California wine country wildfire forces evacuation of hospital, hundreds of homes

By Stephen Lam and Steve Gorman

ST. HELENA, Calif. (Reuters) – A wind-driven wildfire erupted on Sunday in the heart of northern California’s Napa Valley wine country to spread across nearly 2,000 acres (809 hectares), forcing the evacuation of a hospital and hundreds of homes, authorities said.

Fire crews were out in force, scrambling to fend off flames threatening neighborhoods and vineyards at the northern end of the famed wine-growing valley and surrounding hillsides, about 75 miles (120 km) north of San Francisco.

The blaze, dubbed the Glass Fire, broke out before dawn near Calistoga and raced toward the adjacent communities of Deer Park and St. Helena, with flames reaching within a mile of the Adventist Health St. Helena hospital.

All 55 patients there at the time were safely evacuated by ambulance and helicopter over the course of five hours from about 7 a.m., hospital spokeswoman Linda Williams told Reuters.

“We had ambulances lined up from all over the Bay area,” she said, adding that although smoke shrouded the facility, the skies above were clear enough for helicopters’ airlift efforts.

It was the second wildfire-related evacuation of the 151-bed hospital in a month, after a massive cluster of lightning-sparked blazes that swept several counties north of the San Francisco Bay region in August.

Authorities ordered about 600 homes evacuated on Sunday, with residents of 1,400 more warned to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, said Tyree Zander, a spokesman for the state’s forestry and fire protection department (CalFire). The notices affected at least 5,000 people, he added.

By evening, flames stoked by winds gusting up to 50 mph (80 kph) had scorched about 1,800 acres (728 hectares) of grassy rolling hillsides and oak woodlands, with little or no containment, Zander said.

FIRE AT HARVEST TIME

The cause of the fire is being investigated. There were no immediate reports of injuries, but a Reuters photographer in St. Helena saw some structures that had been burned.

The blaze erupted midway through the traditional grape-harvesting period in the Napa Valley, world renowned as one of California’s premiere wine-producing regions. The area’s 475 wineries account for just 4% of the state’s total annual grape harvest but half of the retail value of all California wines sold, according to the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.

Of Napa’s 16 wine-growing districts, or sub-appellations, the Howell Mountain area may have faced the greatest threat, said Lisa Covey, a spokeswoman for Hall Family Wines, which kept open during the day all its three tasting rooms in the county.

Napa and other wine-growing regions have been hit by wildfires in and around the Bay area for several years. Susan Krausz, co-owner of Arkenstone Estate Vineyards in the Howell Mountain community of Angwin, said it would take days or weeks to assess the impact of the latest blaze on valley vintners.

“Most people have harvested,” she said, but added, “Any time’s a bad time for a fire.”

Tom Kaljian, 78, a realtor who owns a house about halfway between Calistoga and St. Helena, defied evacuation orders to spend the day with his wife hosing down their home and dry brush along a fence line separating their property from the Silverado Trail, a key north-south roadway.

“We were told to get out of here, but I was trying to protect our little abode, so we stayed,” he told Reuters by telephone.

After firefighters told him the house was no longer in danger, he added, “I stopped watering at that point, and came in and took a nap.”

The Glass Fire came as the Pacific Gas and Electric Company said it was temporarily halting power to transmission lines in parts of 16 counties across northern and central California to guard against greater wildfire risks in hot, windy, dry weather.

The public safety power shutoffs were expected to affect about 65,000 regional homes and businesses, said PG&E, the state’s largest electric utility.

A red flag warning for extreme wildfire risks for Napa Valley would run through Monday morning, Zander said.

CalFire said a fire weather watch would start on Monday across much of Southern California, following the forecast return of hot, gusty Santa Ana winds and low humidity.

California wildfires have scorched more than 3.7 million acres in the first nine months of 2020, far exceeding any single year in state history, killing 26 people and destroying more than 7,000 structures.

(Reporting by Stephen Lam in St. Helena; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Clarence Fernandez)

Wildfires rage in California, stoked by extreme heat in U.S. West

(Reuters) – Three large wildfires burned in California and a fourth was growing quickly on Monday as a weekend heat wave lingered across large swaths of the western United States.

The Creek Fire, which has engulfed the Fresno area in central California and caused the emergency evacuation over the weekend of more than 200 people vacationing at a popular reservoir, was still not contained as of Monday afternoon, fire officials said.

The blaze, growing under “extreme weather conditions,” had devoured nearly 79,000 acres (32,000 hectares) of land, while a cause remained under investigation, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) said in a statement.

Officials in Madera County issued evacuation orders and urged the county’s 157,000 residents to leave if they felt unsafe.

A hiker who had just embarked on a multi-day trip when the Creek Fire broke out and had to find a way out of the blaze shared the harrowing experience on social media.

“We’re safe and we’re out, but wow, we hiked our way out of the #CreekFire yesterday,” Asha Karim posted on Twitter.

The Oak Fire in Mendocino County started burning around 1:26 pm on Monday afternoon, according to CalFire, and three hours later it had already torched 1,000 acres (400 hectares) and destroyed one structure.

Videos on social media showed the fire consuming pick-up trucks as it spread along Highway 101 near Willits, California.

“If you’re trying to get out of an evacuation area please call 911 for help. Don’t delay!” the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office wrote on Twitter.

San Francisco-based power provider PG&E said late on Monday that it began turning off power in “high fire-threat” areas. The outages will impact 172,000 customers in 22 counties, mostly in the Sierra Foothills, PG&E said, adding the shut off was a safety measure due to the extreme high and dry winds.

The California Independent Systems Operator, which runs most of the state’s power grid, again urged consumers to cut back on energy consumption and said it was monitoring wildfires throughout the state threatening power lines.

In Southern California, east of San Diego, more than 400 firefighters battled the Valley Fire, which burned more than 17,000 acres (6,900 hectares)in Cleveland National Forest. Video shared on social media showed firefighters dousing the flames, the air thick with ash and fire embers.

The blaze was 3% contained on Monday evening. Officials announced the deployment of military aircraft on Monday afternoon to help fight the flames.

A fire in San Bernardino County, southeast of Los Angeles, that officials said was caused by a pyrotechnic device used during a gender reveal party, kept burning through the night and was 7% contained as of Monday morning.

On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, San Bernardino and San Diego counties due to the wildfires, which also prompted the U.S. Forest Service to temporarily close some national forests including the Sierra National Forest, the Angeles National Forest and the San Bernardino National Forest.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Gabriella Borter in New York; additional reporting by Kanishka Singh; Editing by Leslie Adler, Peter Cooney and Michael Perry)

Firefighters make headway against lightning-sparked California wildfires

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California fire officials on Sunday reported significant headway battling the two largest of dozens of lightning-sparked blazes raging in and around the greater San Francisco Bay area since mid-August, though 60,000 people remained under evacuation.

As of Sunday firefighters had managed to carve containment lines around 56% of the perimeter of a colossal wildfire that has burned more than 375,000 acres across five counties north of the bay, including a swath of the Napa and Sonoma valley wine country region.

That marked a major gain from 41% containment listed a day earlier for the blaze, dubbed the LNU Lightning Complex fire, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

Containment of a slightly larger fire called the SCU Lightning Complex, which has charred more than 377,000 acres in four counties east and south of the bay, grew to 50% on Sunday, up from 40% on Saturday, CalFire said.

Those two blazes together – which rank as the second- and third-largest wildfires on record in California – account for half of total acreage set ablaze during the past two weeks in a series of catastrophic lightning storms.

Firefighters, helped by cooler weather after a record-breaking heat wave abated, have gained ground elsewhere across the state, as well.

“We definitely have increased containment on all of the major fires, evacuations are being lifted and weather conditions are more favorable,” CalFire spokeswoman Christine McMorrow told Reuters by phone. “We are definitely making progress.”

Nearly 14,00 lightning strikes, mostly in central and northern California, have ignited hundreds of individual fires since Aug. 15, many of which merged into bigger conflagrations. Those fires have collectively charred more than 1.42 million acres – a landscape larger than the state of Delaware, according to CalFire.

Seven fatalities have been confirmed, and nearly 2,500 homes and other structures have been reduced to ruin. Smoke from the fires also badly degraded air quality throughout the region, adding to health hazards already posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

While CalFire said more than 60,000 residents remained displaced throughout the fire zone as of Sunday morning, McMorrow said “quite a few” evacuation orders and warnings were being lifted.

Meteorologists said the recent spate of dry lightning, the heaviest seen in California in more than a decade, was linked to the same atmospheric high-pressure system that caused a lengthy heat wave, which in turn further desiccated dense, fire-prone vegetation across the state.

Scientists point to lengthy droughts and longer-than-normal stretches of extreme heat as evidence of climate change that has steadily intensified and prolonged wildfire season in California and across the Western United States in recent years.

Climatologist Zach Zobel said California is on track to overtake the nearly 2 million acres burned in 2018, when the state suffered its deadliest wildfire in history, as well as the most acreage burned on record gong back to 1987.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Lightning-sparked fires rage across California, tens of thousands flee

By Steven Lam

VACAVILLE, Calif. (Reuters) – A firefighting helicopter pilot was killed in a crash, and scores of homes burned in California on Wednesday as hundreds of lightning-sparked blazes forced tens of thousands of people to flee their dwellings.

Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes were documented during a 72-hour stretch this week in the heaviest spate of thunderstorms to hit California in more than a decade, igniting 367 individual fires. Almost two dozen of them have grown into major conflagrations, authorities said.

Multiple fires raced through hills and mountains adjacent to Northern California’s drought-parched wine country, shutting down Interstate 80 at Fairfield, about 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Sacramento, as flames leapt across the highway, trapping motorists caught in a hectic evacuation.

Police in the nearby town of Vacaville reported that advancing flames had prompted the evacuation of a state prison there and a medical facility for inmates.

Four residents whose communities were overrun by flames hours earlier in the same area suffered burns but survived, though the severity of their injuries was not immediately known, said Will Powers a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

He said thousands of residents were under mandatory evacuation orders in a four-county area stricken by a cluster of nine wind-driven fires collectively dubbed the LNU Complex, triggered by lightning on Monday.

In central California, a helicopter was on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County about 160 miles (258 km) south of San Francisco when it crashed, killing the pilot, a private contractor, CalFire said.

As of Wednesday night, the LNU complex of fires had burned largely unchecked across 124,000 acres (50,000 hectares), with zero containment, destroying at least 105 homes and other structures and leaving another 70 damaged, CalFire said. Several of the fires had merged by nightfall.

Wearing a singed nightgown, Diane Bustos said her husband abandoned their car as it caught fire and then blew up on the west side of Vacaville early Wednesday morning. She lost both her shoes when she and her family ran for their lives.

“I made it, God saved me,” Bustos told television station KPIX.

There were social media accounts of people trapped in the blaze, but CalFire’s Powers said authorities had no reports of anyone missing.

A Reuters reporter saw dozens of burned-out homesteads and houses in the Vacaville-Fairfield area, dead livestock among torched properties and some animals wandering loose.

“We are experiencing fires the like of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” California Governor Gavin Newsom told a news conference, adding he had requested 375 fire engines from out of state to help.

He declared a statewide fire emergency on Tuesday.

The last time California experienced dry lightning storms of such devastating proportions was in 2008, said CalFire spokesman Scott Maclean.

Fanned by “red-flag” high winds, the fires are racing through vegetation parched by a record-breaking heat wave that began on Friday. Meteorologists have said the extreme heat and lightning storms were both linked to the same atmospheric weather pattern – an enormous high-pressure area hovering over America’s desert Southwest.

The largest group of fires, called the SCU Lightning Complex, had scorched at least 102,000 acres some 20 miles east of Palo Alto, while a third cluster, the CZU August Lightning Complex, grew to more than 10,000 acres and forced evacuations around 13 miles south of Palo Alto.

(Reporting by Steven Lam in Vacaville, Calif.; Additional reporting by Jane Ross and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento. Writing and reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Stephen Coates, Sandra Maler and Lincoln Feast.)

Philippine residents retrieve animals, belongings amid threat of volcano eruption

By Eloisa Lopez and Karen Lema

AGONCILLO, Philippines (Reuters) – Thousands of residents under orders to evacuate from a town near the Philippine volcano Taal were allowed to briefly visit homes on Friday to rescue their animals and recover some possessions, taking advantage of what appeared to be waning activity.

Daniel Reyes, mayor of the Agoncillo town inside the danger zone of the 311 meter (1,020 feet) volcano, said he allowed around 3,000 residents to check their properties and retrieve animals, clothes and other possessions.

“If I would not let them rescue their animals, their animals would die and together with them their sources of livelihood,” Reyes told Reuters.

A long line of cars, trucks, motorcycle taxis carrying pigs, dogs, television sets, gas stoves and electric fans, were seen leaving Agoncillo, among the towns blanketed in thick layers of volcanic ash.

“Our bodies are fine, but our minds and hearts are in pain”, said resident Peding Dawis, 63, while resting after taking his cows to safer areas.

Dawis said there were 200 more pigs that needed rescuing in his neighborhood.

“It’s hard to leave our homes and livelihood behind.”

More than 40,000 residents of Agoncillo have abandoned their homes since Taal, one of the Philippines’ most active and deadliest volcanoes, began spewing massive clouds of ash, steam and gas on Sunday, Reyes said.

The majority of residents are now staying with families elsewhere, but the rest are among a total of 66,000 people sheltering in evacuation centers.

SIGNS OF CALM

Taal has shown signs of calm since Thursday and Reyes said he took advantage of this window to allow residents to collect their belongings.

“Based on what I saw outside, I thought I would be doing them more good if I let them return to their homes,” Reyes said. “The help they are getting now is only momentarily”.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said it observed “steady steam emission and infrequent weak explosions” from the volcano’s main crater, but it continued to record dozens of earthquakes in nearby towns.

The institute said on Friday the danger level posed by the volcano remained at 4 out of a possible 5, meaning “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days”.

“We do not base the alert level simply on what we see on the surface. We have to try to interpret what is happening below,” Renato Solidum, Phivolcs’ chief, told CNN Philippines.

“There are sometimes waning activity but the activity below is still continuing.”

The impact of the volcano on the $330 billion national economy has been a blip, despite canceled flights and a day of work lost on Sunday because of a heavy ashfall in the capital Manila, 70 km (45 miles) away.

But for some of the farmers growing pineapples, bananas and coffee nearby it has been a disaster.

Volcanic ash has caused an estimated 3.06 billion pesos ($60.17 million) worth of damage to crops, livestock and fish farms, based on the latest data from the agriculture department.

Although Taal is one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, it can be deadly. An eruption killed more than 1,300 people in 1911.

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Michael Perry)

Rumbling volcano shuts down Philippine capital

By Karen Lema and Enrico Dela Cruz

MANILA (Reuters) – Schools and businesses shut across the Philippine capital on Monday as a volcano belched clouds of ash across the city and seismologists warned an eruption could happen at any time, potentially triggering a tsunami.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes around Taal, one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, which spewed ash for a second day from its crater in the middle of a lake about 70 km (45 miles) south of central Manila.

Residents living near the errupting Taal Volcano evacuate in Lemery, Batangas City, Philippines, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

“The speed of escalation of Taal’s volcanic activity caught us by surprise,” Maria Antonia Bornas, chief science research specialist at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told reporters.

“We have detected magma. It’s still deep, it hasn’t reached the surface. We still can expect a hazardous eruption any time.”

Authorities warned that an eruption could send a tsunami surging across the lake.

More than 24,000 people have been evacuated from the volcanic island and the area immediately around it – normally a popular tourist spot.

“We got scared of what could happen to us, we thought the volcano was going to erupt already,” said Marilou Baldonado, 53, who left the town of Laurel with only two sets of clothes after she saw the huge ash cloud build.

Some tourists ignored the dangers and traveled to towns close to the volcano to get a better look.

Residents living near the errupting Taal Volcano evacuate in Agoncillo, Batangas City, Philippines, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience for us,” Israeli tourist Benny Borenstein told Reuters as he snapped photos of Taal from a vantage point in Tagaytay City, about 32 km away.

To the southwest of the volcano, the towns of Agoncillo and Lemery were coated by a thick layer of ash, making roads impassable.

Agoncillo’s mayor, Daniel Reyes, told DZMM radio some homes and part of a building had collapsed under the weight of the fallen ash.

In nearby Talisay Batangas, Vice Governor Mark Leviste said rain had turned ash to mud and trucks were needed to evacuate more people from remote communities.

“There is no power. Even water was cut, so we are in need of potable water,” he said. “We are in need of face masks.”

SHUT DOWN

In Manila, masks sold out quickly after residents were advised to wear them if they had to go out. Some wore handkerchiefs across their faces as they breathed air tainted by the smell of sulfur.

Streets that would normally be snarled with some of the world’s worst traffic were largely empty in the city of 13 million people.

Schools and government offices were closed on official orders. The stock exchange suspended trading and many private businesses shut for the day too.

Classes in some cities in the capital will remain suspended on Tuesday, officials said.

Lightning strike in the midst of Taal volcano explosion is seen in Lipa City, Philippines January 12, 2020 in this picture obtained from social media. Cheslie Andal/via REUTERS

Flight operations at Manila’s international airport partially resumed, authorities said, after more than 500 flights were delayed or canceled on Sunday.

One flight that did land carried President Rodrigo Duterte, who was coming back from his home city of Davao in the southern Philippines. He had been unable to fly on Sunday because visibility was so low.

One of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, Taal has erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. An eruption in 1911 killed 1,500 people and one in 1754 lasted for a few months.

The island has been showing signs of restiveness since early last year.

The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire,” a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.

(Additional reporting by Peter Blaza; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Stephen Coates and Andrew Heavens)

‘No signs of life’ on New Zealand volcano island after disaster ‘waiting to happen’

By Charlotte Greenfield

WHAKATANE, New Zealand (Reuters) – New Zealand said on Tuesday that eight people were missing, presumed dead, a day after a volcano unexpectedly erupted off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, killing at least five people and injuring more than 30.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters in Whakatane, a town near the volcanic White Island tourist attraction, that aerial reconnaissance flights had shown no signs of life.

“It’s now clear that there were two groups on the island – those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption,” Ardern told reporters.

New Zealanders and tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia were among the missing and injured, she said, adding that there were two explosions in quick succession. No further details were given.

“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief in this moment at time and in your sorrow,” Ardern said.

Waikato Police Superintendent Bruce Bird said 47 people visited the island on Monday – five were confirmed to have been killed and eight were missing. Some 31 were in hospital and three had been discharged.

Police said they did not expect to find any more survivors from the eruption, which spewed a plume of ash thousands of feet into the air. Many of the injured were in critical condition, most from burns, Ardern said.

White Island is about 50 km (30 miles) from the east coast of North Island and huge plumes were visible from the mainland. Volcanologists said the ash plume shot 12,000 feet (3,658 m) into the air.

“White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years,” said Ray Cas, a professor emeritus at Monash University, in comments published by the Australian Science Media Centre.

“Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter.”

Bird said rescue services were working to return to the island and were relying on advice from scientific and technical experts meeting in Wellington on Monday.

“We will only go to the island if it is safe for our people,” said Bird.

Many day tours visit the island regularly. One from a 16-deck cruise liner, Ovation of the Seas, was there at the time.

Ardern said helicopters made a deliberate decision to fly to the island to rescue survivors immediately after the eruption. Graphic: Volcanic Eruption in New Zealand, https://tmsnrt.rs/38iBpyN

“I want to acknowledge the courageous decision made by first responders and those pilots who in the immediate rescue effort made an incredibly brave decision under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out,” she Ardern.

“As a result of their efforts a number of people were rescued from the island.”

‘THIS IS NOT A JOKE’

Janet Urey, 61, a nurse from Richmond, Virginia, said her son Matthew, 36, was injured in the eruption while on honeymoon.

“The phone rang at midnight. Then I heard a voicemail come on. It was my son. He said, Mom…this is not a joke. A volcano erupted while we were on the island. We’re at the hospital with severe burns.”

She has been frustrated by the lack of information from the cruise ship he was on and from authorities.

“I have not heard a word from the cruise people. I just want the word out there. I’m not really happy with how this has been handled,” she added.

A crater rim camera owned and operated by New Zealand science agency GeoNet showed groups of people walking toward and away from the rim inside the crater, from which white vapor constantly billows, in the hour leading up to the eruption.

Michael Schade, an engineering manager from San Francisco, was one of the tourists who made it off the island just before the eruption.

“This is so hard to believe,” Schade said in a video posted on Twitter as he sped away from the island by boat. “Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before.”

Geological hazard tracker GeoNet raised the alert level for the White Island volcano in November due to an increase in volcanic activity.

The volcano’s last fatal eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulfur miners. There was a short-lived eruption in April 2016. Daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano every year.

‘Whakaari’, as it is known in the Maori language, is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years, GeoNet said.

About 70 percent is under the sea, making the massive volcanic structure the largest in New Zealand.

(Additionial reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)

‘Leave now’: Australians urged to evacuate as ‘catastrophic’ fires loom

‘Leave now’: Australians urged to evacuate as ‘catastrophic’ fires loom
By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Authorities declared a state of emergency across a broad swath of Australia’s east coast on Monday, urging residents in high risk areas to evacuate ahead of looming “catastrophic” fire conditions.

Bushfires burning across New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland states have already killed three people and destroyed more than 150 homes. Officials expect adverse heat and wind conditions to peak at unprecedented levels on Tuesday.

Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers but the current severe outbreak, well before the summer peak, has caught many by surprise.

“Everybody has to be on alert no matter where you are and everybody has to be assume the worst and we cannot allow complacency to creep in,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The country’s most populous city has been designated at “catastrophic fire danger” for Tuesday, when temperatures as high as 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) are forecast to combine with powerful winds for potentially deadly conditions. It is the first time Sydney has been rated at that level since new fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009.

Home to more than 5 million people, Sydney is ringed by large areas of bushland, much of which remains tinder dry following little rain across the country’s east coast in recent months.

“Tomorrow is about protecting life, protecting property and ensuring everybody is safe as possible,” Berejiklian said.

Lawmakers said the statewide state of emergency – giving firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities – would remain in place for seven days.

On Monday afternoon, the fire service authorised use of the Standard Emergency Warning Signal, an alarm and verbal warning that will be played on radio and television stations every hour.

NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons urged people to evacuate before conditions worsened, warning that new fires can begin up to 20km (12 miles) ahead of established fires.

“Relocate while things are calm without the pressure or anxiety of fires bearing down the back door,” he said.

Authorities stressed that even fireproofed homes will not be able to withstand catastrophic conditions, which Fitzsimmons described as “when lives are lost, it’s where people die”.

More than 100 schools will be closed on Tuesday.

On Monday afternoon, rescue services were moving large animals from high risk areas, while health officials warned that air quality across NSW will worsen as winds blow smoke from the current mid-north coast bushfires south.

The fires have already had a devastating impact on Australia’s wildlife, with about 350 koalas feared dead in a major habitat.

CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE

Australia’s worst bushfires on record destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria in February 2009, killing 173 people and injuring 414 on a day the media dubbed “Black Saturday”.

The current fires, however, come weeks ahead of the southern hemisphere summer, sharpening attention on the policies of Australia’s conservative government to address climate change.

Environmental activists and opposition lawmakers have used the fires to call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a supporter of the coal industry, to strengthen the country’s emissions targets.

Morrison declined to answer questions about whether the fires were linked to climate change when he visited fire-hit areas in the north of NSW over the weekend.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack on Monday accused climate activists of politicising a tragedy at the expense of people in the danger zones.

“What we are doing is taking real and meaningful action to reduce global emissions without shutting down all our industries,” McCormack told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes.”

(Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell)

New Fast-moving Los Angeles wildfire destroys homes, prompts evacuation orders

Fast-moving Los Angeles wildfire destroys homes, prompts evacuation orders
(Reuters) – Thousands of people in Los Angeles were ordered to evacuate after a fast-moving brush fire ignited early on Monday morning near the Getty Center museum, the latest outbreak in a wildfire season that has scorched parts of California.

Spot fires break out on a hillside as the Getty Fire burns in west Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Spot fires break out on a hillside as the Getty Fire burns in west Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

The fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) and has since grown to consume more than 500 acres (202 hectares) in the scrub-covered hills around Interstate 405, near some of the city’s most expensive homes. Commuters posted videos of slopes aglow with orange flames close to the road’s edge.

At least five homes had burned down but there were no reported injuries, Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters at a news conference with fire officials, warning that he expected the number to rise.

“This is a fire that quickly spread,” he said, urging residents in the evacuation zone, which encompasses more than 3,300 homes, to get out quickly.

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who lives in the area, said he had heeded the warning and had been driving around before dawn with his family looking for shelter.

“Finally found a place to accommodate us!” he wrote a short time later on Twitter. “Crazy night man!”

Officials at the Getty art museum said the fire was burning to the north of the building, which was designed with thick stone walls to prevent fire from damaging its treasures.

The fierce winds fanning wildfires elsewhere in the state, including a large fire consuming parts of the picturesque wine country north of San Francisco, were expected to abate on Monday.

But forecasters with the National Weather Service said high winds would return later in the week and could be the strongest so far this year in the south of the state.

Marc Chenard, a forecaster with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center, said wind gusts in northern California would abate by midday and in the south of the state by later in the afternoon.

Wind gusts can be between 50 to 60 miles per hour (80-96 kph), with some significantly higher, he said.

The northern California wine country has borne the brunt of the fires, with 84 square miles (218 sq km) burned and 190,000 people evacuated in the Kincade fire.

Only about 5% of that fire was contained early on Monday after crews lost ground against the wind-driven wildfire a day earlier.

About 3,000 people were battling the Kincade Fire, the worst of more than a dozen major blazes that have damaged or destroyed nearly 400 structures and prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a statewide emergency.

Investigators have not yet said what they believed caused the blaze, although it ignited near a broken wire on a Pacific Gas & Electric <PCG.N> transmission tower.

POWER OUTAGES

More than a million homes and businesses were without power on Monday morning, most of those from planned outages. Forecasts of high winds had prompted PG&E to shut off power to 940,000 customers in 43 counties on Saturday night to guard against the risk of touching off wildfires.

PG&E expects to issue a weather all clear for safety inspections and restoration work to begin early Monday morning for the northern Sierras and North Coast, the company said.

The governor has been sharply critical of PG&E, saying corporate greed and mismanagement kept it from upgrading its infrastructure while wildfire hazards have steadily worsened over the past decade.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January, citing billions of dollars in civil liabilities from deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

(Reporting by Stephen Lam in Healdsburg, California, additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone, Steve Orlofsky and Bill Berkrot)

Floodwaters rise on Charleston’s streets as Hurricane Dorian skirts U.S. coast

Nathan Piper, 11, is swamped by increasingly rough waves while body surfing as Hurricane Dorian approaches, in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Nick Carey and Amanda Becker

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Deserted, rain-lashed streets in Charleston, South Carolina, vanished beneath water on Thursday as Hurricane Dorian churned a few dozen miles offshore after reducing parts of the Bahamas to rubble.

Water pooled a few inches deep near the centuries-old waterfront. In certain low-lying blocks, it rose to a foot or more, as high tide approached and forecasters warned of storm surges of up to 8 feet (2 meters).

John Rivers, 74, and his three children were among the few to be seen in the streets on Thursday. They cleared drains of branches, leaves and debris, using a shovel, a rake and their bare hands.

“We’re giving the water somewhere to go,” Rivers said, sheltering temporarily from the driving rain and gusts of wind under a covered walkway. His daughter Caroline, 12, pulled off her rubber boots one at a time, emptying a stream of water from each. “I see this as a good life lesson for my kids,” Rivers said.

Officials said Thursday afternoon that more than 7 inches (18 cm) of rain had fallen in parts of Charleston.

Dorian was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off Charleston on Thursday, wavering in strength between a Category 2 and 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale. It was forecast to possibly make landfall in North Carolina late Thursday or early Friday.

Life-threatening storm surges and dangerous winds were possible in much of the coast of South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, the National Weather Service said.

Dorian whipped up at least three tornados in the region, officials said. One in North Carolina damaged scores of trailers in a campground in Emerald Isle, but no one was injured, North Carolina’s News & Observer reported.

Governors in the region declared states of emergency, closed schools, opened shelters, readied national guard troops and implored residents to take warnings seriously, as fresh images of the devastation wrought by the storm in the Bahamas earlier this week continued to circulate in the media.

At least 70,000 Bahamians needed immediate humanitarian relief after Dorian became the most damaging storm ever to hit the island nation.

In the Carolinas alone, more than 900,000 people had been ordered to evacuate their homes. It was unclear how many did so.

In Kill Devil Hills, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Mark Jennings decided to ignore the order, lining his garage door with sandbags and boarding up his home with plywood.

The retired firefighter planned to stay put with his wife and two dogs: “We are ready to go. If something happens, we can still get out of here.”

FOUR DEATHS IN THE U.S.

At least four storm-related deaths have already been reported. Three people died in Orange County, Florida, during storm preparations or evacuation, according to the Orange County mayor’s office. In North Carolina, an 85-year-old man fell off a ladder while barricading his home for Dorian, the governor said.

More than 210,000 homes and businesses were without power in South Carolina and Georgia early on Thursday, according to local electric companies.

On Charleston’s historic South Battery Street, which runs down to the harbor, Brys Stephens tried to keep the water away from his stately home, built in the veranda-wrapped Southern style that lures crowds of tourists to the city.

He and his family pumped water out of the yard and tried to reattach metal flood gates into the perimeter wall.

“The gates worked pretty well so far and we’ve managed to keep water away from the house,” Stephens said. “But we’ve got another storm surge coming later on, so we’ll see then if it holds.”

(Reporting by Nick Carey in Charleston, South Carolina, and Amanda Becker in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Peter Szekely, Matt Lavietes and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)