Wildfire threatens homes, prompts evacuations in Pacific Palisades, California

Smoke can be seen as a wild fire breaks out in the hills of Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, California, U.S., October 21, 2019. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Wildfire threatens homes, prompts evacuations in Pacific Palisades, California
(Reuters) – A wildfire raced up a steep hillside to threaten homes in the Southern California coastal enclave of Pacific Palisades on Monday, prompting evacuations as water-dropping helicopters and firefighters swarmed the area to battle the flames.

Live aerial video footage broadcast by KABC-TV showed tall flames raging along a ridge-line at the edge of a neighborhood, burning perilously close to several homes as authorities urged residents to flee.

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said on the broadcast that winds were relatively light, giving firefighting teams at least one advantage, because there was less chance of burning embers being spread ahead of the flames.

Large, repeated water drops from firefighting helicopters appeared to be keeping the fire mostly at bay from the neighborhood. No injuries were reported.

Residents who had been trying to help douse the blaze with garden hoses from their backyards were seen scrambling for cover at one point when a large clump of vegetation burst into heavy flames.

The blaze in Pacific Palisades, located between Santa Monica and Malibu about 18 miles (29 km) west of downtown Los Angeles, came about two weeks after a major wind-driven wildfire scorched nearly 8,000 acres along the northern edge of Los Angeles, damaging or destroying dozens of structures and prompting evacuations of some 23,000 homes.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

California governor says broad power shutdown to prevent fires ‘unacceptable’

By Alex Dobuzinskis and Andrew Hay

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California Governor Gavin Newsom called a widespread electricity shutdown triggered by a power company to prevent wildfires “unacceptable”, as gale-force winds and dry weather posed a critical fire threat to the north of the state.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) has imposed unprecedented shut-offs that left more than 730,000 homes and workplaces in northern California without power on the second day of planned outages.

But as of late Thursday, power was restored to more than half of those who had lost it, PG&E officials said in a release. About 312,000 electric customers remained without power as of 10 p.m. officials said.

Some of the state’s most devastating wildfires were sparked in recent years by damage to electrical transmission lines from high winds, with flames then spreading through tinder-dry vegetation to populated areas.

Newsom, a Democrat, told a news conference on Thursday he did not fault the utility for shutting off electricity as a safety measure, but he described the outage as too broad and said it resulted from years of mismanagement by the utility.

“We’re seeing a scale and scope of something that no state in the 21st century should experience,” Newsom said. “What’s happened is unacceptable and it’s happened because of neglect.”

The remarks were the most pointed comments Newsom has directed at PG&E since the outages began early on Wednesday. Among the questions he raised was whether the utility was too large, with a service area covering more than 40 counties.

He also faulted PG&E for putting what he called “greed” ahead of investments in its infrastructure to protect the electrical grid from dangerous winds.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.

PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson acknowledged that his company had left “millions of people” without a “fundamental service” they expect and deserve.

“This is not how we want to serve you,” he told a media briefing in San Francisco, adding that PG&E “was not adequately prepared” for such a large power outage.

‘THIRD WORLD COUNTRY’

As high winds moved south, a similar cut-off was under way by neighboring utility Southern California Edison, which warned that more than 173,000 customers could lose power in parts of eight counties, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura.

Residents, business owners and even public officials expressed frustration about the blackouts, which the utility began on a much smaller scale last year during times of high fire risk.

“Northern California is not a Third World country,” the San Jose Mercury Statesman said in an editorial. “It’s unacceptable that the region is being forced to endure this level of disruption as the long-term strategy for dealing with the threat of wildfires.”

PG&E, California’s biggest investor-owned utility, said power would be restored to areas once up to 77 mph (124 kph) winds die down and 2,500 miles (4,025 km) of transmission lines could be inspected.

“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said in a statement.

ECONOMIC COST

The National Weather Service said the hot gusty winds that usually hit northern California in October, sometimes called the “Diablo Winds”, would continue into Friday morning.

Much of northern California, from San Francisco to the Oregon border, remains under a state “red flag” fire alert, although no major blazes have been reported.

“As soon as the weather passes, PG&E will begin safety inspections with 6,300 field personnel and 45 helicopters standing at the ready once we get the all clear,” the utility said in a tweet on Thursday.

Oakland supermarkets brought in refrigeration trucks to save food.

Michael Wara of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment estimated the economic cost of the shutdown could reach $2.5 billion, with small businesses hit hardest as they typically lacked back-up generators.

In Santa Rosa, a California wine country town where entire subdivisions were destroyed by a deadly 2017 wildfire, restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark said they had to close one of their six restaurants after it lost power.

“This is preventative medicine and medicine sometimes is not good to take,” said Mark Stark, 60, who lost one restaurant in the 2017 blaze. The fires in that region killed 46 people.

“Those fires and what they caused are still very real for people in our ‘hood,” he said.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in TAOS, N.M. and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angleles; additional reporting by Scott Disavino in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman, Tom Hogue and Richard Pullin)

Thousands pray for rain in Indonesia as forests go up in smoke

Indonesian Muslim women pray for rain during a long drought season and haze in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, September 11, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Rony Muharrman/ via REUTERS

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Thousands of Indonesians prayed for rain in haze-hit towns on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo on Wednesday, as forest fires raged at the height of the dry season, the state Antara news agency reported.

Fires have burnt through parts of Sumatra and Borneo island for more than a month and the government has sent 9,000 military, police and disaster agency personnel to fight the flames.

Indonesia’s neighbors regularly complain about smog caused by its forest blazes, which are often started to clear land for palm oil and pulp plantations.

But Indonesia said this week it was not to blame and fires had been spotted by satellites in several neighboring countries.

Several parts of Southeast Asia have seen unusually dry conditions in recent months including Indonesia, which has seen very little rain because of an El Nino weather pattern, its meteorological department has said.

Some communities have taken to prayer in the hope of ending the dry weather, and the haze it brings.

Thousands of people in Pekanbaru, capital of Riau province in Sumatra, held Islamic prayers for rain outside the governor’s office. Many of those taking part wore face masks to protect themselves from the smoke, Antara reported.

“We’re doing everything we can, now we pray to Allah for the rain,” deputy provincial governor Edy Nasution told the news agency.

Similar prayers were held in towns in Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo, where air quality has been at unhealthy levels and schools have been forced to close, the news agency said.

Mosques in Malaysia have also been encouraged to hold prayers for rain, said the head of Malaysia’s Islamic Development Department, Mohamad Nordin, according to the state news agency Bernama.

Indonesian authorities are using 37 helicopters and 239 million litres of water bombs to attack the blazes, the disaster agency said on its Twitter account, while aircraft were seeding clouds in the hope of generating rain.

The agency said 5,062 fire “hot spots” had been detected in six Indonesian provinces, as of Wednesday morning.

Endro Wibowo, deputy police chief of the town of Sampit in Central Kalimantan province, said his team was working around the clock to put out the fires.

Police were also taking legal action to deter farmers from illegally using fire to clear land, Antara reported.

Criminal cases have been initiated against 175 people in different places on suspicion of starting fires while four palm oil companies were facing charges of negligence, police told media.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) said small-scale farmers were being blamed for fires started by palm oil plantation companies.

“Actions by the central and local governments have not been strong enough against companies in industrial forests or palm plantations on peat lands. They always blame the community,” said Muhammad Ferdhiyadi of the group’s South Sumatra branch.

(Reporting by Gayatri Suroyo and Jessica Damiana in JAKARTA; Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR)

Warplanes dump water on Amazon as Brazil military begins fighting fires

An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, August 23, 2019, obtained by Reuters on August 25, 2019. Marizilda Cruppe/Amnesty International/Handout via REUTERS

By Jake Spring and Ricardo Moraes

BRASILIA/PORTO VELHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazilian warplanes are dumping water on the burning forest in the Amazon state of Rondonia, responding to a global outcry over the destruction of the world’s largest tropical rain forest.

As of Sunday, President Jair Bolsonaro had authorized military operations in seven states to combat raging fires in the Amazon, responding to requests for assistance from their local governments, a spokeswoman for his office said.

Reuters accompanied a firefighting brigade near the state capital of Porto Velho, where there were areas larger than football fields that had been charred, but active fires were contained to small areas of individual trees.

The dozen or so yellow-clad firefighters from environmental enforcement agency Ibama easily cleared brush from around a burning stump with a leaf blower, doused it with jets connected to water packs mounted on their backs and covered it in earth.

A video posted by the Defense Ministry on Saturday evening showed a military plane pumping thousands of gallons of water out of two giant jets as it passed through clouds of smoke close to the forest canopy.

The response comes as leaders of countries in the Group of Seven (G7) nations currently meeting in France expressed grave concerns over the fires.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday said the G7 was nearing a deal to provide “technical and financial help” to countries affected by the Amazon fires.

Nearly 80,000 fires have been registered across Brazil through Aug. 24, the highest since at least 2013, according to space research agency INPE.

Bolsonaro announced the military would be sent in on Friday after several days of criticism from the public and world leaders that Brazil’s government was not doing anything to fight the fires.

He also said on Twitter he had accepted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of a plane and specialized support for the firefighting operations, following a call between the two leaders.

But outside of Rondonia, the government had yet to provide any operational details for other states. The Defense Ministry said in a briefing on Saturday that 44,000 troops were available in Brazil’s northern Amazon region but did not say how many would be used where and what they would do.

Military personnel around Porto Velho appeared to be largely coordinating firefighting efforts, according to a Reuters witness.

Asked for additional details, the Defense Ministry told Reuters in a statement that in all seven states that have asked for help, the military is planning operations to support firefighting initiatives already underway.

Justice Minister Sergio Moro had also authorized a force of military police to assist in fighting the fires, with 30 set to be sent from Brasilia to Porto Velho. The president’s office posted to Twitter a photo of police officers on a plane bound for Rondonia set to arrive at noon.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles posted a video showing a caravan of yellow fire prevention trucks and other government vehicles, saying they were on the ground responding in Rondonia.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Sunday he would seek a conservation pact with other Amazonian countries – first in bi-lateral meetings in Peru this week and then at the United Nations General Assembly.

“Colombia wants to lead a pact, a conservation pact, between the countries that have Amazon territory,” Duque said after meeting with an indigenous community in the Amazonian city of Leticia in southern Colombia. “We must understand the protection of our Mother Earth and our Amazon is a duty, a moral duty.”

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rain forest and is seen as vital to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide that it absorbs.

The Amazon, which provides 20% of the planet’s oxygen, is home to an estimated one million indigenous people from up to 500 tribes as well some three million species of plants and animals, including jaguars, sloths, giant otters, river dolphins, howler monkeys, toucans, reptiles, frogs and insects.

Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre said he worries if 20-25% of the ecosystem is destroyed that the Amazon could reach a tipping point, after which it would enter a self-sustaining period of dieback as the forest converts to savannah. Nobre warned that it is not far off with already 15-17% of the rain forest having been destroyed.

(Reporting by Jake Spring in Brasilia and Ricardo Moraes in Porto Velho, Brazil; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Sebastian Rocandio in Porto Velho, Brazil, Simon Carraud and Michel Rose in Biarritz, France; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Brazil’s Bolsonaro says army may help fight Amazon fires

FILE PHOTO: A tract of the Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday the army may be enlisted to help combat fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest, as international condemnation and calls for tough action to quell the unfolding crisis continued to mount.

Asked by reporters in Brasilia if he would send in the army, Bolsonaro responded: “that is the expectation.”

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

FILE PHOTO: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

The firebrand right-wing president added the decision would be made at a top-level meeting later on Friday.

According to the presidential agenda, Bolsonaro is set to meet with a team that includes the defense and environment ministers and the foreign minister at 3 p.m. local time (1800 GMT).

Fires in the Amazon have surged 83% so far this year compared with the same period a year ago, government figures show, destroying vast swathes of a forest considered a vital bulwark against global climate change.

The leaders of Britain and France have added their voices to an international chorus of concern, with President Emmanuel Macron’s office accusing Bolsonaro of lying when he played down concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.

Macron’s office added that, given this context, France would be opposed to the E.U.-Mercosur farming deal struck earlier this year between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the fires and “the impact of the tragic loss of these precious habitats,” and that he would use the summit of G7 leaders this weekend to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.

On Thursday, as international criticism mounted, Bolsonaro told foreign powers not to interfere.

“These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity. … They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, William James in London and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Fire resurges on Greece’s Evia, challenges firefighters

A firefighting plane makes a water drop as a wildfire burns near the village of Stavros on the island of Evia, Greece, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Aircraft and firefighters on the ground fought a blaze that burned large tracts of pristine pine forest on the Greek island of Evia on Wednesday as the wildfire flared up again at different spots.

A state of emergency has been declared in regions of the densely forested island east of Athens, after the blaze broke out on Tuesday, fanned by strong winds and high temperatures.

The wildfire had prompted the evacuation of villages and spurred an appeal for help from elsewhere in Europe.

Italy sent two aircraft after an appeal for airborne firefighting equipment from Greek authorities. Although conditions had improved by Wednesday morning, new blazes continued to challenge firefighting efforts.

Water dumping by specially equipped aircraft started at first light. “It is a difficult fire, that’s the reality … there is no danger to human life and that is what is important,” Kostas Bakoyannis, the regional governor for central Greece, told Skai TV.

Fire officials said four villages and hundreds of people were evacuated as a precaution on Tuesday and one firefighter was hospitalized after suffering burns.

“The situation in Evia was very difficult and remains difficult,” Christos Stylianides, the European Union’s aid commissioner, said after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Drawing upon his experience from other forest fires around Europe, Stylianides said he was impressed at the coordination shown among authorities dealing with the emergency, calling firefighters heroes.

“We managed to protect lives and to save people’s property,” Civil Protection Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis said.

Greece has bitter memories of a horrific blaze that tore through the seaside town of Mati near Athens in July 2018, killing 102 people in a matter of hours. Authorities were accused then of poor coordination and a slow response.

Mitsotakis, a conservative elected last month, interrupted his holiday on Crete to return to Athens where he was briefed on the situation.

Television images showed flames and plumes of black smoke on mountainsides carpeted in pine. State television said about 28,000 hectares of pine forest was turned to ashes. The smoke was also captured by Copernicus EU satellite imagery.

Copernicus, the European Union’s eyes on earth with two Sentinel-3 satellites in orbit, said it had activated its emergency management service to assist in tracking the wildfire.

Greece often faces wildfires during its dry summer months, and authorities have warned of the high risk of blazes this week. Environmental campaigners see an increasing number of wildfires around the world as a symptom of climate change.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas and George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Larry King and Stephen Powell)

Hawaii’s Maui Island wildfire forces evacuations

A thick plume of smoke hovers over a wildfire next to a road in Maui, Hawaii, in this still image taken from a July 11, 2019 video from social media. Drumnicodotcom/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Thousands of residents and visitors on Hawaii’s Maui Island were ordered to evacuate two communities on Thursday as a spreading wildfire sent smoke billowing high into the sky, officials and local media said.

The 3,000 acre brush fire in Maui’s central valley was uncontrolled Thursday night, Maui Mayor Mike Victorino told a news conference. He said firefighters would monitor it overnight but that it was too dangerous to battle the blaze in the dark.

Smoke blankets the sky as a wildfire spreads in Maui, Hawaii, in this July 11, 2019 photo obtained from social media. Roger Norris/via REUTERS

Smoke blankets the sky as a wildfire spreads in Maui, Hawaii, in this July 11, 2019 photo obtained from social media. Roger Norris/via REUTERS

“We can’t fight the fire tonight,” he said. “We’re not going to send any firefighters into harm’s way.”

A National Weather Service satellite photo showing smoke hanging over the island was posted on local media and social media sites.

The brush fire was reported about 10:30 a.m., local time, and steady winds of up to 20 mph fanned the flames, officials said. It jumped a highway and spread across fallow fields and more brush. Two helicopters from the fire department also dropped water on the blaze to try to contain it.

While thousands were ordered evacuated, it was unclear how many people fled the west Maui coastal communities of Maalaea and Kihei. But three shelters housed about 500 people late Thursday, media reports said.

The Maui High School housed about 200 cats and dogs moved from a local animal shelter, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

Kahului Airport was briefly closed and flights were diverted because of the smoke, which also forced the closure of two major roads. But operations were back to normal around 7 p.m. local time, media reported.

No injuries or damage to structures were reported, but some farm equipment burned, Hawaii News Now reported.

Neither Maui County officials nor a representative with the county’s Emergency Operations Center were available for comment early on Friday.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Insurance losses for California wildfires top $11.4 billion

Firefighters battle a wildfire near Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Sharon Bernstein and Suzanne Barlyn

SACRAMENTO, Calif./NEW YORK (Reuters) – The deadliest and most destructive California wildfires in a century caused insurers more than $11.4 billion in losses, the state’s insurance regulator said Monday.

The total amount of insured losses for the November Camp Fire, which destroyed most of the town of Paradise in northern California, jumped 25 percent since December, California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara told reporters during a media event.

More than 13,000 insured homes and businesses were destroyed out of more than 46,000 claims reported by insurers.

The figures are “unprecedented,” Lara said. “These are massive numbers for us.” Lara said.

The November wildfires, combined with other blazes in the state drove total 2018 insured losses to $12.4 billion.

A total of 89 people died in the Camp Fire and thousands were left homeless.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California and Suzanne Barlyn in New York; Editing by James Dalgleish)

California utility probing possibility wires involved in wildfire

(Reuters) – A California utility informed regulators on Thursday that it was investigating whether a devastating wildfire near Malibu last month may have been caused by contact between a wire that provides pole support and a live wire.

Southern California Edison, in a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission, said it had not found evidence of an energized wire on the ground in the area where the Woolsey Fire was believed to have started on Nov. 8.

It did, however, find a so-called guy wire, which runs from the top of the pole to the ground, near a jumper wire that is used to connect two energized lines.

The utility said it is evaluating whether the guy wire came into contact with the jumper, which could have had the potential to cause the blaze. Some of the equipment is currently being tested by fire officials.

The cause of the fire may not be determined until additional information is available, Edison said.

The Woolsey Fire burned 97,000 acres near the Malibu coast, destroying 1,500 structures and causing three deaths, according to state fire officials.

Southern California Edison is a division of Edison International.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Parts of ravaged Paradise open for first time since California wildfire

FILE PHOTO: Deer are seen on a property damaged by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

By Saif Tawfeeq

PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – Thousands of Paradise residents who fled a monster blaze a month ago were allowed on Wednesday to return to some neighborhoods in the Northern California city nearly obliterated by one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history.

Tim Moniz, a rice farmer, and welder in his 50s, personally surveyed the remains of his Paradise property for the first time since the fire, confirming his suspicions that his house was gone. He and his wife only recently paid off the mortgage.

“It seems unfair that some houses make it and yours don’t,” Moniz said. “I just had to get back up and see it and try to salvage something.”

Paradise residents who return to their ravaged homes will face a daunting task to resume normal life, with some likely to encounter months or even years of work to obtain compensation for their losses and rebuild.

Authorities hurriedly evacuated some 50,000 people in Paradise and neighboring towns when the Camp Fire erupted on Nov. 8. The fire killed at least 85 people with nearly a dozen still unaccounted for. It also destroyed nearly 14,000 homes in the wooded, foothill communities.

Evacuation orders were previously lifted in areas outside Paradise, but Wednesday marked the first day officials opened parts of the city itself in the midst of the fire’s scorched wasteland of 153,000 acres (61,900 hectares).

REBUILDING A RESHAPED TOWN

Moniz said he is among those planning to rebuild, rather than move away.

But the fire’s devastation will reshape the town and – at least initially – lower its population, Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said by telephone.

“All my friends who are in their 80s, they’re just not going to go through this process of rebuilding,” Jones said, adding she believes three-quarters of Paradise residents will rebuild.

Some residents may be able to salvage jewelry or even stuff such as intact tool boxes from the rubble of their houses, said Jones, who lost her own home in the fire.

Some residents rumbled back into town in recreational vehicles, apparently planning to spend the night, Paradise Police Chief Eric Reinbold said by phone.

Authorities said they will let some residents stay overnight on their properties, but advise against it because electricity, gas and other services were not available.

Paradise’s skyline is dotted with 30 large cranes that crews are using to remove debris, said city spokesman Matt Gates.

Health and safety specialists are sweeping through Paradise to remove batteries, propane tanks, household chemicals and other environmental hazards in the aftermath of the fire, Gates said. Residents entering the re-opened areas of town were offered gear to protect themselves from hazardous materials, Reinbold said.

Full removal of debris could take nine months, Jones said.

(Reporting by Saif Tawfeeq; Additional reporting and writing by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)