‘No news is good news’ for families of Australia’s volunteer firefighters

By Jill Gralow

PICTON, Australia (Reuters) – When Australian volunteer firefighter Andrew Hain is out battling bushfires, he sends emojis to his wife Kate to let her know he is safe.

They’ve also discussed that “no news is good news” and that she shouldn’t needlessly worry if he goes into rugged or remote bushland with no telephone reception.

Hain, a father-of-two, is one of several thousand volunteer firefighters that Australian communities rely on to combat bushfires, an ever pervasive threat in the continent’s hot and dry climate.

This summer fire season, however, is fast turning into one of the worst on record, heaping pressure on volunteers and their families.

Two volunteer firefighters were killed last week when their truck was struck by a falling tree as it traveled to a fire front.

“I have a little emoji of a bald guy with a bit of facial growth giving a thumbs up, and so every hour or so I try and send that emoji to her and she knows that I’m OK,” Andrew Hain told Reuters, shortly after fighting fires in the Wollondilly Shire, south of Sydney.

“We get into some places and there’s not a lot of reception and you know, we’ve got a sort of thing in place that no news is good news, if she doesn’t hear from me. So, we’ve got plans around it to try and put her mind at ease.”

A total of six people have died in bushfires which have destroyed more than 3.7 million hectares (9.1 million acres) across five states since they first erupted in spring in an early and ominous start to the bushfire season.

The eastern state of New South Wales is the worst affected with nearly 100 fires. A mega blaze northwest of Sydney, the country’s largest city, is the biggest bushfire on record, burning some 335,000 hectares (830,000 acres).

A three-year drought and record high temperatures have created more intense bushfires this season, say firefighters, already weary from months on the firegrounds and staring down two more months of summer heat.

Nightly television footage of exhausted volunteer firefighters and the ferocious fires they are battling has sparked debate over whether volunteers should be compensated.

Hain, a flight route planner at airline Qantas, has given up much of his end-of-year holidays to fight the fires. His young family have left their home to stay in Sydney while the fire threat looms.

His wife Kate is proud of him for contributing so strongly to the local community, but says it comes at a cost.

“We get nothing and they expect the amount of time and effort and danger they put themselves in, it’s just expected. I find that just amazing, that nobody gives us anything,” she said.

(Reporting by Jill Gralow in Picton; writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Michael Perry)

‘Once-in-100-year’ storm triggers Sydney chaos as heat fans Queensland fires

A flooded street in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia November 28, 2018, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @DeeCee451/via REUTERS

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Torrential rain and gale force winds lashed Australia’s biggest city of Sydney on Wednesday causing commuter chaos, flooding streets, railway stations and homes, grounding flights and leaving hundreds of people without electricity.

Police called on motorists to stay off the roads. One person was killed in a car crash and two police seriously injured when a tree fell on them as they helped a stranded driver.

Greg Transell, an office manager in Sydney’s north, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that strong winds caused widespread disruption to the tower block office where he works.

“I started to go upstairs to see if there was any damage and next minute there was an almighty bang and it ripped panels off the roof in the warehouse,” said Transell.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) Sydney got more than 100 mm of rain in just a few hours, a level that the country’s most populous city would normally get through the whole of November.

“That’s the sort of rainfall you’d expect to see once every 100 years,” said Ann Farrell, the bureau’s state manager, told reporters.

The rain offered a welcomed respite to farmers who have suffered through a sustained drought in recent months, but it caused major disruptions to transport.

A Qantas plane takes off during heavy rains in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia November 28, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Adem Yaglipnar/via REUTERS

A Qantas plane takes off during heavy rains in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia November 28, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Adem Yaglipnar/via REUTERS

Sydney airport, the country’s busiest, said 130 flights had been canceled or delayed after it was forced to close two of its three runways.

“The storm is pretty intense in and around the airport,” Cait Kyann, an airport spokeswoman, told Reuters.

“We are operating from a single runway so that means that there are delays and likely some flights will be canceled.”

Ausgrid, the nation’s biggest electricity network, said the storm had cut power to 8,100 customers in Sydney and the Central Coast area to its north.

By late afternoon, 1,700 homes and businesses remained without power, Ausgrid said.

The storm struck only hours before the main morning peak hour, transforming some streets into fast-flowing rivers and parks into lakes. Several stranded motorists were plucked from rising floodwaters.

Vehicles drive on a flooded street in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia November 28, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @DeeCee451/via REUTERS

Vehicles drive on a flooded street in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia November 28, 2018 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. @DeeCee451/via REUTERS

“We are asking all road users to reconsider the need to be on the roads throughout what will be a severe rain event,” said New South Wales state Assistant Police Commissioner Michael Corboy.

In contrast, in Australia’s northern state of Queensland, soaring temperatures near 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and strong winds exacerbated major bushfires.

Firefighters have been battling for nearly a week to contain more than 130 fires across Queensland, and 8,000 people were ordered to evacuate the city of Gracemere, about 600 km (370 miles) north of the state capital, Brisbane.

“These are unprecedented conditions,” said state premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. “We have not seen the likes of this.”

(Reporting by Colin Packham; additional reporting by Paulina Duran and Byron Kaye; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)

Death toll from overheated Florida nursing home rises to 10

FILE PHOTO: The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills is seen in Hollywood, north of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity/File Photo

(Reuters) – A 10th elderly patient at a Miami-area nursing home has died after she was exposed to sweltering heat in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, police said on Thursday.

The resident of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died on Wednesday, police in Hollywood, Florida, said in a statement, without giving details.

Police have opened a criminal investigation into the deaths at the center, which city officials have said continued to operate with little or no air conditioning after power was cut off by Irma, which struck the state on Sept. 10.

Julie Allison, a lawyer for the nursing home, did not respond to a request for comment. Calls to the Rehabilitation Center went unanswered.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration suspended the center’s license on Wednesday and terminated its participation in Medicaid, the federal-state healthcare program for the poor, disabled and elderly.

Medical personnel at the home had delayed calling 911 and residents were not quickly transported to an air-conditioned hospital across the street, the agency said in a statement.

Patients taken to the hospital had temperatures ranging from 107 Fahrenheit to 109.9 Fahrenheit (41.7 Celsius to 43.3 Celsius), it said. Average human body temperature is 98.6 Fahrenheit (37 Celsius).

Staff at the center also made many late entries to patients’ medical records that inaccurately depicted what had happened, the agency’s statement said.

One late entry said a patient was resting in bed with even and unlabored breathing, even though the person had already died, the statement said.

Last week, the agency ordered the center not to take new admissions and suspended it from taking part in Medicaid.

Irma was one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and killed at least 84 people in its path across the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Marcy Nicholson)

Four die from heat in sweltering U.S. Southwest: reports

FILE PHOTO: A sign warns of extreme heat as tourists enter Death Valley National Park in California June 29, 2013. REUTERS/Steve Marcus/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Four people, including a homeless person and two hikers, have died from the record-breaking heat in the U.S. Southwest, media reports said, where triple-digit temperatures have driven residents indoors and canceled airline flights.

The first two fatalities recorded in the three-day heatwave took place on Monday in Santa Clara County, California, south of San Francisco, and included a homeless person found in a car, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

The victims were identified only as a 72-year-old man and an 87-year-old woman.

“It is tragic when someone dies of hyperthermia since in most every case it could have been prevented,” Dr. Michelle Jorden of the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office told the newspaper.

“Hyperthermia and heat stress happen when a body’s heat-regulation system cannot handle the heat. It can happen to anyone, which is why it is so important to be in a cool location, drink plenty of water and take a cool bath or shower if you are getting too hot,” Jorden said.

The extreme heat, brought on by a high-pressure system parked over the Four Corners region where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet, has boosted temperatures well above normal across much of the Southwest.

The bodies of a 57-year-old father and his 21-year-old son from Corpus Christi, Texas, were found earlier this week in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, where they were hiking, media reported.

New Mexico State Police told an NBC affiliate in New Mexico that the scorching temperatures, which were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius), contributed to the deaths of the men.

The National Weather Service and local authorities issued heat advisories and warnings, urging residents to stay indoors and to drink plenty of water if they were outdoors. Power grid operators encouraged customers to use electricity sparingly to avoid a shutdown or blackout.

The sizzling weather forced the cancellation of more than 20 flights at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and delays at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Aviation experts say the hotter, thinner air saps power from airline engines.

The heat can also create issues for ground crews, where pavement temperatures can reach more than 150 degrees F (66 C), a life-threatening condition if workers are exposed to it too long.

Temperatures reached 127 F (52.8 C) in California’s Death Valley at the peak of the heat wave on Tuesday afternoon but cooler weather was expected across the region by the end of the week.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Leslie Adler and Paul Tait)

Firefighters work to suppress California wildfire near Big Sur coast

Firefighters taking care of july 2016 wildfires

By Mike Fiala

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. (Reuters) – Firefighters on Friday were working to suppress a deadly wildfire near California’s famed Big Sur coast that has burned more than 40 homes, forced hundreds of residents to flee and closed popular parks at the height of the summer travel season.

The so-called Soberanes Fire erupted last Friday just south of the upscale oceanside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and has raged through nearly 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) of drought-parched chaparral, tall grass and timber into the Los Padres National Forest.

Efforts by 4,200 firefighters to hack buffer lines through dense vegetation around the perimeter of the blaze have been complicated by worsening weather conditions – super-low humidity and gradually rising temperatures – officials said.

Containment stood at 15 percent on Friday morning, even as the overall size of the fire zone continued to expand, leaving another 2,000 structures threatened and about 350 people displaced.

Flames have already destroyed 41 homes and 10 outbuildings, with at least two other dwellings damaged by fire, officials said. Firefighters however managed to save a number of large homes in the hills above the exclusive Carmel Highlands community.

The fire threat has also prompted authorities to close a string of heavily visited California campgrounds and recreation areas along the northern end of the Big Sur coastline, including Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Point Lobos Natural Reserve.

Highway 1, the scenic route that winds along the famed seaside cliffs overlooking the Pacific, remained open, though motorists were advised to allow for traffic delays due to a heavy volume of fire-fighting equipment entering and existing the roadway.

The blaze took a deadly turn on Tuesday when a bulldozer operator hired by private property owners to help battle the flames was killed when his tractor rolled over, marking the second California wildfire fatality in a week.

He was identified on Thursday as 35-year-old Robert Oliver Reagan III, from the town of Friant, California.

On Thursday, California Office of Emergency Services received a federal grant to help pay for firefighting efforts.

About 300 miles (485 km) away, a 67-year-old man was found dead in a burned-out car last Saturday after refusing to heed evacuation orders in a separate fire that destroyed 18 homes in a mountainous area north of Los Angeles.

That blaze, dubbed the Sand Fire, was listed as 65-percent contained on Thursday after charring more than 38,000 acres (15,400 hectares).

Lingering smoke and soot spewed by the Erskine Fire have prompted air-quality regulators to warn residents in parts of the Los Angeles region to avoid outdoor activities for the time being.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Alison Williams)

Record heat sparks warnings, boosts fires in western United States

Sun, Smoke, Sherpa Fire

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Wildfire warnings were posted across parts of three Western U.S. states on Sunday as a heat wave baked the region in record, triple-digit temperatures, stoking flames in California from the coastal foothills outside Santa Barbara to desert brush near the Mexican border.

Excessive heat advisories and “red flag warnings” for extreme fire conditions were in effect across southern portions of California, Nevada and Arizona, the National Weather Service reported on the eve of the first official day of summer.

In the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, the mercury topped out at 109 degrees Fahrenheit (42.8 Celsius), shattering the prior record high for the date of 104 degrees set in 1973. In Phoenix, Arizona, the temperature climbed to 118 degrees, 3 degrees above the previous high mark for the date reached in 1968.

With rising demand for air conditioning expected to test the region’s generating capacity, the California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s power grid, urged consumers to conserve daytime electricity on Monday.

Forecasters said record-breaking heat would persist through Tuesday, especially in the Desert Southwest, where temperatures could reach as high as 120 degrees.

“These extreme temperatures can be life-threatening,” the Weather Service said on its website.

Fire officials said the heat was a major factor in worsening a wind-driven blaze roaring through dry brush and chaparral about 50 miles east of San Diego, north of the Mexico border, forcing evacuations of dozens of homes in the desert community of Potrero.

The blaze, which erupted Sunday morning, had blackened about 1,500 acres and was still burning unchecked over steep terrain and drought-parched vegetation by evening, San Diego County Fire Captain Kendal Brotisser said.

About 200 miles to the north, excessive heat also continued to plague crews battling the so-called Sherpa Fire, burning for a fifth day in the canyons and foothills near Santa Barbara.

That blaze, which has charred nearly 7,900 acres and forced hundreds of people from their homes, was 51 percent contained as firefighters took advantage of abating “sundowner” winds that had initially propelled the flames.

A much smaller brush fire flared briefly beneath a freeway interchange near downtown Los Angeles, destroying three storage sheds, damaging two homes and snarling traffic in the vicinity as firefighters rushed to douse the blaze.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, local authorities declared a state of emergency due to a five-day-old timber fire that has consumed some 17,615 acres (7,129 hectares) and destroyed about two dozen homes southeast of Albuquerque.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Andrew Bolton and Himani Sarkar)