How a ‘Hillbilly Brigade’ saved an Oregon town from raging wildfires

By Brad Brooks

MOLALLA, Ore. (Reuters) – Nicole West steered her bulldozer through the smoldering forest, pushing logs into the underbrush and away from the wildfires ripping through Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Her border collie, Oink, rode shotgun as West and a volunteer crew raced to clear a fire line.

Behind West, on the front lines of the 136,000-acre Riverside fire, two young men pulled a water tank behind their pickup truck, struggling to douse the flames.

These are the men and women of the “Hillbilly Brigade” – about 1,200 in all who came together this past week to fight the state’s biggest fire in a century. They are credited with saving the mountain hamlet of Molalla, an hour’s drive south of Portland, after its 9,000 residents were forced to evacuate.

In a year when ferocious wildfires have killed at least 21 people and burned millions of acres in Oregon, Washington and California, the brigade has pulled off a miracle in the thick forests around Molalla in recent days, residents and fire officials say. They organized and deployed themselves with little or no help from a small and overwhelmed local fire department – which focused on protecting the town center – or from state and federal agencies who were deployed elsewhere.

“We were left on our own to stop this,” said West, a 36-year-old ranch hand, as she briefly paused her dozer late Wednesday afternoon. “There wasn’t anybody coming from the state to save us. So we had to save ourselves.”

Mike Penunuri, fire marshal for the Molalla fire district, which has just 13 firefighters and 33 volunteers, called the massive ad-hoc effort “amazing.” Penunuri’s crews spent the past week hosing down flames that lapped at the town’s edge and battling back fires around farm houses.

The Hillbilly Brigade “improvised and turned their pick-ups into fire engines on the fly,” he said. “They put stock tanks in the beds and used pumps to put out hot spots. These are just regular guys from the area. They are not trained.”


Residents of Molalla went to sleep on Labor Day thinking it was safe from the wildfires, but unusual wind gusts stunned forecasters and officials and pushed the fire north at a rapid clip. In the early morning hours on Sept. 8, it looked like Molalla would be engulfed in flames, just as towns in southern Oregon had been.

The brigade formed quickly, amassing people who knew one another well and knew the difficult terrain all around them better than any outsider. They were lumberjacks and dairy farmers, friends and neighbors, cobbling together rudimentary equipment.

On September 8, Terry Price heard a neighbor banging at his door at 1 a.m., warning of fast-approaching fires about four miles south of Molalla on the Missouri Ridge. The Riverside fire was barreling down a valley toward his place as the Beachie Creek fire approached from the southwest.

In that moment, the 59-year-old Price, a salty and assertive man, became the de facto Hillbilly Brigade leader in this section of the county, neighbors said.

“I dole things out for the boys to do,” Price said. “I’m just that guy. It’s what I’ve always done.”

The brigade filled a vacuum left by the absence of any government help, he said. The fires raging across Oregon have depleted the state’s resources to battle the unprecedented blazes.

“I was in horrible disbelief that nobody showed up,” he said.

The Oregon Department of Forestry and the office of Oregon Governor Kate Brown did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday morning on whether the state responded to fires near Molalla or what might have prevented a response.


Price and other landowners quickly realized they needed to save themselves and started calling one another. Within a couple of hours, Price’s driveway became the headquarters for his area.

“It seemed like about everybody dropped everything and showed up by dawn,” Price said. “Even if it was just them and a shovel. They came to help.”

Dairy farmers brought water trucks that they normally use for their cattle. Loggers had smaller water tankers.

Price said the crew on Missouri Ridge had no access to water. So he set about ripping 20-foot-wide fire lines in the forest with a bulldozer, which itself caught on fire at times as the trees blazed around him. Price’s 30-year-old son, Breck, guided him around massive tree trunks as he pushed forward. For two straight days he cut through the earth – and kept the fire at bay about 100 yards from his house.

The sky was black and purple. The wind drove the firestorm directly toward his house. Price had never seen anything like it. “It’s beyond scary,” he said.


On Wednesday, Matt Meyers, a 41-year-old power company employee, emerged from the fire’s haze on a mountainous patch called Elk Prairie. He had a chainsaw on his shoulder and a week’s worth of grime caked to his face.

Meyers and his crew were on their ninth straight day of battling blazes for more than 20 hours a day. He explained that he was acting as a type of scout, pushing ahead into the forest ahead of the dozers. He cut down “snags” – dead trees that could quickly fall onto the machinery and drivers – and blazed the initial trails into the forest.

The operation thrived on close and long-standing relationships, he said.

“I’m up here fighting these fires with people I’ve known my whole life,” Meyers said. “Communication was easy: We could just stand at the tailgate of a truck and say, ‘Steve, do you remember where Brian killed his first buck? You take your crew there.'”

The result was a victory – for now – over what had seemed like an overwhelming threat. The Beachie Creek and Riverside fires are not yet contained, leaving residents here on edge. But many are optimistic that the miles of fire lines the brigade cut through the forest will provide a buffer if the winds blow the flames back their way.

“I think we saved the damn town, to put it bluntly,” Meyers said. “I’m a humble man, but I feel comfortable saying that.”

Asked what it meant to him to see his community come together to save itself, Meyers said: “If I had not sweated out all my water, I think I would cry just thinking about that.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Shannon Stapleton; editing by Bill Tarrant and Brian Thevenot)

Minneapolis police chief breaks off talks with officer union

By Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – The Minneapolis Police Department will withdraw from contract talks with the officer union as it seeks to end relationships that have “eroded trust” in the community and overhaul the force following George Floyd’s death, its chief said on Wednesday.

Chief Medaria Arradondo, at a media briefing, also said he would implement a new early-warning system to identify police officer misconduct, allowing supervisors to intervene more quickly to get problematic officers off the street.

The decision to cut off negotiations with the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis comes a few days after a majority of the city council pledged to dismantle the police force, raising pressure on the chief to take action.

“What our city needs now more than ever is a pathway and a plan that provides hope, reassurance and actual measures of reform,” Arradondo said. “This work must be transformational but I must do it right.”

He said he would bring in advisers to conduct a review of how the contract could be restructured for “greater community transparency and more flexibility for true reform,” adding that the main focus was not on wages and benefits.

“This is further examining those significant matters that touch on such things as critical-incident protocol, our use of force, the significant role that supervisors play in this department and also the discipline process.”

The May 25 death of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, sparked two weeks of nationwide protests putting a spotlight on minorities killed by police.

Derek Chauvin, the former officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, has been charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers at the scene, including two rookies, were also charged with aiding and abetting in his death.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Conn.; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Matthew Lewis)

With songs, screams and recipes, Americans find emotional balm six feet apart

By Maria Caspani, Alessandra Rafferty and Daphne Psaledakis

NEW YORK (Reuters) – It’s more than 10 months until Christmas, but as the global coronavirus pandemic takes hold in the United States, Margaret Haskell put out a call on her community Facebook group in New Jersey for people to hang their outdoor holiday lights back up.

“We are all finding new ways to virtually connect but many of us can’t shake the feeling of isolation and loneliness,” Haskell, 37, from South Orange, told Reuters. “My thought was that this would be a way to let each other know that we are still here, that life is still going on inside our houses.”

More than 12,500 people across the United States have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 illness and over 200 have died, with Washington state and New York worst hit so far.

Americans are being told to stay home and practise social distancing in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, so people are coming up with creative ways to cope with isolation, lift each others spirits, and get to know their neighbors.

Viral videos of people in Italy and Spain singing or taking part in mass exercise classes from their balconies during coronavirus lockdowns have provided inspiration.

Residents of a neighborhood of Jersey City, New Jersey, have started coming out at 6 p.m. to play whatever instruments are on hand, from guitars and toy drums to egg shakers – but all at a safe distance from each other.

“We’re called the Lockdown Jam Band,” said Shanee Helfer. In Jersey City, residents have been asked to remain indoors after 8 p.m.

In Boston, a man appeared in his window to sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” an anthem long sung during breaks at Red Sox baseball games, a video widely circulated online showed.

“Hands, not touching hands,” he sang, tweaking the lyrics to follow public health guidance. “Reaching out, not touching me, not touching you.” A neighbor at a nearby window and passersby on the street joined in.


New Yorkers are getting to know their neighbors – virtually, of course.

In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a support group on the messaging app Slack has quickly grown to more than 1,000 members since it was set up on March 12. People are sharing recipes to try while stuck at home, information about which businesses are still open, and who needs help with groceries or medications.

“I think it has been kind of an emotional balm for a lot of people,” said Benjamin Krusling, a 29-year-old writer and artist, and one of the group’s organizers. “What’s the most helpful for people I’ve talked to who have joined is just kind of knowing… we’re all going through this thing together.”

In Washington, more than 1,500 people on Facebook have said they want to participate in an event on Monday evening designed to allow people to express their frustration with the pandemic.

The instructions for the event – named DC Area Primal Scream – are simple: “Step outside if you can (six feet from your neighbor, please). Head to the roof or the balcony, or stick your head out a window. Breathe deeply. Scream.”

And social distancing does not mean no more happy hours. About a dozen neighbors in Portland, Oregon, drew circles on the ground six feet apart for each guest at their street party with a difference to stand in, said Leslie Garey, 51.

“Everyone visited and drank from their circles,” Garey said. “We plan to do it often.”

For working parents now stuck at home with their children, people are looking for ways to entertain them in the new era of social distancing.

In Jackson Heights, Queens, neighbors on a block are using shared Google docs to organize a home-schooling collective, asking work-from-home parents to teach classes in their area of expertise to kids of all ages. But some parents balked at including their kids in groups.

“People have gotten more nervous and cautious about even small social gatherings,” said Benjamin Tausig, a music professor and crossword constructor who offered classes in both subjects. “Any contact outside one’s family might depend a lot on levels of trust.”

More than 150 rainbows have popped up in windows of Brooklyn brownstones, high-rise apartment buildings, storefronts and in courtyards as a symbol of hope for children of all ages and inspired by similar efforts in Italy and Spain.

Marisa Migdal, 35, shared the idea in a Brooklyn parents Facebook group. “Everything feels so overwhelming and scary right now,” Migdal said. “It is nice to feel connected. It adds a reminder that everything is going to be okay.”

(Additional reporting by Scott Malone, Jessica Resnick-Ault, Nick Zieminski and Lauren Young; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Frank McGurty and Rosalba O’Brien)

Vietnam quarantines rural community of 10,000 because of coronavirus

Vietnam quarantines rural community of 10,000 because of coronavirus
By Phuong Nguyen

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam has quarantined a community of 10,000 people near the capital, Hanoi, for 20 days because of fears the coronavirus could spread there, two local officials told Reuters on Thursday.

The rural commune of Son Loi, in the northern Vietnameseprovince of Vinh Phuc, 44 km (27 miles) from Hanoi, is home to11 of the 16 coronavirus cases in the Southeast Asian country,including a three-month-old baby.

“Over 10,000 residents of the commune will not be permitted to leave for the next 20 days, starting from today,” the second of the two the officials told Reuters on Thursday.

“As of this evening, we will still allow those who wish to return home to enter but, in the next few days, this place will be totally be sealed,” the official told Reuters by phone.

Both officials declined to be identified citing the sensitivity of the situation.

The coronavirus arrived in Vinh Phuc after people from the province who had been in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, returned home to Vietnam for the Lunar New Year holiday.

The province is home to factories operated by Japan’s Honda and Toyota.

On Wednesday, state media indicated that Vietnam’s Communist-ruled government could completely seal off the Son Loi commune.

On the same day, a Reuters photographer could see checkpoints manned by police and marked by coronavirus warning signs already in place outside Son Loi. People were still allowed to enter and leave the commune, which has a population of 10,641, according to official data.

Health officials wearing protective suits sprayed disinfectant on vehicles at the checkpoints. Local authorities have set up shops and provided food and face masks for residents there, the first official said.

“Everything is still under control,” said the official. “We are trying very hard to stop the virus spreading to other areas and provinces.”

Vietnam declared a public health emergency over the epidemic on Feb. 1 and banned all flights to and from China, where more than 1,300 people have died from the virus.

The southeast Asia country has made plans to quarantine hundreds of Vietnamese citizens returning from China, including 950 at military camps outside Hanoi, and another 900 at temporary facilities on the Vietnam-China border.

(Editing by John Stonestreet and Barbara Lewis)

Mass shooting rumor in Facebook Group shows private chats are not risk-free

By Bryan Pietsch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ahead of the annual Blueberry Festival in Marshall County, Indiana, in early September, a woman broadcast a warning to her neighbors on Facebook.

“I just heard there’s supposed to be a mass shooting tonight at the fireworks,” the woman, whose name is held to protect her privacy, said in a post in a private Facebook Group with over 5,000 members. “Probably just a rumor or kids trying to scare people, but everyone keep their eyes open,” she said in the post, which was later deleted.

There was no shooting at the Blueberry Festival that night, and the local police said there was no threat.

But the post sparked fear in the community, with some group members canceling their plans to attend, and shows the power of rumors in Facebook Groups, which are often private or closed to outsiders. Groups allow community members to quickly spread information, and possibly misinformation, to users who trust the word of their neighbors.

These groups and other private features, rather than public feeds, are “the future” of social media, Facebook Inc <FB.O> Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in April, revealing their importance to Facebook’s business model.

The threat of misinformation spreading rapidly in Groups shows a potential vulnerability in a key part of the company’s growth strategy. It could push Facebook to invest in expensive human content monitoring at the risk of limiting the ability to post in real time, a central benefit of Groups and Facebook in general that has attracted millions of users to the platform.

When asked if Facebook takes accountability for situations like the one in Indiana, a company spokeswoman said it is committed to maintaining groups as a safe place, and that it encourages people to contact law enforcement if they see a potential threat.

Facebook Groups can also serve as a tool for connecting social communities around the world, such as ethnic groups, university alumni and hobbyists.

Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging platform faced similar but more serious problems in 2018 after false messages about child abductors led to mass beatings of more than a dozen people in India, some of whom have died. WhatsApp later limited message forwards and began labeling forwarded messages to quell the risk of fake news.


The Blueberry Festival post caused chaos in the group, named “Local News Now 2…(Marshall and all surrounding Counties).”

In another post, which garnered over 100 comments of confusion and worry, a different member urged the woman to report the threat to the police. “This isn’t something to joke about or take lightly,” she wrote.

The author of the original post did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Facebook’s policy is to remove language that “incites or facilitates serious violence,” the company spokeswoman said, adding that it did not remove the post and that it did not violate Facebook’s policies because there “was no threat, praise or support of violence.”

Cheryl Siddall, the founder of the Indiana group, said she would welcome tools from Facebook to give her greater “control” over what people post in the group, such as alerts to page moderators if posts contain certain words or phrases.

But Siddall said, “I’m sorry, but that’s a full-time job to sit and monitor everything that’s going on in the page.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said page administrators have the ability to remove a post if it violates the group’s proprietary rules and that administrators can pre-approve individual posts, as well as turn on post approvals for individual group members.

In a post to its blog, Facebook urged administrators to write “great group rules” to “set the tone for your group and help prevent member conflict,” as well as “provide a feeling of safety for group members.”

David Bacon, chief of police for the Plymouth Police Department in Marshall County, said the threat was investigated and traced back to an exaggerated rumor from children. Nonetheless, he said the post to the Facebook group is “what caused the whole problem.”

“One post grows and people see it, and they take it as the gospel, when in actuality you can throw anything you want out there,” Bacon said.

(Reporting by Bryan Pietsch; Editing by Chris Sanders)

Israel to name new town on Golan after Trump: Netanyahu

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they pose on the West Wing colonnade in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

GOLAN HEIGHTS (Reuters) – Israel said on Tuesday it would name a new community on the Golan Heights after U.S. President Donald Trump as an expression of gratitude for his recognition of its claim of sovereignty over the strategic plateau.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed it, in a move not recognized internationally. The United States broke with other world powers last month when Trump signed a decree recognizing Israeli sovereignty there.

“All Israelis were deeply moved when President Trump made his historic decision,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement made on the Golan.

He added that, after the Jewish Passover festival, he would “bring to the government a resolution calling for a new community on the Golan Heights named after President Donald J. Trump.”

Trump’s Golan move followed his decision in December 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, breaking with decades of U.S. policy over the status of a city contested by the Palestinians.

Israel has said separately that, in appreciation of the U.S. president, it intends to name a proposed train station near Jerusalem’s Western Wall after him.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Fire engulfs London tower block, at least 12 dead, dozens injured

Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a serious fire in a tower block at Latimer Road in West London, Britain June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Kylie MacLellan and Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) – A blaze engulfed a 24-story housing block in central London on Wednesday, trapping residents as they slept and killing at least 12 people in an inferno that the fire brigade said was unprecedented in its scale and speed.

More than 200 firefighters, backed up by 40 fire engines, fought for hours to try to control the blaze, London’s deadliest for a generation. The Grenfell Tower apartment block was home to about 600 people.

A local residents’ group said it had predicted such a catastrophe on their low-rent housing estate that overlooks affluent parts of the Kensington area of the capital, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan said there were questions to answer.

Prime Minister Theresa May promised there would be a proper investigation into the disaster, which delayed her talks on trying to secure a parliamentary deal to stay in power and launch talks on Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Some residents screamed for help from behind upper-floor windows and others tried to throw children to safety as flames raced through the Grenfell block of about 120 apartments just before 1 a.m.

Firefighters said they had rescued 65 people – some in pyjamas – from the 43-year-old block.

“We could see a lot of children and parents screaming for ‘Help! Help! Help!’ and putting their hands on the window and asking to help them,” Amina Sharif told Reuters.

“We could do nothing and we could see the stuff on the side was falling off, collapsing. We were just standing screaming and they were screaming.”


Another witness, Saimar Lleshi, saw people tying together sheets to try to escape.

“I saw three people putting sheets together to climb down, but no one climbed down. I don’t know what happened to them. Even when the lights went off, people were waving with white shirts to be seen,” Lleshi said.

The fire sent up plumes of smoke that could be seen from miles away. The ambulance service said 68 people were being treated in hospital, with 18 in critical condition.

More than 16 hours after the fire started, crews were still trying to douse flames as they sought to reach the top floors.

But London police commander Stuart Cundy told reporters he did not believe further survivors would be found in the building.

At a nearby community center used to house some of those rescued, tensions were rising as occupants waited for news.

“The fire, which was unprecedented in its scale and speed, will be subject to a full fire investigation,” said Steve Apter from the London Fire Brigade. “Any lessons learnt from this will be borne out not just across London, across the UK – and lessons learnt globally.”

The emergency services said it was too early to say what had caused the inferno, which left the block a charred, smoking shell. Some residents said no alarm had sounded. Others said they had warned repeatedly about fire safety in the block.

The building had recently undergone an 8.7 million pound ($11.08 million) exterior refurbishment, which included new external cladding and windows.

“We will cooperate with the relevant authorities and emergency services and fully support their enquiries into the causes of this fire at the appropriate time,” Rydon, the firm behind the refurbishment work, said in a statement.


Residents who escaped told how they woke up to the smell of burning and rushed to leave through smoke-filled corridors and stairwells.

There were reports that some leapt out of windows. Other witnesses spoke of children including a baby being thrown to safety from high windows.

Tamara, one witness, told the BBC: “There’s people, like, throwing their kids out, ‘Just save my children, just save my children!'”.

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn said sprinkler systems should be installed in such blocks and he called on the government to make a statement in parliament.

Fire Minister Nick Hurd said local authorities and fire services across the country would assess tower blocks undergoing similar renovation work to provide reassurance.

“In due course when the scene is secure, when it is possible to identify the cause of this fire, there will be proper investigation and if there are any lessons to be learned, they will be and action will be taken,” May said.

Khan, the London mayor, said there needed to be answers after some residents said they had been advised they should stay in their flats in the event of a fire.

“What we can’t have is a situation where people’s safety is put at risk because of bad advice being given or, if it is the case, as has been alleged, of tower blocks not being properly serviced or maintained,” Khan said.

Resident Michael Paramasivan told BBC radio he had spoken to a woman who lived on the 21st floor: “She has got six kids. She left with all six of them. When she got downstairs, there was only four of them with her. She is now breaking her heart.”

(Additional reporting by Lina Saigol, David Milliken, Costas Pitas, Kate Holton, Neil Hall, Elisabeth O’Leary, Alistair Smout, Megan Revell and Oli Rahman; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Residents shield Christians in bold exodus from Philippines city

Soldiers onboard military trucks ride along the main street as government troops continue their assault on insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Tom Allard

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – More than 160 civilians walked out of the besieged Philippines city of Marawi just after dawn on Saturday, deceiving Islamist fighters they encountered by hiding the identity of the many Christians among them.

The audacious exodus came after text message warnings that a major assault by Philippines aircraft and ground troops was imminent in the center of the southern city, where some 250 militants and more than 2,000 civilians remain trapped.

“We saved ourselves,” said Norodin Alonto Lucman, a well-known former politician and traditional clan leader who sheltered 71 people, including more than 50 Christians, in his home during the battle that erupted on May 23 in the town of more than 200,000 on the southern island of Mindanao.

“There’s this plan to bomb the whole city if ISIS don’t agree to the demands of the government,” he said, referring to local and foreign fighters who have sworn allegiance to the ultra-radical Islamic State.

Many evacuees told Reuters they had received text messages warning of a bombing campaign.

“We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out,” said Leny Paccon, who gave refuge to 54 people in her home, including 44 Christians. “When I got the text, immediately we go out … about 7 o’clock.”

By then, Lucman and his guests had begun their escape march from another area, holding white flags and moving briskly.

“As we walked, others joined us,” he told reporters. “We had to pass through a lot of [militant] snipers.”

Some of the civilians were stopped and asked if there were any Christians among them, said Jaime Daligdig, a Christian construction worker.

“We shouted ‘Allahu akbar’,” he told Reuters, adding that thanks to that Muslim rallying cry they were allowed to pass.

Those who fled included teachers from Dansalan College, a protestant school torched on the first day of the battle.

Christians have been killed and taken hostage by the militants, a mix of local fighters from the Maute Group and other Islamist outfits, as well as foreigners who joined the cause under the Islamic State banner.

The vast majority of Filipinos are Christian, but Mindanao has a larger proportion of Muslims and Islam is followed by the vast majority in Marawi City.


Lucman said that many of those trapped were on the verge of starvation, which also gave them the courage to leave.

He described a scene of devastation in the town center, where the streets were strewn with rotting bodies and debris. “I almost puked as we were walking,” Lucman said, estimating that there were more than 1,000 dead.

Official government estimates recorded 120 militants, 38 government forces and 20 civilians as dead on Saturday.

Lucman and Paccon said militants had knocked on their doors while they sheltered the terrified Christians. They shooed them away saying there were women and children inside.

Adding to the anxiety, both said they were within 100 meters (320 feet) of militant command posts. Although the Philippines military knew civilians remained in their homes, ordnance exploded nearby repeatedly over the past week.

Resident Asnaira Asis said militants knocked on her door too, offering money or food if she handed over her 11-year-old son. “They wanted him to be a fighter,” she told Reuters after joining the morning exodus. “I said no.”

After an impromptu ceasefire as the civilians evacuated, bombing and ground skirmishes continued on Saturday, and FA50 fighter jets dropped bombs on the town center.

Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the conflict would be over soon but he gave no operational plans. He said there were 250 militants still in the town, far more than the 20-30 cited by the military on Friday.

“They can still put up a good fight. That’s why it’s giving us difficulty in clearing the area,” he told a news conference.

Lorenzana said there was still a big cohort of foreign fighters in Marawi.

Officials have said militants from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya and Morocco joined the battle, raising concerns that Islamic State is seeking to establish a regional foothold there.

(Editing by John Chalmers and Helen Popper)

U.S. leaders seek unity at vigil for slain Louisiana officers

police saluting the caskets of fallen police officers

By Sam Karlin

BATON ROUGE, La. (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch called for unity to honor three slain Louisiana police officers, speaking at a memorial service on Thursday in Baton Rouge where they were gunned down this month by a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

Several hundred people and dozens of law enforcement officers attended the vigil, where Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards also implored the community to seek peace and healing after the July 17 attack that also wounded three other officers.

The shootings came amid a series of deadly encounters igniting debate over policing and minorities in the United States. The killings rattled a city already grappling with protests after the fatal police shooting on July 5 of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man confronted by officers while selling CDs outside a convenience store.

Biden said he heard that Sterling’s aunt, who raised him, had prayed with a slain officer’s father.

“Loss is loss is loss,” he said, speaking at a church in Baton Rouge, the state capital. “Now the city has to reach out, the country has to reach out to law enforcement, and let you know how much we care.”

On the stage behind him, three chairs sat empty, decorated with sashes and uniform caps representing the officers.

Choking back tears, two of the officers’ wives recalled phone calls and door knocks on an initially normal Sunday morning that changed their lives forever.

Slain Baton Rouge police officers Matthew Gerald, 41, and Montrell Jackson, 32, and East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola, 45, were killed in what Louisiana officials described as a calculated attack. Shooter Gavin Long, 29, a black former Marine with ties to an African-American anti-government group, was also killed in an exchange of gunfire.

“No family should ever have to be without their loved ones, especially when these three heroes could be home had a person not been filled with so much hatred,” said Tonja Garafola.

Jackson’s wife, Trenisha, recalled his wish to see healing in the city and directed the crowd to repeat sentiments that he had posted on Facebook in the tense days before his death.

“I will not let hate infect my heart,” the crowd repeated.

The assault followed the deaths of five officers in Dallas, Texas on July 7, who were shot by another black former U.S. serviceman. President Barack Obama traveled to Dallas in the wake of those shootings.

One of the wounded Louisiana officers, Nicholas Tullier, 41, remains hospitalized in critical condition, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office said on Thursday. At the vigil, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said he is “fighting for his life.”

(Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and James Dalgleish)

Oregon Community Rallies to Renovate Elderly Couple’s Home after Teens’ Taunts

Last month, two teenagers taunted a 75-year-old man over the condition of his house.

“Look at this crappy house, they just need to burn it down,” one of the teens said among the degrading comments thrown at the home of Leonard Bullock.

Bullock was sitting on the porch of his home at the time and heard every word.

So did Josh Cyganik, a worker for Union Pacific Railroad who starts his workday across the street from Bullock’s home.

“I saw him put his head down and it was clear he was upset,” Cyganik told “I thought about saying something to the boys, but sometimes anger is better left unsaid and I took a different course of action that ended up paying off more so than if I yelled at them.”

Cyganik spoke to a local hardware store, Tum-A-Lum Lumber, who agreed to donate the paint necessary to make the renovations to Bullock’s home.  The good samaritan then went on Facebook to ask his friends to help him during a workday on July 18th to make a difference in Bullock’s life.

It ended up much more than just a new coat of paint.

A family brought Bullock a new set of patio furniture so he could sit outside his home in comfort.  Starbucks brought six gallons of water and iced tea for the workers.

And then a lumber company showed up unannounced, unloaded new lumber and built Bullock a brand new porch.

“The house is real nice now,” Bullock told ABC News. “It makes me feel good to look at it, especially after what [the teenagers] said.”

“They’re great people. You never know about someone unless you get to know their struggles,” Cyganik told the Union Pacific blog. “Yeah, it was a random act of kindness, but to me it’s more about respect. I was raised to respect the people who came before you, to help others out who don’t have much. Leonard can now sit on his front porch for the rest of his years while feeling good about his home.”