Lightning-sparked fires rage across California, tens of thousands flee

By Steven Lam

VACAVILLE, Calif. (Reuters) – A firefighting helicopter pilot was killed in a crash, and scores of homes burned in California on Wednesday as hundreds of lightning-sparked blazes forced tens of thousands of people to flee their dwellings.

Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes were documented during a 72-hour stretch this week in the heaviest spate of thunderstorms to hit California in more than a decade, igniting 367 individual fires. Almost two dozen of them have grown into major conflagrations, authorities said.

Multiple fires raced through hills and mountains adjacent to Northern California’s drought-parched wine country, shutting down Interstate 80 at Fairfield, about 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Sacramento, as flames leapt across the highway, trapping motorists caught in a hectic evacuation.

Police in the nearby town of Vacaville reported that advancing flames had prompted the evacuation of a state prison there and a medical facility for inmates.

Four residents whose communities were overrun by flames hours earlier in the same area suffered burns but survived, though the severity of their injuries was not immediately known, said Will Powers a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

He said thousands of residents were under mandatory evacuation orders in a four-county area stricken by a cluster of nine wind-driven fires collectively dubbed the LNU Complex, triggered by lightning on Monday.

In central California, a helicopter was on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County about 160 miles (258 km) south of San Francisco when it crashed, killing the pilot, a private contractor, CalFire said.

As of Wednesday night, the LNU complex of fires had burned largely unchecked across 124,000 acres (50,000 hectares), with zero containment, destroying at least 105 homes and other structures and leaving another 70 damaged, CalFire said. Several of the fires had merged by nightfall.

Wearing a singed nightgown, Diane Bustos said her husband abandoned their car as it caught fire and then blew up on the west side of Vacaville early Wednesday morning. She lost both her shoes when she and her family ran for their lives.

“I made it, God saved me,” Bustos told television station KPIX.

There were social media accounts of people trapped in the blaze, but CalFire’s Powers said authorities had no reports of anyone missing.

A Reuters reporter saw dozens of burned-out homesteads and houses in the Vacaville-Fairfield area, dead livestock among torched properties and some animals wandering loose.

“We are experiencing fires the like of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” California Governor Gavin Newsom told a news conference, adding he had requested 375 fire engines from out of state to help.

He declared a statewide fire emergency on Tuesday.

The last time California experienced dry lightning storms of such devastating proportions was in 2008, said CalFire spokesman Scott Maclean.

Fanned by “red-flag” high winds, the fires are racing through vegetation parched by a record-breaking heat wave that began on Friday. Meteorologists have said the extreme heat and lightning storms were both linked to the same atmospheric weather pattern – an enormous high-pressure area hovering over America’s desert Southwest.

The largest group of fires, called the SCU Lightning Complex, had scorched at least 102,000 acres some 20 miles east of Palo Alto, while a third cluster, the CZU August Lightning Complex, grew to more than 10,000 acres and forced evacuations around 13 miles south of Palo Alto.

(Reporting by Steven Lam in Vacaville, Calif.; Additional reporting by Jane Ross and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento. Writing and reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Stephen Coates, Sandra Maler and Lincoln Feast.)

California woman rescues horses, yaks and cows from deadly wildfires

FILE PHOTO: A horse is seen along Highway 12 during the Nuns Fire in Sonoma, California, U.S., October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – The acrid smell of smoke borne on hurricane-strength winds greeted horse trainer Rebecca Cushman before dawn, her phone ringing repeatedly as people frantically sought help saving their animals from California’s deadly wildfires.

It was still dark on Monday morning when Cushman, 41, set out from her farm west of the conflagration, towing a four-horse trailer behind her white Dodge pickup truck.

She worked all day and into the night, loading four horses at a time from fire-ravaged farms and ranches in Sonoma and Napa counties, taking the animals back to her farm in West Petaluma before going out for more.

By Thursday, she had helped rescue 48 horses, several cows and even some yaks in the bucolic vineyard and farm country north of San Francisco hit by the state’s deadliest wildfires in nearly a century.

“We have dogs, goats, guinea fowl, chickens, ducks, donkeys, miniature horses and horses at our farm right now,” Cushman said on Thursday. “I just finished helping load yaks and cows.”

Firefighters began to gain ground on Thursday against blazes that have killed at least 31 people in Northern California and left hundreds missing amid mass evacuations in the heart of the state’s wine country. [nL2N1MO007][nL2N1MN1LB][nL2N1MN00H]

Animals are difficult to rescue in disasters like California’s fast-moving wildfires, as their owners must often choose between staying behind to care for them or fleeing to protect their own lives and those of their family members.

Some animals, including many rescued by Cushman, found refuge at privately owned farms outside the fire zone. Others were sheltered at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

The first calls there for help came in at about 12:30 a.m. on Monday, as winds of up to 75 miles per hour (121 km per hour) whipped fires throughout the state into dangerous conflagrations, said fairgrounds spokeswoman Leasha LaBruzzi.

By Thursday, the fairgrounds housed more than 300 horses, LaBruzzi said. It had also become a temporary home to 200 people who fled the fires with their pets.


Santa Rosa resident Christy Gentry, 43, who was staying at the fairgrounds, spent Monday morning helping round up and rescue horses at Mark West Stables, where she works, near her home.

She and her husband, Jeff, have no cellular service at their home, and their landline was knocked out by high winds on Sunday night, so they were fast asleep when the fires began.

They were awakened at midnight by the stable’s assistant trainer pounding on their bedroom window.

They ran to help evacuate the 26 horses that board at the stable. Christy Gentry’s job was to race out to the pastures, the sky black except for flames licking over the top of the mountain, bearing carrots to persuade anxious horses to come to the barn.

One, a dun-colored draft horse named Duncan, never liked getting into horse trailers, and he was particularly resistant that night.

As trainers and horse-haulers moved the animals, volunteers brought feed and hay. Cushman asked for contributions to her account at a local feed store, and quickly raised $8,000.

Exhausted, with a headache from the smoke, Cushman said on Thursday the size and unpredictability of the fires made rescues more chaotic than in past blazes.

She rushed to get to one property only to find the roads blocked. “We were later able to get a police escort to get those three horses out,” she said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)

China tests self-sustaining space station in Beijing

A volunteer checks on plants inside a simulated space cabin in which he temporarily lives with others as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China

By Natalie Thomas

BEIJING (Reuters) – Sealed behind the steel doors of two bunkers in a Beijing suburb, university students are trying to find out how it feels to live in a space station on another planet, recycling everything from plant cuttings to urine.

They are part of a project aimed at creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that provides everything humans need to survive.

Four students from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics entered the Lunar Palace-1 on Sunday with the aim of living self-sufficiently for 200 days.

A volunteer answers reporters' questions from inside a simulated space cabin in which she temporarily lives with others as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China

A volunteer answers reporters’ questions from inside a simulated space cabin in which she temporarily lives with others as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

They say they are happy to act as human guinea-pigs if it means getting closer to their dream of becoming astronauts.

“I’ll get so much out of this,” Liu Guanghui, a PhD student, who entered the bunker on Sunday, said. “It’s truly a different life experience.”

President Xi Jinping wants China to become a global power in space exploration, with plans to send the first probe to the dark side of the moon by 2018 and to put astronauts on the moon by 2036. The Lunar Palace 365 experiment may allow them to stay there for extended periods.

For Liu Hong, a professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the project’s principal architect, said everything needed for human survival had been carefully calculated.

“We’ve designed it so the oxygen (produced by plants at the station) is exactly enough to satisfy the humans, the animals, and the organisms that break down the waste materials,” she said.

But satisfying physical needs is only one part of the experiment, Liu said. Charting the mental impact of confinement in a small space for such a long time is equally crucial.

“They can become a bit depressed,” Liu said. “If you spend a long time in this type of environment it can create some psychological problems.”

A member of staff is seen in front of screens showing inside of a simulated space cabin in which volunteers temporarily live as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China

A member of staff is seen in front of screens showing inside of a simulated space cabin in which volunteers temporarily live as a part of the scientistic Lunar Palace 365 Project, at Beihang University in Beijing, China July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Liu Hui, a student leader who participated an initial 60-day experiment at Lunar Palace-1 that finished on Sunday, said that she sometimes “felt a bit low” after a day’s work.

The project’s support team has found mapping out a specific set of daily tasks for the students is one way that helps them to remain happy.

But the 200-day group will also be tested to see how they react to living a for period of time without sunlight. The project’s team declined to elaborate.

“We did this experiment with animals… so we want to see how much impact it will have on people,” Liu, the professor, said.


(Reporting By Natalie Thomas. Editing by Jane Merriman)


Drug resistance in people and animals may push millions into poverty

The mcr-1 plasmid-borne colistin resistance gene has been found primarily in Escherichia coli, pictured.

By Alex Whiting

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – If drug-resistant infections in people and animals are allowed to spread unchecked, some 28 million people will fall into poverty by 2050, and a century of progress in health will be reversed, the World Bank said on Monday.

By 2050, annual global GDP would fall by at least 1.1 percent, although the loss could be as much as 3.8 percent – the equivalent of the 2008 financial crisis – the Bank said in a report released ahead of a high-level meeting on the issue at the United Nations in New York this week.

The rise of “superbugs” resistant to drugs has been caused partly by the increased use and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs in the treatment of people and in farming.

“We cannot afford to lose the gains in the last century brought about by the antibiotic era,” Tim Evans, the World Bank’s senior director for health, nutrition and population, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“By any measure, the cost of inaction on antimicrobial resistance is too great, it needs to be addressed urgently and resolutely,” he said.

Greater quantities of antibiotics are used in farming than for treating people, and much of this is for promoting animal growth rather than treating sick animals, economist Jim O’Neill said in a report in May commissioned by the British government.

The O’Neill report estimated that drug-resistant infections could kill more than 10 million people a year by 2050, up from half a million today, and the costs of treatment would soar.


Farmers too will be greatly affected. The bank estimates that by 2050, global livestock production could fall by between 2.6 percent and 7.5 percent a year, if the problem of drug resistant superbugs is not curbed.

“Investments are urgently needed to establish basic veterinary public health capacities in developing countries,” Evans said.

Improved disease surveillance, diagnostic laboratories to ensure a disease is identified quickly, inspections of farms and slaughterhouses, training of vets, and oversight over the use of antibiotics are also needed, he said.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates 60,000 tonnes of antimicrobials are used in livestock each year, a number set to rise with growing demand for animal products.

One of the most important ways to curb the spread of drug resistant microbes in food is to promote good farming practices, said Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer of FAO.

“I think this is where we can do most of our prevention – better knowledge on hygiene, vaccination campaigns, so these animals do not get sick and need antimicrobials (drugs),” Lubroth said in an interview from Rome.

Public demand for food that is uncontaminated, and better training of health professionals – doctors and vets – are also vital to help contain the problem, he added.

Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies also need to do more to treat their waste, he said.

The World Bank estimates that an investment of some $9 billion a year is needed in veterinary and human health to tackle the issue.

“The expected return on this investment is estimated to be between $2 trillion and $5.4 trillion … or at least 10 to 20 times the cost, which should help generate political will necessary to make these investments,” Evans said.

(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

Zimbabwe needs buyers to save animals from drought

A herd of elephants walk at a drinking hole in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe put its wild animals up for sale on Tuesday, saying it needed buyers to step in and save the beasts from a devastating drought.

Members of the public “with the capacity to acquire and manage wildlife” – and enough land to hold the animals – should get in touch to register an interest, the state Parks and Wildlife Management Authority said.

There were no details on the animals on offer or their cost, but the southern African country’s 10 national parks are famed for their huge populations of elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and buffalos.

A drought across the region has left more than 4 million Zimbabweans needing aid and hit the crops they rely on for food and export earnings, from maize to tobacco.

It has also exacerbated an economic crisis in the cash-strapped country that has largely been deserted by foreign donors since 1999.

Selling the animals would give some of them a new home and ease financial pressure on the parks authority, which says it receives little government funding and struggles to get by on what it earns through hunting and tourism.

“In light of the drought … Parks and Wildlife Management Authority intends to destock its parks estates through selling some of the wildlife,” the authority said in a statement.

It asked interested Zimbabweans to get in touch and did not mention foreign buyers. Parks authority spokeswoman Caroline Washaya-Moyo would not say whether the animals could be exported or how many it wanted to sell.

“We do not have a target. The number of animals depends on the bids we receive,” she said.

There was no immediate comment from the wildlife groups that protested loudly last year when Zimbabwe exported 60 elephants, half of them to China, where the animals are prized for their tusks.

About 54,000 of Zimbabwe’s 80,000 elephants live in the western Hwange National Park, more than four times the number it is supposed to hold, the agency says.

The drought is expected to worsen an already critical water shortage in Hwange, which has no rivers and relies on donors to buy fuel to pump out underground wells.

The privately-owned Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported in February that Bubye Conservancy, a private game park in southern Zimbabwe, could be forced to kill 200 lions to reduce over-population.

Many hunters have stayed away, the paper quoted Bubye general manager Blondie Leathem as saying, since the furor over the killing of Cecil, a rare black-maned lion, by a U.S. dentist last year.

(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Heavens)

28 Californians and Millions of Birds Killed by West Nile Virus

A study, released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that the West Nile virus is annihilating the native bird population in the United States. The study looked at the impact of the virus on 49 species from information collected at over 500 bird banding stations across the U.S. from 1992 to 2007.
UCLA’s Ryan Harrigan and his colleagues found significant declines in survival rates associated with West Nile virus for 23 out of 49 of the species examined.

Millions of birds can die in a single year when West Nile hits species with large populations. Among the estimated 130 million red-eyed vireos in the United States, researchers believe the virus killed 29 percent, or more than 37 million.

West Nile, a mosquito-borne virus, was introduced in North America in 1989. It has drawn the most attention for its impact on humans, with 1 in 5 people who are infected developing a fever with other symptoms, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In rare cases, people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, neurologic illness.

According to the CDC, West Nile Virus which originated in birds, then spread to mammals and then humans killed 85 people last year with 2,122 cases reported. So far, 63 deaths have been reported, 28 in California alone, with 1,197 cases reported in the United States. The first deaths from West Nile Virus were reported in 1999.

The most deaths were reported in 2012 with 5674 cases reported and 286 deaths.