Fire at Bangladesh factory kills 52 workers, police open probe

By Ruma Paul and Zeba Siddiqui

DHAKA (Reuters) -At least 52 people were killed and 20 injured after a massive fire raged through a juice-making factory in Bangladesh, officials said on Friday, the latest industrial accident in a country with a track record of poor working conditions.

The fire started late Thursday on the ground floor of a six-story factory building in Narayanganj, southeast of Dhaka, and was still raging Friday evening as firefighters scrambled to control it.

Flames rose from the top floors of the building, where many workers had jumped out from to escape, as a key exit out of the working areas was locked, said fire official Abdullah Al Arefin.

“Three people died from jumping off the building to escape the fire and 49 charred bodies have been recovered,” Mustain Billah, the administrator for the Narayanganj district, told Reuters by phone from the scene.

“Firefighters are struggling to control it, as chemicals and flammable materials were stored inside the building,” he added.

The cause of the fire is not yet known, but police official Abdullah Al Mamun told reporters that three police teams have been dispatched to probe the incident and legal action would be taken against those responsible for the fire.

Dozens of disasters occur in Bangladesh each year due to poor fire and building safety standards. The latest incident is the worst since or August 2016, when more than 100 people fell ill in the southern Chittagong city after inhaling gas that leaked from a fertilizer factory.

Past accidents have mired the country’s robust textiles sector, which employs millions of people and contributes the most to Bangladesh’s economy.

Industry officials promised better safety standards after the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Dhaka that killed more than 1,000 workers and injured hundreds. But many factories still fall short.

“We demand speedy trial and punishment of those responsible for this tragic murder incident through a fair investigation,” the nonprofit Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust said in a statement. It also sought compensation for impacted workers and a probe into the cause of the fire, including reports of locked exits.

The factory is owned by the private firm Hashem Food and Beverage, a unit of Bangladesh’s multinational Sajeeb Group. Officials at both companies did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment on Friday.

Al Arefin said each building floor is about 35,000 square feet (3,250 square meters) but they were only accessible by two stairways, which many workers couldn’t get to as the fire had spread there. Some escaped to the roof from the stairs and were rescued, but many couldn’t, as a door leading to the roof was locked.

Dozens of family members protested outside the plant, demanding justice. But some, like Nazma Begum, were still looking for those lost. “There is no justice! Where is my son?” Begum cried out.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul and Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Christian Schmollinger)

Brazil sees most June fires in Amazon rainforest since 2007

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil recorded the most fires in the Amazon rainforest in 14 years for the month of June, government data showed on Thursday, amid worries that an extreme drought in many parts of the region could fuel worse fires in months to come.

National space research agency Inpe recorded 2,308 hot spots in the Brazilian Amazon in June, a 2.7% rise from the same month a year ago, when fires had reached a 13-year high.

While the number of fires in June only amount to a fraction of those seen at the peak of the dry season in August and September, environmental advocates fear it’s a sign of worse to come.

“With a high number of fires already at the start of the Amazon Summer, when there is naturally a decline in rains in the Amazon, this number will likely rise,” Greenpeace Brasil said in a statement.

Scientists warn that dry weather along the Amazon’s so-called “arc of deforestation” and in the Pantanal wetlands could drive a worse fire season. Hydroelectric plants across the country have reported the lowest water inflows in 91 years amid intense drought, according to the Mines and Energy Ministry.

Fires in the Amazon are overwhelmingly man-made, with natural blazes extremely rare. Generally, loggers illegally cut down valuable trees and then land-grabbers set a fire to clear the space for cattle. Fire can also be used as part of traditional agriculture.

Dry weather increases the odds of fires running out of control.

President Jair Bolsonaro earlier this week banned most outdoor fires in the country for 120 days as a precaution and deployed the military to protect the region from fires and deforestation.

Those policy moves repeat steps taken in 2019 and 2020 that failed to lower deforestation and fires. For the full year of 2020, fires in the Amazon reached a four-year high, while deforestation hit a 12-year high, according to Inpe.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Mark Potter)

Brazil on drought alert as country faces worst dry spell in 91 years

cracked ground in Brazil

By Roberto Samora and Ana Mano

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazilian government agencies warned of droughts across the country this week as the nation faces its worst dry spell in 91 years, hurting hydroelectric power generation and agriculture while raising the risk of fires in the Amazon rainforest.

Late on Thursday, an agency linked to Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry recommended that the country’s water regulator ANA recognize a state of “water scarcity,” after a prolonged drought hit Central and Southern parts of Brazil along the Paraná river basin.

Separately, a weather monitoring agency linked to the Agriculture Ministry issued its first “emergency drought alert” for June to September, saying rains are likely to remain scarce in five Brazilian states during that period.

The lack of rain across much of Brazil has negative implications for grain cultivation, livestock and electricity generation, as Brazil relies heavily on hydro dams for its power. Dry weather this year also raises the risk of severe fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands, scientists say.

Drier-than-normal weather has hurt production of sugar and coffee in Brazil, the world’s largest supplier of those products, pushing up futures prices for the commodities.

Coffee futures touched a fresh 4-1/2 year high on Friday with traders worried that critical soil moisture in Minas Gerais could affect the 2022 coffee crop as well.

The Mines and Energy Ministry said dry conditions will persist in coming months, particularly in the Southeast and Center West regions.

As it tries to deal with the situation, the ministry announced measures aimed at adjusting water levels that supply the country’s hydro dams in a bid to avoid power shortages.

(Reporting by Roberto Samora, Ana Mano in São Paulo; Additional reporting by Marcelo Teixeira in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)

‘Devastating’ fire at Rohingya camp in Bangladesh kills 15, leaves 400 missing – UN

By Ruma Paul and Emma Farge

DHAKA (Reuters) – At least 15 people have been killed in a massive fire that ripped through a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, while at least 400 remain missing, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.

“It is massive, it is devastating,” said UNHCR’s Johannes Van der Klaauw, who joined a Geneva briefing virtually from Dhaka, Bangladesh. “We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble.”

He said the UNHCR had reports of more than 550 people injured and about 45,000 displaced.

Bangladeshi officials are investigating the cause of the blaze even as emergency and aid workers and families sift through the debris looking for further victims. The fire ripped through the Balukhali camp near the southeastern town of Cox’s Bazar late on Monday, burning through thousands of shanties as people scrambled to save their meagre possessions.

“Everything has gone. Thousands are without homes,” Aman Ullah, a Rohingya refugee from the Balukhali camp, told Reuters. “The fire was brought under control after six hours but some parts of the camp could be seen smoking all night long.”

Authorities in Bangladesh have so far confirmed 11 deaths.

Some 40,000 huts in the camp were burned down, said Mohammad Mohsin, secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, after visiting the camp.

Two major hospitals of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Turkish government were also destroyed, he told reporters in Cox’s Bazar.

“A seven-member committee has been formed to investigate the matter,” he said.

Sanjeev Kafley, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’s delegation head in Bangladesh, said more than 17,000 shelters had been destroyed and tens of thousands of people displaced.

More than a thousand Red Cross staff and volunteers worked with fire services to extinguish the blaze, spread over four sections of the camp containing roughly 124,000 people, he said. That represents around one-tenth of an estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees in the area, Kafley said.

“I have been in Cox’s Bazar for three-and-a-half years and have never seen such a fire,” he told Reuters. “These people have been displaced two times. For many, there is nothing left.”

BARBED WIRE

Some witnesses said that barbed wire fencing around the camp trapped many people, hurting some and leading international humanitarian agencies to call for its removal.

Humanitarian organization Refugees International, which estimated 50,000 people had been displaced, said the extent of the damage may not be known for some time.

“Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed wire set up in the camps,” it said in a statement.

John Quinley of Fortify Rights, a rights organization working with Rohingya, said he had heard similar reports, adding the fences had hampered the distribution of humanitarian aid and vital services at the camps in the past.

“The government must remove the fences and protect refugees,” Quinley said. “There have now been a number of large fires in the camps including a large fire in January this year… The authorities must do a proper investigation into the cause of the fires.”

The vast majority of the people in the camps fled Myanmar in 2017 amid a military-led crackdown on the Rohingya that U.N. investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, charges Myanmar denies.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Emma Farge in Geneva; Additional reporting and writing by Alasdair Pal in New Delhi and Euan Rocha in Mumbai; Editing by Jane Wardell and Bernadette Baum)

Fire destroys thousands of homes in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – A huge fire swept through Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh on Monday, destroying thousands of homes, officials and witnesses said.

Video shot by a resident showed a blaze ripping through the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, with people scrambling to recover their possessions amid burning shanties and tents.

“Fire services, rescue and response teams and volunteers are at the scene to try to control the fire and prevent it spreading further,” said Louise Donovan, spokesperson for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, where refugees live in ramshackle huts.

Rohingya refugees in the camps said many homes were burned down and several people had died, but neither the authorities nor UNHCR confirmed there were any deaths.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 from a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent,” charges Myanmar denies.

“The fire spread so quickly that before we understood what happened, it caught our house. People were screaming and running here and there. Children were also running … crying for their family,” said Tayeba Begum, a Save the Children volunteer who witnessed the fire.

A Rohingya leader in Cox’s Bazar, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh, said he saw several dead bodies.

“Thousand of huts were totally burned down,” Mohammed Nowkhim told Reuters.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said: “We are trying to control the blaze.”

Another large blaze tore through the camp in January, destroying homes but causing no casualties.

The risk of fire in the densely populated camps is high, and Monday’s blaze was the largest yet, said Onno Van Manen, Country Director of Save the Children in Bangladesh.

“It is another devastating blow to the Rohingya refugees who live here. Just a couple of days ago we lost one of our health facilities in another fire,” he said.

The UNHCR said humanitarian partners had mobilized hundreds of volunteers from nearby camps for the support operation, as well as fire safety vehicles and equipment.

“So far the fire has affected shelters, health centers, distribution points and other facilities,” spokeswoman Donovan said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Mike Collett-White)

Fire destroys homes of thousands in Rohingya refugee camps – UNHCR

(Reuters) – A huge fire swept through the Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh in the early hours of Thursday, the United Nations said, destroying homes belonging to thousands of people.

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said more than 550 shelters home to around 3,500 people were either totally or partially destroyed in the blaze, as well as 150 shops and a facility belonging to a non-profit organization.

Photographs and video provided to Reuters by a Rohingya refugee in Nayapara Camp showed families including children, sifting through charred corrugated iron sheets to see if they could salvage anything from their still smoldering homes. But little remained of the camp, which had stood for decades, aside from concrete poles and the husks of a few trees.

“E block is completely burned down,” said the refugee, Mohammed Arakani. “There is nothing left. There was nothing saved. Everything is burned down.”

“Everyone is crying,” he said. “They lost all their belongings. They lost everything, completely burned down, they lost all their goods.”

UNHCR said it was providing shelter, materials, winter clothes, hot meals, and medical care for the refugees displaced from the camp in the Cox’s Bazar district, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh.

“Security experts are liaising with the authorities to investigate on the cause of fire,” the agency said, adding that no casualties were reported.

Onno van Manen, Save the Children’s Country Director in Bangladesh, called the fire “another devastating blow for the Rohingya people who have endured unspeakable hardship for years”.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said the fire service spent two hours putting out the blaze, but was hampered by the explosion of gas cylinders inside homes.

The Bangladesh government has moved several thousand Rohingya to a remote island in recent weeks, despite protests from human rights groups who say some of the relocations were forced, allegations denied by authorities.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 from a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, charges Myanmar denies.

The fire destroyed part of a camp inhabited by Rohingya who fled Myanmar after an earlier military campaign, according to refugees.

(Reporting by Poppy Elena McPherson and Ruma Paul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Firefighters, military planes, troops arrive in California to fight massive blazes

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews from across the U.S. West, military planes and National Guard troops poured into California on Sunday to join the fight against two dozen major wildfires burning across the state, as officials warned of more dry lightning storms approaching.

The worst of the blazes, including the second and third largest wildfires in recorded California history, were burning in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, where more than 200,000 people have been told to flee their homes.

“Extreme fire behavior with short and long range spotting are continuing to challenge firefighting efforts. Fires continue to make runs in multiple directions and impacting multiple communities,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said of the largest conflagration, the LNU Lightning Complex.

The fires, which were ignited by lightning from dry thunderstorms across Northern and Central California over the past week, have killed at least six people and destroyed some 700 homes and other structures. All told nearly one million acres have been blackened, according to Cal Fire.

Smoke and ash has blanketed much of the northern part of California for days, drifting for miles and visible from several states away.

The LNU Complex, which began as a string of smaller fires that merged into one massive blaze, has burned across roughly 340,000 acres of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said at a news briefing on Sunday.

It is now the second-largest wildfire on record in the state and was only 17% contained as of Sunday afternoon. To the south the SCU Lightning Complex was nearly as large, at 339,000 acres, and only 10% contained, Berlant said.

CREWS ARRIVE FROM OTHER STATES

Outside the Bay Area, the flames were threatening forests near the University of California at Santa Cruz and a wide swath of the area between San Francisco and the state capital of Sacramento.

Reinforcement crews and fire engines have arrived from Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Texas and Utah, with more on the way, Berlant said. Some 200 members of the National Guard had been activated and the U.S. military sent planes, he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday declared the fires a major disaster, freeing up federal funds to help residents and businesses harmed by the fires in seven counties pay for temporary housing and repairs.

Berlant said more dry thunderstorms were forecast through Tuesday and so-called red flag warnings had been issued across much of the northern and central parts of California during a record-breaking heat wave that has baked the state for more than a week, caused by a dome of atmospheric high pressure hovering over the American Southwest.

Meteorologists say that same high-pressure ridge has also been siphoning moisture from remnants of a now-dissipated tropical storm off the coast of Mexico and creating conditions rife for thunderstorms across much of California.

Most of the precipitation from the storms evaporates before reaching the ground, leaving dry lightning strikes that have contributed to a volatile wildfire season.

The American Lung Association has warned that the coronavirus pandemic has heightened the health hazards posed by smoky air and extreme heat. Inhaling smoke and ash can worsen the weakened lungs of people with COVID-19, said Afif El-Hassan, a physician spokesman for the lung association.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Gas explosion destroys Baltimore homes, one dead and children trapped

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – A gas explosion ripped through a Baltimore neighborhood on Monday, killing at least one person, injuring four and trapping children as the blast destroyed at least three homes, firefighters said.

Fire officials described it as a natural gas explosion but said the exact cause was under investigation.

The blast destroyed three brick row homes and ripped open the wall of another, spreading debris throughout the neighborhood. Rescuers picked through the rubble, searching for victims with their hands and hand tools, Baltimore City Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams told reporters at the scene.

One woman was killed, four people were hospitalized in serious condition, and firefighters were trying to rescue a sixth person, fire officials said.

At one point at least five people were trapped, some of them children, the Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734 said on Twitter.

Neighbors responding to the blast dug through rubble and called out for victims.

One neighbor told the Baltimore Sun he could hear shouts from trapped children.

“Come get us! We’re stuck!” came the cries, Kevin Matthews told the Sun.

Matthews found one person buried from the neck down and another sheltering in a closet, the Sun said.

“You knew it was something catastrophic,” Dean Jones told WBFF television about hearing the blast. “I didn’t think. I didn’t grab shoes. I took off running. I followed the smoke. I started yelling to come help.”

Jones and several other neighbors freed at least one woman from the scene.

“Once they said a kid was in there, I lost it. I said I had to get in there now,” Jones told WBAL television.

But he also wanted no special accolades, saying, “I am not a hero, I’m a human.”

Neighbors said their windows were blown out and doors blasted off the hinges, the Sun reported.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Brendan O’Brien; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Stubborn fire aboard U.S. Navy warship in San Diego injures 21 people

By Bing Guan

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – Flames raged for hours on Sunday aboard a U.S. warship docked at Naval Base San Diego, sending 21 people to the hospital with minor injuries and prompting a relocation of two other Navy vessels moored nearby, military and local fire officials said.

The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department reported an explosion in conjunction with the blaze, which broke out at about 8:30 a.m. local time (1530 GMT) aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel in port for routine maintenance.

The blast was believed to have been triggered by the rapid initial release of heat from a confined space under pressure, as opposed to an explosion of fuel or ordnance, Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck told a news conference on Sunday evening.

While the precise source of the blaze was unknown, the fire originated in a lower cargo hold of the ship and spread into the decks above it, consuming materials that typically burn in an office or apartment fire, Sobeck said.

Navy spokesman Mike Raney told Reuters there was no immediate evidence of foul play.

Ammunition normally carried aboard warships at sea had already been unloaded as a standard safety precaution before the vessel was placed into maintenance, Navy officials said.

Roughly 1 million gallons of fuel remained isolated “well below where any heat source is,” and fire crews worked all day to “make sure that’s not affected,” the admiral said.

Palls of thick, acrid smoke visible for miles around the base engulfed much of the 844-foot (257 meter) warship for several hours, as about half a dozen firefighting boats in the harbor trained streams of water onto the burning vessel.

Seventeen sailors and four civilians were taken to local hospitals for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries, and all those who were aboard the warship – about 160 personnel – were accounted for, the Navy said in a statement.

Sobeck said the hospitalized sailors were all listed in stable condition. Navy officials said the injuries consisted mainly of smoke inhalation, heat exhaustion and minor burns. The vessel normally carries a crew of roughly 1,000.

NEARBY VESSELS MOVED

Two guided-missile destroyers docked nearby, the USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell, were moved to piers farther from the burning vessel early in the afternoon, the Navy said. Smoke from the fire appeared to begin dying around 3 p.m. local time.

The Bonhomme Richard, commissioned in 1998, is designed to carry U.S. Marine Corps attack helicopters and ground troops into battle. As a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, it ranks as the second-largest vessel type in the Navy’s fleet, surpassed only by aircraft carriers, and is one of only four of its kind in the Pacific, Raney said.

The stricken vessel has participated in several military operations and has appeared in a pair of Hollywood films – the 2012 sci-fi action movie “Battleship” and “Act of Valor,” which featured active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs, according to San Diego television station KGTV, an ABC News affiliate.

The ship was named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers and author of the influential “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” which he wrote under the pseudonym Poor Richard or Richard Saunders. It became a forerunner of the popular “Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

U.S. Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones originally gave the name to a frigate the French donated to America in 1779 during its war of independence from Britain.

(Reporting by Bing Guan in San Diego; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Diane Craft and Himani Sarkar)

Minneapolis police officer charged with murder in George Floyd case

By Carlos Barria

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – The white Minneapolis policeman who pinned an unarmed black man with a knee to the throat before the man died was arrested and charged with murder, a prosecutor said on Friday, after three nights of violent protests rocked the Midwestern city.

Derek Chauvin, the officer seen on a bystander’s cellphone video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck on Monday before the 46-year-old man died, has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told a news briefing.

“He is in custody and has been charged with murder,” Freeman said of Chauvin. “We have evidence, we have the citizen’s camera’s video, the horrible, horrific, terrible thing we have all seen over and over again, we have the officer’s body-worn camera, we have statements from some witnesses.”

The cellphone footage showed Floyd repeatedly moaning and gasping while he pleaded to Chauvin, kneeling on his neck, “Please, I can’t breathe.” After several minutes, Floyd gradually grows quiet and ceases to move.

Chauvin and three fellow officers at the scene were fired on Tuesday from the Minneapolis Police Department. The city identified the other officers as Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J Alexander Kueng.

Freeman said the investigation into Chauvin – who, if convicted, faces up to 25 years in prison on the murder charge – was ongoing and that he anticipated charges against the other officers. He said it was appropriate to charge “the most dangerous perpetrator” first.

Earlier on Friday, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz called for an end to the violent protests, which have included arson, looting and the burning down of a police precinct, while promising a reckoning with the racial inequities behind the unrest.

“None of us can live in a society where roving bands go unchecked and do what they want to, ruin property,” Walz said. “We have to get back to that point of what caused this all to happen and start working on that.”

The protests, which threatened to stretch into a fourth night, have been driven in part by a lack of arrests in the case.

Responding to a reporter’s question about why the officers were not arrested sooner, Freeman stressed that charges in similar cases would typically take nine months to a year.

“This is by far the fastest we’ve ever charged a police officer,” said Freeman. “We entrust our police officers to use a certain amount of force to do their job, to protect us. They commit a criminal act if they use that force unreasonably.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)