California governor seeks end to oil drilling in state by 2045

(Reuters) -California Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday directed state agencies to end new fracking permits by 2024 and to analyze how to phase out oil and gas extraction two decades later.

The move comes as Newsom has been under pressure from environmental activists and progressive politicians who say the state’s permitting of new drilling is at odds with its goals to move away from fossil fuels and combat climate change.

“I’ve made it clear I don’t see a role for fracking in that future and, similarly, believe that California needs to move beyond oil,” Newsom said in a statement.

The move was criticized by the oil and gas industry, which said the action would hurt drilling-dependent jobs and communities, as well as green groups who said the state needed to move far more quickly.

The Western States Petroleum Association, in a statement, pledged “to fight this harmful and unlawful mandate.”

Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said the commitment was “historic and globally significant” but added that “we don’t have time for studies or delays.”

Newsom directed the California state oil and gas regulator, the Geologic Energy Management Division, to initiate a process that will halt the issuance of hydraulic fracturing permits by 2024. Fracking accounts for a small amount of oil extraction in California.

In addition, the governor said the California Air Resources Board, which writes the state’s climate change policies, will evaluate how to phase out oil and gas extraction by 2045.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Valerie Volcovici in Washington, Editing by Franklin Paul and Cynthia Osterman)

California reaches deal to fund school reopening for youngest children

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California’s governor said on Monday he and Democratic lawmakers had reached a deal to fund the reopening of schools for students up to second grade, as the numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the state and country drop to their lowest this year.

A Reuters tally shows that COVID-19 infections are decreasing in the United States, with 68,240 new infections reported on average each day, or 27% of the peak daily average reported on Jan. 7. The United States has recorded 28,681,793 infections and 513,721 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

California’s $6.6 billion budget package marks the latest effort by a U.S. state to get school children back in class after nearly a year confined to home learning by political leaders in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

“You can’t reopen your economy unless you get your schools reopened for in-person instruction,” Governor Gavin Newsom, said at a Monday afternoon news briefing announcing the agreement with Democratic leaders in the state legislature.

But the deal does not include an order by Newsom, a first-term Democrat, for public schools to open by a certain date, and the governor conceded that negotiations may still need to take place with teachers’ unions.

“We expect all of our transitional kindergarten to grade two classrooms open within the next month,” Newsom said. “And our core belief is this: Once you dip your toe in … once you build trust, then we will start to see a cadence of reopening across the spectrum.”

The $6.6 billion will partly pay for personal protective gear and improved classroom ventilation. The deal would also make vaccinating teachers and other school employees a priority in California, the nation’s most populous state.

NEWSOM CRITICIZED

Newsom has imposed some of the harshest restrictions of any U.S. state on California’s roughly 40 million residents, and many businesses remain closed one year into the pandemic.

The governor, who was sharply criticized after he was photographed eating at a posh Napa Valley restaurant late last year despite ordering Californians to stay home, has seen his approval ratings dip and is the subject of a recall effort.

Despite plummeting numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide, most students across the United States remain stuck at home as governors and local leaders seek to navigate complicated political and logistical hurdles to reopen schools.

Public school students in many of Maryland’s most populous areas returned to in-class instruction on Monday.

“School buses are on the road this morning – a welcome sight as we give more young Marylanders the opportunity to get safely back in the classroom,” Governor Larry Hogan said on Twitter.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Monday announced that as of March 15, pre-K-12 teachers and childcare workers would be eligible for vaccination.

While New Jersey lags behind other states in making vaccinations available to teachers, Murphy said two-thirds of classes are already hybrid or completely in-person.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. tops 10 million COVID vaccinations as California expands eligibility for shots

By Peter Szekely and Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – More than 10 million Americans had received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the year-old pandemic roared on unchecked.

The United States reached 10.2 million inoculations one day after the CDC and Trump administration gave new guidance to U.S. states on who should receive the shots first. Strict rules putting healthcare workers first in line had slowed the rollout. Now states are urged to vaccinate anyone over 65 as well.

California moved on Wednesday to do just that, designating all individuals 65 and older eligible to begin receiving vaccines, adding 6.6 million people to the rolls of those qualified to be immunized, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

The move bumps senior citizens, regardless of whether they have underlying medical conditions, to the top of the priority list for vaccine recipients, just behind front-line healthcare workers and residents and staff of nursing homes.

California, like many states, has struggled to use up as much vaccine as it received in initial allotments from the federal government, administering only about a third of the nearly 2.5 million doses shipped to the state as of Monday.

Newsom has set a goal of inoculating 1 million more Californians by the end of this week with the first shot of the two-dose vaccine.

He also said the state would launch a new system next week for notifying people when they become eligible for the vaccine, and to register for notification by email or text.

The latest push to spur the most ambitious mass immunization campaign in U.S. history came as the nation set a new record for coronavirus deaths in one day, with 4,336 fatalities on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday said the administration was releasing its full stockpile of two vaccines approved for emergency use, including some that had been held in reserve to make sure that second doses could be given on schedule.

Nearly 30 million doses of the vaccines, manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer with its German partner BioNTech, have been released to U.S. states, which have used only about one-third of them.

Johnson & Johnson said on Wednesday that the pharmaceutical company was on track to roll out its single-shot vaccine in March.

In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Dr. Paul Stoffels also said J&J expected to meet its stated target of delivering 1 billion doses of its vaccine by the end of this year as the company ramps up production.

Political leaders and health officials nationwide have scrambled in recent days to push out more vaccines to their residents, many lowering the age requirement to 65. California and New York have both pledged to inoculate one million residents this month.

NEW YORK SEEKS MORE VACCINE

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said on Wednesday that short supplies of the vaccine could hamper efforts to reach the city’s inoculation goals.

“We need the federal government, the state government and the manufacturers to step up and get us more supply immediately,” de Blasio told a news conference.

The nation’s most populous city is adding vaccination sites across its five boroughs, including its two Major League Baseball stadiums.

“I confirmed with our healthcare team yesterday that even with normal supplies that we expect to have delivered next week, we will run out of vaccine at some point next week, unless we get a major new resupply,” de Blasio said.

Public health officials say so far no U.S. state has used up its supply of the vaccines.

At the Javits Center in Manhattan, which was pressed into service as a temporary hospital in April, health officials said they were prepared to vaccinate 10,000 people in 12 hours, with the ability to ramp up to 25,000 in a 24-hour period.

New York has recorded nearly 40,000 coronavirus fatalities since the pandemic broke out there in March, more than any other U.S. state.

Nationwide more than 380,000 people have died of COVID-19. A total of 22.7 million have been infected during that time.

The number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization may have leveled off at least temporarily, according to a Reuters tally, although public health officials warned that further spread may still be seen from holiday gatherings.

California, the nation’s most populous state, has seen new hospitalizations drop this week, according to health officials. More than 30,000 Californians have so far died of COVID-19 related illness.

The recent emergence of a more infectious variant of the virus first seen in the United Kingdom has made efforts to accelerate vaccinations all the more important. The so-called UK variant has so far been confirmed in at least 10 U.S. states.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Andrew Hofstetter in New York, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Alistair Bell and Catherine Evans)

Two gorillas at San Diego Zoo test positive for COVID-19

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Two gorillas at the San Diego Zoo have tested positive for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms of the disease, California’s governor said on Monday, in what is believed to be the first known transmission of the virus to apes.

Governor Gavin Newsom, in his latest coronavirus update for the state, said the source of the gorillas’ infection was still under investigation to determine whether the virus was transmitted between animals or from humans to the apes.

A statement posted on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park website said the gorillas were suspected of having contracted infection “from an asymptomatic staff member,” despite following all COVID-19 safety precautions recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zoo authorities initiated testing of fecal samples of the park’s gorillas after two of the apes began coughing last Wednesday, and preliminary results two days later found the presence of the virus “in the gorilla troop,” the statement said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed the positive results on Monday.

“The test results confirm the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in some of the gorillas and does not definitively rule out the presence of the virus in other members of the troop,” it said.

“Aside from some congestion and coughing, the gorillas are doing well,” Lisa Peterson, executive director of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, said in the statement. “The troop remains quarantined together and are eating and drinking. We are hopeful for a full recovery.”

Gorillas are members of the family of primates known as the great apes, or hominids, that also include orangutans, chimpanzees and humans.

The coronavirus has also been found in a number of other wild-animal species in captivity, including several lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo in New York and four lions at the Barcelona Zoo in Spain.

But the gorillas in San Diego are believed to mark the first known case of infections confirmed in apes. The virus also has shown up in a number of household dogs and cats.

Last month, the USDA said it had confirmed the first known case of the coronavirus in an animal in the wild, a mink, following an outbreak among farmed minks that killed 15,000 of the animals.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

Daily U.S. COVID-19 deaths again top 3,000 as officials scurry to distribute vaccine

(Reuters) – Daily U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 3,000 for the third time in a week as the country expanded its vaccination program and the U.S. Congress progressed toward approving financial relief for the pandemic-stricken country.

The death toll of 3,102 on Tuesday, the third highest total since the pandemic began, increased the cumulative number of U.S. fatalities to 304,187, according to a Reuters tally. The case load of 16.7 million infections represented roughly 5% of the U.S. population.

Inoculations of the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine entered their third day on Wednesday, set aside for doctors, nurses and other frontline medical workers, along with residents and staff of nursing homes.

The vaccine, developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE, won emergency-use authorization last Friday. A second vaccine from Moderna Inc could get emergency-use approval this week.

U.S. officials aim to get 2.9 million doses delivered by week’s end, but it will take several months before vaccines can be obtained on demand by the public at large.

Political leaders and medical authorities have launched a two-pronged media blitz avowing the safety of the vaccines while urging Americans to remain diligent about social distancing and mask-wearing until inoculations become widely available.

Experts fear deaths and cases could further soar if people reject their advice to cancel year-end holiday gatherings. A significant portion of the American public has already shown disdain for basic public health guidance, and only 61% of respondents in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said they were open to getting vaccinated.

The virus has spread so fast that many California hospitals have run out of space in their intensive care units.

The state has ordered scores of refrigerator storage trailers for corpses and distributed 5,000 body bags to San Diego, Los Angeles and Inyo counties, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

The pandemic has also put millions of people out of work as states and localities imposed sweeping stay-at-home orders and closed businesses to control the spread.

Congress has failed to pass new coronavirus aid since April, but congressional leaders on Tuesday reported substantial progress toward a coronavirus deal and a bill to avert a government shutdown.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

California bans private gatherings, New York expands hospitals to battle coronavirus surge

By Dan Whitcomb and Maria Caspani

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) -California compelled much of the state to close shop and stay home on Monday and New York ordered hospitals to increase bed capacity by 25 percent, as the United States braced for yet another coronavirus surge during the upcoming holidays.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s order came into effect one day after the state set a record with more than 30,000 new COVID-19 cases, triggered in areas of Southern California where fewer than 15% of intensive care hospital beds remain available.

In addition, five counties in Northern California surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area have voluntarily imposed the restrictions even before reaching the intensive care unit threshold. Combined, the areas cover about three-quarters of the state’s nearly 40 million people.

Dr. Celine Gounder said California had little choice. “Given how out of control the virus is at this point, we are having to dial up some of those restrictions again,” Gounder told CBS News. “Ideally, we should be more proactive than this.”

In reporting more than 30,000 new cases on Sunday, the state exceeded its previous high of 21,986 set on Dec. 4, and notched a record high for hospitalized COVID-19 patients as well.

Nationwide, COVID-19 infections in United States are at their peak with an average of 193,863 new cases reported each day over the past week, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

There have been 14.7 million confirmed infections and 282,253 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began, the most in the world.

California has been under a stay-at-home order for all but essential services since March. The new order, which will last at least three weeks, bans private gatherings of any size, shuts all but critical infrastructure and retail operations, and requires everyone to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing.

But the sheriffs of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties have said they will refuse to enforce the order.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said in a videotaped message that his office “will not be blackmailed” into enforcing the governor’s orders, and Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said in a statement his deputies would not respond to calls to enforce violations of the mask mandate, stay-at-home orders or the ban on social gatherings.

FAUCI SEES ‘BAD TIME’ AHEAD

To avoid a critical shortage of hospital beds, New York state health officials will order hospitals to increase their capacity by 25% and ask retired doctors and nurses to come back to work, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

If the hospitalization rate fails to stabilize over the next five days, indoor dining in New York City will be halted, Cuomo said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci warned the nationwide surge could get worse after the year-end holiday season.

After millions ignored expert advice and traveled for the Thanksgiving holiday in November, Fauci anticipated Americans would once again behave recklessly during Christmas and New Year’s Eve festivities.

Spikes in the death toll typically appear about three weeks after surges in infections and hospitalizations.

“Mid-January is probably going to be a bad time,” said Fauci, appearing with Cuomo in his video news conference.

Anticipating U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency authorization of the first vaccine within the coming days, the White House will host a vaccine distribution summit on Tuesday with governors, retail pharmacy chains and shipping companies, Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News.

The aim of the meeting was “to be very transparent and show the world how comprehensively we have planned out every aspect of this distribution,” Azar said.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Maria Caspani, Doina Chiacu, Lisa Lambert, Peter Szekely and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)

California, Ohio order nightly curfews on gatherings as coronavirus surges

By Sharon Bernstein and Maria Caspani

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California’s governor on Thursday imposed a curfew on social gatherings and other non-essential activities in one of the most intrusive of the restrictions being ordered across the country to curb an alarming surge in novel coronavirus infections.

The stay-at-home order will go into effect from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. each day, starting Saturday night and ending on the morning of Dec. 21, covering 41 of California’s 58 counties and the vast majority of its population, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the measure a week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

A similar 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew order was issued on Thursday in Ohio and will remain in effect for the next 21 days, Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, announced separately.

As in California, the Ohio curfew would not prohibit grocery stores from remaining open past 10 p.m., or keep restaurants from staying open late for takeout orders. Individuals would likewise be permitted to venture out for food, medical care, or other necessities, as well as to take a jog or walk a dog.

In California, the restriction essentially marks a return to the first-in-the-nation, statewide stay-home order that Newsom imposed in March, except it applies only during the designated curfew hours rather than around the clock.

Signs of a resurgent public health crisis have emerged more starkly across the country, with officials forced to retreat from tentative steps to normalize daily life during what had been a brief lull in the pandemic.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “strong recommendation” on Thursday that Americans refrain from traveling for the holiday.

Later in the day, President-elect Joe Biden emerged from a teleconference with a bipartisan group of 10 governors saying they had discussed a possible universal face-mask requirement – an idea Biden has strenuously advocated as a “patriotic duty.”

Biden also repeated he had no plans to impose a U.S. economic lockdown.

REIMPOSING RESTRICTIONS

Newsom and DeWine’s orders were among the most restrictive of various measures state and local government leaders nationwide have imposed on social and economic life this week as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have soared heading into the winter, when more people congregate indoors.

Minnesota ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues from Friday until Dec. 18 at the earliest, as the state’s hospital intensive care units were being stretched to capacity.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has jumped nearly 50% in the past two weeks, with more than 80,000 people being treated for the disease in hospitals across the country as of late Thursday, a Reuters tally showed, the most at any time during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 surge – and the refusal of some Americans to take it seriously as a real threat – has taken its toll on healthcare workers.

“I think that we’re exhausted. We feel alone, alienated and hearing people not being supportive or compassionate – in fact, saying that we’re in some conspiracy – is incredibly painful,” Mariam Torossian, a pulmonary critical care physician at Providence Saint Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank, California.

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 250,000 on Wednesday, with more than 2,000 additional lives lost as of Thursday, and public health experts projecting the cumulative number could climb well above 400,000 by March.

More than 20 states have adopted new mandates this month to confront the mounting crisis.

Newsom, a first-term Democrat, warned that “more stringent actions” may be necessary in California, the most populous U.S. state with some 40 million residents, if the latest efforts to blunt the contagion fall short.

Still, Republican state Assemblyman James Gallagher branded the governor’s curfew “arbitrary,” saying it would “further decimate struggling businesses that already face some of the toughest hurdles in the country.”

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, also a Republican, said he would not enforce it.

NEW YORK SCHOOLS, RESTAURANTS

New York City’s public school system, the nation’s largest, halted in-class instruction due to rising infection rates just weeks after allowing its 1.1 million students back into classrooms on a part-time basis.

Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his decision to close the schools as a necessary but temporary measure, and said he expects the state to shut down indoor restaurant dining and gyms in the city “within a week or two” given rising infection rates.

Still, working parents voiced exasperation at the hardships it placed on them and the emotional toll on their children.

“I am sick, as a working mom, of waiting, checking Twitter to see if schools are going to be open tomorrow and how to juggle my work responsibilities and tell my daughter again to buck up,” Natalia Petrzela, whose 8-year-old attends public school in the city, told Reuters.

The Northeast, which for months had maintained low infection rates after being the epicenter of the pandemic in the spring, has experienced the highest percentage jump in hospitalizations at 85% over the past 14 days, according to Reuters data. During that same period, hospitalizations in the Midwest have risen 57%, in the West by 50%, and in the South by 34%.

In the nation’s capital, the Smithsonian Institution announced it would close its museums and the National Zoo beginning on Monday, with no set reopening date.

Looking further ahead, Pennsylvania officials announced that crowds will not be permitted to attend annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 2.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Gabriella Borter and Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan, Rich McKay, Susan Heavey, Angela Moore and Rollo Ross; Writing by Steve Gorman and Gabriella Borter; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Bill Tarrant and Daniel Wallis)

California vows to ban sale of new gasoline-powered passenger vehicles in 2035

By David Shepardson and Nichola Groom

WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California plans to ban the sale of new gasoline powered passenger cars and trucks starting in 2035 in a dramatic move to shift to electric vehicles and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday.

Newsom told a press conference the state was committing to a “firm goal” to phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 and was encouraging other states to take similar action.

Newsom’s order labeled the elimination of gasoline-powered vehicles a “goal” and a “target” after his office said earlier his order would require the sale of nothing but zero emission passenger vehicle starting in 2035.

The move would be the most significant to date by a U.S. state aimed at ending the use of internal combustion engines for passenger travel.

California is the largest U.S. auto market, accounting for about 11% of all U.S. vehicle sales, and many states choose to adopt its green vehicle mandates.

Newsom also wants the state legislature to stop issuing new permits by 2024 allowing use of hydraulic fracturing technology for oil and gas drilling.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to bar California from requiring the sale of electric vehicles, while his rival Joe Biden has pledged to spend billions to speed the adoption of electric vehicles.

California said it was joining 15 countries that have made similar pledges, including Britain.

California’s clean vehicle goals have not always come to pass and in some cases have been pushed back.

Newsom said the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will develop regulations to mandate that 100% of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks are zero-emission by 2035, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 35%. The board also plans to mandate by 2045 that all operations of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles be zero emission where feasible.

Newsom’s executive order does not prevent Californians from owning gasoline-powered cars or selling them on the used car market.

In response to a record wildfire season in the state, Newsom earlier this month said California needed to “fast track” its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. “Across the entire spectrum, our goals are inadequate to the reality we are experiencing,” he said on Sept. 11 while touring a burned area in the state.

A group representing major automakers including General Motors Co, Toyota Motor Corp and Volkswagen AG said “neither mandates nor bans build successful markets.”

The group noted electrified vehicles account for less than 10% of new vehicle sales in California, which is still best in the United States.

California and nearly two dozen other U.S. states have sued the Trump administration, which has rolled back Obama era vehicle emissions standards and sought to undo California’s authority to set strict car pollution rules.

The administration has been waging a multi-pronged battle to counter California’s efforts to fight climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses from vehicles.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Nichola Groom; Editing by David Gregorio and Tom Brown)

Wildfire leaves California’s oldest park too hazardous for visitors

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – The lightning-sparked wildfire that ravaged Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, has left it too dangerous for visitors, officials said Tuesday during a tour of the burned area by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Numerous blazes that grew together near Santa Cruz and razed the visitor center, lodge and nature museum also charred redwood, fir and oak trees, leaving many weakened or dead and likely to fall, parks district Superintendent Chris Spohrer said, according to a pool report provided to news organizations.

It will take a year or more to find and remove all of the trees that pose a danger of falling, Spohrer said.

“If this is not a gut punch, then you’re truly not conscious as a human being,” Newsom, a Democrat, said after the tour of the park established in 1902.

One tree still smoldered near two massive ancient redwoods, dubbed the Mother and Father of the forest.

Another tree, famous for having an opening in its massive trunk large enough for an automobile, suffered moderate to extensive damage during the fire but remains standing. Newsom walked inside, expressing awe at its apparent survival.

The fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains where the park is located broke out Aug. 17 after an hours-long lightning storm that grew into one of more than two dozen major conflagrations that destroyed homes and forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate in different parts of California.

Nearly 14,00 lightning strikes, mostly in central and northern California, have ignited hundreds of individual fires since Aug. 15. Those fires have collectively charred more than 1.48 million acres – a landscape larger than the state of Delaware, according to CalFire.

Seven fatalities have been confirmed, and nearly 2,500 homes and other structures have been reduced to ruin.

(Writing by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

Most condors survive California wildfire that destroyed sanctuary

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – At least 90% of condors on the central California coast survived a wildfire that tore through their forest range and destroyed a sanctuary for the endangered birds, a wildlife group said on Wednesday.

Word that 90 of the 100 condors in California’s Big Sur had been accounted for came as home losses mounted from much larger blazes burning to the north in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A siege of dry-lightning strikes during a record heat wave sparked blazes that have raced through coastal redwood forests, destroying hundreds of homes and burning California’s oldest state park in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Cooler temperatures for a second straight day helped firefighters battle the largest blazes, as state wildfire authority Cal Fire reported 1,700 houses and other structures burned in fires that have killed seven people.

There were no condors inside pens at the sanctuary when it was destroyed last week, but 10 free-flying birds are missing and four nesting chicks are unaccounted for, said biologist Kelly Sorenson, who is hopeful they may be alive.

“They often nest in redwood trees high off the ground and redwood trees are quite fire resistant,” said Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which ran the sanctuary and is raising funds to rebuild it.

As biologists hunted for signals from the condors’ radio transmitters, fire authorities began going through burned communities to quantify the number of homes destroyed.

“We anticipate that number to grow substantially in the coming days and weeks,” Governor Gavin Newsom told a news briefing. “Once the fires are suppressed and we get back in and start seeing repopulation we’re likely to discover additional fatalities.”

Over 120,000 people remained under evacuation orders and some like Bryan Miller learned their homes had been lost.

“I have one remaining picture of my parents,” said Miller, 31, who stuffed the photograph in a backpack as he fled the fire that burned his studio in Brookdale, one of 538 homes and structures destroyed in the Santa Cruz mountains fire.

Across Northern and Central California over 15,000 firefighters from around a dozen states battled dozens of fires sparked by the barrage of over 14,000 dry-lightning strikes that have scorched an area larger than the state of Delaware.

Newsom pointed to the CZU fire, the largest in recorded history in the area’s coastal rainforests, as a consequence of rising temperatures.

“This is again another testament, a demonstrable example of the reality, not just the assertion, the reality of climate change in this state,” he said.

In the north Bay Area, nearly 1,000 homes and structures, many in farms and vineyards, were incinerated in the wine country of Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties.

The so-called LNU Lightning complex fire, the third-largest in California history, jumped to 33% containment.

In the south Bay Area evacuation orders were lifted for communities across four counties where the state’s second largest fire in history was 25% contained after burning an area larger than Los Angeles.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)