on Saturday, the officials said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Peter Szekely in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by John Stonestreet, Franklin Paul and David Gregorio)

Firefighters make progress on Northern California wildfire

Flames from the County Fire, covering Yolo and Napa counties, east of Lake Berryessa, California, U.S. are pictured in this July 3, 2018, handout photo. CAL FIRE/Handout via REUTERS

By Dan Whitcomb and Keith Coffman

LOS ANGELES/DENVER (Reuters) – Firefighters in Northern California have made progress on a stubborn blaze west of Sacramento, allowing some residents to return to their homes after they were evacuated.

The so-called County Fire has consumed 86,000 acres (35,000 hectares) of grass, brush and dense scrub oak as of late on Wednesday, an increase of about 5 percent from earlier in the day, California Fire said.

Some residents were allowed to return home after being evacuated while the fire threatened some 1,500 homes, Cal Fire said in a statement on Wednesday.

A force of almost 3,500 firefighters widened its containment lines around to 27 percent up from 25 percent earlier in the day, the agency said.

Firefighters have been challenged by strong wind gusts, steep inaccessible terrain and dry vegetation as they have fought the unrelenting wildfire that began on Saturday.

No structures have been damaged so far, officials said.

The United States is experiencing an unusually active fire season, with the risk considered well above normal for many Western states, according to federal forecasters.

Temperatures in the area of the California blaze will reach close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) on Thursday, the National Weather Service said, warning of widespread haze and areas of smoke.

Wildfires have burned through nearly 2.5 million acres in the United States from Jan. 1 through Monday, well above an average of about 2.3 million for the same period over the last 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Colorado, firefighters faced high temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds on Wednesday as they battled eight major blazes that have torched more than 140,000 acres in the drought-stricken state.

The largest wildfire, the Spring Fire, has consumed 95,739 acres in southern Colorado, destroying more than 100 homes, forcing evacuations of several communities and closing a road. That fire was just 5 percent contained.

The Spring Fire is the second-largest fire on record in Colorado, officials said.

Jesper Joergensen, a 52-year-old Danish national, is suspected of starting the fire and is being held on first-degree arson charges, the Costilla County Sheriff’s Office said. He is in the country illegally and may face deportation, police said.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Man arrested for starting Colorado wildfire burning over 38,000 acres

Flames rise past a ridge 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

TAOS, New Mexico (Reuters) – A man was arrested on Saturday on charges of starting a forest fire in Colorado that has destroyed structures and forced hundreds to evacuate their homes in one of dozens of wildfires raging across the drought-hit U.S. southwest.

Jesper Joergensen, 52, was taken into custody for suspected arson that started the Springs Fire, the most active of around 10 blazes in Colorado, the state hardest hit by fires, according to Costilla County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.

Joergensen is not a U.S. citizen and will be handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement once he has faced arson charges, said a Costilla County detention officer. The officer could not immediately say what nationality Joergensen held.

The fire has scorched over 38,000 acres (15,378 hectares) between the towns of Fort Garland and La Veta in southern Colorado, forcing more mandatory evacuations of homes and ranches on Saturday in a mountainous area of public and private land. The fire continued to grow, fueled by temperatures in the mid 80s Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) and had zero percent containment as of Saturday afternoon.

Air tankers and helicopters dropped fire retardant and water on the blaze. Authorities asked evacuated residents not to fly drones to check on their properties as the devices posed a danger to aircraft and would force them to be grounded.

An unknown number of structures were consumed by the fire, said Bethany Urban, a public information officer. No injuries have been reported.

Gusty winds, single-digit humidity and hot temperatures have fueled the fires and could ignite new blazes in the U.S. West, the National Weather Service said in several warnings.

The largest wildfire in Colorado, the 416 Fire, has charred almost 47,000 acres about 13 miles (21 km) north of Durango in the southwest corner of the state, and is 37 percent contained, said public information officer Brandalyn Vonk.

About 10 smaller wildfires were burning in New Mexico and three in Arizona, with much of the two states suffering extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

All but the northeastern corner of Colorado is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Grant McCool)