Five charged with child abuse at New Mexico compound due in court; body of child found

Conditions at a compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken into protective custody for their own health and safety after a raid by authorities, are shown in this photo near Amalia, New Mexico, U.S., provided August 6, 2018. Taos County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – Five people charged with felony child abuse were due to make their first court appearance on Wednesday after 11 children were found malnourished inside a ramshackle compound in northern New Mexico.

The defendants include the father of a missing boy whose disappearance led authorities to raid the compound last week. They also include another man and three women presumed to be the mothers of the 11 children, who were taken into protective custody.

On Monday, authorities found a body at the site believed to be the remains of the missing boy, whose abduction from his Georgia home has been reported by his mother in December. His body was discovered on what would have been the missing child’s fourth birthday, the Taos County sheriff said on Tuesday.

Identification of the remains was awaiting an autopsy. Further charges in the case were possible, local prosecutor Donald Gallegos said.

The compound, surrounded by tires and a trench, is located on the outskirts of Amalia, New Mexico, near the Colorado state line, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Taos.

Each of the five adults were charged with 11 counts of felony child abuse, according to the local prosecutor, Donald Gallegos.

The missing boy’s father, who the sheriff said was heavily armed when taken into custody, was identified as Siraj Wahhaj, 39. According to CNN, Wahhaj is himself the son of a prominent Muslim cleric of the same name in New York.

The second man has been alternatively identified by the sheriff as Lucas Morten and Lucan Morton.

The sheriff declined to answer questions about what was going on at the compound, but he said a shooting range had been built at the property.

(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, editing by Larry King)

Explainer: Drought creates a perfect storm for wildfires in U.S. West

Firefighters battle a fast-moving wildfire in Goleta, California, July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, New Mexico (Reuters) – Bigger and more “explosive” wildfires are raging across the U.S. West, with the area burned in Colorado already four times the size of last year’s total, as rising temperatures, drought and a buildup of forest fuels supercharge blazes.

So far this year, 3.3 million acres have burned in U.S. forests, just below the figure for this time in 2017. Last year was the second worst year on record with 10 million acres blackened, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

Around 2,600 homes have been destroyed nationally by fires year to date, according to Forest Service data. Nine U.S. wildland firefighters have been killed up to this week, compared with 14 killed in all of 2017, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. It was not immediately possible to verify how many civilians have died this year.

The number of wildfires larger than 25,000 acres on U.S. Forest Service land in the West nearly quadrupled in the decade to 2014, compared with the 1980s, according to data from the Department of the Interior.

The number of U.S. homes destroyed in wildfires almost tripled to 12,242 in 2017 from the previous year, according to U.S. Forest Service data, largely due to giant blazes in California that killed 43 people.

DROUGHT TURBOCHARGING FIRES

What’s driving the wildfires is exceptional drought conditions in large areas of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Severe droughts used to happen every four to five decades but are becoming frequent. In New Mexico, such dry periods have occurred in five years since 2000, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Kerry Jones in Albuquerque.

Nearly all of California faces abnormally dry or drought conditions, according to the Drought Monitor agency.

The state has had its worst start to the fire period in a decade, with 220,421 acres burned through Thursday morning, according to NIFC data.

In Colorado, preliminary figures show 431,540 acres have burned year to date, nearly four times the 111,667 acres blackened during all of 2017, according to NIFC data.

By August, the risk of large wildfires will be at normal levels in much of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain areas, thanks to a forecast for strong summer rains, but risk levels will remain above normal in California through October, according to NIFC data.

RISING TEMPERATURES

Rising average temperatures in the West are also stoking fires. Areas such as northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have been in long-term drought since around 2000.

“We’re in a global (temperature) change drought,” said Peter Brown, director of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Higher temperatures have helped extend the period of wildfires by 60 to 80 days each year, NIFC spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said.

“We’re not calling it a fire season anymore, we’re referring to a fire year,” she said.

An expected 1.8 Fahrenheit (1C) temperature rise by mid-century is expected to double or triple the annual acreage burned from a current 7 million acres average, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture.

UNHEALTHY FORESTS

A fire needs fuel to burn, and there is a lot of that in the U.S. West’s overgrown and often unhealthy forests.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. government pursued a fire suppression policy that sharply reduced the acreage burned but caused forests to become choked with underbrush and trees, allowing invasive species to enter. In the southwest, bark beetles have killed billions of conifers now providing fuel for infernos.

In California, invasive species like cheatgrass offer the perfect fuel for fire to spread. Millions of trees and bushes killed by California’s 2012-2017 drought are another fuel source.

“TSUNAMIS OF FLAME”

Southeast Colorado’s Spring Creek fire, the second largest in the state’s history at 108,000 acres, is an example of the kind of “perfect fire storm” menacing the West, said firefighter Ben Brack, 42, information officer on the blaze.

Burning at thousands of degrees with 300-foot-high “tsunamis of flame” fanned by erratic winds, Brack called it the most “explosive” fire he has seen. The fire has destroyed upwards of 148 homes, according to Costilla County authorities.

Brack compares such blazes to hurricanes or tornadoes for firefighters’ inability to stop them.

Fire crews get people out of the way, save what homes they can, and create fire breaks many miles from the flames. These fires may only be fully extinguished by the first snows of winter, Brack said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

Wildfires threaten Northern California homes, national park in New Mexico

FILE PHOTO: The Pawnee Fire, which broke out on Saturday, in Northern California. Courtesy CAL FIRE/via REUTERS

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) – Four wildfires burned in Northern California on Tuesday, threatening hundreds of homes, while another blaze in an area of New Mexico hard hit by drought will force most of a sprawling national park to close, fire officials said.

The most damaging blaze, the Pawnee Fire, burned in Lake County near the Mendocino National Forest, 70 miles (110 km) northwest of Sacramento. It had destroyed 22 buildings and charred 11,500 acres (4,654 hectares) by Tuesday afternoon, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

The fire has forced about 1,500 people to evacuate, said Lieutenant Corey Paulich of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Lake County on Monday, freeing up resources. By Tuesday more than 1,400 firefighters battled the blaze, Cal Fire said.

The blaze was 5 percent contained, unchanged from Monday.

Lake County has now had at least one damaging wildfire each of the last four years, Paulich said.

“I don’t recall any fires as big in my first 19 years that we’ve had in the past four years,” said Paulich, a 23-year sheriff’s department veteran.

The fire’s growth on Tuesday was away from populated areas, Paulich said, adding that if that trend continues, residents may soon be allowed to return to their homes.

In New Mexico, most of the Carson National Forest will close on Wednesday. This will be the first time the 1.4 million acre (566,600 hectares) forest, larger than the state of Delaware, will close because of drought since 2011.

The closure is “strictly precautionary” and called due to the area being in the highest level of drought. The New Mexico fire is not expected to threaten any structures, the Carson National Forest said.

The Pawnee is one of four major wildfires burning in California as temperatures rise across the state. None are reported to have caused injuries.

Of the four, two were more than 50 percent contained by Tuesday afternoon, Cal Fire said.

The Lane Fire in Tehama County, 140 miles north of Sacramento and east of the Pawnee Fire, had blackened 3,800 acres and threatened 200 buildings, fire officials said. It was 45 percent contained.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Firefighters battle Colorado wildfire under dry, hot conditions

the 416 Wildfire burning west of Highway 550 and northwest of Hermosa, Colorado, U.S., June 10, 2018. Satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company /Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Firefighters battling a raging wildfire in southwestern Colorado faced more hot, dry conditions and gusty winds on Tuesday, officials said.

The 416 Fire has already forced people to flee about 2,000 homes in the 11 days since it started while pre-evacuation notices were issued for another 127 homes on Monday, officials in La Plata County said.

Temperatures would reach the mid 80s Fahrenheit (around 30 Celsius) and winds up to 25 miles (40 km) an hour on Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service said. Humidity was expected to stay low, at around 6 percent, it added.

After doubling in size from Saturday to Sunday, the wildfire, 13 miles north of the small city of Durango, covered 20,131 acres (8,147 hectares) and was just 15 percent contained, the service said.

The 416 Fire – named after its emergency service call number – is by far the largest of at least a half-dozen blazes raging across Colorado.

A 32-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 550, which has served as a buffer for homes on the eastern edge of the fire, was closed, officials said.

All 1.8 million acres of the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado were due to be closed to visitors by Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, citing the fire danger.

No buildings have been destroyed so far, but flames had crept to within a few hundred yards of homes. Aircraft have been dropping water and flame retardant, according to fire information website InciWeb.

The site said containment was not expected before the end of the month.

The National Weather Service posted red-flag warnings for extreme fire danger for large portions of the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

More evacuations ordered as Colorado wildfire spreads

A helicopter drops water on the 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, U.S. in this June 4, 2018 handout photo obtained by Reuters June 5, 2018. La Plata County/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Hundreds of people were ordered to evacuate their homes in southwestern Colorado on Thursday as hot, dry and windy conditions stoked a wildfire that was 90 percent uncontained, federal and local officials said.

Since breaking out a week ago, the 416 Fire has forced the evacuation of nearly 1,200 homes, including hundreds from the town of Hermosa on Thursday. Residents of 1,600 other homes have been told to be prepared for possible evacuation, said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County.

The fire had burned over 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) by Thursday, officials said.

More than 600 firefighters battling the blaze were preparing for another “challenging day,” the National Forest Service said.

Temperatures in the mid 80s F (around 30 C) and 15-mile (25 km) per hour winds and low humidity were forecast for the area

on Friday with no rain in sight, the National Weather Service said.

The fire has expanded to the north, the west and the south but has not crossed U.S. Highway 550, which has helped firefighters protect houses east of the highway, La Plata County’s Graham said.

The National Weather Service has placed large sections of the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah under an elevated fire risk.

In northern New Mexico, a fire that started May 31 had burned 36,800 acres (14,900 hectares) by early Friday. The Ute Park Fire was 66 percent contained, with more than 600 firefighters also mobilized there, the fire service said.

While the fire continued to burn on Friday, it was surrounded by previously burned areas that would confine its spread, officials said.

No injuries or major damage to structures have been reported from either fire, officials said.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Leslie Adler and John Stonestreet)

Colorado wildfire threatens more homes as wind spreads blaze

A helicopter drops water on the 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, U.S. in this June 4, 2018 handout photo obtained by Reuters June 5, 2018. La Plata County/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A wildfire raging largely unchecked on Wednesday in southwest Colorado forced hundreds of residents to prepare to evacuate and could spread to other states, officials warned.

Emergency crews said they had only managed to contain 10 percent of the fire near the towns of Durango and Hermosa, where the forecast was for another dry, hot day, with wind gusts likely to spread the fire.

The fire grew about 1,000 acres from Tuesday to Wednesday, to cover 4,015 acres (1,625 hectares). It is expanding to the north, the west and the south but has not crossed U.S. Highway 550, which has helped firefighters protect 825 houses east of the highway, said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County.

Residents of those 825 houses were ordered to evacuate several days ago, after the fire started on Friday.

La Plata County has issued pre-evacuation notices for about another 1,250 residences, Graham said.

Vehicles are being allowed to travel through the area on Highway 550 in single-file convoys protected and escorted by law enforcement officers, Graham said.

“Please do not stop to take photos and observe the fire! Stay with the convoy!” a Twitter message posted on Wednesday by La Plata County warned.

FOUR CORNERS REGION

The 416 Fire – named, local media said, after its official incident number – burned over steep terrain sending smoke billowing into the sky.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the blaze, said Cam Hooley, spokeswoman for the San Juan National Forest.

The Durango Herald reported that a retired volunteer firefighter noticed the fire last Friday morning.

The National Weather Service has placed large sections of the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah under an elevated fire risk.

In New Mexico, the Ute Park wildfire was 30 percent contained by Wednesday morning, having burned 36,800 acres (14,892 hectares) of drought-parched grassland and timber since last Thursday. The 1,110 residents of Cimarron, New Mexico, were on Monday allowed back into their homes after showers on Sunday helped quell part of that blaze.

No injuries or major damage to structures have been reported from either fire.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)

Colorado wildfire rages as firefighters gain on New Mexico blaze US-USA-WILDFIRES

The 416 Fire near Durango, southern Colorado. REUTERS/Courtesy La Plata County, Colorado

(Reuters) – Hot weather was expected to stoke an unchecked wildfire in southern Colorado on Tuesday that forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes.

The blaze, dubbed the 416 Fire, spread across some 2,400 acres (971 hectares) early on Tuesday near Durango, Colorado, where the temperature was expected to reach into the high 80s.

The fire, which began on Friday, was just 10 percent contained on Tuesday morning, as about 825 homes remained under evacuation, officials said.

“In the coming days the fire is expected to burn actively,” the U.S. Forest Service said in an alert. “Firefighters will continue building defensible spaces around homes and structures.”

About 250 miles (400 km) to southeast, 1,110 residents of Cimarron, New Mexico were allowed back into their homes after showers on Sunday helped quell part of a separate blaze, the Ute Park Fire, which burned 36,000 acres (14,569 hectares) of drought-parched grassland and timber since erupting on Thursday.

Cimarron, a frontier-style town, lies about 140 miles (225 km) northeast of Albuquerque, the state’s largest city. Ute Park is about 10 miles (16 km) west of Cimarron.

By early Tuesday, fire crews had managed to carve containment lines around 25 percent of the blaze, up from zero containment on Sunday morning.

About 75 people from the small nearby community of Ute Park, near the Colorado border, remained under a mandatory evacuation on Monday, said Judith Dyess, spokeswoman for the multi-agency Southwest Incident Management Team managing the blaze.

The causes of both fires were unknown and under investigation. No injuries or property losses were reported from either.

“Critical fire weather and smoky conditions are expected to return in the coming days as a high pressure system is building from the south,” fire officials said in an alert regarding the New Mexico fire.

The nearby Santa Fe National Forest was closed to the public indefinitely on Friday in a rare measure prompted by the heightened fire risk from prolonged drought.

Rains fail to quench western U.S. wildfires

FILE PHOTO: Smoke is seen from a fire in this aerial shot above Cimarron, New Mexico, U.S., June 1, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media on June 2, 2018. Justin Hawkins/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Rains fell on two massive wildfires in the U.S. southwest but it was not enough to quench the fires that were burning through thousands of acres in New Mexico and Colorado early Monday, officials said.

“The rains came and we’re glad of it,” said Judith Dyess, a spokeswoman for the joint agency, South West Incident Management Team in New Mexico. “But it didn’t do it. We’re still burning out of control.”

“Overnight the fires calm down some, with the lower humidity,” Dyess said, “But we’re working around the clock.”

Progress was made, she said. The fires were 23 percent contained by early Monday in the larger of the two fires, the so-called Ute Park Fire in Colfax County, New Mexico.

That was a big improvement from the fire being zero percent contained early Sunday before the rains came, Dyess said.

It has already scorched some 30,000 acres near Cimarron, a town of about 1,100 people northeast of Santa Fe, according to a bulletin on the New Mexico Fire Information website.

Ten fire crews, totaling 510 people, 32 fire engines, eight helicopters and eight bulldozers, were deployed, officials said.

About 300 structures were threatened in Cimarron, where officials issued a mandatory evacuation order on Friday.

The town lies just northeast of the Santa Fe National Forest, which was closed to the public indefinitely on Friday in a rare measure prompted by the heightened fire risk from prolonged drought.

About a dozen outbuildings went up in flames on an adjacent ranch, fire officials said.

The cause of the fire, which began on Thursday and has been burning through grassland and pine forest, is not known.

A second wildfire started on Friday about 10 miles north of Durango, Colorado, raging across more than 2,255 acres late Sunday and forcing the evacuation of about 1,500 people near the southern border of the San Juan National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Air tankers dropped a red fire retardant slurry at the weekend on land near the fire 10 miles north of Durango along Highway 550, according to the Denver Post. Six helicopters dropped large buckets of water on the flames.

The fire was 10 percent contained, according to a fire bulletin from the National Weather Service (NWS) early Monday.

“Unfortunately there’s no more rain in sight,” said Brian Roth, a meteorologist with the NWS’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

“That’s it, what they got,” he said. “One and done. The rains have moved west into Arizona.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Paul Tait)

Trump administration demands documents from ‘sanctuary cities’

People visit the Liberty State Island as Lower Manhattan is seen at the background in New York, U.S., August 17, 2017.

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday escalated its battle with so-called sanctuary cities that protect illegal immigrants from deportation, demanding documents on whether local law enforcement agencies are illegally withholding information from U.S. immigration authorities.

The Justice Department said it was seeking records from 23 jurisdictions — including America’s three largest cities, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as three states, California, Illinois and Oregon — and will issue subpoenas if they do not comply fully and promptly.

The administration has accused sanctuary cities of violating a federal law that prohibits local governments from restricting information about the immigration status of people arrested from being shared with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Many of the jurisdictions have said they already are in full compliance with the law. Some sued the administration after the Justice Department threatened to cut off millions of dollars in federal public safety grants. The cities have won in lower courts, but the legal fight is ongoing.

The Republican president’s fight with the Democratic-governed sanctuary cities, an issue that appeals to his hard-line conservative supporters, began just days after he took office last year when he signed an executive order saying he would block certain funding to municipalities that failed to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The order has since been partially blocked by a federal court.

“Protecting criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities defies common sense and undermines the rule of law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

Democratic mayors fired back, and some including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to skip a previously planned meeting on Wednesday afternoon at the White House with Trump.

“The Trump Justice Department can try to intimidate us with legal threats, but we will never abandon our values as a welcoming city or the rights of Chicago residents,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “The Trump administration’s actions undermine public safety by jeopardizing our philosophy of community policing, as they attempt to drive a wedge between immigrant communities and the police who serve them.”

IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWN

The issue is part of Trump’s broader immigration crackdown. As a candidate, he threatened to deport all roughly 11 million of them. As president, he has sought to step up arrests of illegal immigrants, rescinded protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought into the country illegally as children and issued orders blocking entry of people from several Muslim-majority countries.

Other jurisdictions on the Justice Department’s list include: Denver; San Francisco; the Washington state county that includes Seattle; Louisville, Kentucky; California’s capital Sacramento; New York’s capital Albany, Mississippi’s capital Jackson; West Palm Beach, Florida; the county that includes Albuquerque, New Mexico; and others.

The Justice Department said certain sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia were not on its list due to pending litigation.

On Twitter on Wednesday, De Blasio objected to the Justice Department’s decision to, in his words, “renew their racist assault on our immigrant communities. It doesn’t make us safer and it violates America’s core values.”

“The White House has been very clear that we don’t support sanctuary cities,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, adding that mayors cannot “pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”

The Justice Department last year threatened to withhold certain public safety grants to sanctuary cities if they failed to adequately share information with ICE, prompting legal battles in Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

In the Chicago case, a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction barring the Justice Department from withholding this grant money on the grounds that its action was likely unconstitutional. This funding is typically used to help local police improve crime-fighting techniques, buy equipment and assist crime victims.

The Justice Department is appealing that ruling. It said that litigation has stalled the issuance of these grants for fiscal 2017, which ended Sept. 30.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham)

Gunman, two students dead after New Mexico high school shooting

police sirens

(Reuters) – A suspected shooter opened fire at a high school in New Mexico on Thursday, killing two students before being killed, according to police and officials from the nearby Navajo Nation.

Few other details were immediately available about the incident at Aztec High School in the city of Aztec, about 200 miles (322 km) northwest of Santa Fe, including whether the shooter was a student or if the shooter was killed by police.

The New Mexico State Police said no other injuries were reported, that the school was evacuated, and families of the victims were notified. Police said there were no other credible threats to students.

Garrett Parker, a sophomore at Aztec High School, told Hearst news affiliate KOAT, that he initially thought the gunshots were other kids banging on locker doors.

“As it got closer and louder and it was obvious it was gunshots. All I could think of was that definitely, this is it today, if whoever it is comes in then I’m probably done,” Parker said. “Thankfully our teacher always locked his door. When they called over the intercom that this was not a drill, we went over to the corner to the classroom out of sight of the door and just started hiding.”

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a statement that all schools in the area were placed on preventative lockdown as a precaution.

“It’s tragic when our children are harmed in violent ways especially on school campuses,” Begaye said in the statement.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Hay)