As Amazon burns, 230 big investors call on firms to protect world’s rainforests

By Gram Slattery

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – With widespread fires wreaking havoc on the Amazon, over 200 investors representing some $16.2 trillion under management on Wednesday called on companies to do their part in halting the destruction of the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Nongovernment organization Ceres said in a statement that 230 funds have signed a declaration calling on firms to keep a close tab on supply chains, among other measures to curtail forest destruction.

Signatories range from major private managers like HSBC Global Asset Management and BNP Paribas Asset Management to public pension funds like California’s CalPERS, according to a list provided by Ceres, a Boston-based NGO encouraging sustainability among investors.

“Deforestation and loss of biodiversity are not only environmental problems. There are significant negative economic effects associated with these issues and they represent a risk that we as investors cannot ignore,” said Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Storebrand Asset Management, Norway’s largest private asset management firm and one of the signatories.

The resolution did not explicitly say signatories were threatening to withdraw investments from any companies. Still, it added to the pressure that international corporations and investors have put on partners operating in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest that lies in Brazil, Bolivia and seven other countries.

In Brazil alone, more 2,400 square miles of the Amazon have been deforested this year, an area larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.

Meanwhile, 60,472 fires have been recorded year-to-date in the Amazon, up 47% from last year, according to government data. Many fires have been set intentionally by farmers and ranchers, and the response of the government of Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been criticized as indifferent.

In neighboring Bolivia, President Evo Morales has come under scrutiny for his ambitions to make the country a global food supplier, calling agricultural commodities the “new gold” that will help diversify the economy.

The resolution called on companies to implement a “no deforestation policy” with “quantifiable, time-bound commitments,” assess and disclose the risks their supply chains pose to forests, establish a monitoring system for supply chain partners and report annually on “deforestation risk exposure and management.”

“There is an urgent need to focus more on effective management of agricultural supply chains,” Jan Erik Saugestad, CEO of Storebrand Asset Management, was quoted as saying in a statement released by Ceres.

In August, VF Corp – owner of apparel brands such as The North Face and Vans – said it would stop purchasing leather from the Amazon in response to the fires.

Norway, home to the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, has urged several of its companies to ensure they do not contribute to Amazon deforestation, including oil firm Equinor ASA, fertilizer-maker Yara International ASA and aluminum producer Norsk Hydro ASA.

Separately, investors managing $15 trillion in assets turned up the heat on oil and gas sector ahead of a United Nations summit in New York aimed at accelerating efforts to fight climate change.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Tatiana Bautzer in Sao Paulo; Editing by David Gregorio)

California wildfire victims lawyer calls PG&E plan ‘totally unacceptable’

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – PG&E Corp’s plan to cap payments to victims of California wildfires blamed on the power producer is “totally unacceptable,” a lawyer representing victims in the utility’s bankruptcy case said on Tuesday.

San Francisco-based PG&E unveiled on Monday a proposed plan to exit bankruptcy that included payments capped at $8.4 billion for wildfire claims.

The plan forces fire victims and government entities to seek compensation from the same fund, which will dilute payouts for everyone, said Cecily Dumas, a BakerHostetler lawyer who represents the official committee of tort claimants in PG&E’s bankruptcy.

State investigators have blamed PG&E transmission lines with causing wildfires in 2017 and 2018 including the Camp Fire that killed 85 people.

Dumas said that government agencies such as the Department of the Interior and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, could have billions of dollars in claims, leaving far less for victims than $8.4 billion.

At the same time, PG&E said it intends to pay other unsecured creditors such as noteholders in full in cash when its plan goes into effect next year. “That’s unfair,” said Dumas.

A spokesman for PG&E did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The company also said it planned to cap payments at $8.5 billion for reimbursing insurers that had paid victims and at $1 billion for local governments.

PG&E said it would finance the plan through the sale of $14 billion of stock, and PG&E said large banks expressed confidence that $30 billion could be raised in both debt and equity.

Shares of PG&E Corp fell 3% on Tuesday to $10.86 each.

Court documents showed that Knighthead Capital Management, one of PG&E’s largest shareholders, was prepared to buy up to $1 billion of the company’s stock on behalf of funds it manages. Funds associated with Abrams Capital Partners, Riva Capital Partners and Whitecrest Partners were prepared to invest $500 million combined in PG&E stock, according to court documents.

The plan must be approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali in San Francisco. Companies in Chapter 11 generally seek broad support from creditors.

Dumas said the plan also violates the so-called absolute priority rule, a bedrock principle of bankruptcy that requires that creditors get paid in full before shareholders receive anything.

She said the court should allow wildfire victims to choose between the PG&E plan and an alternative bondholder proposal.

Bondholders led by Elliott Management and Pacific Investment Management Co have proposed a $30 billion plan that included $16 billion in compensation for all PG&E’s pre-bankruptcy wildfire claims.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Cynthia Osterman)

Catastrophes set to drive 2020 reinsurance rates higher

FILE PHOTO: An "Emergency shelter" sign points to the Pedro Menendez High School ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Dorian in St. Augustine, Florida, U.S., September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello - RC1823A64B90/File Photo

By Carolyn Cohn and Lena Masri

LONDON (Reuters) – Big insurance losses from hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters over the past two years are set to push reinsurance renewal rates higher in January, ratings agencies said.

After falling for several years due to competition and fewer natural disasters, renewal rates have started to climb in the past couple of years and for 2020 are set to rise on average by as much as 5%.

However, as Hurricane Dorian ravages the Bahamas and bears down on the United States, Fitch, Moody’s and S&P Global said some rates could jump by much more than that.

S&P said rates would likely rise by around 5%, Moody’s expected rises of 0-5%, while Fitch predicted 1-2%, in briefings ahead of the reinsurance industry’s annual conference in Monte Carlo which begins on Saturday.

Reinsurers such as Swiss Re, Munich Re, and the Lloyd’s of London market help insurers share the risks of disasters in return for part of the premium.

“It’s not a hard market but it’s a hardening market, there’s more positive momentum,” Ali Karakuyu, lead analyst at S&P Global, told a media briefing.

Fellow analyst David Masters said the industry was likely to see “mid-single-digit price increases” as a result.

Insurers are increasingly concerned about the impact of bad weather linked to climate change, with an increase in wildfires in California among the most costly in recent years, something S&P said could see rates there jump 30-70%.

“This market remains in disarray, which will fuel further rate increases,” a slide from the S&P presentation said.

Analysts at UBS estimated that the reinsurance industry is in an excess capital position of around $30 billion, but that an estimated $70 billion of natural catastrophe losses in 2019 could erode this excess capital.

Moody’s analysts said lines of business that have been performing badly over the last few years, for example due to losses related to hurricanes in the United States, would see price rises in the mid-teens.

Fitch Senior Director Graham Coutts said he expected average rates to rise 1-2%, similar to the increases seen in January 2019, although further rises could be seen depending on the scale of losses from Dorian and other hurricanes.

(Editing by Simon Jessop/Alexander Smith/Susan Fenton)

As fall begins in Alaska, wildfires linked to warming rage on

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters from the Chugach National Forest work to protect the Romig Cabin on Juneau Lake from the Swan Lake Fire near Cooper Landing, Alaska, U.S. in this August 28, 2019 handout photo. Chugach National Forest/Handout via

By Yereth Rosen

SEWARD, Alaska (Reuters) – Leaves in Alaska are changing color and the rainy season is supposed to begin, but wildfires are raging on in an unusually long and fierce fire season that scientists say is linked to the far north’s long-term climate warmup.

Usually, Alaska wildfires wind down by late July, but this week, the state Department of Natural Resources extended the official fire season to Sept. 30. Last week, Governor Mike Dunleavy declared state emergencies for fires burning north and south of Anchorage.

The most serious blaze is the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, which had grown to over 160,000 acres (64,750 hectares) by Thursday and the 3,300-acre (1,335- hectare) McKinley Fire north of Anchorage.

Billowing smoke from the Swan Lake Fire has sent particulate pollution levels in the Kenai Peninsula to some of the worst measured anywhere in the world. Ignited by an early June lightning strike, the fire has snarled traffic and nearly shut down tourism in an area famous for its outdoor recreation.

In the port town of Seward, thick smoke blowing south from the Swan Lake fire blotted out the normally spectacular views of mountains and glaciers and forced cancelation of tourists’ excursions.

“What can you do? Global warming,” said Marlee Hernandez at Exit Glacier Tours in Seward.

“It’s been kind of a botched summer,” said Joe Drevets, who was working behind the counter at Seward’s Sea Bean Café.

The McKinley Fire has destroyed more than 130 structures, 51 of them primary homes, and displaced hundreds of people in the woodsy area, about 80 miles (130 km) north of Anchorage. It was 71-percent contained on Thursday and officials were allowing evacuated residents to return, but 560 firefighters remained on duty.

More than 200 Alaska fires remained active on Thursday, according to state and federal fire officials. In all, 684 fires have burned over 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) in Alaska this year. Though far short of the record 6.6 million acres (2.7 million hectares) burned in 2004, this year’s fire total is part of a trend.

Big fire years are more frequent as Alaska warms at a rate at least twice the global average. This is the 15th time in the past 80 years that more than 2 million acres (810,000 hectares)burned in a single season, and six of those years have been since 2000, said Tim Mowry, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Especially remarkable are the ultra-dry and dangerous conditions in Alaska’s most populous region, with some wildfires breaking out this summer even within city limits.

“I’ve been here 40 years, and this is the most extreme fire condition here that I can remember,” said John See, a wildfire expert with the Anchorage Fire Department.

Until this year, there had never been a “severe drought” declaration for Anchorage in the two-decade history of the U.S. Drought Monitor. Anchorage and fire-stricken areas to the north and south of the city passed that threshold earlier this month and moved last week to the more serious “extreme” drought condition.

The fires are part of a summer of extremes in Alaska – record heat, lightning strikes in unlikely places, extraordinary meltdown of glaciers and widespread die-offs of animals, including whales, seals, birds and masses of pre-spawned salmon killed in waters with temperatures measured as high as 80 degrees F (26.7 C).

A late arrival of winter is almost a lock, said Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbank’s International Arctic Research Center.

“Even if our temperatures turned on a dime, there’s so much warmth in the water around Alaska that it is just going to take time for that to dissipate,” Brettschnider said.

After that, the winter ice that forms is likely to be thin, vulnerable to another early spring melt, leaving open waters to draw in more solar heat and feeding the warming cycle, he said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen; editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

The sky never goes dark while the Amazon burns

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Jake Spring

HUMAITA, Brazil (Reuters) – There are no lights in sight but the night sky glows a dusky yellow, for the Amazon is burning.

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The smell is of barbecue, of wood charcoal up in flames. During the day the sun, usually so fierce in these parts, is obscured by thick gray smoke.

For the last seven days Reuters has repeatedly driven a 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) stretch from Humaita towards Labrea along the Trans-Amazonian highway, watching a fire eat its way through the jungle.

At first, on Wednesday of last week the raging fire stood just a few yards (meters) off the roadway, the yellow flames engulfing trees and lighting up the sky. By the weekend the fire had receded into the distance but cast an orange glow several stories high.

The fire is just one of thousands currently decimating the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and a bulwark against climate change.

Wildfires have surged 83% so far this year when compared to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil’s space research agency INPE.

The government agency has registered 72,843 fires, the highest number since records began in 2013. More than 9,500 have been spotted by satellites since last Thursday alone.

On Wednesday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro enraged environmentalists by making unfounded claims that non-governmental organizations were starting the fires out of anger after he cut their funding.

Global outrage has torn through social media, with #PrayforAmazonas the world’s top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday.

Reuters observed plumes of smoke billowing from the forest, reaching hundreds of feet (dozens of meters) into the air, during a weeklong trip to southern Amazonas and northern Rondonia states.

“All you can see is smoke,” said Thiago Parintintin, who lives in an indigenous reserve just off the Trans-Amazonian highway, pointing to the horizon.

A yellow truck bearing the logo of Brazil’s forest firefighters had just rushed past.

“It didn’t use to be like this,” Parintintin added.

A 22-year-old trained indigenous environmental agent, Parintintin blames the increasing development of the Amazon for bringing agriculture and deforestation, resulting in rising temperatures during the dry season.

Fires start in the underbrush that has been drying over the dry season. Smoke envelopes still lush patches of fronds and palm trees, as the understory smolders before the upper tiers of vegetation catch fire.

Environmentalists also say farmers set the forest alight to clear land for cattle grazing.

The smoke from the resulting fires hangs at the horizon like a fog.

Gabriel Albuquerque, a pilot in Rondonia state’s capital city of Porto Velho, said that in four years of flying his small propeller plane it has never been this bad.

“It is the first time that I’ve ever seen it like this,” he said, as he prepared to go up.

From the sky, the fires ranged from small pockets to those bigger than a football field, with the smoke making it impossible to see behind the front line of flames to discern the full extent of the blaze.

Sometimes the smoke was so thick the forest itself appeared to have disappeared.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Alaska’s hottest month portends transformation into ‘unfrozen state’

Smoke shrouds Summit Lake with a thick blanket of smoke from the Swan Lake Fire on Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, U.S., July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Yereth Rosen

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) – July 2019 now stands as Alaska’s hottest month on record, the latest benchmark in a long-term warming trend with ominous repercussions ranging from rapidly vanishing summer sea ice and melting glaciers to raging wildfires and deadly chaos for marine life.

July’s statewide average temperature rose to 58.1 degrees Fahrenheit (14.5 degrees Celsius), a level that for denizens of the Lower 48 states might seem cool enough but is actually 5.4 degrees above normal and nearly a full degree higher than Alaska’s previous record-hot month.

The new high was officially declared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in its monthly climate report, released on Wednesday.

More significantly, July was the 12th consecutive month in which average temperatures were above normal nearly every day, said Brian Brettschneider, a scientist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Of Alaska’s 10 warmest months on record, seven have now occurred since 2004.

“You can always have a random kind of warm month, season or even year,” Brettschneider said. “But when it happens year after year after year after year after year, then statistically it fails the test of randomness and it then becomes a trend.”

Alaska, like other parts of the far north, is warming at least twice as fast as the planet as a whole, research shows. And over the past 12 months, Brettschneder said, that warming has crossed a threshold – shifting Alaska from an environment with average temperatures below freezing to above freezing.

It used to be that Alaska was generally a frozen state, he said, adding, “Now we’re an unfrozen state.”

Runoff from accelerated melting of glaciers and high-altitude snowfields sent some rivers to near or above flood stage in early July, despite a drought gripping much of the state, including the world’s largest temperate rain forest in southeastern Alaska.

Sea ice, which has been running at record or near-record lows since spring across the Arctic, completely vanished from waters off Alaska by the start of August. The nearest stretch of ice this summer, said ACCAP climate scientist Rick Thoman, lies about 150 miles (240 km) north of Kaktovik, a village above the Arctic Circle on the northeastern edge of Alaska.

A sign reading "Sorry we are all out of ice" is posted on the door of a gas station in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S., July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Yereth Rosen

A sign reading “Sorry we are all out of ice” is posted on the door of a gas station in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S., July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Yereth Rosen

NO ICE FOR WALRUSES

The effect on Pacific walruses is particularly acute.

Walruses normally perch on floating ice to rest while diving for food and to take care of their newborn calves. Now, with no ice in sight, the walruses have crowded onto the Chukchi Sea shoreline earlier in the year than at any time on record, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Thousands of walruses – almost all adult females and their young calves – congregated by July 25 on a Chukchi Sea beach near the Inupiat village of Point Lay. Walruses have been coming ashore there almost every year since 2007, then a record-low Arctic ice year, but they have rarely been forced ashore before autumn.

Beach crowding can be dangerous for the large, tusked creatures. If they are spooked by noise or the appearance of a predator, they might stampede into the water, trampling younger and smaller animals to death.

They are not the only marine mammals suffering through the hot Alaska summer.

Thirty-two dead gray whales have been found in Alaska waters this year, six of them in the Bering Strait region or the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska, said Julie Speegle, a NOAA spokeswoman in Juneau. As of mid-July, 137 dead seals had been found on Bering Strait-area beaches, Speegle said.

Seabird carcasses are littering beaches in what has shaped up as the fifth consecutive year of large bird die-offs in Alaska.

High numbers of salmon, apparently overcome by the heat before getting the chance to spawn, have been found floating dead in rivers and streams around western Alaska.

The warming trend has been uncomfortable for humans as well.

Fueled in part by the heat, wildfires across the state have burned more than 2.4 million acres (970,000 hectares) as of early August, spewing smoke and soot that has fouled the air quality of several cities and regions. The smoke pollution poses an unusual quandary for sweltering Alaskans, most of whom live without air conditioning.

“When it’s hot and smoky, Alaska doesn’t have a good way to cope with that,” said Thoman, the ACCP climate scientist whose hometown of Fairbanks was particularly hard hit by wildfire smoke. “Open your windows and you get smoked up. Keep your windows closed and you get hot.”

In Anchorage, where temperatures reached a record daytime high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) last month, Brettschneider had a similar take.

“I tell people we’re not built for heat. Our houses are built to store heat,” he said.

(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Steve Gorman and Cynthia Osterman)

California utility to cut power to 27,000 customers to reduce wildfire risk

FILE PHOTO: A lineman from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) works on a power line near a neighborhood destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Utility PG&E Corp planned to proactively shut off power on Saturday to 27,000 customers in Northern California due to an increased risk of wildfires, officials said.

The shut down would begin at 9 p.m. local time in and around the Sierra Foothills, an area spanning parts of Butte, Yuba, Nevada, El Dorado and Placer counties northeast of San Francisco and near the border with Nevada, the utility said on Twitter.

The area includes portions of Paradise, the town that was destroyed by November’s deadly wildfire known as the Camp Fire, which killed more than 80 people.

PG&E said this year it would significantly expand the practice of shutting off power to communities at risk of wildfire when conditions demand it, despite objections from some consumer advocates who said such disruptions can harm vulnerable people such as those who need electricity for medical equipment.

PG&E has been in touch with people in the affected areas who rely on power for their medical equipment, Adam Pasion, a spokesman for the utility, said in a phone interview.

“We certainly recognize the risk and are only doing this in the most extreme circumstances we feel that we need to,” Pasion said.

Earlier on Saturday, the utility shut down power to around 1,600 customers just north of San Francisco, in Napa, Solano and Yolo counties, also due to the risk of wildfires after forecasters said a combination of strong winds, dry conditions and warm temperatures raised the fire danger.

But conditions improved, allowing the utility to begin restoring power to those customers, Pasion said.

The utility sought bankruptcy protection in January after facing billions of dollars in liabilities stemming from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern times.

State investigators concluded that PG&E’s power lines caused the fire, which leveled nearly 19,000 homes and other structures and caused some $16.5 billion in losses.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by David Gregorio and Christopher Cushing)

As wildfires devour communities, toxic threats emerge

FILE PHOTO: Vanthy Bizzle hands some small religious figurines to her husband Brett Bizzle in the remains of their home after returning for the first time since the Camp Fire forced them to evacuate in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

By Sharon Bernstein

PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – As an uncontrollable wildfire turned the California town of Paradise to ash, air pollution researcher Keith Bein knew he had to act fast: Little is known about toxic chemicals released when a whole town burns and the wind would soon blow away evidence.

He drove the roughly 100 miles to Paradise, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, from his laboratory at the University of California, Davis, only to be refused entrance under rules that allow first responders and journalists – but not public health researchers – to cross police lines.

It was the second time Bein says he was unable to gather post-wildfire research in a field so new public safety agencies have not yet developed procedures for allowing scientists into restricted areas.

Fires like the one that razed Paradise last November burn thousands of pounds of wiring, plastic pipes and building materials, leaving dangerous chemicals in the air, soil and water. Lead paint, burned asbestos and even melted refrigerators from tens of thousands of households only add to the danger, public health experts say.

Bein’s experience highlights the difficulties in assessing the impact of today’s massive disasters, whether wildfires that burn entire towns or flooding after major hurricanes, incidents scientists say are becoming more common due to climate change.

“Everything that we’re doing, it feels like this is a question nobody has asked before, and we have no answers,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at U.C. Davis.

Researchers are examining soil tested for the presence of chemical compounds in neighborhoods destroyed by the 2017 wildfire that swept into Santa Rosa, located in California’s Sonoma County north of the Bay Area, and comparing it to uninhabited land nearby where only trees had burned, Hertz-Picciotto said. In that still-uncompleted study, researchers found nearly 2,000 more chemical compounds in the soil than in uninhabited parkland nearby. Researchers are now working to identify the compounds.

While scientists have studied wildfires for decades — learning much about the impact on air, soil and nearby ecosystems — fires that race from the forest into large urban communities were, until recently, exceedingly rare.

 

COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH

As natural disasters increase in scope and frequency, public health researchers across the United States are developing new lines of inquiry with unusual speed.

Scientists, many of them funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), are studying pregnant women exposed to polluted air and water after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017; residents of Puerto Rico forced to live in unrepaired homes where mold and fungi grew after Hurricane Maria in 2017; eggs from backyard chickens that ate California wildfire ash, among other topics.

“It’s fundamentally critical that we be able to understand these situations and the risks to populations both in the short term and in the long term,” said NIEHS senior medical adviser Aubrey Miller, who is helping to develop quick-response disaster research cutting across scientific specialties.

To do that, NIEH has sped up the time it needs to fund research, from months or years to as little as 120 days, said Gwen Collman, who directs the agency’s work with outside researchers.

At U.C. Davis, where researchers are studying eggs from backyard chickens that may have breathed smoke and pecked at ash in areas affected by wildfires, the work is complicated.

“In an urban fire you’re dealing with contaminants that don’t go away – arsenic, heavy metals, copper, lead, transformer fluid, brake fluid, fire retardant,” said veterinarian Maurice Pitesky, who is leading the study.

Any contaminants found in the eggs could stem from other factors such as the proximity of the home to a factory, a waste disposal site or a highway, he said.

In an as-yet-uncompleted study, researchers have tested eggs sent by individual owners of roughly 350 backyard properties concerned about possible contamination from wildfires and other causes, researcher Todd Kelman said. The locations of the yards were mapped to see which homeowners lived near wildfire areas, and the eggs were tested to see if they have high levels of contaminants such as lead, cadmium and other chemicals associated with human buildings and activities.

COMBING PARADISE

One recent morning, teams from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in white hazmat suits combed through Paradise, loading seared paint cans, partially melted pesticide containers and the remains of propane tanks onto trucks to be hauled away.

Rusty Harris Bishop, a toxics expert with the EPA who worked on the Paradise cleanup, said removal teams take away whatever contaminants they find, including melted pipes or asbestos-laden construction materials, going beyond the older definition of hazardous household waste.

But cleanup protocols after such disasters are evolving along with the public health science, he said. 

That gap in knowledge concerns researchers like Bein, who plans to train as a firefighter to get access to the burned areas in the next big blaze.

“As these types of fires become more frequent in nature, where instead of once every decade it’s once every summer . . . then we really need to know how this is going to affect health,” Bein said.

Pineapple Express’s biggest punch set to hit water-logged California

The aftermath of turbulence is seen on Compass Flight 5763 to Seattle, February 13, 2019 in this still picture obtained from social media video by Reuters February 14, 2019. JOE JUSTICE, SCRUM INC./via REUTERS

(Reuters) – The worst of the rain, snow, and winds carried by the so-called Pineapple Express, a river of warm air loaded with moisture, will hit California on Thursday and stick around at least through Friday, forecasters said.

The weather system, headed east from near Hawaii, is the wettest storm on the U.S. West Coast this season. It has swamped cars, flooded vineyards and forced hundreds of Californians to evacuate their homes Wednesday to escape the threat of mudslides.

Three Delta Air Lines passengers suffered minor injuries when severe turbulence shook a flight headed from southern California to Seattle on Wednesday, according to authorities.

The plane, a Embraer 175 aircraft operated by Compass Airlines under contract with Delta, was forced to land in Reno, Nevada, Compass said in a statement.

“We did a nose dive twice,” a passenger wrote on Twitter, according to the newspaper.

“That whole area from Southern California and on up to Washington is primed for severe turbulence at altitude, especially over the mountains” said David Roth, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Roth said risks for motorists will be highest during Thursday’s morning commute. Some mountain areas in southern and central California will get up to an inch of rain an hour for at least three hours, with the rain continuing throughout the day.

“It will be the most dangerous in areas where there were wildfires,” he said. “The ground is already saturated with water and there’s not much vegetation left to hold the soil.”

Some areas around Los Angeles could see more than five inches (13 cm) of rain from the storm, which is being channeled to the coast by the flow of atmospheric moisture.

Residents of Lake Elsinore, 56 miles (90 km) east of Los Angeles, got mandatory evacuation orders because nearby hillsides, scorched by fire in 2018, might turn into rivers of mud and debris.

Among the hardest-hit areas was northern California, where rain driven by winds up to 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour) pounding parts of Sonoma County’s wine country.

The NWS also expects more than eight feet (2.4 meters) of snow in some areas of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Pineapple Express is one of a string of storms that have swelled snowfall in California to above-average levels, delighting farmers and skiers following years of drought.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by David Gregorio)

California utility PG&E vows more power shutdowns to prevent wildfire

FILE PHOTO: A neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire is seen in Paradise, California, U.S., November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California utility PG&E Corp plans to increase the controversial practice of shutting off the power to communities at risk of wildfire when dangerous conditions such as high winds and dry heat are present.

In a report to state regulators, PG&E said it would also remove 375,000 trees near electricity lines, trim vegetation over 2,500 square miles (6,475 square km) and conduct thousands of inspections to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

PG&E is under intense scrutiny for its role in sparking more than a dozen wildfires over the past two years. It filed bankruptcy last month, citing anticipated liabilities, including the possibility its equipment set off November’s deadly Camp Fire, which destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise and killed 86 people.

The San Francisco-based utility, which serves 16 million customers, said it would increase nearly tenfold its efforts to turn off the power to communities threatened by wildfire, increasing the number of households and businesses potentially affected by fire-prevention blackouts in 2019 to 5.4 million.

Such shutoffs were also used last year to keep live electricity in the lines from setting off a fire when high winds and heat hit extreme levels and nearby brush or trees could be ignited.

Mark Toney, who directs the utility consumer advocacy group the Utility Reform Network (TURN), said shutting off power would harm vulnerable people, including those who rely on electricity to power life-saving medical equipment.

“The fact that there is such a dramatic expansion of power shutoffs as a strategy to stop wildfires is a sign of PG&E’s failure and mismanagement when it comes to trimming the trees and taking care of the grid,” he said.

PG&E spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said the company would only turn off the power to a community as a last resort to keep people safe.

“We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more,” she said.

The company is also on probation in relation to a criminal conviction in the deadly 2010 explosion of one of its natural gas lines in the city of San Bruno near San Francisco.

The judge, in that case, said he would consider the company’s wildfire plan in deciding whether PG&E should do more to prevent wildfire.

California law requires all investor-owned utilities to file wildfire mitigation plans annually.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)