Australia’s bushfire-stricken east welcomes drenching rain

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Intense thunderstorms with heavy rains dampened bushfires on Australia’s east coast on Friday, to the relief of exhausted firefighters and farmers battling years of drought, and granting a reprieve to the organisers of next week’s Australian Open.

Australia, famous for its pristine beaches and wildlife, has been fighting bushfires since September, with fires killing 29 people and millions of animals, and destroying more than 2,500 homes while razing an area roughly a third the size of Germany.

Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, three of the states most affected by drought and bushfires welcomed this week’s drenching rain, with fire services saying it would not extinguish all the blazes, but would greatly aid containment.

“Our fingers are crossed that this continues over the coming days,” New South Wales fire services said on Twitter on Friday.

Severe storms are forecast to continue in many fire-stricken regions of New South Wales and Queensland, including areas that have not seen heavy falls for years, weather officials in New South Wales said, slightly easing a three-year drought.

“The recent rain has just been absolutely fantastic,” said cattle farmer Sam White near the northern town of Guyra in New South Wales.

“It’s producing significant amounts of runoff, which is what we need, and it’s getting into our dams.”

While the wet weather brings relief to fire fighters and drought-hit farmers, it also comes with dangers, such as flash flooding and falling trees. One wildlife park had to rescue koalas from floodwaters and beat back crocodiles with brooms.

The heavy downpours have helped to clean smoky air in Australia, but Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne remained in the world’s top 100 polluted cities on Friday, a pollution ranking by AirVisual showed.

Melbourne, shrouded this week in thick smoke that disrupted the Australian Open qualifying matches and other competitions, is forecast to again be blanketed by unhealthy air over the weekend, before the Grand Slam begins in earnest on Monday.

But fears the smoke would return on Saturday for the final round of qualifying eased on Friday, when the Environmental Protection Agency forecast air quality in the Melbourne area would be “moderate” rather than “very poor”.

The smoke haze plaguing Australia’s major cities for weeks has been tracked by NASA circumnavigating the globe and the space agency’s satellites showed on Thursday there was also a large concentration of lower smoke over the Pacific Ocean.

Here are key events in the bushfire crisis:

* Early on Friday, 82 fires were burning across New South Wales, 30 uncontained, and several in Victoria, fire authorities said.

* An emergency evacuation order was issued for parts of Victoria’s northeast, with an out-of-control bushfire threatening the Buffalo River Valley.

* Firefighters, family and the community of Holbrook in New South Wales bade farewell to Samuel McPaul, a 28-year-old volunteer who died in December while fighting a massive and fast-moving blaze.

* Australia will have to wait until March for rains heavy enough to bring sustained relief from dry weather that has fuelled the bushfires, the weather bureau said.

* Top tourism body estimates the bushfire crisis has cost the Australian industry almost A$1 billion ($690 million). [L4N29L069]

* Players’ complaints about pollution blighted qualifying rounds of the Australian Open in Melbourne, the year’s first tennis Grand Slam.

 

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)

Australian authorities scramble to reach victims of deadly fires as death toll rises

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – A third person was confirmed dead on Wednesday in devastating bushfires that engulfed Australia’s southeast coast this week and a fourth was missing and feared dead, as navy ships rushed to provide supplies and assist with evacuations.

At least 15 people are now believed to have died, while scores of people remain missing after weeks of fires that have ripped through Australia’s east coast, much of which is tinder-dry after three years of drought.

Fanned by soaring temperatures, columns of fire and smoke blackened entire towns on Monday and Tuesday, forcing thousands of residents and holidaymakers to seek shelter on beaches. Many stood in shallow water to escape the flames.

Bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and new blazes are sparked almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions and, most recently, dry lightning strikes created by the fires themselves.

Cooler conditions on Wednesday gave the country a moment to count the cost of the fires, although there were still more than 100 blazes in New South Wales (NSW) state alone and thousands of firefighters on the ground.

The body of a man was found in a burnt car early on Wednesday on the south coast of New South Wales after emergency workers began reaching the most damaged areas, and police said the death toll will rise.

“Sadly, we can report today that police have confirmed a further three deaths as a result of the fires on the South Coast,” NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys told reporters in Sydney.

“Police are also at Lake Conjola now, where a house has been destroyed by fire and the occupant of that home is still unaccounted for.”

NSW police did not identify the missing man but said he was 72 years old and authorities have been unable to reach his home.

Police said early assessments have found nearly 200 homes have been destroyed, though they cautioned it was an early estimate.

In Victoria state, four people remain missing, state Premier Daniel Andrews said, after a massive blaze ripped through Gippsland – a rural region about 500 km (310 miles) east of Melbourne.

About 4,000 people in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria headed to the waterfront after the main road was cut off.

Mark Tregellas, a resident of Mallacoota who spent the night on a boat ramp, said only a late shift in the wind direction sparred lives.

“The fire just continued to grow and then the black started to descend. I couldn’t see the hand in front in my face, and it then it started to glow red and we knew the fire was coming,” Tregellas told Reuters.

“Ash started to fall from the air and then the embers started to come down. At that point, people started to bring their kids and families into the water. Thankfully, the wind changed and the fire moved away.”

Thousands of Australians remain cut off as fires force the closure of major roads, leaving many struggling to secure supplies.

In Milton, a small town on the on the NSW south coast, locals queued for hours for the few remaining items left of shelves on supermarkets.

Emma Schirmer, who evacuated from her house in Batemans Bay with her three-month child on Tuesday, said the local shop was limiting sales to six items per customer, while a power outage meant shoppers could pay only with cash.

As shops run low and firefighters struggle with exhaustion, Australia’s military, including Black Hawk helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and naval vessels were being deployed.

Victoria’s emergency management commissioner, Andrew Crisp, said the 176-metre-long HMAS Choules may be used to evacuate many of those stranded in Mallacoota, though with a capacity of 1,000 it will be insufficient alone.

HMAS Choules is due to arrive on Thursday.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were working to restore communications with areas cut off by the fires, though she warned conditions will deteriorate again over the weekend.

“Weather conditions on Saturday will be as bad as they were” on Tuesday, Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

Meanwhile, Australia’s capital Canberra was blanketed in thick smoke, reaching about 20 times hazardous levels, prompting health warnings.

The smoke has also drifted to New Zealand where it has turned the daytime sky orange across the South Island.

(Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Kim Coghill and Louise Heavens)

Wider Image: The Indian children who need to take a train to get to water

By Rajendra Jadhav

MUKUNDWADI, India (Reuters) – As their classmates set off to play after school each day, nine-year-old Sakshi Garud and her neighbor Siddharth Dhage, 10, are among a small group of children who take a 14-km (9-mile) return train journey from their village in India to fetch water.

Their families are some of the poorest in the hamlet of Mukundwadi, in the western state of Maharashtra, a village that has suffered back-to-back droughts.

India’s monsoons have brought abundant rain and even floods in many parts of the country, but rainfall in the region around Mukundwadi has been 14% below average this year and aquifers and borewells are dry.

“I don’t like to spend time bringing water, but I don’t have a choice,” Dhage said.

“This is my daily routine,” said Garud. Their cramped shanty homes are just 200 meters (220 yards) from the train station. “After coming from school, I don’t get time to play. I need to get water first.”

They are not alone. Millions of Indians do not have secure water supplies, according to the UK-based charity, WaterAid. It says 12% of Indians, or about 163 million people, do not have access to clean water near their homes – the biggest proportion of any country.

For an interactive graphic on India’s depleting water resources, please click https://tmsnrt.rs/2mgof1L

Recognizing the issue, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to spend more than 3.5 trillion rupees ($49 billion) to bring piped water to every Indian household by 2024.

More than 100 families in Garud and Dhage’s neighborhood do not have access to piped water and many depend on private water suppliers, who charge up to 3,000 rupees ($42) for a 5,000-litre tanker during summer months.

But private water supply is something Garud and Dhage’s parents say they can not afford.

“Nowadays, I don’t get enough money to buy groceries. I can’t buy water from private suppliers,” said Dhage’s father, Rahul, a construction worker. “I am not getting work every day.”

PIPE DREAM

The children take the train daily to fetch water from the nearby city of Aurangabad.

The train is often overcrowded, so a group of small children jostling to get on board with pitchers to fill with water is not always welcome.

“Some people help me, sometimes they complain to railway officials for putting pitchers near the door. If we don’t put them near the door, we can not take them out quickly when the train stops,” Dhage said.

Garud’s grandmother Sitabai Kamble and an elderly neighbor help occasionally by pushing them on board in the face of irritable passengers.

“Sometimes they kick the pitchers away, they grumble,” Kamble said.

When the train pulls into Aurangabad thirty minutes later, they scramble to fill the pitchers at nearby water pipes. Garud can’t reach the tap, so she relies on her taller sister, Aaysha, 14, and grandmother.

Others, like Anjali Gaikwad, 14, and her sisters, also board the train every few days to collect water and wash clothes.

Their neighbor Prakash Nagre often tags along with soap and shampoo. “There’s no water to bathe at home,” he says.

When the train returns them to Mukundwadi, they have just under a minute to disembark. At times, Dhage’s mother, Jyoti, is waiting at the station to help.

“I’m careful, but sometimes pitchers fall off the door in the melee and our work is wasted,” she said, holding her infant in one arm and a pitcher in the other. “I can’t leave my daughter at home alone so I have to take her along.”

(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Additional reporting by Francis Mascarenhas; Writing by Sankalp Phartiyal; Editing by Euan Rocha and Neil Fullick)

South Korea gives most aid to North Korea since 2008 amid food shortage

FILE PHOTO: North Koreans farm in a field along the Yalu River, in Sakchu county, North Phyongan Province, North Korea, June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Chen/File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea has provided its largest food and aid donation since 2008 to U.N. aid program in North Korea, officials said on Wednesday, amid warnings that millions of dollars more is needed to make up for food shortages.

South Korea followed through on a promise to donate $4.5 million to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), and announced it was also providing 50,000 tonnes of rice for delivery to its northern neighbor.

North Korea has said it is facing droughts, and U.N. aid agencies have said food production fell “dramatically” last year, leaving more than 10 million North Koreans at risk.

“This is the largest donation from the Republic of Korea to WFP DPRK since 2008 and will support 1.5 to 2 million children, pregnant and nursing mothers,” WFP senior spokesman Herve Verhoosel said in a statement, referring to his agency’s operation in North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

More aid would be needed, however, to make up for the shortfalls, he said.

“WFP estimates that at least 300,000 metric tons of food, valued at $275 million, is needed to scale up humanitarian assistance in support of those people most affected by significant crop losses over successive seasons,” Verhoosel said.

North Korea is under strict international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

While inter-Korean engagement spiked last year amid a push to resolve the nuclear standoff, Seoul’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang have been less successful after a second U.S.-North Korea summit ended with no agreement in February.

SANCTIONS A PROBLEM

South Korea would work with the WFP to get the aid as quickly as possible to the North Korean people who need, the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said in a statement.

“The timing and scale of additional food assistance to North Korea will be determined in consideration of the outcome of the aid provision this time,” the ministry said.

According to South Korean officials the rice is worth 127 billion won ($108 million).

The government would aim to have the rice delivered before September, and officials were in touch with counterparts in North Korea, Unification minister Kim Yeon-chul told reporters.

South Korea’s Agriculture Ministry said the last time South Korea sent rice to North Korea was in 2010, when 5,000 tonnes were donated. The largest donation ever was in 2005 when South Korean sent 500,000 tonnes of rice.

Seoul also recently donated $3.5 million to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for humanitarian projects in North Korea.

Technically humanitarian aid is not blocked by the sanctions, but aid organizations said sanctions enforcement and a U.S. ban on its citizens traveling to North Korea had slowed and in some cases prevented aid from reaching the country.

Aid shipments have also been controversial because of fears that North Korea’s authoritarian government would divert the supplies or potentially profit off it.

Verhoosel said the WFP would require “high standards for access and monitoring” to be in place before distributing any aid.

In March, Russia donated more than 2,000 tonnes of wheat to the WFP’s North Korea program.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin.; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Wyoming wildfire forces evacuations, closes highway south of Jackson

Smoke rises from a wildfire as seen from Bondurant, Wyoming, United States in this September 22, 2018 photo by Jared Kail. Jared Kail/Social Media/via REUTERS

By Laura Zuckerman

PINEDALE, Wyo. (Reuters) – A wind-blown wildfire that has forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes south of the resort town of Jackson, Wyoming, prompted officials on Sunday to close 50 miles of a key highway traveled by tourists to reach Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

The Roosevelt fire has scorched nearly 40,000 acres of drought-parched landscape and destroyed at least four structures, including two dwellings, since erupting Sept. 15 in the Bridger-Teton National Forest about 30 miles south of Jackson.

Smoke rises from a wildfire as seen from Bondurant, Wyoming, United States in this September 22, 2018 photo by Bryce Harvey. Bryce Harvey/Social Media/via REUTERS

Smoke rises from a wildfire as seen from Bondurant, Wyoming, United States in this September 22, 2018 photo by Bryce Harvey. Bryce Harvey/Social Media/via REUTERS

Hundreds of firefighters battled across steep, forested terrain and bone-dry sagebrush flats to push back flames driven by winds gusting to 50 miles per hour. By Sunday, crews had managed to carve containment lines around nearly a quarter of the fire’s perimeter.

But worsening conditions later prompted the Sublette County sheriff to expand evacuations in rural subdivisions in and around the town of Bondurant, bringing the number of homes affected to about 300. Scores of additional residences were placed on standby for evacuation at a moments notice, according to sheriff’s Sergeant Travis Bingham.

He said the blaze was stoked by thick vegetation left desiccated by prolonged drought.

“We haven’t had moisture for weeks, and the winds today were going from 35 to 50 miles per hour. The fire picked it up and ran with it,” he said Sunday.

The 50-mile segment of U.S. Highway 189/191 closed by state transportation officials runs from just northwest of the oil-and-gas town of Pinedale to the southern outskirts of Jackson.

The road is the main traffic route to Grand Teton and Yellowstone for travelers approaching the two premier national parks from points south, though neither Jackson nor the parks were expected to be threatened by the blaze.

The cause of the Roosevelt fire was under investigation. It comes at the height of the region’s hunting season and is one of three that have erupted since mid-September in the Bridger-Teton Forest in western Wyoming.

Wildfires have charred more than 7 million acres across the Western United States so far this year.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Pinedale, Wyo; Editing by Steve Gorman and Michael Perry)

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)

Study cites longer dry spells as fueling U.S. wildfires

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

By Laura Zuckerman

PINEDALE, Wyo. (Reuters) – Less rain and longer droughts are the major cause behind larger and more intense wildfires in the U.S. West, not higher temperatures and early snowmelt as previously thought, according to research released on Monday.

The findings by the U.S. Forest Service and University of Montana could help scientists better predict the severity of fire seasons, said the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study comes as tens of thousands of firefighters battle more than 100 blazes that have charred more than 1.9 million acres (770,000 hectares) in the Western United States. California is marking one of the most destructive fire seasons on record.

The researchers compared snowmelt timing and warming summer temperatures to fluctuations in the amount and distribution of summer rains on lands scorched by wildfires and determined that the latter were drivers.

Lack of summer rain and the extended duration of droughts foster warmer, drier air during fire seasons, leading to more surface heating, which, in turn, sucks moisture from trees, shrubs, and vegetation, the study found.

“This new information can help us better monitor changing conditions before the fire season to ensure that areas are prepared for increased wildfire potential,” Matt Jolly, USDA Forest Service research ecologist and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Further, it may improve our ability to predict fire season severity.”

The research also comes amid heated public debate ignited by high-ranking officials within the Trump administration about the cause of California’s wildfires, which have killed at least 11 people, destroyed homes and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

The administration has alternately rejected or downplayed the role of climate change in the worsening wildfire picture. After recently visiting some of California’s major fire zones, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed “gross mismanagement of forests” because of timber harvest restrictions that he said were supported by “environmental terrorist groups.”

Authorities in California have reported an increase in large, explosive and swiftly spreading wildfires over a longer, virtually year-round fire season.

Fire officials say that trend has been fueled by several years of drought-stricken vegetation and stoked by frequent and persistent bouts of erratic winds and triple-digit temperatures, in keeping with scientists’ forecasts of changing climate conditions.

Ninety-five percent of wildfires are human-caused, from campfires left unattended to careless smoking, to sparks from vehicles and improperly maintained power lines, fire managers say.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Sanctions-hit North Korea warns of natural disaster brought by heat wave

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on top of a 160-metre tower in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from the Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), inside the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday called for an “all-out battle” against record temperatures that threaten crops in a country already grappling with tough international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

The resulting drought has brought an “unprecedented natural disaster”, the isolated nation said, warning against crop damage that could savage its farm-reliant economy, battered by sanctions despite recent diplomatic overtures.

“This high-temperature phenomenon is the largest, unprecedented natural disaster, but not an obstacle we cannot overcome,” the North’s Rodong Sinmun said, urging that “all capabilities” be mobilized to fight the extended dry spell.

Temperatures have topped a record 40°C (104°F) in some regions since late July, and crops such as rice and maize have begun to show signs of damage, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party said in a front-page commentary.

“Whether the current good crop conditions, for which the whole nation has made unsparing investment and sweated until now, will lead to a bumper year in the autumn hinges on how we overcome the heat and drought,” it added.

Similar past warnings in state media have served to drum up foreign assistance and boost domestic unity.

“I think the message was a precautionary one to minimize any impact on daily life,” said Dong Yong-seung, who runs Good Farmers, a group based in Seoul, capital of neighboring South Korea, that explores farm projects with the North.

But the mention of unprecedented weather, and a series of related articles, suggest the heat wave could further strain its capacity to respond to natural disasters, said Kim Young-hee, a defector from North Korea and an expert on its economy at Korea Finance Corp in Seoul.

The warning comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced in April a shift in focus from nuclear programs to the economy, and held an unprecedented June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.

Since then, the young leader has toured industrial facilities and special economic zones near the North’s border with China, a move experts saw as a bid to spur economic development nationwide.

“He has been highlighting his people-loving image and priority on the economy but the reality is he doesn’t have the institutions to take a proper response to heat, other than opening underground shelters,” added Kim, the economist.

GOOD CROP CONDITIONS

Drought and floods have long been a seasonal threat in North Korea, which lacks irrigation systems and other infrastructure to ward off natural disasters.

Last year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation warned of the North’s worst drought in 16 years, but late summer rains and privately produced crops helped avert acute shortages.

There appear to be no immediate signs of major suffering in the North, with rice prices stable around 62 U.S. cents per kg through the year to Tuesday, a Reuters analysis of data compiled by the Daily NK website showed.

The website is run by defectors who gather prices through telephone calls to traders in the North, gaining a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary citizens.

Crops are good this year because there was little flooding to disrupt the early spring planting season, said Kang Mi-jin of the Daily NK, based in Seoul.

“They say nothing remains where water flowed away, but there is something to harvest after the heat,” Kang said, citing defectors. “Market prices are mainly determined by Chinese supplies and private produce, rather than crop conditions.”

The October harvest would reveal any havoc wreaked by the weather, Kim Young-hee added.

North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s when a combination of bad weather, economic mismanagement and the demise of fuel subsidies from the Soviet Union all but destroyed its state rationing system.

However, rationing has slowly been overtaken by an increase in foreign products, mainly from China, and privately produced food sold in North Korean markets, a factor experts say U.N. reports overlook.

The neighbors are in talks to help the North modernize its economy, step up disaster response measures and expand forests in a follow-up to April’s historic summit between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.

Across the border, temperatures hit 39.6°C (103.28°F) in Seoul on Wednesday, their highest since weather authorities began monitoring in 1907. The heat has caused 29 deaths and injuries to more than 2,350 people, health officials have said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Clarence Fernandez)

Fast-spreading California wildfire nears Yosemite park

The Sierra Hotshots, from the Sierra National Forest, are responding on the front lines of the Ferguson Fire in Yosemite in this US Forest Service photo from California, U.S. released on social media on July 22, 2018. Courtesy USDA/US Forest Service, Sierrra Hotshots/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A raging California mountain blaze that has already killed one firefighter grew over the weekend and bore down on Yosemite National Park, prompting the closure of some smoke-choked campgrounds and roads at the popular tourist destination.

The so-called Ferguson Fire, which started on July 13 in the Sierra National Forest, grew by more than 10 percent in size over the weekend, sending smoke billowing for miles (km) and causing air quality alerts for parts of the San Joaquin Valley, officials said on Sunday.

“Air quality and visibility have been severely affected by smoke. Visitors should expect limited visibility and should be prepared to limit outdoor activities during periods of high concentration,” Yosemite National Park said on its Twitter feed over the weekend.

Parts of the Ferguson Fire were about 20 miles to 30 miles (30-50 km) south and southwest of the park as of Sunday. Nearly 3,000 firefighters were battling the blaze that has burned through nearly 30,500 acres (12,340 hectares) of bone-dry terrain and was 6 percent contained as of Sunday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Crews have been struggling to build fire lines around the blaze because flames are burning in steep canyons that are difficult to access with heavy equipment.

Firefighter Braden Varney was killed shortly after the fire broke out when a bulldozer he was using to cut a fire break overturned. Varney was the 10th U.S. wildland firefighter to die in the line of duty this year, according to National Interagency Fire Center data.

The fire is one of about 50 major wildfires burning in the United States over the weekend that have so far scorched an area of about 1.2 million acres (485,620 hectares). Most are in western states with blazes also in Central Texas and Wisconsin, according to the InciWeb tracking service.

As of July 22, wildfires had burned through about 3.65 million acres (1,477,100 hectares) so far this year, above the 10-year average for the same calendar period of 3.43 million acres (1,388,070 hectares), according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler)

South Korea says sanctions shrank North Korean economy at sharpest rate in 20 years

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean man is photographed from the Chinese side of the border near the town of Changbai, China as he rides a bicycle along the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Hyesan, November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By Cynthia Kim and Hayoung Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s economy contracted at the sharpest rate in two decades in 2017, South Korea’s central bank estimated on Friday, as international sanctions and drought hit growth hard, with signs living conditions were beginning to deteriorate.

Gross domestic product (GDP) in North Korea last year shrank 3.5 percent from the previous year, marking the biggest decline since a 6.5 percent drop in 1997 when the isolated nation was hit by a devastating famine, the Bank of Korea said.

North Korea does not publish economic data, and comprehensive public figures on social conditions are nonexistent.

However, analysts believe wider sanctions last year are likely to make the economic deterioration in 2018 worse than 2017, which could add to humanitarian need in the politically isolated state.

“The sanctions were stronger in 2017 than they were in 2016,” Shin Seung-cheol, head of the BOK’s National Accounts Coordination Team said.

“External trade volume fell significantly with the exports ban on coal, steel, fisheries and textile products. It’s difficult to put exact numbers on those but (export bans) crashed industrial production,” Shin said.

Both Seoul and Washington argue that increasingly strict international sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile program have been instrumental in leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to impose a ban on weapons testing and to negotiate with international leaders.

North Korea has called the sanctions “vicious” but rejects suggestions that the pressure led them to pursue diplomatic talks.

The situation also worsened last year with international experts fearing North Korea was facing the worst drought in 16 years, though late summer rains helped avoid acute food shortages.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April vowed to switch the country’s strategic focus from the development of its nuclear arsenal jump starting his economy, but analysts say that will be difficult while sanctions remain in place.

“As long as exports of minerals are part of the sanctions, by far the most profitable item of its exports, Pyongyang will have no choice but to continue with its current negotiations with the U.S.,” said Kim Byeong-yeon, an economics professor at the Seoul National University who specializes in the North Korean economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that sanctions won’t be lifted until Kim moves to give up his nuclear and missile arsenal.

INDUSTRY TAKES A HIT

North Korea’s coal-intensive industries and manufacturing sectors have suffered as the UN Security Council ratcheted up the sanctions in response to years of nuclear tests by Pyongyang.

Industrial production, which accounts for about a third of the nation’s total output, fell 8.5 percent. That marked the steepest decline since 1997 as factory production collapsed on restrictions of flows of oil and other energy resources into the country. Output from agriculture, construction industries fell by 1.3 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.

China, its biggest trading partner, suspended coal purchases last year which cut North Korea’s main export revenue source while its suspended fuel sales into to country sparked a surge in gasoline and diesel prices, data reviewed by Reuters showed earlier.

Since then, however, fuel prices have stabilized and even dropped in recent weeks, according to a report published last week on the North Korean Economy Watch website.

“My best guess is that it’s a combination of increased smuggling, perhaps aided by China’s declining vigilance in enforcing sanctions and restrictions against illicit trade across the border,” analyst Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein wrote in the report.

North Korea’s black market, or Jangmadang, has grown to account for about 60 percent of the economy, according to the Institute for Korean Integration of Society.

“Shrinking trade first hits the Kim regime and top officials, and then later affects unofficial markets,” said Kim at Seoul National University, noting the squeeze would also be felt in household income and private consumption.

China’s total trade with North Korea dropped 59.2 percent in the first half of 2018 from a year earlier, China’s customs data showed last week.

The BOK uses figures compiled by the government and spy agencies to make its economic estimates. The bank’s survey includes monitoring of the size of rice paddy crops in border areas, traffic surveillance, and interviews with defectors.

HUMAN TOLL

Prices for food staples like rice and corn have remained stable under changing sanctions, and there are signs that a growing number of North Koreans have access to electronic appliances, often powered by solar panels, according to data gathered by the DailyNK website.

North Korean defectors in the South, however, say they hear reports of increased suffering.

“The economic status in Hamgyong area was very bad, according to my sources within North Korea,” said Kim Seung-cheol, a defector who heads the NK Reform Radio station in Seoul, referencing an area near the border with China.

“In South Hamgyong, some people died of hunger. Since trade with China fell significantly, foreign traders in the border area are suffering from poverty.”

The United Nations’ top aid official visited the country last week and said there was “clear evidence of humanitarian need.”

Other U.N. officials warn that aid groups face difficulties accessing international banking channels, transporting goods into the North Korea, while rising fuel prices hinder aid delivery.

North Korea’s Gross National Income per capita stands at 1.46 million won ($1,283.52), making it about 4.4 percent the size of South Korea’s, the BOK said.

Overall exports from North Korea dropped 37.2 percent in 2017, marking the biggest fall since a 38.5 percent decline in 1998, the BOK said on Friday, citing data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

($1 = 1,137.5000 won)

(Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim,; Editing by Sam Holmes)