Dangerous dry winds forecast to sweep into fire-plagued Los Angeles

Dangerous dry winds forecast to sweep into fire-plagued Los Angeles
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Extraordinarily dry, prolonged Santa Ana winds are predicted to gust through Southern California on Wednesday, prompting strong warnings from meteorologists as residents contend with damaging wildfires.

It was a daunting forecast for firefighters battling a 600-acre (240-hectare) blaze consuming the shrub-covered hills near the Getty Center museum in Los Angeles that has displaced thousands of residents. A new brush fire erupted on Wednesday morning in nearby Simi Valley in Ventura County, prompting officials to order mandatory evacuations in the suburbs around the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The National Weather Service issued an “extreme red flag” warning for wildfires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen us use this warning,” said forecaster Marc Chenard. “It’s pretty bad.”

Statewide, the weather service issued warnings of dangerous fire weather conditions covering more than 34,000 square miles (88,000 square km), encompassing some 21 million people. Scientists have linked an increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires to climate change.

The Santa Ana winds are a regional weather phenomenon that sends gusts westward off the desert out to the Southern California coast. They are forecast to reach sustained speeds of 50 to 70 miles per hour (80 to 110 km per hour) on Wednesday and Thursday, raising the risk of sparks and embers being whipped into fresh wildfires in unburned areas.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said extremely high winds could also force the grounding of water-dropping helicopters, a vital component of the firefighting arsenal.

City arson investigators say the Getty fire was likely caused by a broken tree branch being blown into power lines during high winds on Monday morning.

Electricity remained cut off to roughly half a million homes and businesses in Northern and Central California on Tuesday as a precaution by the state’s largest utility.

Governor Gavin Newsom has accused utilities of failing to adequately modernize and safely maintain their power systems.

GAINING GROUND

An army of some 1,100 firefighters battled the Getty fire Tuesday in a narrow window of slower winds. By early Wednesday, crews had managed to contain about 15 percent of the blaze.

In Northern California, where firefighters struggled for a sixth day against a 76,000-acre (30,760-hectate) blaze in Sonoma County’s winemaking region, high-wind forecasts prompted Pacific Gas and Electric Co <PCG.N> to impose a new round of blackouts for nearly 600,000 homes and business.

That included about 400,000 customers blacked out in a power shutoff that PG&E instituted days earlier, the company said.

Early Wednesday, PG&E announced that it had restored about 73 percent of the 970,000 or so customers affected in earlier shutoffs.

Utilities serving Southern California’s more highly urbanized areas have imposed smaller-scale outages.

PG&E has been implicated in the Sonoma County blaze, dubbed the Kincade fire. The utility acknowledged last week that the Kincade fire broke out near a damaged PG&E transmission tower at about the time a live high-voltage line carried by that tower malfunctioned.

The company filed for bankruptcy in January, citing $30 billion in potential liability from a series of deadly fires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018.

Citing progress made against the Kincade fire, Newsom said the number of evacuees in Northern California had diminished from 190,000 at the peak of that blaze to 130,000 on Tuesday.

Property losses from the Kincade, listed at 15% contained, were put at 189 homes and other structures, double Monday’s tally.

The size of the Getty fire’s evacuation zone was reduced by roughly 3,000 homes on Tuesday but residents of about 7,000 homes remained displaced, fire officials said. At least a dozen homes have been destroyed so far.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Jonathan Allen in New York; additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis)

Rivers of lava destroy 600 homes on Hawaii’s Big Island: mayor

Lava destroys homes in the Kapoho area, east of Pahoa, during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Terray Sylvester

PAHOA, Hawaii (Reuters) – Approximately 600 homes have been swallowed by lava flows from Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island since early last month, marking its most destructive eruption in modern times, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said on Thursday.

The latest estimate of property losses from Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, far surpasses the 215 structures consumed by lava during an earlier eruption cycle that began in 1983 and continued nearly nonstop over three decades.

Kim said Kilauea, one of five volcanoes on the Big Island, formally known as the Island of Hawaii, has never destroyed so many homes before in such a short period of time.

The latest volcanic eruption, which entered its 36th day on Thursday, stands as the most destructive in the United States since at least the cataclysmic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state that reduced hundreds of square miles to wasteland, according to geologist Scott Rowland, a volcano specialist from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

A similar, extremely violent eruption from Fuego volcano in Guatemala this week killed more than 100 people as it ejected deadly super-heated “pyroclastic” flows of lava and ash through nearby towns.

The latest damage appraisal from Kilauea came moments after Governor David Ige, on a visit to Hawaii County Civil Defense headquarters in Hilo, the island’s biggest city, signed a memorandum of understanding furnishing $12 million in immediate state disaster relief to the island.

Ige and Kim also announced formation of a task force of federal, state and local officials to devise a recovery plan for communities devastated by the eruption, with an eye toward preventing such major property losses in the future.

“Our responsibility is to try to work with the community to rebuild out of harm’s way,” Kim said.

County civil defense officials had a day earlier put the confirmed number of homes destroyed during the past month at 130, all of them in and around the Leilani Estates community, where lava-spouting fissures opened up on the volcano’s eastern flank on May 3.

Lava flows across a highway on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Lava flows across a highway on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

More recently a huge river of lava that has crept several miles across the landscape to the eastern tip of the island engulfed two entire seaside housing subdivisions – Kapoho Beach Lots and Vacationland.

Over the course of about three days, a rolling wall of molten rock measuring half-mile across and 10- to 15-feet tall buried hundreds of homes, while vaporizing a small freshwater lake and filling in an inlet called Kapoho Bay, extending about a mile out from what had been the shoreline.

Kim said Vacationland, a private development believed to comprise roughly 160 homes, was completely erased, and that at least 330 houses were devoured by lava at Kapoho Beach Lots. The rest were

The rest of the losses have occurred in the Leilani Estates area, where the toll of destruction has been steadily rising by the day.

“So if you combine the three of them (Kapoho, Vacationland and Leilani), we’re talking about 600 homes,” he told reporters. “I’m talking about 600 families. Don’t forget the farmers, don’t forget the ranchers, don’t forget all the employees for them.”

An estimated 2,500 people have been displaced by evacuations across the island since the eruption began five weeks ago, spouting fountains of lava and high concentrations of toxic sulfur dioxide gas through about two dozen volcanic fissures at the foot of the volcano.

Plumes of volcanic ash belched into the air by periodic daily explosions from the crater at Kilauea’s summit have posed an additional nuisance and health hazard to nearby communities.

So too have airborne volcanic glass fibers, called “Pele’s Hair,” wispy strands carried aloft by the wind from lava fountains and named for the volcanic goddess of Hawaiian myth.

Seaside residents and boaters also have been warned to avoid noxious clouds of laze – a term derived from the words “lava” and “haze” – formed when lava reacts with seawater to form a mix of acid fumes, steam and glass-like particles when it flows into the ocean.

Frequent earthquakes, mostly of relatively small magnitude but numbering in the thousands, have persisted throughout the eruption, adding to the jitters of residents living closest to the volcano.

In addition to destroying homes and other structures, lava flows have knocked out telephone and power lines, causing widespread communication outages, and forced the shutdown of a geothermal energy plant that normally provides about a quarter of the island’s electricity.

(Reporting by Terray Sylvester in Pahoa; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler, Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

Teary-eyed, hundreds search through rubble in devastated Philippines city

A man stands in front of his ruined house after residents were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Karen Lema

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Surrounded by the ruins of homes they fled nearly a year ago, many residents of war-torn Marawi City in the Philippines were in tears when they briefly returned this week and sifted through rubble to salvage any possessions they could find.

The Muslim-majority city of 200,000 was over-run by militants loyal to Islamic State last May, who fought the military for five months before they were ousted. After almost daily aerial bombardments and artillery fire, large parts of the picturesque, lakeside city have been devastated.

Residents wait in queue at a military checkpoint before they were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Residents wait in queue at a military checkpoint before they were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Hundreds of residents who had fled to refugee camps or to relatives’ homes in nearby towns were briefly allowed back by authorities to the ruins of the central business district on Thursday.

Calim Ali, 50, stepped out of her vehicle to find a ruined, empty plot where her home had stood in the bustling heart of the city. The only possession she could recover was a charred weighing scale that she said her family used in their fruit and rice business.

“I brought empty sacks. I thought we would still find something, like pots, and our money box,” Ali said, while her husband searched through the thick vegetation growing in the rubble.

Ali’s family is among about 27,000 others that lived in the main battle area, straddling over 24 barangays, or municipal districts. The area has remained off limits until this month, when the military said it had cleared it of hazards like booby traps and unexploded ordnance.

No civilian was permitted to stay in the area after 3 p.m. on Thursday, and the rule will remain in place on other days when visits are permitted, officials said.

There are 20 other barangays in the city which were not affected, and 50 others which were spared heavy shelling. Families have moved back to these areas.

There seems no chance of any early return for the residents of the city center.

Most buildings are in ruins and there is no food, electricity or any sewage facilities. Authorities say the area will take years to rebuild.

Meanwhile, posters showing residents how to recognize live mortar shells, grenades, aircraft rockets and improvised explosive devices were put up on every street, to remind the people to be careful as they sifted through the ruins.

Soldiers manning the area on Thursday ordered a group of residents scouring debris to quickly leave one of the streets after they found an unexploded bomb, which they detonated.

A woman reads a document at a military checkpoint before residents were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

A woman reads a document at a military checkpoint before residents were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

“HURTS SO MUCH”

“I’m at a loss for words,” Aisah Riga, 54, told Reuters, wiping away tears as she and her family rummaged through debris to find anything of use from what used to be their glass and aluminum supply store.

“This is our only source of livelihood and now it’s gone. I don’t know how we will survive. I have nine children”, she said.

Sobaidah Moner, 43, was waiting for the military to let the long line of vehicles into the main battle area as she recounted the day she and her family hurriedly left the city a day after fighting broke out on May 23.

“We were not able to bring anything except for the clothes we were wearing that day. All the clothes we are wearing right now were given to us by relatives,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.

Like Moner, several residents who spoke to Reuters said they abandoned their belongings and only brought clothes for a few days when they sought safety in nearby towns, thinking that the gunbattle, which was not uncommon in Marawi, would soon be over.

“I thought the fighting would be over in three days. We didn’t expect this. It hurts so much”, Moner said.

Residents said they are pinning their hopes on the government’s promise to rehabilitate and rebuild the city. But the extent of damage, estimated at 11 billion pesos ($211 million) means it would take years of work to reconstruct Marawi.

“The most affected area has its own development plan which is expected to be finished by 2021,” said Felix Castro, housing assistant secretary, and field office manager of an inter-agency government task force named “Bangon Marawi (Rise Marawi)”.

A Chinese-led consortium, also called Bangon Marawi, has been chosen for the reconstruction, but other bidders would be asked to compete and it will be allowed to match the best proposal, Castro said.

Rehabilitation work is scheduled to start in June, he said.

For now however, the once-bustling center of the city is lifeless.

“Before you could hear the sound of cars, and anything you wanted to buy was available. But now that we are here, there’s only silence,” said Jalil Solaiman, a 39-year-old resident.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Additional reporting by Erik De Castro; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Syria’s Ghouta residents ‘wait to die’ as more bombs fall

A person inspects damaged building in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Residents of Syria’s eastern Ghouta district said they were waiting their “turn to die” on Wednesday, amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the besieged, rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

At least 27 people died and more than 200 were injured on Wednesday. At least 299 people have been killed in the district in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.

The eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the Damascus outskirts, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control. Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces for years.

A massive escalation in bombardment, including rocket fire, shelling, air strikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs, since Sunday has become one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year.

Reuters photographs taken in eastern Ghouta on Wednesday showed men searching through the rubble of smashed buildings, carrying blood-smeared people to hospital and cowering in debris-strewn streets.

The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.

The pace of the strikes appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed later on Wednesday morning, the Observatory said. Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district’s towns and villages.

“We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say,” said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma. They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labor early, he said.

“Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Wednesday for humanitarian access to Ghouta, especially to reach wounded people in critical need of treatment.

“The fighting appears likely to cause much more suffering in the days and weeks ahead,” said Marianne Gasser, ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria. “This is madness and it has to stop.”

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta had been attacked on Tuesday.

WARNINGS

The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the United Nations.

The Observatory said many of the planes over Ghouta appear to be Russian. Syrians say they can distinguish between Russian and Syrian planes because the Russian aircraft fly higher.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday described as “groundless” accusations that Russia bears some of the blame for civilian deaths in eastern Ghouta.

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Assad’s government told Reuters overnight the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign.

“The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing,” the commander said.

Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding four people on Wednesday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.

“Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta,” Russia’s Defence Ministry said late on Tuesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of a group of “de-escalation zones” under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran with Turkey which has backed the rebels. But a rebel group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.

Conditions in eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.

(Reporting By Dahlia Nehme, Angus McDowall and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

More Florida Keys residents return home to survey Irma’s destruction

Residents walk though a debris field of former houses following Hurricane Irma in Islamorada, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Carlo Allegri

KEY LARGO, Fla. (Reuters) – More residents who had fled the Florida Keys ahead of Hurricane Irma were allowed to return to their homes on Saturday, as authorities prepared to reopen Key West at the end of the devastated archipelago on Sunday.

As Florida struggled to return to normal after the powerful storm struck this week, Governor Rick Scott ordered all nursing homes in the state to obtain emergency generators.

The order followed the deaths of eight elderly people this week at a sweltering nursing home north of Miami that lost power.

“I am outraged over the deaths of eight Floridians at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County and I am demanding answers as we furiously investigate this terrible loss of life,” Scott said in a statement on Saturday.

Irma was one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record before striking the U.S. mainland as a Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10. It killed at least 84 people, many of them in the Caribbean. The storm killed at least 33 in Florida.

In the Keys, Irma tore apart houses, flattened mobile homes and pushed boats onto the highway linking the archipelago, prompting authorities to largely shut down access to the islands. Thousands of anxious residents who evacuated have been pressing to be allowed to return home.

Cudjoe Key, where Irma made landfall in the lower Florida Keys, and nearby areas were especially hard hit.

A resident carries belongings next to a U.S. flag in a debris field of former houses following Hurricane Irma in Islamorada, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A resident carries belongings next to a U.S. flag in a debris field of former houses following Hurricane Irma in Islamorada, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

“The damage in those areas is just beyond belief,” Monroe County Mayor George Neugent told the Miami Herald.

Authorities on Saturday allowed local residents to drive to the checkpoint just before Marathon in the middle of the keys, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, which polices the Keys.

Some gasoline stations were reopening, but cell phone service and electricity remained out in most of the islands. Residents were advised to boil water before drinking.

On Sunday morning, residents will regain access to Key West at the end of the archipelago, the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on its Facebook page.

Florida utilities restored power to more residents on Saturday. The state had 1.1 million customers without electricity, down from 1.5 million on Friday, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Eight patients at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died this week after being exposed to the heat. The center was left without full air conditioning after the hurricane hit, and the deaths stirred outrage over what many saw as a preventable tragedy.

Scott on Saturday ordered emergency rules requiring all assisted living facilities and nursing homes to obtain a generator within 60 days. The goal is to ensure such facilities can operate for at least 96 hours after an outage.

Administrators at the nursing home said they repeatedly called Florida Power &amp; Light Co and state officials after a transformer powering the home’s air conditioning system went out during the storm on Sunday.

The utility did not arrive until Wednesday after some patients began experiencing health emergencies, prompting evacuation of the center, according to a timeline provided by the nursing home.

Scott on Saturday blamed the nursing home for what he described as its failure to protect life.

“As ANY health care provider knows to do, if their patients are in danger – they MUST call 911,” Scott said in a written statement.

 

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Frank McGurty and David Gregorio)

 

California crews hold wildfire in check, let more residents go home

Wildland Firefighters battle the Bridge Coulee Fire, part of the Lodgepole Complex, east of the Musselshell River, north of Mosby, Montana, U.S. July 21, 2017. Bureau of Land Management/Jonathan Moor/Handout via REUTERS

By Ian Simpson

(Reuters) – California authorities battling a massive wildfire near Yosemite National Park lifted evacuation orders on Sunday for more residents but said firefighters may need almost two more weeks to fully contain the blaze.

The Detwiler Fire was 45 percent contained, a slight improvement from Saturday, after burning 76,250 acres (30,857 hectares) and more than 130 structures, including 63 homes, since it broke out on Monday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said.

Evacuation orders were lifted by midday Sunday for much of the historic gold rush era town of Coulterville and nearby areas as firefighters completed firelines to contain the blaze, Cal Fire said in a statement.

More evacuation orders were lifted for residents of nearby affected areas on Sunday evening.

A chimney stands amidst remains of a home destroyed by the Detwiler fire in Mariposa, California U.S. July 19, 2017.

A chimney stands amidst remains of a home destroyed by the Detwiler fire in Mariposa, California U.S. July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

About two-thirds of the 5,000 people who had been ordered to leave their homes have been allowed to return, Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman, said by telephone.

The almost 4,800 firefighters battling the blaze expect to contain it fully by Aug. 5, with temperatures forecast to top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) this week complicating the fight, he said.

“Hopefully we’ll see it (contained) before then,” McLean said. “We’re making pretty good progress.”

There have been no injuries reported from the Detwiler fire, named for the road where it erupted. Its cause is being investigated.

Yosemite National Park has remained open as the fire has burned to the west, but smoke has clouded the views of its world-famous landmarks.

The Detwiler Fire is one of 35 large fires in the United States, almost all in the west, the National Interagency Fire Center said on its website.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock on Sunday declared a fire emergency because of wildfires burning across the state, fed by high temperatures and drought. Montana’s Lodgepole Complex fire expanded to about 226,000 acres (91,460 hectares) and was uncontained on Sunday, the fire center said.

The order allows Bullock to mobilize more state resources and the Montana National Guard in the fight against the fires, which have destroyed more than 10 homes so far.

 

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Chris Michaud in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Nick Macfie)

 

Wildfire threatens 2,000 homes in southwest Florida

(Reuters) – A wildfire in southwest Florida triggered evacuation orders for about 2,000 homes on Friday, prompting the governor to deploy National Guard troops to help residents fleeing the flames.

The wildfire has charred about 4,800 acres (1,942 hectares) in Collier County and forced residents to evacuate their houses in the Golden Gate Estates area of Naples, Clark Ryals, a senior forester for the Florida Forest Service, said by telephone. The blaze was only 10 percent contained.

Nine homes were destroyed by the fire, Ryals said at a news conference later on Friday evening. One person suffered minor injuries in the fire.

“These wildfires are dangerous and if you’re within the evacuation area, do not stay in your home,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said in a statement after meeting with fire officials in the area.

Some people have resisted calls to leave their homes, Chief Kingman Schuldt of the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District said.

“Unfortunately we still have a lot of people in their homes in the evacuation areas and I would stress they do need to evacuate,” Schuldt told members of the media on Friday evening.

The fire, which erupted on Thursday, is consuming palmetto trees and grasses.

A smaller wildfire also broke out in Collier County on Thursday and spread across 350 acres (142 hectares). It has since been completely contained.

About 200 firefighters are working to stop the growth of the two blazes, which are about a mile apart. The governor, aside from deploying Florida National Guard troops, said he also authorized the use of five UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to aid the effort.

The latest blazes follow a spate of other wildfires that have burned this month in drought-parched Florida, which prompted Scott to declare a state of emergency on April 11.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, additional reporting by Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jacqueline Wong)

IS Mosul commander killed, government forces battle for bridge

A tank of Iraqi rapid response forces fire against Islamic State militants at the Bab al-Tob area in Mosul, Iraq, March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

By Patrick Markey and Abdelaziz Boumzar

MOSUL, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraqi government forces killed the Islamic State commander of Mosul’s Old City on Tuesday as the battle for the militants’ last stronghold in Iraq focused on a bridge crossing the Tigris river.

As fighting intensified on Tuesday after the previous day’s heavy rains, civilians streamed out of western neighborhoods recaptured by the government, cold and hungry but relieved to be free of the militants’ grip.

IS snipers were slowing the advance of Interior Ministry Rapid Response units on the Iron Bridge linking western and eastern Mosul but the elite forces were still inching forward, officers said.

Government forces also pushed into areas of western Mosul, Islamic State’s last redoubt in the city that has been the de facto capital of their self-declared caliphate.

Federal police killed the military commander of the Old City, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Ansary, during operations to clear Bab al-Tob district, a federal police officer said. With many IS leaders having already retreated from Mosul, Ansary’s death comes as blow to the militants as they defend their shrinking area of control street-by-street and house-by-house.

Capturing the Iron Bridge would mean Iraqi forces hold three of the five bridges in Mosul that span the Tigris, all of which have been damaged by the militants and U.S.-led air strikes. The southernmost two have already been retaken.

“We are still moving toward the Iron Bridge. We are taking out snipers hiding in the surrounding building, we are still pushing for the Iron Bridge,” Brigadier General Mahdi Abbas Abdullah of the Rapid Response force told Reuters.

Near the Mosul Museum, Iraq forces used armored vehicles and tanks to attack snipers pinning down troops clearing areas around the bridge.

An air strike targeting one Islamic State position hit a building, engulfing nearby troops in smoke and dust.

Since starting the offensive in October, Iraqi forces with U.S.-led coalition support have retaken eastern Mosul and about 30 percent of the west from the militants, who are outnumbered but fiercely defending their last stronghold in Iraq.

For much of Tuesday, the troops were within 100m (330 feet) of the bridge.

“It’s very key for our forces to secure the riverside and prevent Daesh militants from turning around our advancing forces,” a Rapid Response spokesman said in the morning, using an Arab acronym for Islamic State.

They expected to gain control of the Iron Bridge and the nearby area by the end of the day, he said.

“Seizing the bridge will help further tighten the noose around Daesh fighters entrenched inside the old city,” he said.

HEAVY SHELLING

The boom of shelling and heavy machinegun fire could be heard from the center of Mosul and helicopter gunships strafed the ground from above on Tuesday morning.

Amid the combat, a steady stream of refugees trudged out of the western districts, carrying suitcases, bottles of water and other possessions. Some pushed children and sick elderly relatives in handcarts and wheelbarrows.

Soldiers packed them into trucks on the Mosul-Baghdad highway to be taken to processing areas. Most left in the dark early morning hours or after the army recaptured their neighborhoods. Food had been scarce, they said.

“We fled at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT) after the army had arrived. There has been a lot of shelling by Daesh,” said Hamid Hadi, a teacher. “Mostly we’ve been eating water mixed with tomatoes.”

Ashraf Ali, a nurse who escaped with his wife and two children, said mortar rounds were falling as they fled. They took advantage of the army retaking their district to get out.

“Daesh wanted us to move to their areas but we escaped when the army arrived,” he said.

As many as 600,000 civilians are caught with the militants inside Mosul, which Iraqi forces have effectively sealed off from the remaining territory that Islamic State controls in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi forces include army, special forces, Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’ite militias.

More than 200,000 Mosul residents have been displaced since the start of the campaign in October. The Ministry of Immigration and Displacement said on Tuesday that in recent days, almost 13,000 displaced people from western Mosul had been received seeking assistance and temporary accommodation each day.

“Whenever we advance there are more people coming out,” said one Iraqi officer directing refugee transport. “There are more people on this side of the city and people are trying to leave because there is no food and no supplies in their area.”

Losing Mosul would be a major strike against Islamic State. It is by far the largest city the militants have held since their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself leader of a caliphate spanning Iraq and Syria from a mosque in Mosul in the summer of 2014.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Writing by Angus MacSwan in Erbil, Editing by Ralph Boulton)

Residents flee as Afghan troops battle Taliban in city of Kunduz

Afghan security forces fight Taliban

KABUL (Reuters) – Thousands of residents have fled or face deteriorating conditions as fighting between Afghan forces and Taliban militants entered its third day in the embattled northern city of Kunduz, officials said on Wednesday.

Taliban fighters easily penetrated the city’s defenses on Monday, raising questions about the capacity of the Western-backed security forces, even as international donors meet in Brussels to approve billions of dollars in new development aid for Afghanistan.

“Most civilians have abandoned Kunduz city and have gone to neighboring districts or provinces,” said Kunduz provincial governor Asadullah Amarkhel. “There is no electricity, no water and no food. Many shops are closed.”

Government troops, backed by U.S. special forces and air strikes, have made slow but “significant” progress in clearing the city, said Kunduz police chief Qasim Jangalbagh.

He acknowledged, however, that the situation remained dangerous for many residents.

“There are security problems in the city,” he said. “People do not have enough food, water and other needs so they are evacuating the city to go to safe places.”

In social media posts, the Taliban rejected claims that the government had retaken Kunduz and accused security forces and U.S. troops of committing abuses against civilians.

The U.S. military command in Kabul said there was “sporadic” fighting within Kunduz but Afghan security forces controlled the city.

American aircraft conducted at least two air strikes on Wednesday to “defend friendly forces who were receiving enemy fire”, the military said in a statement online.

“The city is locked down,” said Hajji Hasem, a resident leaving Kunduz with his family on Wednesday. “If the Taliban and air strikes do not kill you, hunger and thirst will.”

Increased attacks by insurgents hoping to topple the Western-backed government and install Islamist rule have tested the Afghan security forces who are struggling to defend major cities and roads a year and a half after a NATO-led force declared an end to its combat mission.

The violence has displaced nearly 1 million Afghans within the country, according to the United Nations, and contributed to an exodus of tens of thousands to Europe and other areas.

The two-day, EU-led donor conference in Brussels is seeking fresh funds despite Western public fatigue with involvement in Afghanistan, 15 years after the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

(Reporting by Afghanistan bureau; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)