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)

Eight killed as flames engulf 35 boats in Alabama marina fire

(Reuters) – Fire swept through a lakefront marina in Alabama early on Monday, killing at least eight people and sending seven others to hospital after flames engulfed 35 vessels from house boats to pontoons, the local fire chief said.

All the people known to have been staying at the dock have been accounted for, but emergency responders will continue searching for victims in case anyone was missed, Scottsboro Fire Chief Gene Necklaus told reporters.

Seven people who leapt into the water after the fire started around 12:40 a.m. were rescued and taken to hospital, where they were treated and released, Necklaus said.

Social media images showed a row of boats at the marina engulfed in flames in the predawn darkness at Lake Guntersville in northern Alabama. Several of the boats sank, Necklaus said.

Officials at first reported eight people missing, and upon further search all eight were found dead, the fire chief said.

“Our primary objective remains to check every boat, every vessel, everything we can check, to ensure that we have accounted for all the victims,” Necklaus said.

Authorities will continue search and rescue efforts in addition to environmental cleanup before concentrating on determining the cause of the fire, he said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)

Massive fire in New Jersey leaves thousands without power: U.S. media

(Reuters) – A massive fire engulfed many buildings in Bound Brook, New Jersey, late on Sunday, causing more than 100 residents to be evacuated and leaving around 3,000 people without power, local authorities and U.S. media said.

There were no reported deaths or casualties in the fire, which started in a building and then spread to a residential complex under construction, a store and at least two houses, according to the New York Times.

The fire led to the NJ Transit rail service being suspended in the area along the Raritan Valley Line.

“Bound Brook Rail station will be closed the entire service day, Monday, January 13th. Raritan Valley Line service remains suspended between Bridgewater and Dunellen due to 6-alarm structure fire near NJ Transit tracks in Bound Brook,” according to the line’s statement on Twitter.

Local police described the fire as “disastrous”.

“This is a disastrous fire that is very difficult to contain and has the potential to spread to all nearby structures”, Bound Brook Police Department said on Facebook.

The cause of the fire was being probed, NBC News reported.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Iran investigation says airliner caught fire before crash, Ukraine outlines theories

By Alexander Cornwell, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Natalia Zinets

DUBAI/KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine outlined four potential scenarios on Thursday to explain the deadly crash of one of its airliners in Iran, including a missile strike and terrorism, as Iranian investigators said the plane was on fire before it fell to the ground.

Kiev said its investigators wanted to search the site of Wednesday’s crash southwest of Tehran for possible debris of a Russian-made missile used by Iran’s military. An initial report by Iran’s civil aviation organization said the plane had experienced an unspecified technical problem.

The Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800, flying to Kiev and carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians, crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, killing all 176 people on board.

The Iranian report cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at a high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while in the air.

It said the three-year-old airliner, which had its last scheduled maintenance on Monday, encountered a technical problem shortly after take-off and started to head toward a nearby airport before it crashed. The report said there was no radio communication from the pilot and that the aircraft disappeared from radar at 8,000 feet (2,440 m).

It is so far unclear if any technical issue could be related to a maintenance fault or defective part.

The disaster puts a renewed spotlight on Boeing, which faces a safety crisis over a different type of 737, though the plane that crashed in Iran does not have the feature thought to have caused crashes of the grounded 737 MAX.

The Iranian report referred to the crash as an accident.

Investigations into airliner crashes are complex, requiring regulators, experts and companies across several international jurisdictions to work together. It can take months to fully determine the cause and issuing an initial report within 24 hours is rare.

A Canadian security source told Reuters there was evidence one of the engines had overheated.

The crash happened hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, leading some to speculate that the plane may have been hit.

The initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies was that the plane had suffered a technical malfunction and had not been brought down by a missile, five security sources – three Americans, one European and the Canadian – who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

UKRAINIAN THEORIES

Ukraine Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danylov said the country’s investigators wanted to search for possible Russian missile debris after seeing information on the internet.

He referred to an unverified image circulated on Iranian social media purportedly showing the debris of a Russian-made Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile of the kind used by the Iranian military.

Ukrainian investigators into the crash include experts who participated in the investigation into the 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Danylov said.

The Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

In a televised statement, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier asked people to refrain from speculation, conspiracy theories and hasty evaluations regarding the crash. He declared Thursday a day of national mourning.

Zelenskiy said he would speak by telephone with the Iranian president to step up cooperation in investigating the crash.

Ukraine is looking at various possible causes, including a missile attack, a collision, an engine explosion or terrorism.

Countries recognized under a UN-administered convention as participants should nominate who they wish to be involved in the Iran-led investigation, the Iranian report said.

Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called his Iranian counterpart to stress the need for Canadian officials “to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash”, a Canadian statement said.

“Canada and Canadians have many questions which will need to be answered.”

Zelenskiy, in a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, invited Britain to join the investigation, Zelenskiy’s office said.

“Boris Johnson supported this idea and stressed that the best British experts should be involved in finding out all the circumstances of the tragedy,” it said.

As the country where the plane was designed and built, the United States would usually be allowed to be accredited but neither side has said whether U.S. investigators will be dispatched to Iran.

Iran’s aviation body could not be reached for comment to clarify its position.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen with the United States’ killing of a top Iranian general on Friday. Tehran retaliated with a missile strike on U.S. targets in Iraq.

The Ukrainian airliner took off at 6:12 a.m. local time and was given permission to climb to 26,000 feet, the report said. It crashed six minutes later near the town of Sabashahr.

Bodies and body parts recovered from the site of the crash have been taken to the coroner’s office for identification, the report said.

Smouldering debris, including shoes and clothes, was strewn across a field where the plane crashed on Wednesday. Rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.

Onboard were 146 Iranians, 10 Afghans, 11 Ukrainians, five Canadians and four Swedes, the report said, but said some may have held citizenship of other countries.

Ukrainian authorities have said those on board included 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians.

The Tehran-Toronto via Kiev route was a popular for Canadians of Iranian descent visiting Iran in the absence of direct flights.

(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell & Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Natalia Zinets & Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Jamie Freed in Sydney, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Steve Scherer in Ottawa, Laurence Frost in Paris, Matthias Williams in Kiev, Mark Hosenball in Washington and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by Alexander Cornwell, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Catherine Evans and Nick Macfie)

Thousands flee fires in Australia, navy helps evacuate the stranded

Thousands flee fires in Australia, navy helps evacuate the stranded
By Jill Gralow and Sonali Paul

BATEMANS BAY, Australia/MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of holiday makers fled seaside towns on Australia’s east coast on Thursday as bushfires approached, and military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.

Fuelled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, threatening several towns.

The NSW state government declared a state of emergency, beginning on Friday, giving authorities the power to forcibly evacuate people and take control of services.

“It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody’s ever seen,” Michelle Roberts said by telephone from the Croajingolong Cafe she owns in Mallacoota, a southeastern coastal town where 4,000 residents and visitors have been stranded on the beach since Monday night.

Roberts hoped to get her 18-year-old daughter onto a naval ship, which arrived off the town on Thursday, in order to escape the fires and thick smoke engulfing the town.

The HMAS Choules is expected to make two or three voyages over the coming days, state authorities said.

Elsewhere, long queues formed outside supermarkets and petrol stations as residents and tourists sought supplies to either bunker down or escape the fires, emptying shelves of staples like bread and milk.

More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no access to drinking water.

“Everyone’s just on edge,” said Shane Flanagan, a resident of Batemans Bay on the NSW coast.

Authorities urged a mass exodus from several towns on the southeast coast, an area popular with tourists during the summer holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke the fires.

“The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Sydney. “There are parts of both Victoria and New South Wales which have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and communications.”

Eight people have been killed by wildfires in NSW and Victoria since Monday and 18 are missing, officials said on Thursday.

Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) along the south coast on Saturday, bringing the prospect of renewed firefronts to add to the around 200 current blazes.

“It is going to be a very dangerous day. It’s going to be a very difficult day,” NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Following are highlights of what is happening across Australia:

* Naval officials said they would open registration forevacuation on Thursday afternoon, with the HMAS Choules able tocarry up to 1,000 people on the first trip. * “It’s 16-17 hours to the closest boat port, then we’ve gotto come back,” HMAS Choules Commander Scott Houlihan said onThursday afternoon. He said that leaving by boat was the onlyway out of the town. * Thousands of people had already been evacuated from theadjoining region of East Gippsland in Victoria, one of thelargest such operations in the country since the northern cityof Darwin evacuated over 35,000 people in the aftermath ofcyclone Tracy in 1974. * Five military helicopters were en route to the south coastto back up firefighters and bring in supplies like water anddiesel, the Australian Defence Force said. The aircraft willalso be used to evacuate injured, elderly and young people. * A contingent of 39 firefighters from North America landedin Melbourne, bringing the number of U.S. and Canadian expertswho have flown in to help deal with the crisis to almost 100. * Traffic on the main highway out of Batemans Bay on the NSWcoast was bumper-to-bumper after authorities called for the townto be evacuated. Residents of the town reported there was nofuel, power or phone service, while supermarket shelves had beenstripped bare of staples. * NSW’s Kosciuszko National Park, home to the SnowyMountains, was closed and visitors were ordered to leave due toan extreme danger of fire. * Morrison urged those waiting for help and those stuck intraffic jams “to be patient … help will arrive.” * Morrison, forced to defend his government’s limited actionon climate change, blamed a three-year drought and lack ofhazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration ofthis year’s bushfires. * Bushfires so far this season have razed more than 4million hectares (10 million acres) of bushland and destroyedmore than 1,000 homes, including 381 homes destroyed on thesouth coast this week.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Jill Gralow in Batemans Bay; Editing by Jane Wardell, Neil Fullick and Mike Collett-White)

Fire in Minneapolis leaves 250 homeless on Christmas Day

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Fire swept a hotel apartment building that provides transitional housing for the poor in downtown Minneapolis early on Wednesday, leaving about 250 people homeless on Christmas morning, city officials said.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in the four-alarm blaze. Three residents with minor injuries were taken to a hospital for evaluation, and several others were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation, officials said.

The fire erupted before dawn on the second floor of the three-story Francis Drake Hotel before spreading to the third floor and attic area of the brick building, city Fire Chief John Fruetel told reporters outside the complex.

The cause was unknown, Fruetel said, adding that he expected it would take fire crews until Thursday to fully extinguish the blaze.

Television news footage showed flames leaping through the roof amid thick smoke as firefighters poured streams of water onto the burning structure.

“I would estimate that the building is going to be a total loss,” assistant fire chief Bryan Tyner told Minnesota Public Radio News.

With temperatures hovering just above freezing, the city immediately brought in transit buses to provide emergency shelter and warmth for displaced residents, Mayor Jacob Frey told a news briefing, adding that municipal agencies were working with the American Red Cross and other authorities to provide food, longer-term shelter, clothing and other needs for the evacuees.

“These are people’s lives, this is their home. They’re concerned about everything from a wallet or a phone so they can get in touch with a loved one on Christmas, to where are their babies going to get formula,” Frey said, choking up with emotion.

The Francis Drake, which opened in 1926 as a luxury hotel later converted to residential units, provides overflow shelter space for homeless families, as well as temporary lodging for individuals who lack permanent housing in Minnesota’s largest city, municipal and county officials said.

Drake Hotel resident Jason Vandenboom said he was awakened by his wife when fire alarms sounded and he ventured out of their unit to see “a guy coming down the hallway, just pounding on the doors, saying, ‘There’s a fire, we gotta get out of here.'”

Gazing out to another wing of the building, “I saw flames shooting at least about 10, 15 feet (3, 4.5 meters) up,” he told CBS affiliate WCCO-TV. Vandenboom said he then ran back to his room and told his wife, “‘Yeah, we gotta go now.’ … It was bad.”

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)

Devastating bushfire conditions to worsen in Australia

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Rising temperatures, lightning strikes and erratic winds are set to fan wildfires in Australia in the week ahead, officials said on Sunday, with emergency crews already working day and night to contain more than 130 blazes.

The state of New South Wales, where 367 homes have been lost in the past week, reported 56 fires burning with about half yet to be contained, fire services said.

A heatwave forecast for this week is expected to heighten dangers in the state. The fires have already claimed four lives across the country’s east coast.

“We are expecting to see a worsening of conditions, particularly as we start heading into Tuesday and then continuing through Wednesday and Thursday again,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Crews from interstate and New Zealand were expected to bolster firefighters’ efforts from Monday in combating the blazes and to relieve volunteers.

Australia’s bushfires are a common and deadly threat but the early outbreak this year in the southern spring has already claimed several lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Authorities in Queensland issued emergency warnings for part of the state, where nearly 80 fires were burning on Sunday and as the region braced for more hot and dry weather in the week ahead.

“Until we get significant rainfall, the fires will not go out,” Queensland’s acting Fire and Emergency Commissioner, Mike Wassing, said in televised remarks.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sam Holmes)

Second Greek migrant camp in flames as arrivals continue to rise

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) – A fire in a severely overcrowded migrant camp in Greece forced hundreds of people into the streets, compounding their plight with more refugees arriving on Greek islands daily in what an aid group called a worsening “nightmare”.

Greece sent more police to the island of Samos on Tuesday after the fire, which occurred two weeks after a deadly blaze at a troubled camp on nearby Lesbos triggered protests there.

The Samos fire flared outside the camp on Monday night, firefighters said, before spreading inside. Earlier, three Syrians had been taken to hospital with stab wounds suffered in a fight with a group of Afghans, police said.

Several tents and housing containers were destroyed and 600 people were given shelter by aid groups, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) charity said. It estimates that half of the camp’s residents are women and children.

“This nightmare must end!” MSF wrote on Twitter. “Children and other vulnerable people must be evacuated from the Greek islands to safe accommodation.”

Greece is struggling with the biggest resurgence in refugee and migrant flows across the Aegean Sea from Turkey since a 2015 crisis when more than a million streamed into Europe, many of them entering the continent via Greece.

A regional governor, Costas Moutzouris, described the current situation on Greece’s frontline islands as “tragic” and called on the government to act.

More than half of refugees and migrants reaching European Union territory this year from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have been to Greece, according to United Nations data.

Athens has announced a stricter migration policy to deal with the crisis, including plans to deport 10,000 migrants by the end of next year. But efforts to ease overcrowding have borne little fruit as arrivals have surged to record levels.

The Samos camp, initially built for about 650 people, is unraveling under the weight of more than 5,700 asylum-seekers, according to the latest government data.

More than 12,000 people arrived in Greece in September, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the highest level in the three-and-a-half years since the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to seal the Aegean corridor to Europe.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, addressing the Greek parliament on Tuesday, said Greece needed to do more to process its backlog of asylum claims.

He cautioned that Greece might not be able to deal with the potential refugee fallout from a military offensive launched by Turkey against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria last week.

“The pressure currently being placed on populations on the Turkey-Syria border may force several thousand Syrians, or others living in the region, to want to cross the border into Turkey. And then what happens?” Avramopoulos said.

“That would be catastrophic for Greece, and for Europe.”

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

The sky never goes dark while the Amazon burns

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Jake Spring

HUMAITA, Brazil (Reuters) – There are no lights in sight but the night sky glows a dusky yellow, for the Amazon is burning.

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The smell is of barbecue, of wood charcoal up in flames. During the day the sun, usually so fierce in these parts, is obscured by thick gray smoke.

For the last seven days Reuters has repeatedly driven a 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) stretch from Humaita towards Labrea along the Trans-Amazonian highway, watching a fire eat its way through the jungle.

At first, on Wednesday of last week the raging fire stood just a few yards (meters) off the roadway, the yellow flames engulfing trees and lighting up the sky. By the weekend the fire had receded into the distance but cast an orange glow several stories high.

The fire is just one of thousands currently decimating the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and a bulwark against climate change.

Wildfires have surged 83% so far this year when compared to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil’s space research agency INPE.

The government agency has registered 72,843 fires, the highest number since records began in 2013. More than 9,500 have been spotted by satellites since last Thursday alone.

On Wednesday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro enraged environmentalists by making unfounded claims that non-governmental organizations were starting the fires out of anger after he cut their funding.

Global outrage has torn through social media, with #PrayforAmazonas the world’s top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday.

Reuters observed plumes of smoke billowing from the forest, reaching hundreds of feet (dozens of meters) into the air, during a weeklong trip to southern Amazonas and northern Rondonia states.

“All you can see is smoke,” said Thiago Parintintin, who lives in an indigenous reserve just off the Trans-Amazonian highway, pointing to the horizon.

A yellow truck bearing the logo of Brazil’s forest firefighters had just rushed past.

“It didn’t use to be like this,” Parintintin added.

A 22-year-old trained indigenous environmental agent, Parintintin blames the increasing development of the Amazon for bringing agriculture and deforestation, resulting in rising temperatures during the dry season.

Fires start in the underbrush that has been drying over the dry season. Smoke envelopes still lush patches of fronds and palm trees, as the understory smolders before the upper tiers of vegetation catch fire.

Environmentalists also say farmers set the forest alight to clear land for cattle grazing.

The smoke from the resulting fires hangs at the horizon like a fog.

Gabriel Albuquerque, a pilot in Rondonia state’s capital city of Porto Velho, said that in four years of flying his small propeller plane it has never been this bad.

“It is the first time that I’ve ever seen it like this,” he said, as he prepared to go up.

From the sky, the fires ranged from small pockets to those bigger than a football field, with the smoke making it impossible to see behind the front line of flames to discern the full extent of the blaze.

Sometimes the smoke was so thick the forest itself appeared to have disappeared.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler)