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Wildfires tear through 1m acres in US west as 16,000 firefighters battle onslaught

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Wildfires burning across the US west have engulfed nearly a million acres and drawn in about 16,000 firefighters and workers to battle the blazes. The onslaught comes as the region reels from intense drought and deadly heatwaves amplified by the climate crisis.

“The amount of fire, where they’re burning, and just the intensity of them is very concerning,” said Faith Kearns, a scientist at the California Institute for Water Resources.

The fast-moving Bootleg fire in southern Oregon has burned more than 200,000 acres. It has already destroyed several homes and threatens thousands more, as officials warn that tinder-dry conditions and high temperatures could exacerbate the situation on Wednesday.

Al Lawson, the fire incident commander, warned responders: “As you go out there today – adjust your reality.”

“We have not seen a fire move like this, in these conditions, this early in the year. Expect the fire to do things that you have not seen before,” he said.

Mark Enty, a spokesman for the North-west Incident Management Team working to contain the fire, said the Bootleg fire had doubled in size each day.

“That’s sort of like having a new fire every day,” Enty said.

Fire authorities have said it could take more than four months to completely contain the Bootleg fire, according to USA Today.

“The fire will continue to be extremely active in unchecked portions of the perimeter, with unstable air conditions and extremely dry fuels,” a national incident report reads, warning of “rapid fire spread with high intensity” because of the hot, dry conditions.

The fires are threatening Native American tribal lands already struggling to conserve water and preserve traditional hunting grounds in the face of drought.

In north-central Washington, hundreds in the town of Nespelem on the Colville Reservation were ordered to leave because of “imminent and life-threatening“ danger as the largest of five wildfires caused by dozens of Monday night lightning strikes tore through grass, sagebrush and timber.

Seven homes burned but the entire town evacuated safely before the fire arrived, said Andrew Joseph Jr, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation that includes more than 9,000 descendants of a dozen tribes.

Monte Piatote and his wife grabbed their pets and managed to flee but watched the fire burn the home where he’d lived since he was a child.

“I told my wife, I told her, ‘Watch.’ Then boom, there it was,” Piatote told KREM-TV.

The confederation declared a state of emergency and said the reservation was closed. The declaration said weather forecasts called for possible triple-digit temperatures and 25mph winds on Wednesday into Thursday that could drive the flames.

The Bootleg fire has been creeping closer to where the Klamath Tribes – comprising three distinct Indigenous peoples – have lived for millennia.

“There is definitely extensive damage to the forest where we have our treaty rights,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council in Chiloquin, Oregon, about 25 miles west of the Bootleg fire.

“I am sure we have lost a number of deer to the fire,” he said. “We are definitely concerned. I know there are cultural resource areas and sensitive areas that are likely the fire is going through.”

The Klamath Tribes have been hit by wildfires before, including one that burned 23 sq miles in southern Oregon last September. That fire damaged land where many of the Klamath tribal members hunt, fish and gather. The fire also burned the tribes’ cemetery and at least one tribal member’s house, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported in September.

The tribes are struggling with drought-caused problems. In past decades, they have fought to preserve minimum water levels in Upper Klamath Lake to protect two species of federally endangered sucker fish that are central to their culture and heritage. Farmers draw much of their irrigation water from the same lake. Even before the fire erupted, extreme drought in southern Oregon had reduced water flows to historic lows.

Flames consume a home as the Sugar fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex fire, moves through Doyle, California, on Saturday.
Flames consume a home as the Sugar fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex fire, moves through Doyle, California, on Saturday. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

In California, the Beckwourth Complex fire, the largest conflagration the state has seen this year, was more than 70% contained after searing through 95,358 acres near the Nevada state line.

Damage was still being tallied in the small rural community of Doyle, California, where flames swept in during the weekend and destroyed several homes.

A fire that began on Sunday in the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite national park grew to nearly 15 sq miles but containment increased to 15%. Four unspecified buildings were destroyed.

And not far from the town of Paradise, which was leveled by the deadly Camp fire in 2018, a fast-spreading fire has grown to 1,200 acres. Officials said it was moving away from populated areas, but they would be ordering more resources to respond to the blaze in what is one of the most challenging terrains to fight fire.

So far this year, nearly 34,000 fires across the US have burned more than 2m acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The wildfires have “been much in line with the seasonal predictions”, Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the University of California, Los Angeles, said. But this year, “the explosion of wildfire activity in the north-western US is earlier and more severe than you’d expect.”

The fire season in California and the north-west was just getting started at full force, he said. “A lot of fires now burning will probably burn for a long time. And meanwhile, the drought, the extreme heat, the extreme conditions driving the fires will continue to escalate.”

Victoria Bekiempis contributed reporting

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Final victim of Florida condo collapse identified by relative

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The final victim of the condo building collapse in Florida has been identified, a relative said Monday, more than a month after the middle-of-the-night catastrophe that ultimately claimed 98 lives.

Estelle Hedaya, an outgoing 54-year-old with a love of travel, was the last victim identified, ending what her relatives described as a torturous four-week wait.

Her younger brother, Ikey Hedaya, confirmed the identification to the Associated Press. The news comes just days after rescuers officially concluded the painstaking and emotionally heavy task of removing layers of dangerous debris and pulling out dozens of bodies.

“She always mentioned God anytime she was struggling with anything,” he said. “She had reached a different level spiritually, which allowed her to excel in all other areas.”

Her brother said he is drawing strength from God, just as he’d seen his sister do in troubling times. A funeral was scheduled for Tuesday.

The site of the 24 June collapse at the oceanside Champlain Towers South has been mostly swept flat, the rubble moved to a Miami warehouse. Although forensic scientists are still at work, including examining the debris at the warehouse, authorities said there are no more bodies to be found where the building once stood.

In the end, crews found no evidence that anyone who was found dead had survived the initial collapse, fire chief Alan Cominsky has said.

Search teams spent weeks battling the hazards of the rubble, including an unstable portion of the building that teetered above, a recurring fire and Florida’s stifling summer heat and thunderstorms. They went through more than 14,000 tons of broken concrete and rebar before finally declaring the mission complete.

Miami-Dade fire rescue’s urban search-and-rescue team pulled away from the site Friday in a convoy of firetrucks and other vehicles, slowly driving to their headquarters. The fire chief saluted their bravery, saying they had worked 12-hour shifts while camping out at the site and also dealing with the heavy emotional burden.

Estelle Hedaya.
Estelle Hedaya. Photograph: AP

Linda March, a 58 year-old attorney and fellow former New Yorker, was close friends with Hedaya. Oddly the two were among the last three victims to be identified, along with 24-year-old Anastasia Gromova of Canada.

Leah Sutton, who knew Hedaya since birth and considered herself a second mother to her, said she and March were both “forces to be reckoned with”.

“My two beautiful amazing fearless friends saved for last, have to believe there was a reason for them to be last,” she said Monday. “Estelle’s love of God was unbelievable and unwavering.”

The dead included members of the area’s large Orthodox Jewish community, the sister of Paraguay’s first lady, her family and their nanny, along with an entire family of four that included a local salesman, his wife and their two young daughters, four and 11, who were buried in the same coffin.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear what will happen at the collapse site. A judge presiding over several lawsuits filed in the collapse aftermath wants the property sold at market rates, which would bring in an estimated $100m or more. Some condo owners want to rebuild, and others say a memorial should be erected to remember the dead.

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California and New York City to mandate vaccine for government workers

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California and New York City announced Monday that they would require all government employees to get the coronavirus vaccine or face weekly Covid-19 testing, and the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first major federal agency to require healthcare workers to receive the shot.

Meanwhile, in a possible sign that increasingly dire health warnings are getting through to more Americans, vaccination rates began to creep up again, offering hope that people who have previously been reluctant to receive the shot may finally be getting inoculated.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all municipal workers – including teachers and police officers – will be required to get vaccinated by mid-September or face weekly Covid-19 testing, making the city one of the largest employers in the US to take such action.

“Let’s be clear about why this is so important: this is about our recovery,” de Blasio said.

California said it will similarly require proof of vaccination or weekly testing for all state workers and healthcare employees starting next month.

The move comes amid a surge in cases in California, which have risen 218% over the last two weeks, while hospitalizations are up 62%, according to New York Times data. In the month since California lifted all Covid safety restrictions for its “grand reopening”, the state capitol has reinstated a mask requirement after several aides contracted Covid-19, and Los Angeles county is again requiring mask-wearing indoors, even for people who are fully vaccinated. The San Francisco Bar Alliance, which represents almost 500 bars, is recommending that members require guests to show proof of vaccination to enter the establishments.

California saw a 16% increase in vaccinations over last week and is one of the country’s most vaccinated states with 77% of adults having received at least one vaccine dose, but there are still plenty of unprotected people to transmit the virus, experts say.

“Primarily, we’re seeing infections in the unvaccinated,” said George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

The VA’s move came on a day when nearly 60 leading medical and healthcare organizations issued a call through the American Medical Association for health care facilities to require their workers to get vaccinated.

“I am doing this because it’s the best way to keep our veterans safe, full stop,” Veterans affairs secretary Denis McDonough told the New York Times.

The mayor of New York City has announced all municipal workers will be required to get vaccinated or face weekly testing.
The mayor of New York City has announced all municipal workers will be required to get vaccinated or face weekly testing. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Elsewhere, St Louis became the second major city to mandate that face masks be worn indoors, regardless of vaccination status, joining Los Angeles in re-imposing the orders.

“For those who are vaccinated, this may feel like punishment, punishment for doing the right thing,” St Louis county executive Sam Page, a Democrat, said Monday. “I’ve heard that, and I feel that frustration.”

Dr Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner, applauded the moves but called on President Joe Biden to “lead by example” and impose similar mandates on federal employees and in public venues where the government has jurisdiction, like on planes, trains and government buildings.

She also said all hospitals and nursing homes need to require all employees get vaccinated.

“We need vaccine mandates and vaccine verification,” Wen said. “We’re well past the time for the Biden administration to get on board with this. What we’re doing is not working. Doing more of the same is not the answer here.”

The White House has so far deferred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on masking guidance, which recommends that those who are unvaccinated wear masks indoors. But officials acknowledged over the weekend that they are considering changing that guidance and recommending that the vaccinated also wear masks indoors.

“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.

Wen, who is also an emergency physician and public professor at George Washington University, said public health experts have been worrying for months about this very scenario.

“We were worried the honor system would not work, the unvaccinated would be behaving as if they’re vaccinated and people would think the pandemic is over,” she said. “That’s precisely what has happened, and it’s incredibly frustrating.”

Dr Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist Yale’s School of Public Health, said the U.S. should not have been caught off guard after watching the Delta variant ravage India in May and then land in the United Kingdom, Israel and other highly vaccinated nations with force last month.

“We have learned multiple times to not take anything for granted with CovidO,” he said.

The US is around 67% immune from Covid-19 when prior infections are factored, but it will need to get closer to 85% to crush the resurgent virus, said Dr Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health.

“So we need a lot more vaccinations. Or a lot more infections,” he tweeted Sunday.

Jha said the nation has to brace for another rough few months. The disease has killed almost 611,000 people in the US since the pandemic started last year.

Vaccinations ticked up over the weekend, with about 657,000 vaccines reported administered Saturday and nearly 780,000 on Sunday, according to CDC data. The seven-day rolling average on Sunday was about 583,000 vaccinations a day, up from about 525,000 a week prior.

A mobile vaccine clinic in Los Angeles, California.
A mobile vaccine clinic in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

Public health experts on Monday said the uptick in vaccinations is encouraging but warned that it’s far too early to say if the numbers mean that millions of unvaccinated people are finally beginning to overcome their reticence.

The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the country shot up over the past two weeks, from more than 19,000 on 11 July to nearly 52,000 on 25 July , according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Some prominent conservative and Republican voices that have spent months casting doubt on the vaccination effort have recently started sounding a different tune.

House minority whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, was among the members of the GOP Doctors Caucus who held a press conference at the Capitol late last week imploring their constituents to lay lingering doubts aside.

A week ago, on 19 July, Fox News host Sean Hannity declared: “It absolutely makes sense for many Americans to get vaccinated. I believe in science. I believe in the science of vaccinations.”

And in Tennessee, the brother of a popular local conservative radio host who had been a vaccine skeptic urged listeners to get vaccinated as his brother was in critical care in the hospital battling Covid-19.

“For those listening, I know if he were able to tell you this, he would tell you, ‘Go get vaccinated. Quit worrying about the politics. Quit worrying about all the conspiracy theories,’” Mark Valentine said of his brother, Phil Valentine, Thursday on WWTN-FM in Nashville.

Associated Press contributed to this report

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Arizona secretary of state tells Trump before election lie rally: get over it

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Arizona’s secretary of state had a message for Donald Trump before he appeared in Phoenix on Saturday: “Take your loss and accept it and move on.”

Trump was set to speak at an event organised by Turning Point Action, a conservative group, and called the “Rally to Save Our Elections!”

Republicans in the most populous county in Arizona continue to pursue a controversial audit of ballots in an attempt to prove Trump’s claim that his loss to Joe Biden in the state, and nationally, was caused by widespread voter fraud. It was not.

Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, spoke to CNN on Friday. Asked what she wanted to tell Trump, she said: “Well, I mean, like most grownups, take your loss and accept it and move on … Nothing that’s going on here is going to change the outcome, and, really, this is nothing more than being a sore loser.”

Hobbs also said Trump’s appearance – like support for his lies from local Republican officials, office holders and congressional hopefuls lining up to speak at Saturday’s event – was dangerous.

“The bottom line is it doesn’t matter what he says or does,” she said. “Nothing is going to change the outcome of the 2020 election. But it also doesn’t change how dangerous this is.”

Trump’s lie about electoral fraud stoked the deadly attack on the US Capitol in Washington on 6 January this year. He retains power in the Republican party, which has swung behind him in seeking to obstruct investigations of the assault.

“The bottom line is that Arizonians are tired of being led by conspiracy theorists,” Hobbs said. “They don’t support this fake audit, and they’re ready for leaders who are going to put those partisan games aside and deal with real issues.”

Hobbs is hoping to become governor of Arizona. Midterm elections will also see a key Arizona Senate seat up for grabs again. Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and a prominent campaigner for gun control reform, won the seat on Biden’s coattails last year. But that was to complete a term and he must run again to secure a full six years in the seat.

On Friday, the former president blasted “Rinos”, or “Republicans in Name Only” whom he regards as insufficiently loyal. One GOP Arizona state senator offered a pithy reply.

“If he hadn’t started an insurrection in DC and gotten kicked off here,” Paul Boyer wrote on Twitter, “I could’ve responded directly to him. So there’s that.”

Trump said his remarks would be broadcast by networks including Newsmax and One America News, upstart rightwing operations which have sought to challenge Fox News on the right of the political spectrum.

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