Investigators looking into causes of California wildfires as death toll rises to 17

A carelessly discarded cigarette, a downed power line, a car's backfire or a chainsaw's pull. Just about anything could have started any one of the wildfires now tearing through Northern California, authorities said.

"Every spark is going to ignite a fire," said Ken Pimlott, the state's top firefighter. He said the risk remains "extreme for new starts."

Pimlott said Tuesday that investigators are looking into the causes, but no determination has been made at any of the 17 sites of major wildfires blazing in Northern California.

The death toll from devastating wildfires in California has risen to at least 23. Source: 1 NEWS

Pimlott, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection director, said "98 per cent" of all wildfires are started by people and it's unlikely lightning is to blame for any of the fires that exploded overnight Sunday, killing at least 17 people so far.

California's most dangerous wildfire season comes in autumn, when summer heat and insects have left brush dead and dried out, and winds are especially hot, dry and strong.
"This is traditionally California's worst time for fires," Pimlott said.

Pimlott said firefighters typically respond to 300 blazes a week during this season, but nearly all are extinguished quickly and with minimal damage. It's unusual to have many major fires burning at once, he said.

However, conditions were ripe for wildfires in California wine country after record rains last winter created an abundance of dry vegetation, which combined with low humidity and unusually high winds gusting to 79 mph (127kmh) to create fast-moving infernos.

None of the major fires has been contained. They are spread over a 200-mile (321km) region north of San Francisco from Napa in the south to Redding in the north, taxing firefighting resources.

"Our primary effort is going to put containment lines in as quickly as possible," Pimlott said Tuesday (Wednesday NZT).

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said fires had been moving too fast and unpredictably for firefighters to attack directly.

"The winds were extremely erratic during those conditions of high winds and a lot of things happened," Biermann said Tuesday (Wednesday NZT). He and others said resources are stretched thin as firefighters battle so many major blazes simultaneously.

California Office of Emergency Services director Mark Ghilarducci said more than 4,000 firefighters, law enforcement officials and others are responding.

Airplanes are dropping fire retardant and fresh firefighters from Southern California and Nevada are streaming in to help. Lines are being dug on the south side of many blazes in preparation for northerly winds picking up.

The US Department of Defence is sending a large drone to help map the fires and assess damage. The California National Guard is also providing gasoline to firefighters and other first responders because many service stations in the area are without power and unable to pump fuel.

The biggest and most devastating fire is burning in Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 people 45 miles (72km) north of San Francisco.

A fire there swept through several neighbourhoods and business districts, destroying at least 550 homes and 21 commercial buildings.

Many residents had only minutes to flee. Eleven of the 17 fatalities found so far have occurred in and near Santa Rosa.

Many roads are closed throughout Northern California, though US Route 101 was reopened in two spots Tuesday. California Highway Patrol officers are helping with security at evacuation centres and providing escorts to rescue vehicles travelling in dangerous areas, commissioner Warren Stanley said.

He also had a request for motorists in the area: "Anybody who is driving around - if you're smoking in your car - please do not throw your cigarettes out the window."


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World Anti-Doping Agency reinstates Russia

The World Anti-Doping Agency declared Russia's scandal-ridden drug-fighting operation back in business Thursday, a decision designed to bring a close to one of sports' most notorious doping scandals but one bitterly disputed by hundreds of athletes and described as "treachery" by the lawyer for the man who exposed the corruption.

On a 9-2 vote, the executive committee took the advice of the agency's compliance review panel and declared RUSADA as having satisfied conditions of reinstatement that were gradually softened over the summer.

In most tangible ways, the decision doesn't change much: RUSADA has been up and running for a while, bringing one of the world's largest testing programs back on line with the help of officials from Britain and elsewhere. And Russia's Olympic committee was brought back into the fold after the Pyeongchang Olympics, where athletes who could prove they were clean were able to compete as "Olympic Athletes from Russia."

But RUSADA's reinstatement now clears the country to again bid for major international events — although soccer's World Cup was held there this summer despite that restriction.

It also clears a major hurdle for Russia's track team to be declared compliant by that sport's international governing body, one of the few to take a strong, consistent stand against doping.

Perhaps most importantly, hundreds of athletes and dozens of world anti-doping leaders see it as a stinging rebuke to the ideal of fair play.

"WADA's decision to reinstate Russia represents the greatest treachery against clean athletes in Olympic history," said Jim Walden, the attorney for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow lab director who exposed much of the Russian scheme.

WADA had been telegraphing the move since Sept. 14, when it released the recommendation of its compliance review committee. Olympic champion Beckie Scott resigned from that committee afterward.

"I'm profoundly disappointed," Scott said to Canadian broadcaster CBC after the decision. "I feel this was an opportunity for WADA, and they have dealt a devastating blow to clean sport. I'm quite dismayed."

Even in Russia, where the news was welcomed, it came with a sense that there's still work to be done.

"These questions will always follow us," said RUSADA CEO Yuri Ganus, whose appointment to the job was part of the housecleaning at the agency that WADA demanded. "These aren't the kind of skeletons which can lie unnoticed in the closet. These are the skeletons which will be banging on the closet door all the time."

The two biggest roadblocks to RUSADA's reinstatement involved the country accepting findings from a report by investigator Richard McLaren that concluded the government had engineered the doping scandal to win medals at the Sochi Olympics. It also involved Russia agreeing to hand over a trove of data and samples that could be used to corroborate potential doping violations that stemmed from the cheating.

Over a summer's worth of correspondence between WADA leaders and Russia's sports minister about how to bridge the gap, a pattern emerged of WADA backing down from its initial requirements and, at one point, essentially asking Russia what it would be willing to say in a letter designed to satisfy the WADA review committee.

"We think that a small addition to the letter, if acceptable to you, could ensure that the letter is well received ... and that a positive recommendation is provided," WADA CEO Olivier Niggli wrote to sports minister Pavel Kolobkov in May in a letter obtained by BBC Sport .

In the end, Russia agreed to accept findings of an IOC-commissioned report that put less onus on the Russian government for the scheme, a move that Rodchenkov said earlier this week was done "for the pure purpose of protecting their top-level apparatchiks who destroyed the Olympic Games in Sochi."

Russia also agreed to hand over the samples and data by Dec. 31. If it does not, RUSADA will again be declared noncompliant.

"Without this pragmatic approach, we would continue with the impasse and the laboratory data could have remained out of our reach indefinitely," WADA president Craig Reedie said after Thursday's executive committee meeting in Seychelles.

Critics said reinstating RUSADA before obtaining the data only amounts to accepting another promise from a country that hasn't kept many over the five-year course of the scandal.

Travis Tygart, the CEO for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, called the decision "bewildering and inexplicable," and urged a full revamping of WADA; Reedie also serves as a member of the IOC, which is one of the many conflicts of interest that bother critics of the agency.

"Let's be clear: Absolutely nothing will be off the table for how we, the anti-doping community, begin the work of reforming WADA," Tygart said.

Reedie said "WADA understands that this decision will not please everybody."

Vladmir Putin is walking a very fine line with his reaction to the downing of the jet, Paul Buchanan says.
Source: Breakfast

"Clean athletes were denied places at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as other major events, and others were cheated of medals," he said. "It is entirely understandable that they should be wary about the supposed rehabilitation of offenders."


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New landslide kills 21, buries houses in Philippines

A massive landslide buried dozens of homes near a central Philippine mountain Thursday, killing at least 21 people and sending rescuers scrambling to find survivors after some sent text messages pleading for help.

The slide surged down on about 30 houses in two rural villages after daybreak in Naga city in Cebu province, city police chief Roderick Gonzales said by telephone as he helped supervise the search and rescue. Seven injured villagers were rescued from the huge mound of earth and debris.

Some victims managed to send messages after the landslide hit, Gonzales said, adding that elderly women and a child were among the dead.

Naga city Mayor Kristine Vanessa Chiong said at least 64 people remained missing.

"We're really hoping we can still recover them alive," she said.

The landslide hit while several northern Philippine provinces are still dealing with deaths and widespread damage wrought by Typhoon Mangkhut, which pummeled the agricultural region Saturday and left at least 88 people dead and more than 60 missing. A massive search is still underway for dozens of people feared dead after landslides in the gold-mining town of Itogon in the north.

Cebu province was not directly hit by Mangkhut but the massive typhoon intensified monsoon rains across a large part of the archipelago, including the central region where Naga city lies about 570 kilometers (355 miles) southeast of Manila.

Rescuers were treading carefully in small groups on the unstable ground to avoid further casualties.

"We're running out of time. The ground in the area is still vibrating. We're striking a balance between intensifying our rescue efforts and ensuring the safety of our rescuers," Naga city Councilor Carmelino Cruz said by phone.

Cristita Villarba, a 53-year-old resident, said her husband and son were preparing to leave for work when the ground shook and they were overwhelmed by a roar.

"It was like an earthquake and there was this thundering, loud banging sound. All of us ran out," Villarba said, adding that she, her husband and three children were shocked but unhurt.

Outside, she saw the house of her older brother, Lauro, and his family buried in the landslide.

"Many of our neighbors were crying and screaming for help. Some wanted to help those who got hit but there was too much earth covering the houses, including my brother's," she said.

Nearly 20 people lived in her brother's home, mostly his family and grandchildren, she said.

Villarba said she had felt sorry a few days earlier for the landslide victims in the country's north.

"I had no idea we would be the next," she said.

Elsewhere in the landslide-hit community, a father and his young daughter were found dead in each other's embrace in a house, volunteer rescuer Vic Santillan said.

It's not clear what set off the landslide, but some residents blamed limestone quarries, which they suspect may have caused cracks in the mountainside facing their villages. Villarba said a light rain stopped when the landslide hit and there was no rain on Wednesday.

The nearest quarry was abandoned about a year ago, but another government-authorized quarry is still being operated not far away, and villagers also profit from the limestone business, said Angeline Templo, an assistant to the mayor.

The Philippines is one of the world's most disaster-prone countries. It is lashed by about 20 storms each year and is located in the Pacific "Ring of Fire" that is vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Poverty has forced many to live on or near volcanoes, steep mountains and storm-vulnerable coasts, often leading to disasters.

Rescuers dig through the rubble to search for possible survivors, with some sending cellphone text messages pleading for help, following a landslide that buried dozens of homes in Naga city, Cebu province central Philippines on Thursday Sept. 20, 2018. A landslide set off by heavy rains buried homes under part of a mountainside in the central Philippines on Thursday, and several people are feared buried, including two who sent text messages seeking help. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Source: Associated Press


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Baby squirrels in the US freed from tail tangle

Baby squirrels in the US state of Wisconsin have been freed after their tails became dangerously tangled together.

They were handed in at the Wisconsin Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre which worked to save the lives of the five young grey squirrels.

They became entangled with grass and plastic strips their mother used to build a nest.

The squirrels were cut free with scissors while under anaesthetic.

"You can imagine how wiggly and unruly this frightened, distressed ball of squirrely energy was, so our first step was to anaesthetise all five of them at the same time," the centre told the BBC.

Then they began unravelling the "Gordon Knot".

"It was impossible to tell whose tail was whose, and we were increasingly concerned because all of them had suffered from varying degrees of tissue damage to their tails caused by circulatory impairment.

"The creatures will soon be free to resume a tangle-free life in the wild," the centre said.

Baby squirrels in Wisconsin have been freed after their tails became dangerously tangled together. Source: rnz.co.nz


Woman lucky to be alive after shark takes 'big chunck' of her leg off Queensland coast

A Tasmanian mother on holiday in north Queensland's Whitsunday Islands region is lucky to be alive after a shark mauled her leg.

Justine Barwick, 46, was snorkelling at Cid Harbour on Wednesday when the attack happened leaving her with a severe wound to her left thigh and minor wounds to her calf.

Ms Barwick, a mother of two, would likely have bled to death without the quick- thinking actions of people in nearby boats.

In a second stroke of luck a rescue helicopter scrambled to the region was just 15 minutes away from the scene due to an earlier operation they'd been undertaking.

The hovering chopper drew the attention of John Hadok, an emergency department doctor from Mackay Base Hospital, who was sailing nearby and soon joined the effort to save Ms Barwick's life.

Dr Hadok's direction ensured correct first aid was given to Ms Barwick, allowing her to be safely winched into the helicopter.

RACQ CQ Rescue Helicopter crewman Ben McCauley said the doctor and others who gave first aid to Ms Barwick before she was winched aboard had likely saved her life.

"The original first aid was actually really well done," Mr McCauley told reporters today.

"We actually didn't have to do anything with the leg, it was pretty much tourniqueted up, bandaged up and bleeding had stopped. They'd done a really good job."

Although he didn't see the wound, Mr McCauley was told Ms Bariwck had "quite a big chunk of leg taken" and had suffered arterial bleeding.

She also suffered puncture wounds to her calf muscle.

The helicopter then stopped at Proserpine to refuel, allowing blood from a local hospital to be transfused and other medical treatment given.

Just after 8pm Ms Barwick arrived at Mackay Base Hospital where she remains in a critical condition on Thursday morning after overnight surgery.

Her husband Craig is at her bedside.

Ms Barwick works for non-profit Family Based Care in Burnie and had travelled to the Whitsundays on a holiday with her husband and friends.

Family Based Care chief executive Doug Doherty said Ms Barwick and Craig were regular visitors to the popular tourist destination in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef.

"It didn't surprise me, because she is such a fighter, when she was being taken off the rescue helicopter and taken into hospital she was telling them what she was allergic too and still able to give directions," Mr Doherty told AAP.

"That sounds like Justine to me."

Sharks (file picture). Source: istock.com