Heavy snow in U.S. West and Midwest could disrupt post-Thanksgiving travel

(Reuters) – A major winter storm will lumber across the United States over the weekend, dumping snow as it moves east from the U.S. West and threatening to disrupt millions of people traveling home after celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday.

Over a foot of snow is forecast in mountainous parts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona on Friday before the storm system slips toward the upper Midwest, the National Weather Service said.

Freezing rain will likely turn to snowy blizzards in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan beginning on Friday night, with more than 18 inches of snowfall possible in some mountainous areas, the service said.

Some snow could appear in the Northeast by Sunday morning, the service said. New York City and other places further down the Atlantic Coast can expect a wintry mix of precipitation on Sunday.

More than 4 million Americans were expected to fly and another 49 million expected to drive at least 50 miles or more this week for Thanksgiving, according to the American Automobile Association.

Wintry weather disrupted travel this week ahead of Thursday’s Thanksgiving celebrations, with airports in Minneapolis and Chicago reporting hundreds of delayed or canceled flights.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Utah man confessed sending letters in ricin scare: court documents

FBI and law enforcement officers in hazmat suites prepare to enter a house, which FBI says was investigating "potentially hazardous chemicals" in Logan, Utah, U.S., October 3, 2018. REUTERS/George Frey

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – A 39-year-old U.S. Navy veteran has confessed to sending letters to U.S. President Donald Trump and other senior officials that were initially feared to contain the poison ricin when they were discovered this week, court documents showed.

William Clyde Allen III appears in a booking photo provided by Davis County Sheriff in Utah, U.S. October 3, 2018. David Country Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

William Clyde Allen III appears in a booking photo provided by Davis County Sheriff in Utah, U.S. October 3, 2018. David Country Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

William Clyde Allen III was arrested on Wednesday at his home in Logan, Utah, and will be charged on Friday, said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Aside from Trump, Allen is believed to have sent the letters containing ground castor seeds to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, according to a probable cause statement filed in Utah state court on Wednesday.

Allen mailed the envelopes on Sept. 24, the statement said.

The letters were intercepted and no one was hurt, authorities said. The letter addressed to Trump never entered the White House, the U.S. Secret Service has said.

Ricin is found naturally in castor seeds but it takes a deliberate act to convert the seeds into a biological weapon. Ricin can cause death within 36 to 72 hours of exposure to an amount as small as a pinhead. No known antidote exists.

The probable cause statement did not list a motive in the case. It was filed by an officer with the Utah State Bureau of Investigation and listed Allen’s alleged offense as the threat of terrorism.

It was not clear if Allen has obtained an attorney. He was ordered held in jail on bail of $25,000.

Allen served in the U.S. Navy from October 1998 until October 2002, leaving the service as a seaman apprentice, the second-lowest rank, according to the U.S. Navy Office of Information.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. navy veteran arrested in probe of suspicious letters

FBI and law enforcement officers in hazmat suites prepare to enter a house, which FBI says was investigating "potentially hazardous chemicals" in Logan, Utah, U.S., October 3, 2018. REUTERS/George Frey

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI arrested a U.S. Navy veteran on Wednesday as a suspect in its investigation into letters sent to senior U.S. officials initially feared to contain the poison ricin, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Salt Lake City said.

William Clyde Allen III, 39, was arrested at his home in Logan, Utah, on a probable cause warrant and will be charged on Friday, said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

William Clyde Allen III appears in a booking photo provided by Davis County Sheriff in Utah, U.S. October 3, 2018. David Country Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

William Clyde Allen III appears in a booking photo provided by Davis County Sheriff in Utah, U.S. October 3, 2018. David Country Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

Allen is under investigation for letters sent to Pentagon officials and President Donald Trump, a separate law enforcement source said.

U.S. officials said on Wednesday they had essentially ruled out terrorism in the case in which the envelopes were sent to a Pentagon mail-sorting facility on Tuesday, setting off an alarm for ricin.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said tests showed Tuesday’s alert was triggered by castor seeds, from which ricin is derived, rather than the deadly substance itself.

Ricin is found naturally in castor seeds but it takes a deliberate act to convert it into a biological weapon. Ricin can cause death within 36 to 72 hours of exposure to an amount as small as a pinhead. No known antidote exists.

One of the letters was addressed to U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The U.S. Secret Service said it was investigating a “suspicious envelope” addressed to Trump that was received on Monday, although it never entered the White House.

The FBI said it was investigating “potentially hazardous chemicals” in Logan, which is about 66 miles (106 km) north of Salt Lake City.

Allen served in the U.S. Navy from October 1998 until October 2002, leaving the service as a seaman apprentice, the second-lowest rank, according to the U.S. Navy Office of Information.

A Facebook account matching Allen’s name and location has posts about nature, science, art and Christianity. One of his last posts on Tuesday was a video of a bull elk “bugling,” or making its distinctive mating call in a forest.

(Additional reporting By Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman and Paul Tait)

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)

Thousands evacuated ahead of fast-moving California wildfire

A house burns as firefighters battle a fast-moving wildfire that destroyed homes driven by strong wind and high temperatures forcing thousands of residents to evacuate in Goleta, California, U.S., early July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevin

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Santa Barbara County officials declared a local emergency on Saturday as a fast-moving wildfire driven by strong winds and triple-digit temperatures destroyed 20 homes and other structures and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.

The Holiday Fire, one of more than three dozen major blazes burning across the U.S. West, broke out on Friday evening near the beach community of Goleta, California, west of Santa Barbara, and raced through the seaside foothills.

Firefighters work at the site of a wildfire in Goleta, California, U.S., July 6, 2018 in this image obtained on social media. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire/via REUTERS

Firefighters work at the site of a wildfire in Goleta, California, U.S., July 6, 2018 in this image obtained on social media. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire/via REUTERS

The flames forced more than 2,000 people to flee their homes, and left thousands more without power, prompting the emergency declaration which frees additional funds for the firefighting effort.

Some 350 firefighters took advantage of a period of light winds early on Saturday to contain as much as possible of the blaze, which has burned through 50 to 80 acres (20 to 32 hectares), fire officials said.

“It was a small fire but it had a powerful punch to it,” Santa County Fire spokesman Mike Eliason said. “We’re going to hit it hard today.”

Winds were expected to pick up again as temperatures rise in the afternoon, he said.

Dozens of blazes have broken out across the western United States, fanned by scorching heat, winds and low humidity in a particularly intense fire season.

This year’s fires had burned more than 2.9 million acres (1.17 million hectares) through Friday, already more than the annual average of about 2.4 million acres (971,000 hectares) over the last 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

On Friday, the remains of an unidentified person were found near a home burned to the ground by the Klamathon fire, which broke out on Thursday near California’s border with Oregon. It marked the first fatality of the fire season in California.

A boat burns as fast-moving wildfire that destroyed homes driven by strong wind and high temperatures forcing thousands of residents to evacuate in Goleta, California, U.S., early July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevin

A boat burns as fast-moving wildfire that destroyed homes driven by strong wind and high temperatures forcing thousands of residents to evacuate in Goleta, California, U.S., early July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Gene BlevinsThe Klamathon, which has destroyed 15 structures and blackened nearly 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares), was only 5 percent contained as of Saturday.

Elsewhere in Northern California, the County Fire has charred 88,375 acres (35,764 hectares) in sparsely populated wooded areas of Napa and Yolo Counties.

Some 3,660 firefighters faced with inaccessible terrain, high temperatures and low humidity, were battling the fire, which was only 48 percent contained. It has destroyed 10 structures, damaged two and threatened 110.

In Colorado, officials said fire crews had made “much progress” battling the Spring Creek fire, which broke out on Juornia, ne 27 and has consumed 106,985 acres (43,295 hectares). It was 43 percent contained on Saturday, the officials said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Peter Szekely in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by John Stonestreet, Franklin Paul and David Gregorio)

Hundreds of homes imperiled as Northern California fire spreads

Smoke rises in distance from County Fire near County Road 63 and Highway 16 in Rumsey Canyon in this #CountyFire image on social media in Brooks, California, U.S., July 2, 2018. Courtesy California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection/Handout via REUTERS

By Dan Whitcomb and Keith Coffman

(Reuters) – A wildfire in Northern California continued to spread on Tuesday, as firefighters battled the blaze that threatened hundreds of homes and other structures, sending thick black smoke across the San Francisco Bay Area.

The County Fire, which broke out on Saturday afternoon in rural Yolo County, west of Sacramento, blackened more than 70,000 acres (28,800 hectares) of grass, brush and dense scrub oak. That was 17 percent more than the 60,000 acres (24,280 hectares) it had burned as of late Monday.

The United States is in the midst of a more-active-than-usual fire season, with the risk significantly above normal for many western states, according to federal forecasters.

The County Fire was only 5 percent contained early on Tuesday, with more than 2,100 fire personnel battling the flames, the California Fire authority said.

The blaze threatened about 700 homes, a local NBC affiliate reported on Monday, as authorities issued evacuation orders and advisories to hundreds of residents.

The job of hand crews and bulldozer operators trying to cut containment lines was made more difficult by high winds, which were blowing embers and starting new spot fires, Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection said on Monday.

“The potential for growth remains high as crews battle the fire in difficult terrain,” Cal Fire said in an advisory.

The smoke reached about 75 miles (120 km) south to San Francisco, leaving a film of ash on cars and windows. No casualties have been reported.

Wildfires have burned through nearly 2.5 million acres in the United States from Jan. 1 through Monday, well above an average of about 2.3 million for the same calendar period over the last 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Western Colorado, where six major wildfires have charred more than 100,000 acres, along with much of Utah and Eastern Nevada were under a Red Flag warning on Tuesday when wind gusts of up to 35 miles per hour, extremely low humidity levels and hot temperatures were expected, the National Weather Service said.

The largest blaze, the Spring Fire in southern Colorado, has burned nearly 61,000 acres, destroyed at least 104 homes and forced the evacuations of hundreds of residents, officials said.

That fire, caused by humans, was just 5 percent contained, according to InciWeb, a federal government wildfire website.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

Battle for control of U.S. Congress advances in seven states

FILE PHOTO: A woman wears a sticker in multiple languages after voting in the primary election at a polling station in Venice, Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A bitterly personal matchup in New York between a convicted felon seeking to reclaim his congressional seat from a former prosecutor is among dozens of key races in seven U.S. states on Tuesday, as voters pick candidates for November elections that will determine control of Congress.

Voters in Colorado, Maryland, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi will also select competitors for the Nov. 6 elections, when Democrats will seek to wrest control of Congress from U.S. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

Democrats need to flip 23 of 435 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives, which would stymie much of Trump’s agenda while opening up new avenues of investigation into his administration. They would have to net two seats to take the Senate, but face longer odds there, according to analysts.

Residents of New York City’s Staten Island borough will decide whether to give Republican Michael Grimm, fresh off a prison term for tax fraud, a chance to return to his old seat in Congress, three years after he resigned following his guilty plea.

The race has seen the candidates trade personal insults and accusations of lying, with Trump’s presence looming above it all.

Grimm, a bombastic former FBI agent known for once threatening to toss a television reporter off a balcony, has attacked incumbent Republican Representative Dan Donovan, the borough’s former district attorney, for not sufficiently supporting Trump.

Donovan, who earned Trump’s endorsement in May, has responded by calling attention to Grimm’s criminal conviction.

The district is considered within reach for Democrats in November.

“They should have a reality show: ‘The Real Candidates of Staten Island,'” said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “It’s nasty, it’s personal – and it’s enjoyable to watch.”

DEMOCRATIC BATTLES

Voters in upstate New York will pick among seven Democrats in one of this year’s most expensive House campaigns. Republican first-term incumbent John Faso is considered vulnerable in November, and his potential challengers have collectively raised more than $7 million.

In Colorado, an establishment-backed Democrat and a liberal insurgent are vying to take on incumbent Republican Representative Mike Coffman, whose district favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

Jason Crow, an Iraq war veteran backed by the national party, is facing Levi Tillemann, who was endorsed by Our Revolution, a group born out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. Tillemann earned attention this month with an anti-gun violence video in which he blasted himself in the face with pepper spray.

South Carolina’s Republican contest for governor is the latest test of Trump’s sway among party voters. The president campaigned on Monday alongside Governor Henry McMaster, who is in a tight nominating battle with businessman John Warren. The winner is likely to prevail in November.

Voters will also pick Senate candidates in states including Utah and Maryland. Analysts say Democrats face a steep climb trying to take that chamber, as they are defending seats in states like Indiana, Montana and North Dakota that supported Trump two years ago.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is expected to earn his party’s Senate nomination in Utah, while Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in military prison for leaking classified data, is a long shot in Maryland’s Democratic nominating contest against incumbent Senator Ben Cardin.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

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)

Winds fanning wildfires won’t die down until Tuesday, thousands of homes evacuated: NWS

A plane drops fire-retardant chemicals on the 416 Fire near Durango, California, U.S. in this June 9, 2018 handout photo. La Plata County/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Gusting winds driving the flames of a largely uncontrolled wildfire are expected to keep fanning the blaze through an 11th day on Monday on the bone-dry hills of southwest Colorado, where more than 2,000 homes have already been evacuated.

“This is not good news for them,” said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

“There’s no rain in sight and the winds are going to be 15 mph with higher gusts all day. That’s a bad combination,” he said.

More powerful wind gusts of 35-45 mph (56-72 km/h) helped drive a largely unchecked wildfire north of Durango to nearly double in size from Saturday to Sunday.

There were no new burn-area updates early on Monday for the so-called 416 Fire in southwest Colorado but, according to the last update, it had burned nearly 17,000 acres (6,880 hectares) by Sunday evening, an area larger than Manhattan.

More than 800 firefighters were battling the blaze located north of Durango, which was 10 percent contained, the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team said.

While the winds were dropping on Monday to about 25 mph, Oravec said it was only modest good news.

“It’s still a fan on the fire,” Oravec said. “It won’t be until Tuesday before the winds really die down.”

No structures have been destroyed so far but the fire was a few hundred yards from homes, with multiple aircraft dropping water and flame retardant to curtail the blaze, according to Inciweb, an interagency fire report.

“The terrain is rough and inaccessible in many areas,” the report said. June 30 was the estimated date for containment, it said.

The NWS has placed large portions of the so-called Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona under a red flag warning of extreme fire danger due to the dry conditions.

A near-record 10 million acres (4 million hectares) were burned in U.S. wildfires in 2017, the National Interagency Coordination Center said.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Paul Tait)

Twenty states sue federal government, seeking end to Obamacare

FILE PHOTO: A sign on an insurance store advertises Obamacare in San Ysidro, San Diego, California, U.S., October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

(Reuters) – A coalition of 20 U.S. states sued the federal government on Monday over Obamacare, claiming the law was no longer constitutional after the repeal last year of its requirement that people have health insurance or pay a fine.

Led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, the lawsuit said that without the individual mandate, which was eliminated as part of the Republican tax law signed by President Donald Trump in December, Obamacare was unlawful.

“The U.S. Supreme Court already admitted that an individual mandate without a tax penalty is unconstitutional,” Paxton said in a statement. “With no remaining legitimate basis for the law, it is time that Americans are finally free from the stranglehold of Obamacare, once and for all,” he said.

The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the Trump administration would defend the law in court.

The individual mandate in Obamacare was meant to ensure a viable health insurance market by forcing younger and healthier Americans to buy coverage.

Republicans have opposed the 2010 law formally known as the Affordable Care Act, the signature domestic policy achievement of Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, since its inception.

Paxton and Schimel, both Republicans, were joined in the lawsuit by 18 states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Utah and West Virginia. It was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Texas.

(Reporting by Eric Beech in Washington)