Blizzard clobbers Plains and Midwest after blanketing the U.S. Rockies

A bicyclist exits the Midtown Greenway bicycle and pedestrian trail during the spring snowstorm in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Annabelle Marcovici

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A powerful blizzard slammed the U.S. Plains and Midwest on Thursday with heavy snow and fierce winds that caused power outages and closed highways while raising fears of more flooding in the Midwest after a deluge last month.

The system was dumping more than a foot (0.3 m) of heavy snow and winds were gusting up to 65 miles (105 km) per hour from northeast Colorado north to northern Wisconsin, the National Weather Service said in multiple advisories.

Whiteout conditions on roadways were making “travel extremely dangerous,” according to the weather service. Blizzard and winter storm warnings would remain in effect across the region through Friday morning, it said.

“Conditions will continue to deteriorate the rest of the afternoon and overnight,” said Dan Effertz, a NWS meteorologist in Minnesota. “This is a very potent storm.”

Local media reported dozens of crashes and cars in ditches as several major highways and roads were shut down in parts of the U.S. Plains and Midwest. Some counties issued “no travel” advisories, warning drivers to stay off the roads.

“Blizzard, day two. Not even the pack of sled dogs can handle these roads,” said Minnesota crime novelist Anthony Neil Smith on Twitter.

More than 30,000 homes and businesses were without power in Minnesota, 14,200 in Iowa and 22,700 in Michigan by midday on Thursday, according to PowerOutages.us, a website that tracks power outages.

The storm beginning on Wednesday has already dumped more than 2 feet of snow on parts of South Dakota and more than about a foot of snow in communities in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.

The storm caused officials to close schools and governmental offices in dozens of communities.

In addition to snow, the storm was bombarding the region with rain, sleet, freezing rain and thunderstorms.

“You can probably even throw in the kitchen sink at this point,” the weather service said in a Tweet.

The blizzard, dubbed a “bomb cyclone” because of its rapidly intensifying funnel shape, is the second one to hit the region over the past month.

In March, another “bomb cyclone” triggered heavy rain over the region and combined with melting snow to cause flooding along the Missouri River and its tributaries. Damages and losses to property, cattle and crops in Nebraska and Iowa alone were estimated at more than $3 billion.

Officials in Nebraska on Thursday were cautiously watching the forecast and river levels to the north, said Jodie Fawl, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

“We are waiting to see what happens when the snow melts,” she said, noting that warm temperatures since then have thawed the ground and could result in less flooding. “We are just going to have to wait and see.”

Despite the severe weather, crew members at Denver International Airport worked through the night to remove snow from runways, and only about 180 flights were canceled on Thursday morning, down from more than 700 a day earlier, according to FlightAware.come, a flight tracking service, and airport officials.

(Additional writing and reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; additional reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Gina Cherelus in New York and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; editing by Bernadette Baum and Phil Berlowitz)

Two die in Ireland, Northern Ireland as Storm Ali strikes

People look out at rough sea from Slea Head during Storm Ali in Coumeenoole, Ireland, September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

DUBLIN/BELFAST (Reuters) – A woman died on Wednesday when high winds blew her caravan off a cliff in the Irish Republic and a man died in Northern Ireland as Storm Ali grounded flights and left over 200,000 people across the island without electricity.

Irish police said the body of the woman, who was in her 50s, was recovered on a beach in the village of Claddaghduff in the western county of Galway after her caravan fell from the cliff above.

Police in the British province of Northern Ireland said later on Wednesday an engineer working for the Northern Ireland Water utility was killed in an incident involving a tree.

Some 126,000 homes and businesses were without electricity in the Irish Republic due to gale force winds that reached over 140 kilometers per hour, down from an earlier peak of 186,000, while power cuts hit another 90,000 homes north of the border.

More than 50 flights in and out of Dublin airport were canceled.

Ireland’s National Meteorological Service said severe gusts would persist in some areas but that, particularly in the west of the country, winds would continue to abate through the late afternoon and evening.

Three people died in Ireland last October when Tropical Storm Ophelia whipped up 10-metre high waves and battered every corner of the country.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin and Ian Graham in Belfast; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

‘Left at God’s mercy’: Greeks seek answers as wildfire toll mounts

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

By Renee Maltezou and Alkis Konstantinidis

MATI, Greece (Reuters) – Sorrow became tinged with anger in Greece on Thursday as rescuers searched scorched land and the coastline for survivors, three days after a wildfire destroyed a small town outside Athens and killed at least 83 people.

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

Desperate relatives appeared on television to plead for information on those missing, while other residents of Mati asked why authorities had been unable to prevent so many of their neighbors from getting trapped by a wall of flame in streets with no exit route.

“This shouldn’t have happened, people perished for no reason,” a tearful woman shouted at Defence Minister Panos Kammenos as he visited the town and nearby fire-ravaged areas. “You left us at God’s mercy!”

With the toll from Greece’s deadliest wildfire in decades expected to rise further, about 300 firemen and volunteers combed the area for dozens still missing.

One woman was looking for her brother, who had been returning from work when the flames took hold. “My father was the last person to talk to him on Monday evening,” Katerina Hamilothori told Skai TV. “We have had no news at all.”

The cause of the fire is still unclear, and being investigated by an Athens prosecutor who is also reviewing the way it was handled.

Local officials said high and unpredictable winds would have rendered even the best-executed evacuation plan futile, though firefighters told Reuters that some water hydrants in the area were empty.

One theory being examined is that the blaze was started deliberately in three locations at the same time.

An aerial view shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. Antonis Nicolopoulos/Eurokinissi via REUTERS

An aerial view shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. Antonis Nicolopoulos/Eurokinissi via REUTERS

IDENTIFYING THE DEAD

Outside the coroner’s service in Athens, the mood was grim as relatives of victims arrived to submit information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

“This is a difficult process, more difficult than other mass disasters we have dealt with,” said coroner Nikolaos Kalogrias, adding that the bodies of most of the victims were completely charred.

About 500 homes were destroyed, and the fire brigade said there were closed-up homes that had not yet been checked.

The left-led government announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro payment and a job in the public sector for victims’ spouses and near relatives. But for many, that was not enough to ease the pain.

“A drop in the ocean,” read the front page of newspaper Ta Nea.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati, which lies fewer than 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens and was popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic was a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

“The main factor was the wind, its speed and its direction. It should have been looked at earlier,” said World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Greece director Dimitris Karavellas.

“These people should have been ordered out of this area… This is the only thing that could have saved them.”

(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by John Stonestreet)

Firefighters gaining edge in California wildfires that have killed at least 40

Search and Rescue teams search for two missing people amongst ruins at Journey's End Mobile Home Park destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa.

By Salvador Rodriguez

SANTA ROSA (Reuters) – Firefighters began gaining ground on wildfires that killed at least 40 people in the past week, the deadliest blazes in California’s history, as winds eased and searchers combed charred ruins for more victims with hundreds still missing.

Two of the three most destructive Northern California fires were more than half contained early on Monday, and some residents who fled the flames in hard-hit Sonoma County could be allowed to return home later in the day, officials said.

More than 5,700 structures were destroyed by more than a dozen wildfires that ignited a week ago and consumed an area larger than New York City. Entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa were reduced to ashes.

“Overall, things are feeling optimistic. We’re very cautious about that,” said Brad Gouvea, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection incident commander. “You’d never know it’s the middle of October in Sonoma County and have fire behavior like this.”

A firefighting helicopter drops water to defend a vineyard from an approaching wildfire in Santa Rosa.

A firefighting helicopter drops water to defend a vineyard from an approaching wildfire in Santa Rosa.
REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Warm and very dry weather is forecast to continue through Monday, the National Weather Service said. Rain could arrive on Thursday after a cooling trend, it said.

Steve Crawford, a Cal Fire operations chief, said heavy winds had lightened and helped drive flames away from populated areas. Better weather and additional equipment and manpower made available as other fires died down had also helped.

“Before we were kind of chasing the fire,” he said.

In another hopeful sign, Mendocino County authorities said power company PG&E would begin flying low in the county to check lines and re-establish power.

About 11,000 firefighters supported by air tankers and helicopters are battling blazes that have consumed more than 217,000 acres (88,000 hectares).

About 50 search-and-rescue personnel backed by National Guard troops were combing tens of thousands of charred acres in Sonoma County for bodies, sheriff’s spokeswoman Misti Harris said.

“Once it’s safe to go through, we’ll search every structure,” she said.

Twenty-two people were killed in Sonoma County and 174 were still listed as missing there, although the number has dropped from 235 on Saturday as more people checked in with authorities.

Evacuation orders were lifted for the picturesque Napa Valley resort town of Calistoga, whose 5,000 residents were ordered out by authorities four days ago with fire just miles from downtown.

Thank you banners to responders are hung above Highway 101 after wildfires tore through portions of Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 15, 2017.

Thank you banners to responders are hung above Highway 101 after wildfires tore through portions of Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

RETURNING TO THE UNKNOWN

Some evacuees being housed at a Sonoma raceway hoped to return home.

Retiree Stephen Garner, 68, of Sonoma, has been camped with his wife in the couple’s recreational vehicle.

“As far as we know our house is OK, but that’s the hard part, you don’t know,” he said.

In Redwood Valley, a scorched Mendocino County town of about 1,700 people, Jami Flores and her family sifted through the ruins of their two-story rental home, which was reduced to rubble.

“There’s been a lot of crying and a lot of emotions,” Flores, 42, said.

Flores, her husband and daughter fled Monday morning after being awoken by the smell of smoke, not uncommon in the area. Seeing a red haze, they rushed to leave amid falling ash and arriving firefighters.

“The mountain was on fire,” Flores said. Now she wonders, “Where do we all go next?”

The fast-moving fires north of San Francisco remained a danger, with thousands ordered to leave their homes at the weekend.

Firefighters gained control of two of the deadliest fires in wine country’s Napa and Sonoma counties: The Tubbs fire was 60 percent contained and the Atlas fire 65 percent contained, Cal Fire said. Nearly half of the Redwood Valley fire, which alone is responsible for eight deaths in Mendocino County, was extinguished by late Sunday.

The 40 confirmed fatalities make the fires California’s deadliest since record-keeping began, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

About 75,000 people remain displaced.

At least a dozen Napa Valley and Sonoma County wineries were damaged or destroyed, throwing the state’s wine industry and related tourism into disarray.

Firefighters from Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and New York are helping battle the blazes. Cal Fire estimated the fires would be contained by Friday.

The year’s wildfire season is one of the worst in U.S. history, with nearly 8.6 million acres (3.4 million hectares) burned by Oct. 13, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The worst on record for the same period in a year was 9.3 million acres in 2015.

 

(Editing by Chris Michaud and Paul Tait)