Canadian town told to evacuate as massive rains prompt landslides, shut roads

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) -Massive rainstorms lashed the western Canadian province of British Columbia on Monday, triggering landslides and floods, shutting highways and prompting the evacuation of an entire town.

Authorities in Merritt, some 124 miles (200 kilometers) north east of Vancouver, ordered all 8,000 citizens to leave after rising waters cut off bridges and forced the waste water treatment plant to close.

“Continued habitation of the community without sanitary services presents risk of mass sewage back-up and personal health risk,” the city said in an official notice.

Some areas received 8 inches (200 mm) of rain on Sunday – the amount they usually see in a month – and the deluge continued on Monday, with roads covered by mud or up to 10 inches of water.

Landslides trapped the occupants of between 80 and 100 vehicles near the mountain town of Agassiz, about 120 km east of Vancouver, and people may have to be airlifted out, a top official said.

“The side of the mountain has just come apart,” stranded motorist Paul Deol told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Around 18 miles further east, footage posted to Facebook showed parts of a road had been washed away near the town of Hope.

“The situation is dynamic … it is very difficult weather,” provincial public safety minister Mike Farnworth told reporters.

Gales are due to hit the area later, most likely causing power outages, officials told reporters.

The storm is the second weather-related calamity to hit the Pacific province in just a few months. In late June, temperatures hit a record high, prompting blazes that destroyed one town.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

Firefighters retreat as volcanic explosions increase in La Palma

By Guillermo Martinez and Jon Nazca

LA PALMA (Reuters) -Intensifying volcanic explosions on the Spanish island of La Palma forced firefighters to retreat and authorities to evacuate three more towns on Friday, while airlines cancelled flights due to a cloud of gas and ash, the biggest since the volcano erupted.

Firefighters pulled out of clean-up work in the town of Todoque on Friday afternoon as a new vent opened up in the flank of the volcano and videos shared on social media showed a massive shockwave emanating from the eruption site.

A Reuters witness saw a huge grey cloud billowing from the top of the volcano on Friday afternoon, the largest since the eruption began on Sunday.

“The volcano is in a newly explosive phase … Firefighters will not operate anymore today,” tweeted the Tenerife fire service, which has been deployed to help on La Palma.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of the towns of Tajuya, Tacande de Abajo and the part of Tacande de Arriba that had not already been evacuated on Friday afternoon, with residents told to assemble at the local football ground.

Canary Islands emergency services had initially told residents to stay indoors to avoid the dense cloud of ash and lava fragments but later decided to evacuate due to the heightened risk from explosions.

It wasn’t just people being evacuated, but animals too.

“The evacuation of people is the main priority … although there are also other important tasks such as keeping pets safe,” the Guardia Civil tweeted, with a video showing officers carrying reluctant goats to safety.

Since erupting on Sunday, the Cumbre Vieja volcano has spewed out thousands of tons of lava, destroyed hundreds of houses and forced the evacuation of thousands of people.

No serious injuries or fatalities have been reported but about 15% of the island’s economically crucial banana crop could be at risk, jeopardizing thousands of jobs.

Canary Island airline Binter said on Friday it had cancelled all flights to La Palma due to the volcano eruption, while Iberia cancelled its only flight scheduled for the day, and another local airline, Canaryfly, also suspended operations.

Binter said it was forced to halt operations to and from La Palma as the ash cloud had worsened considerably in the last few hours.

The airline, which had initially only cancelled night flights, could not say when it would resume operations.

A cloud of toxic gas and ash extends more than 4 km (2-1/2 miles) into the sky, the Canaries volcanology institute said on Thursday.

It has begun to drift northeast towards the Mediterranean and Spanish mainland, the national weather agency said.

Airspace above the island remains open apart from two small areas near the eruption site.

(Reporting by Guillermo Martinez and Marco Trujillo in La Palma and Emma Pinedo and Jessica Jones in MadridEditing by Nathan Allen, Raissa Kasolowsky and Giles Elgood)

Thousands flee as volcano erupts on Spain’s La Palma island, homes destroyed

By Borja Suarez

LA PALMA, Spain (Reuters) -The Canary Islands’ first volcanic eruption in 50 years has forced the evacuation of about 5,000 people, including around 500 tourists, and destroyed about 100 houses, officials said on Monday.

The volcano erupted on Sunday, shooting lava hundreds of meters into the air, engulfing houses and forests, and sending molten rock towards the Atlantic Ocean over a sparsely populated area of La Palma, the most northwestern island in the Canaries archipelago.

No fatalities have been reported but the volcano was still active on Monday. A Reuters reporter saw heavy smoke coming from the volcano and houses burning.

Officials said they were hopeful they would not need to evacuate any more people.

“The lava is moving towards the coast and the damage will be material. According to experts there are about 17-20 million cubic meters of lava,” regional president Angel Victor Torres told Cadena Ser radio.

The lava flow has destroyed about 100 houses so far, Mariano Hernandez, president of La Palma’s council, told Cadena Ser.

About 20 houses were engulfed in the village of El Paso along with sections of roads, Mayor Sergio Rodriguez told state broadcaster TVE. The lava was spreading through neighboring villages, putting hundreds more at risk, he said.

A group of 360 tourists were evacuated by boat to Tenerife from the beach resort of Puerto Naos, ferry operator Fred Olsen said, and more could be transferred later in the day.

Despite the destruction, Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto told Canal Sur radio the eruption should be seen as an opportunity to entice visitors to the island.

“The island is open, if your hotel is affected we will find you another one,” she said. “Make the most of this opportunity to enjoy what nature has brought us.”

Volcanologist Nemesio Perez said there were unlikely to be fatalities as long as no-one behaved recklessly.

La Palma had been on high alert after thousands of tremors were reported over a week in Cumbre Vieja, which belongs to a chain of volcanoes that last had a major eruption in 1971 and is one of the Canaries’ most active volcanic regions.

One man was killed in 1971 as he took photographs near the lava flows. A submarine eruption occurred about 10 years ago close to the islands but caused little damage.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez arrived in La Palma on Sunday to coordinate with regional authorities and said citizens could “rest easy.” He will visit affected areas later on Monday.

Emergency services said it was unclear what path the lava would take to the ocean. Authorities had evacuated people with mobility issues from several coastal towns, including the Puerto Naos resort.

Airspace around the Canaries remained open with no visibility problems, the Enaire civil air authority said. Local airline Binter cancelled four flights but said it would resume its service later on Monday.

(Reporting by Borja Suarez in La Palma and Inti Landauro, Emma Pinedo, Corina Pons, Nathan Allen in Madrid; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Nathan Allen; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Janet Lawrence)

‘Everybody screwed up’: Blame game begins over turbulent U.S. exit from Afghanistan

By Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A week into the evacuation from Kabul, the U.S. military was forced to take a drastic step: stop all flights from Hamid Karzai International Airport for seven hours because there was nowhere for the evacuees to go.

For months, military officials had urged the U.S. State Department to convince other countries to take Afghans at risk from Taliban retaliation. They had largely failed to secure agreements with other countries, prompting officials across the U.S. government to rush to try to find space for the evacuees.

The Biden administration’s scramble was emblematic of failures over the past month, which culminated with a hastily organized airlift that left thousands of U.S.-allied Afghans behind and was punctuated by a suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport that killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans.

The chaotic end to America’s longest war has sparked the biggest crisis of President Joe Biden’s seven months in the White House, finger-pointing within the administration and questions about who, if anyone, would be held responsible.

Despite the missteps, the administration carried out one of the largest airlifts in history, evacuating more than 120,000 Americans, Afghans and people of other nationalities amid the threat of attacks by Islamic State militants.

The last U.S. troops left Afghanistan on Monday.

Current and former officials and lawmakers said there is little appetite for Biden to fire or demote top advisers over the handling of the U.S. withdrawal. The Democratic president, meanwhile, has strongly defended his administration’s actions.

Frustrated and angry, officials at the Pentagon have privately blamed the lack of urgency leading up to the airlift on the State and Homeland Security departments, who in turn have blamed the White House for slow decision-making.

“Finger-pointing is an ugly Washington sport … in this case, fingers could be pointed in all directions and probably be right in each case,” said Dan Fried, a former senior U.S. diplomat now at the Atlantic Council think tank.

“A failure like this is collective. Everybody screwed up,” Fried added.

A source familiar with the matter defended the evacuation planning and said the State Department was unaware of any concerns at the Department of Defense about a lack of urgency in the effort.

White House officials told Reuters that firings have not been discussed, but the administration expects Congress to aggressively investigate the turbulent exit from Afghanistan in hearings.

One Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any dismissal would be seen as a tacit admission that the president had erred in removing troops unconditionally from the South Asian nation.

Biden, in a defiant speech on Tuesday, defended his decision to withdraw the troops and stood by the evacuation plan.

“Some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and ‘Couldn’t this have be done – have been done in a more orderly manner?’ I respectfully disagree,” said Biden, who noted that he was ultimately responsible for the withdrawal.

POLITICAL DECISION

Biden’s party narrowly controls the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and aides in both chambers said that, while Democrats would investigate and expect to hold hearings, they are wary of giving Republicans a platform to attack the president.

Democratic congressional committee leaders have pledged thorough reviews of the events in Afghanistan, but they made clear they intend to look into the entire 20-year conflict, which unfolded under the watch of four presidents, starting with Republican President George W. Bush.

On Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration has provided many classified and unclassified briefings to lawmakers.

“Now, it’s a 20-year war, so there’s obviously a lot to dig into,” she said.

Democrats want to pursue Biden’s domestic agenda – expanding social programs, funding infrastructure and protecting voting rights. On the national security front, they want to highlight their investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

How Congress eventually proceeds will depend on the level of interest from voters.

Less than 40% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said last month that the Biden administration would conduct a “hotwash” – an after-action review – to discover what went wrong in Afghanistan, and that he expected results of that review to be made public.

White House officials said on Tuesday the review had not begun.

WHO IS TO BLAME?

The last month in Afghanistan was a series of failures, from the intelligence and military to diplomatic and immigration fronts, with one core error the failure to anticipate the speed of the Taliban’s advance and collapse of the Afghan military.

“In some way, everyone is to blame,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

Some Republicans have pointed fingers at Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the ones most responsible for setting the conditions for a chaotic evacuation, and have demanded their departure.

Republicans also have called for Biden to fire the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the Trump administration’s 2020 deal with the Taliban that set the stage for the withdrawal.

But when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked whether he thought Biden or Blinken should be impeached, the California Republican did not answer, saying instead his focus was on getting the Americans out of Afghanistan.

Defense officials told Reuters the State Department appeared out of touch with the reality on the ground in Afghanistan and had too much confidence in the Afghan government.

During a congressional hearing in June, Blinken was asked if the administration was considering getting at-risk Afghans out of the country while their cases were being reviewed.

“If there is a significant deterioration in security, that could well happen, we discussed this before, I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday,” Blinken said.

The Taliban seized two of Afghanistan’s three largest cities – Kandahar and Herat – on Friday, Aug. 13 and took Kabul, the capital, two days later.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed, Humeyra Pamuk, Jarrett Renshaw. Editing by Mary Milliken, Phil Stewart and Paul Simao)

NATO pledges to speed evacuations from Afghanistan as criticism mounts

KABUL (Reuters) -More than 18,000 people have been flown out of Kabul since the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s capital, a NATO official said on Friday, pledging to redouble evacuation efforts as criticism of the West’s handling of the crisis intensified.

Thousands of people, desperate to flee the country, were still thronging the airport, the official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters, even though the Taliban have urged people without legal travel documents to go home.

The speed with which the Islamist militant Taliban conquered Afghanistan as U.S. and other foreign troops were completing their withdrawal surprised even their own leaders and has left power vacuums in many places.

The Taliban called for unity ahead of Friday prayers, the first since they seized power, calling on imams to persuade people not to leave Afghanistan amid the chaos at the airport, protests and reports of violence.

Residents in Kabul and four other major cities said prayers appeared to have passed off with incident, though attendance was low.

A witness told Reuters several people were killed in the eastern city of Asadabad on Thursday when Taliban militants fired on a crowd demonstrating their allegiance to the vanquished Afghan republic, as the Taliban set about establishing an emirate, governed by strict Islamic law.

There were similar shows of defiance in two other cities – Jalalabad and Khost – in the east, with Afghans using celebrations of the nation’s 1919 independence from British control to vent their anger with the Taliban takeover.

Another witness reported gunshots near a rally in Kabul, but they appeared to be Taliban firing into the air.

A Taliban spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Kabul has been largely calm, except in and around the airport where 12 people have been killed since Sunday, NATO and Taliban officials said.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in an interview with NBC News that the United States was “laser-focused” on “the potential for a terrorist attack” by a group such as Islamic State during the evacuation.

BLAME

Criticism of NATO and other Western powers has risen as images of the chaos and desperate fear of Taliban rule were shared around the world.

In one scene captured on social media, a small girl was hoisted over the airport’s perimeter wall and handed to a U.S. soldier.

U.S. President Joe Biden was set to speak about the evacuation efforts at 1 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Friday, having faced a torrent of criticism for his handling of the troop withdrawal, negotiated by the previous U.S. administration.

Biden is brushing off criticism of his administration’s chaotic Afghan pull-out because he and his aides believe the political fall-out at home will be limited, according to White House allies and administration officials.

Media in Britain reported its spy chiefs may face a grilling over intelligence failings. Several British officials remained on holiday as the Afghan debacle erupted, and Foreign Minister Dominic Raab has been fiercely criticized for his initial response to the unfolding crisis.

The governments of Germany and Australia have also faced calls to do more and speed up the evacuation of citizens and Afghans who fear possible Taliban retribution.

On Thursday, G7 foreign ministers called for a united international response to prevent the crisis from worsening, in comments echoed by countries including Russia.

China said the world should support, not pressure, Afghanistan.

A Taliban spokesman told Chinese state media that China has played a constructive role in promoting peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and was welcome to contribute to its rebuilding.

FEAR OF REPRISALS

Since seizing Kabul on Sunday, the Taliban, who ruled with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001 before being toppled by U.S.-led forces for sheltering al Qaeda militants behind the Sept. 11 attacks, have presented a more moderate face this time round.

They said this week they want peace, will not take revenge against old enemies and will respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.

As the Taliban work to set up a government, including talks with a former president, Hamid Karzai, they are discovering new problems including hundreds of government officials who have not been paid for two months, a Taliban official said.

“It’s too early to say how this problem will be solved but it’s an immediate challenge,” the official said.

A Norwegian intelligence group said in a report the Taliban had begun rounding up Afghans on a blacklist of people linked to the previous administration or to U.S.-led forces that supported it. Complaints by some Afghan journalists have cast doubt on assurances that independent media would be allowed.

Amnesty International said an investigation found the Taliban had murdered nine ethnic Hazara men after taking control of Ghazni province last month, raising fears that the Taliban, whose members are Sunni Muslims, will target Hazaras, who mostly belong to the Shi’ite minority.

A Taliban spokesman was not immediately available for comment on the reports.

A U.S. lawmaker said the Taliban were using files from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency to identify Afghans who worked for the United States.

“They are methodically ramping up efforts to round those folks up,” said Representative Jason Crow, who has been leading efforts in the U.S. Congress to accelerate the evacuation of American-affiliated Afghans.

(Reporting by Kabul and Washington newsrooms; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

Greek firefighters battle growing forest blaze near Athens

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek firefighters on Wednesday battled a wildfire raging through one of the last remaining pine forests near Athens and said that homes could be at risk.

More than 500 wildfires have broken out in recent weeks across the country, ravaging swathes of forest and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.

“Τhe flames are huge. I do not know what will happen, the fire is approaching homes,” Lefteris Kosmopoulos, deputy local governor of the Western Attica region, told state TV ERT.

Buses were on standby in Vilia, about 50 km (30 miles) from Athens, to evacuate residents if needed, as strong winds fanned a fire that started on Monday but had seemed under control. About a dozen smaller villages have been evacuated since Monday.

About 400 firefighters, assisted by additional firefighters from Poland, 15 helicopters and six firefighting planes, were dispatched to the area.

The biggest fire of the past few weeks, on the island of Evia near the capital, burned for days before being contained, ravaging swathes of forest in the north of the island.

Like other countries across the Mediterranean region including Turkey and Tunisia, Greece has seen some of its highest temperatures in decades this summer.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Gareth Jones)

Wildfire near French resort of Saint-Tropez kills two people

MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) -A wildfire burning in the hills behind the French Riviera resort of Saint-Tropez since Monday has killed at least two people, local authorities said on Wednesday.

Some 1,100 firefighters as well as water-bombing aircraft are fighting the blaze that has scorched more than 7,000 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of several thousand people from their homes and campsites.

Firefighters have so far been unable to contain the blaze as a strong ‘mistral’ wind fans the flames across a tinderbox landscape. New fires broke out on several flanks during Wednesday.

Holidaymakers on the Mediterranean coast watched from their sun-loungers as paddleboards as thick plumes of smoke blew across the sky. Police had to shut down one stretch of motorway because of poor visibility.

The blaze broke out in the Plaine de Maures nature reserve, some 50 km from Saint-Tropez. The fire had swept through half of the reserve, causing an irreversible loss to biodiversity, junior government minister Berangere Abba said.

“We have some hope conditions will ease tonight, but there are no guarantees,” local prefect Evence Richard told a news conference.

Two people had been killed and 24 hurt, among them five firemen, he said, adding that it was still too early for those evacuated to return home or to their holiday lodgings.

President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday left his nearby summer retreat to thank the firefighters for their efforts.

Waves of extreme heat have hit much of the Mediterranean region in recent weeks, with wildfires in Spain, Greece and Turkey raising uncomfortable questions over global warming and countries’ preparedness.

(Reporting by Marc Leras in Marseille and Sudip Kar-Gupta and Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Tom Hogue, Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher)

Taliban vows to provide safe passage to Kabul airport, U.S. official says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Taliban has told the United States it will provide safe passage for civilians to reach the airport in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday.

Sullivan also told a White House news briefing that the United States believes the Kabul evacuation can go until Aug. 31 and it is talking to the Taliban about the exact timetable.

Thousands of U.S. troops have been flown into Kabul to assist in evacuation efforts after the collapse of Afghanistan’s military and government after swift advances by Taliban forces.

“The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment,” Sullivan said.

“We believe that this can go till the 31st. We are talking to them about what the exact timetable is for how this will all play out, and I don’t want to negotiate in public on working out the best modality to get the most people out in the most efficient way,” Sullivan added.

Sullivan said it is premature to say whether the United States recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate governing power in Afghanistan.

“Right now there is a chaotic situation in Kabul where we don’t even have the establishment of a governing authority,” Sullivan said. “Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the Taliban to show the rest of the world who they are and how they intend to proceed. The track record has not been good but it’s premature to address that question at this point.”

Sullivan said most people seeking to leave Afghanistan have been able to reach the airport, but the United States is addressing with the Taliban some reports of people being turned away.

“This is an hour-by-hour issue, and it’s something we’re very clear-eyed about, and very focused on holding the Taliban accountable to follow through on its execution,” he said.

Army Major General William Taylor, with the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, told a news briefing earlier on Tuesday that 4,000 U.S. troops would be at the airport by the end of the day – an increase of 1,000 – and the aim is to have one flight taking off per hour.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Lisa Lambert, Tim Ahmann, David Brunnstrom, adnrea Shala and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chris Reese and Will Dunham)

Blazes flare anew in Greece but spare ancient Olympia

By Lefteris Papadimas and Leon Malherbe

EVIA, Greece, (Reuters) – A big blaze that swelled overnight forced the evacuation of many villages on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula on Wednesday, as exhausted firefighters battled wildfires for a ninth consecutive day and as fires also raged in Algeria, Turkey and elsewhere.

In the north of Evia, Greece’s second-largest island, flare-ups remained the main problem for firefighters, who were joined by volunteers to combat the flames.

In the Peloponnese, a flare-up started near ancient Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games, but spread to Gortynia as it intensified late on Tuesday, burning virgin forest and prompting authorities to evacuate 20 villages.

About 580 Greek firefighters, helped by colleagues from France, Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, were battling the blazes in Gortynia.

The fires broke out during Greece’s worst heatwave in three decades last week, with searing temperatures and dry heat causing tinder box conditions.

At the Pefki seaside resort on Evia, cafeteria owner Thrasyvoulos Kotzias, 34, looked at an empty beach.

“If we did not have these problems the beach at Pefki would be full of people. Right now it is just us,” he said.

“If helicopters and water bombing planes had come right away and operated for six, seven hours, the wildfire would have been put out in the first day,” he said.

A Russian Ilyushin Il-76 water bombing plane arrived in Athens on Tuesday to help firefighting operations and a second plane was due to be stationed in Thessaloniki, northern Greece.

‘HARD CHOICES’

Culture Minister Lina Mendoni told reporters the wildfires in the north of Athens had destroyed a large swathe of forest in the former royal estate at Tatoi, damaging seven buildings.

“What we have lived through is unprecedented, we cannot easily forget the images we saw,” said Mendoni, adding that the fires had largely spared cultural monuments.

More than 500 fires have burned across Greece in the last week, forcing the evacuation of dozens of villages and thousands of people.

“Our climate is changing and we need to make hard choices as a species to avoid the worst,” astronaut Thomas Pesquet tweeted from the International Space Station orbiting the Earth. “My heart goes out to all affected by the wildfires and the intense heat in the Mediterranean.”

At least 65 people have been killed in wildfires tearing through forests in northern Algeria, state television reported on Wednesday. Meanwhile Turkey’s northern coast was hit by flooding after some of the biggest wildfires in the country’s history had ravaged its southeast.

Credit ratings agency Moody’s said in a report that the wildfires in Greece had highlighted its vulnerability to climate change, though it said the related costs were manageable.

The government has announced a relief package of 500 million euros – about 0.3% of nominal economic output – but Moody’s noted that devastating wildfires in 2007 caused total estimated damage of nearly 3 billion euros, or 1.3% of nominal output.

“Aside from direct fiscal support, disruption triggered by wildfires, including power and water outages, poor air quality and road closures is also likely to weigh on tourism, a credit negative for the country’s local governments,” Moody’s said.

The U.N. climate panel sounded a dire warning this week that the world’s greenhouse gas levels were high enough to guarantee climate disruption for decades.

(Writing by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Gareth Jones)

California’s second-largest wildfire grows to near 500,000 acres; 3 hurt

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – A raging wildfire in northern California, now the second-largest recorded in state history, expanded to nearly 500,000 acres late on Sunday and has left three firefighters injured.

The Dixie Fire, burning northeast of San Francisco, had grown to 489,287 acres or 764.5 square miles (1,980 square kilometers) from about 274,000 acres in the middle of last week, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said on Twitter.

The blaze has been active for 26 days and is 21% contained, the department said. The burned area is about the size of Cancun in Mexico, and larger than the city of Houston in Texas.

Fire activity intensified on Sunday amid low relative humidity and strong southwest winds in the West Zone, and warm temperatures and low humidity in the East Zone, the department said, adding it has spread across four counties.

More than 5,000 firefighters are currently tackling the Dixie Fire.

“We’re seeing fire activity that even veteran firefighters haven’t seen in their career,” Edwin Zuniga, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the Washington Post.

Only the August Complex Fire of 2020 in California, which consumed more than 1 million acres, was bigger.

Thus far, no deaths have been attributed to the wildfire. However, the blaze has damaged 42 residential, commercial and other structures and destroyed 627 such structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Plumas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) issued new evacuation orders on Sunday afternoon after the spread of the Dixie Fire.

California typically experiences peak fire season later in the year. The state was on pace to suffer even more burnt acreage this year than last year, which was the worst fire season on record.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Pacific Gas & Electric has said it may have started when a tree fell on one of the utility’s power lines.

A federal judge late on Friday ordered Pacific Gas & Electric to explain the utility company’s role in starting the fire. U.S. District Judge William Alsup said PG&E would have until Aug. 16 to respond.

“PG&E’s responses will not be deemed as an admission by PG&E that it caused any fire, but they will serve as a starting point for discussion,” the judge said.

PG&E told the Washington Post daily that it “will respond by the deadline.”

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernadette Baum)