Oregon wildfire displaces 2,000 residents as blazes flare across U.S. West

By Deborah Bloom

KLAMATH FALLS, Oregon (Reuters) -Hand crews backed by water-dropping helicopters struggled on Thursday to suppress a huge wildfire that displaced roughly 2,000 residents in southern Oregon, the largest among dozens of blazes raging across the drought-stricken western United States.

The Bootleg fire has charred more than 227,000 acres (91,860 hectares) of desiccated timber and brush in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest since erupting on July 6 about 250 miles (400 km) south of Portland.

That total, exceeding the land mass of New York City, was 12,000 acres higher than Wednesday’s tally. Strike teams have carved containment lines around 7% of the fire’s perimeter, up from 5% a day earlier, but Incident Commander Joe Hessel said the blaze would continue to expand.

“The extremely dry vegetation and weather are not in our favor,” Hessel said on Twitter.

More than 1,700 firefighters and a dozen helicopters were assigned to the blaze, with demand for personnel and equipment across the Pacific Northwest beginning to strain available resources, said Jim Gersbach, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“It’s uncommon for us to reach this level of demand on firefighting resources this early” in the season, he said.

Firefighter Garrett Souza, 42, a resident of the nearby town of Chiloquin, said Wednesday he and his team spent 39 hours straight on the “initial attack” of the fire last week.

“It’s the cumulative fatigue that really, I think, wears a person out over time,” he told Reuters, as he took a break from hacking at hotspots in the burn area.

No serious injuries have been linked to the Bootleg fire, officials said, but it has destroyed at least 21 homes and 54 other structures, and forced an estimated 2,000 people from several hundred dwellings placed under evacuation. Nearly 2,000 homes were threatened.

LARGEST OF MANY WILDFIRES

The Bootleg ranks as the largest by far of 70 major active wildfires listed on Thursday as having affected nearly 1 million acres in 11 states, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported. It was also the sixth-largest on record in Oregon since 1900, according to state forestry figures.

Other states hard hit by the latest spate of wildfires include California, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

As of Wednesday, the center in Boise put its “national wildland fire preparedness level” at 5, the highest of its five-tier scale, meaning most U.S. firefighting resources are currently deployed somewhere across the country.

The situation represents an unusually busy start to the annual fire season, coming amid extremely dry conditions and record-breaking heat that has baked much of the West in recent weeks.

Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires are largely attributable to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.

One newly ignited blaze drawing attention on Thursday was the Dixie fire, which erupted on Wednesday in Butte County, California, near the mountain town of Paradise, still rebuilding from a 2018 firestorm that killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures in the state’s deadliest wildfire disaster.

The Dixie fire has charred about 2,250 acres (910 hectares) in its first 24 hours as some 500 personnel battled the blaze, which was spreading across a steep, rocky tree-filled terrain about 85 miles (140 km) north of Sacramento.

Erik Wegner of the U.S. Forest Service said dense stands of dead and dying trees created highly combustible conditions for the blaze. “It took off really fast,” he told Reuters.

Authorities have issued evacuation orders and warnings for several small communities in the area.

In Washington state, firefighters have contained about 20% of a lightning-caused fire near Nespelem, which has burned nearly 23,000 acres (9,270 hectares) northeast of Seattle since Monday, mostly on tribal lands of the Colville Reservation.

There were no injuries, but the blaze killed some livestock, destroyed three houses and forced evacuations of several others, officials said.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Klamath Falls, Oregon; Additional reporting by David Ryder in Nespelem, Washington, and Mathieu Lewis Rolland in Butte County, California; Writing and additional reporting by Peter Szekely and Steve Gorman; Editing by David Gregorio, Daniel Wallis and Chris Reese)

As cold weather arrives, U.S. states see record increases in COVID-19 cases

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Nine U.S. states have reported record increases in COVID-19 cases over the last seven days, mostly in the upper Midwest and West where chilly weather is forcing more activities indoors.

On Saturday alone, four states – Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin – saw record increases in new cases and nationally nearly 49,000 new infections were reported, the highest for a Saturday in seven weeks, according to a Reuters analysis. Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming also set new records for cases last week.

New York is one of only 18 states where cases have not risen greatly over the past two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis. However, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday he is moving to shut non-essential businesses as well as schools in nine neighborhoods, starting on Wednesday. The lockdown would require the governor’s approval.

Health experts have long warned that colder temperatures driving people inside could promote the spread of the virus. Daytime highs in the upper Midwest are now in the 50’s Fahrenheit (10 Celsius).

Montana has reported record numbers of new cases for three out of the last four days and also has a record number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals.

Wisconsin has set records for new cases two out of the last three days and also reported record hospitalizations on Saturday. On average 22% of tests are coming back positive, one of the highest rates in the country.

Wisconsin’s Democratic governor mandated masks on Aug. 1 but Republican lawmakers are backing a lawsuit challenging the requirement.

North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin have the highest new cases per capita in the country.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson is one of several prominent Republicans who have tested positive for coronavirus since President Donald Trump announced he had contracted the virus.

Because of the surge in cases in the Midwest, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities operated by Aspirus in northern Wisconsin and Michigan are barring most visitors as they did earlier this year.

Bellin Health, which runs a hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said last week its emergency department has been past capacity at times and doctors had to place patients in beds in the hallways.

The United States is reporting 42,600 new cases and 700 deaths on average each day, compared with 35,000 cases and 800 deaths in mid-September. Deaths are a lagging indicator and tend to rise several weeks after cases increase.

Kentucky is the first Southern state to report a record increase in cases in several weeks. Governor Andy Beshear said last week was the highest number of cases the state has seen since the pandemic started.

State health experts have not pinpointed the reason for the rise but point to fatigue with COVID-19 precautions and students returning to schools and colleges. Over the last two weeks, Kentucky has reported nearly 11,000 new cases and has seen hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients rise by 20%.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. Midwest sees surge in COVID-19 cases as four states report record increases

By Anurag Maan and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Four U.S. states in the Midwest reported record one-day increases in COVID-19 cases on Saturday as infections rise nationally for a second week in a row, according to a Reuters analysis.

Minnesota reported 1,418 new cases, Montana 343 new cases, South Dakota reported 579 and Wisconsin had 2,902 new cases.

In the last week, seven mostly Midwest states have reported record one-day rises in new infections — Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Minnesota and Utah reported record increases two days in a row.

The United States recorded 58,461 new cases on Friday, the highest one-day increase since Aug. 7. The United States is reporting nearly 46,000 new infections on average each day, compared with 40,000 a week ago and 35,000 two weeks ago.

All Midwest states except Ohio reported more cases in the past four weeks as compared with the prior four weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Some of the new cases are likely related to an increase in the number of tests performed. In the last week, the country has performed over 1 million coronavirus tests three out of seven days — a new record, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, hospitalizations have also surged in the Midwest and are not influenced by the number of tests performed.

Wisconsin’s hospitalizations have set new records for six days in a row, rising to 543 on Friday from 342 a week ago. South Dakota’s hospitalizations set records five times this week, rising to 213 on Saturday from 153 last week.

“Wisconsin is now experiencing unprecedented, near-exponential growth of the number of COVID-19 cases in our state,” Governor Tony Evers said in a video posted on social media.

Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming have also seen record numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the past week.

Cases have also begun rising again in the Northeast, including the early epicenters of New York and New Jersey.

In New York, more than 1,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday for the first time since June 5, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Saturday.

The United States recently surpassed 200,000 lives lost from the coronavirus, the highest death toll in the world.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

U.S. coronavirus cases top six million as Midwest, schools face outbreaks

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – U.S. cases of the novel coronavirus surpassed six million on Sunday as many states in the Midwest reported increasing infections, according to a Reuters tally.

Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota have recently reported record one-day increases in new cases while Montana and Idaho are seeing record numbers of currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Nationally, metrics on new cases, deaths, hospitalizations and the positivity rates of tests are all declining, but there are emerging hotspots in the Midwest.

Many of the new cases in Iowa are in the counties that are home to the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, which are holding some in-person classes. Colleges and universities around the country have seen outbreaks after students returned to campus, forcing some to switch to online-only learning.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday said his state was sending a “SWAT team” to a State University of New York (SUNY) campus in Oneonta in upstate New York to contain a COVID-19 outbreak. Fall classes, which started last week at the college, were suspended for two weeks after more than 100 people tested positive for the virus, about 3% of the total student and faculty population, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said.

“We have had reports of several large parties of our students at Oneonta last week, and unfortunately because of those larger gatherings, there were several students who were symptomatic of COVID,” Malatras said.

Across the Midwest, infections have also risen after an annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota drew more than 365,000 people from across the country from Aug. 7 to 16. The South Dakota health department said 88 cases have been traced to the rally.

More than eight months into the pandemic, the United States continues to struggle with testing. The number of people tested has fallen in recent weeks.

Many health officials and at least 33 states have rejected the new COVID-19 testing guidance issued by the Trump administration last week that said those exposed to the virus and without symptoms may not need testing.

Public health officials believe the United States needs to test more frequently to find asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers to slow the spread of the disease.

While the United States has the most recorded infections in the world, it ranks tenth based on cases per capita, with Brazil, Peru and Chile having higher rates of infection, according to a Reuters tally.

The United States also has the most deaths in the world at nearly 183,000 and ranks 11th for deaths per capita, exceeded by Sweden, Brazil, Italy, Chile, Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Peru.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker in Chicago and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Paul Simao)

Ten more states added to New York quarantine order: Cuomo

(Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered those arriving in New York from an additional 10 states to quarantine for 14 days to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus as cases flare up across the country.

Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington were added to the travel order which was first issued in June. Minnesota was removed.

Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 31 U.S. states are now required to quarantine upon arrival in New York, according to the travel advisory.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. tops 3 million known infections as coronavirus surges

By Callaghan O’Hare and Lisa Shumaker

HOUSTON (Reuters) – The U.S. coronavirus outbreak crossed a grim milestone of over 3 million confirmed cases on Tuesday as more states reported record numbers of new infections, and Florida faced an impending shortage of intensive care unit hospital beds.

Authorities have reported alarming upswings of daily caseloads in roughly two dozen states over the past two weeks, a sign that efforts to control transmission of the novel coronavirus have failed in large swaths of the country.

California, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas on Tuesday shattered their previous daily record highs for new cases. The biggest jumps occurred in Texas and California, the two largest U.S. states, with more than 10,000 each. About 24 states have reported disturbingly high infection rates as a percentage of diagnostic tests conducted over the past week.

In Texas alone, the number of hospitalized patients more than doubled in just two weeks.

The trend has driven many more Americans to seek out COVID-19 screenings. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said on Tuesday it was adding short-term “surge” testing sites in three metropolitan areas in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

In Houston, a line of more than 200 cars snaked around the United Memorial Medical Center as people waited hours in sweltering heat to get tested. Some had arrived the night before to secure a place in line at the drive-through site.

“I got tested because my younger brother got positive,” said Fred Robles, 32, who spent the night in his car. “There’s so many people that need to get tested, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Dean Davis, 32, who lost his job due to the pandemic, said he arrived at the testing site at 3 a.m. Tuesday after he waited for hours on Monday but failed to make the cutoff.

“I was like, let me get here at 3, maybe nobody will be here,” Davis said. “I got here, there was a line already.”

In Florida, more than four dozen hospitals across 25 of 67 counties reported their intensive care units had reached full capacity, according to the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration. Only 17% of the total 6,010 adult ICU beds statewide were available on Tuesday, down from 20% three days earlier.

Additional hospitalizations could strain healthcare systems in many areas, leading to an uptick in lives lost from the respiratory illness that has killed more than 131,000 Americans to date. At least 923 of those deaths were reported Tuesday, the biggest single-day toll since June 10 but still far fewer than the record 2,806 tallied back in April.

A widely cited mortality model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projected on Tuesday that U.S. deaths would reach 208,000 by Nov. 1, with the outbreak expected to gain new momentum heading into the fall.

A hoped-for summertime decline in transmission of the virus never materialized, the IHME said.

“The U.S. didn’t experience a true end of the first wave of the pandemic,” the IHME’s director, Dr. Christopher Murray, said in a statement. “This will not spare us from a second surge in the fall, which will hit particularly hard in states currently seeing high levels of infections.”

‘PRESSURE ON GOVERNORS’

President Donald Trump, who has pushed for restarting the U.S. economy and urged Americans to return to their normal routines, said on Tuesday he would lean on state governors to open schools in the fall.

Speaking at the White House, Trump said some people wanted to keep schools closed for political reasons. “No way, so we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”

New COVID-19 infections are rising in 42 states, based on a Reuters analysis of the past two weeks. By Tuesday afternoon, the number of confirmed U.S. cases had surpassed 3 million, affecting nearly one of every 100 Americans and a population roughly equal to Nevada’s.

In Arizona, another hot spot, the rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive rose to 26% for the week ended July 5, leading two dozen states with positivity rates exceeding 5%. The World Heath Organization considers a rate over 5% to be troubling.

The surge has forced authorities to backpedal on moves to reopen businesses, such as restaurants and bars, after mandatory lockdowns in March and April reduced economic activity to a virtual standstill and put millions of Americans out of work.

The Texas state fair, which had been scheduled to open on Sept. 25, has been canceled for the first time since World War Two, organizers announced on Tuesday.

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine said the state was ordering people in seven counties to wear face coverings in public starting Wednesday evening.

(Reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in Houston and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Gabriella Borter, Caroline Humer and Peter Szekely in New York and Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason in Washington Writing by Paul Simao and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman, Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)

U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi to reopen despite health warnings

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi this week prepared to join other states that have eased coronavirus restrictions to try to revive their battered economies, although some business owners voiced reluctance in the face of health warnings.

Colorado, Montana and Tennessee were also set to allow some businesses deemed nonessential to reopen after being shut for weeks even as health experts advocated for more diagnostic testing to ensure safety.

Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina previously restarted their economies following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown millions of American workers out of their jobs.

The number of known U.S. infections kept climbing on Monday, topping 970,000 as the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 54,800.

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a new surge of infections just as social-distancing measures appear to be bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a Twitter message late on Sunday that he would announce a roadmap for “responsibly reopening” the state at a Noon ET (1600 GMT) news conference on Monday.

Although unprecedented stay-at-home orders have put many businesses in jeopardy, many owners have expressed ambivalence about returning to work without more safeguards.

‘I WOULD STAY HOME’

“I would stay home if the government encouraged that, but they’re not. They’re saying, ‘Hey, the best thing to do is go back to work, even though it might be risky,’” Royal Rose, 39, owner of a tattoo studio in Greeley, Colorado, told Reuters.

The state’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, has given the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters to follow.

Business shutdowns have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March and the White House has forecast a staggering jump in the nation’s monthly jobless rate.

President Donald Trump’s economic adviser Kevin Hassett told reporters on Sunday the jobless rate would likely hit 16% or more in April, and that “the next couple of months are going to look terrible.”

On Monday, White House adviser Peter Navarro said the Trump administration is focusing on protocols to keep U.S. factories open as the country grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, including screening workers for potential cases.

“You’re going to have to reconfigure factories,” Navarro told Fox News. “You’re going to have to use things like thermoscanners to check fever as they come in.”

Trump was scheduled to hold a video call with the country’s governors on Monday afternoon before the White House coronavirus task force’s daily briefing.

The rise in the number of U.S. cases has been attributed in part to increased diagnostic screening. But health authorities also warn that testing and contact tracing must be vastly expanded before shuttered businesses can safely reopen widely.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Nicholas Brown and Brendan O’Brien; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Howard Goller)

 

Powerful storm sweeps across northern U.S. plains bringing snow, high winds

(Reuters) – A powerful snowstorm swept across parts of the central and northern U.S. plains in unseasonably cold temperatures and high winds on Thursday, forcing school closures and dozens of vehicle crashes on slick roads across the region.

The system was expected to produce up to 2 feet (61 cm) of snow in parts of central and eastern North Dakota and up to 10 inches of snow in portions of Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana through Saturday evening, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

“It is significant, historic amounts for this time of year” in North Dakota, said NWS meteorologist Renee Wise.

The heavy, wet snow was accompanied by sleet and ice, making road travel treacherous if not impossible in some areas, the weather service said.

“It makes it more difficult to shovel and travel in. Some people were saying that with the snow on the roads this morning it was little bit like wet concrete mix,” Wise said.

Temperatures were forecast to dip into the teens while wind gusts were expected to reach 40 mph (65 kph) in parts of the region, the NWS said.

A blizzard warning was issued for communities in northern North Dakota from 10 a.m. Friday until 1 p.m. Saturday. The NWS said it expected three feet of snow and wind gusts to reach 60 mph, causing whiteout conditions and impassable drifts.

Winter storm, high wind and freeze warnings were also in effect for much of the U.S. Plains, from North Dakota south through Kansas and into Oklahoma and into northern Texas as of Thursday afternoon, with some warnings extending into Saturday.

In the Denver metro area, icy roads on Thursday caused dozens of crashes and semi-trucks to jackknife, closing some highways. Conditions were expected to worsen throughout the day as the city was expecting three inches of snow, the Denver Post reported.

“Tons of cars sliding everywhere, even trucks – really scary and unsafe!!,” said a Twitter user named Mehgan Russell, who said they lived in Denver.

The snowstorm forced schools to close in Denver on Thursday after schools were closed in Spokane, Washington, on Wednesday.

Some 136 flights were delayed and another 24 were canceled at Denver International Airport due to snow and ice, the online tracking site FlightAware.com reported.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago)

Record snow, cold, slams northern U.S. Rockies with winter-like weather

Record snow, cold, slams northern U.S. Rockies with winter-like weather
(Reuters) – Midwinter-like weather clobbered the northern Rockies Sunday and into Monday, making early Autumn feel like deep winter, while as much as 4 feet (121 cm) of snow fell in places and hard-hit Montana declared a state of emergency to clear blocked roads.

“You have to go back to the 1930s before you find another storm like this, this early in the season,” said Josh Weiss, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Weather Prediction Center.

“A pretty good swath of the northwest got 2-3 feet (60-91 cm) of snow,” Weiss said. “It’s a pretty good storm.”

About 19 inches of snow fell in northwestern Washington state, and light snow also fell in areas of California, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon and Idaho, forecasters said.

Another 1-2 inches (2.5 – 5 cm) of snow was expected by mid-Monday in spots, with winter storm warnings in effect for western Montana and the mountains of northern Washington and northern Idaho.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock called an emergency on Sunday after 40 inches (101 cm) of snow fell in towns like Browning, forcing highway closures and a string of road accidents.

Temperatures dropped to record lows in the 20s F (-6.6 C) or below on Sunday night across western Montana and north-central Idaho, according to the NWS.

“With an unprecedented winter storm throwing our state a surprise in September, state and local governments are working closely together to protect the health and safety of Montanans,” Bullock said.

Strong winds blowing snow were expected to disrupt travel early Monday.

“The good news is that the storm is winding down,” Weiss said. “But it’s going to linger this morning.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. top court to review Montana dispute over religious school subsidies

A man stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a case that could once again test boundaries for the separation of church and state, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide the legality of a Montana state tax credit that could help students attend private schools including religious ones.

The justices took up an appeal by three mothers of Christian private school students of a decision by Montana’s top court striking down the program because it ran afoul of a state constitutional ban on aid to religious institutions.

Churches and Christian groups have pushed for expanding access to public dollars for places of worship and religious schools, testing the limits of secularism in the United States.

The decision to hear the case could give the justices an opportunity to build on a major 2017 ruling that sided with a Missouri church and opened the door to more taxpayer funds going to religious entities.

In that case, the justices ruled that churches and other religious entities cannot be flatly denied public money even in states where constitutions explicitly ban such funding, siding with a church that sued after being denied access to a state grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.

Much litigation over the years has involved school “voucher” programs and other subsidies to help parents pay for children to attend private religious schools, in states whose constitutions explicitly ban such funding. Republican President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such “school choice” plans.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)