Out-of-control wildfires cause evacuations in western Canada
Fire crews battled wildfires threatening communities in western Canada on Sunday as cooler temperatures and a bit of rain brought some relief, but officials warned the reprieve came only in some areas. Officials in Alberta said there were 108 active fires in the province and the number of evacuees grew to about 29,000, up from approximately 24,000 Saturday, when a provincewide state of emergency was declared. Two out-of-control wildfires in neighboring British Columbia also caused some people to leave their homes, and officials warned that they expected high winds to cause the blazes to grow bigger in the next few days. Provinicial officials in Alberta said the weather forecast was favorable for the next few days, with small amounts of rain and overcast conditions. But they cautioned that hot and dry conditions were predicted to return within a few days. “People have called this season certainly unprecedented in recent memory because we have so many fires so spread out,” Christie Tucker with Alberta Wildfire said at a briefing. “It’s been an unusual year.” Colin Blair, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said accurate damage reports were not yet available because conditions made it difficult to assess the situation. There were of buildings destroyed in the town of Fox Lake, including 20 homes, a police station and a store. In northeastern British Columbia, officials urged residents to evacuate the areas around two out-of-control wildfires near the Alberta border, saying there were reports of some people staying behind. “This is impeding the response and putting their lives and the lives of firefighters at risk," said Leonard Hiebert, chairman of the Peace River Regional District. A third fire in British Columbia was burning out of control 700 kilometers (430 miles) to the south, in the Teare Creek region, and some residents near the village of McBride were evacuated.
Evacuations ordered as California braces for rain, floods
As a huge storm approached California on Wednesday, officials began ordering evacuations in a high-risk coastal area where mudslides killed 23 people in 2018, while residents elsewhere in the state scrambled to find sandbags, and braced themselves for flooding and power outages. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to allow for a quick response and to aid in cleanup from another powerful storm just days earlier. Dozens of flights were cancelled at the San Francisco International Airport, and South San Francisco schools preemptively cancelled Thursday classes. As the storm intensified, state officials warned residents in Northern California to stay off the roads. The first evacuations were ordered for those living in the burn scar areas of three recent wildfires in Santa Barbara County, where heavy rain is expected overnight, and could cause widespread flooding and unleash debris flows in several areas. Among them is the tony town of Montecito, home to many celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle. “We anticipate that this may be one of the most challenging and impactful series of storms to touch down in California in the last five years,” said Nancy Ward, the new director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Officials asked drivers to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary — and to stay informed by signing up for updates from emergency officials about downed trees and power lines, and flooding. In Northern California, a 25-mile (40-kilometer) stretch of Highway 101 was closed between the towns of Trinidad and Orick due to several downed trees. Before the storm arrives late Wednesday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said people should evacuate the areas impacted by the Alisal Fire last year, the Cave Fire in 2019 and the devastating Thomas Fire in 2017, one of the largest in California history. On Jan. 9, 2018, massive torrents carrying huge boulders, mud and debris roared down coastal mountains, and through the town of Montecito to the shoreline, killing 23 people and destroying more than 100 homes. Among those killed were two children whose bodies were never found. Read more: 48 deaths reported in US from massive storm Montecito Fire Department Chief Kevin Taylor said Wednesday that homes near waterways are at the greatest risk. “What we’re talking about here is a lot of water coming off the top of the hills, coming down into the creeks and streams and as it comes down, it gains momentum and that’s what the initial danger is,” he said. Storms in the last 30 days have produced between 8 to 13 inches of rain, soaking coastal hills in Santa Barbara County. The current storm is projected to drop up to 10 inches of rain in the area, Taylor said. “This cumulative rain ... is what causes our risk,” he said. The storm, set to be in full force in Northern California by Wednesday evening, is one of three so-called atmospheric river storms in the last week to reach the drought-stricken state. Because the states' major reservoirs are at a record low from a dry three-year period, they have plenty of room to fill with more water from the impending storm, officials said. Still, trees are already stressed from years of limited rain. Now that the grounds are suddenly saturated and winds are heavy, trees are more likely to fall. That could cause widespread power outages or create flood hazards, said Karla Nemeth, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources. “We are in the middle of a flood emergency and also in the middle of a drought emergency,” she said during an emergency briefing. The storm comes days after a New Year’s Eve downpour led to the evacuations of people in rural Northern California communities and the rescue of several motorists from flooded roads. A few levees south of Sacramento were damaged. In the San Francisco Bay Area, 8,500 sandbags distributed by officials weren’t enough to reach demand Wednesday as forecasters warned of imminent flooding. The South San Francisco Unified School District announced classes for its 8,000 students would be canceled Thursday “out of an abundance of caution.” Heavy downpours accompanied by winds with gusts of up to 60 mph (96 kph) were expected later Wednesday and through Thursday, making driving conditions difficult, the National Weather Service said. In Southern California, the storm was expected to peak in intensity overnight, with Santa Barbara and Ventura counties likely to see the most rain, forecasters said. Read more: Wild winter storm envelops US, snarling Christmas travel Aaron Johnson, Pacific Gas & Electric regional vice president for the Bay Area, said the company has more than 3,000 employees working in crews of three to five people to assess damages to their equipment and restore power as soon as possible. Robert O’Neill, an insurance broker who lives and works just south of San Francisco, said he lined up to get sandbags for his garage and for a co-worker’s home to prepare for the storm. As president of Town & Country Insurance Services, he gave employees the option of working from home Wednesday, which many did, he said. He plans to leave the office early and head home where he has go-bags packed with clothes, medicine, electronic chargers and important papers. He has sleeping bags and three days’ worth of water, nuts and protein bars. “We’re in a big city, so we wouldn’t be too stranded too long, but you never know,” he said. The storms in California still aren’t enough to officially end the drought, now entering its fourth year. The U.S. Drought Monitor showed that most of the state is in severe to extreme drought. Elsewhere, in the Midwest, ice and heavy snow has taken a toll this week, closing down schools in Minnesota and western Wisconsin — and causing a jet to go off an icy taxiway after landing in a snowstorm in Minneapolis. No passengers were injured, Delta airlines said. To the south, a possible tornado damaged homes, downed trees and flipped a vehicle on its side in Montgomery, Alabama, early Wednesday. Christina Thornton, director of the Montgomery Emergency Management Agency, said radar indicated a possible, but unconfirmed, tornado. The storm had extremely high winds and moved through the area before dawn, she said. Staff from the National Weather Service's Chicago office planned to survey storm damage on Wednesday following at least six tornados, the largest number of rare January tornadoes recorded in the state since 1989.
California wildfires prompt evacuations amid heat wave
California wildfires erupted Wednesday in rural areas, racing through bone-dry brush and prompting evacuations as the state sweltered under a heat wave that could last through Labor Day. The Route Fire in Castaic in northwestern Los Angeles County raged through about 4,625 acres (1,872 hectares) of hills containing scattered houses. Interstate 5, a major north-south route, was closed by a blaze that burned several hundred acres in only a few hours. Media reports showed a wall of flames advancing uphill and smoke billowing thousands of feet into the air while planes dumped water from nearby Castaic Lake. There were no immediate reports of damage to buildings but a mobile home park with 94 residences was evacuated. An elementary school also was evacuated. Temperatures in the area hit 107 degrees (42 Celsius) and winds gusted to 17 mph (27 kph), forecasters said. Eight firefighters were treated for heat-related problems, including six who were sent to hospitals, but all were in good condition, Los Angeles County Fire Department Deputy Chief Thomas Ewald said. More injuries were expected as crews cope with extreme heat that was expected to stretch into next week, Ewald said during a news conference Wednesday night. “Wearing heavy firefighting gear, carrying packs, dragging hose, swinging tools, the folks out there are just taking a beating," he said. Aircraft would continue to drop water and fire retardant on the blaze overnight and winds could shift to the north through the night, causing the fire to burn back on itself, Ewald said. Ewald also said there could be other fires in LA County as the searing heat continues. Bulldozers to cut firebreaks will be staffed around the county Thursday as a precaution, he said. “This is the fire that's burning right now. But we have 4,000 square miles (10,360 square kilometers) of LA County that we have to consider for tomorrow," he said. Read: Spain: 10 injured while leaving stopped train near wildfire Another fire burned at least four buildings, including a home, and prompted evacuations in the Dulzura area in eastern San Diego County near the Mexican border. It swiftly grew to more than 1,600 acres (647.5 hectares) acres and prompted evacuation orders for at least 400 homes, authorities said. State Route 94 was closed. The Mountain Empire Unified School District will be closed Thursday, officials said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that the Tecate port of entry with Mexico closed three hours early on Wednesday night because of the fire and wouldn't reopen until conditions improved to ensure “the safety of the traveling public." Travelers could continue to use the 24-hour Otay Mesa crossing. No injuries were immediately reported, but there were “multiple close calls” as residents rushed to flee, said Capt. Thomas Shoots with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We had multiple 911 calls from folks unable to evacuate” because their homes were surrounded by the fire, Shoots told the San Diego Union-Tribune. The National Weather Service said many valleys, foothills, mountains and desert areas of the state remained under an elevated fire risk because of low humidity and high temperatures, which set several records for the day. The hottest days were expected to be Sunday and Monday. Wildfires have sprung up this summer throughout the Western states. The largest and deadliest blaze in California this year erupted in late July in Siskyou County, near the Oregon state line. It killed four people and destroyed much of the small community of Klamath River. Scientists have said climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. Across the American West, a 22-year megadrought deepened so much in 2021 that the region is now in the driest spell in at least 1,200 years.
Tundra wildfire creeps closer toward Alaska Native community
A tundra wildfire continued to creep closer to an Alaska Native community in southwest Alaska, but mandatory evacuations have not been ordered, fire officials said Sunday. The East Fork fire was within 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) of St. Mary’s, a statement from Alaska Wildland Fire Information said. Also read: Multiple wildfires in U.S. Colorado burn homes, force evacuation Even though it had moved 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) closer to the Yup’ik community since Saturday, fire managers said the progress has slowed somewhat because of favorable weather conditions. The temperatures were slightly cooler with rising humidity, which could help moderate fire conditions. However, winds are expected to remain steady out of the north, helping move the fire toward populated areas. The fire is burning in dry grass and shrubs like alder and willow in the mostly treeless tundra in southwest Alaska. The fire was started by lightning May 31. Firefighters are working to strengthen primary and secondary fire lines protecting St. Mary’s and the nearby communities of Pitkas Point and Mountain Village and properties, including cabins, between them. No structures have been lost in the fire. The fire is also 10 miles (16 kilometers) from another community, Pilot Station. Firefighters were expected to evaluate options of opening a preexisting fire line around that community. Another fire northwest of the East Fork fire is growing, but it still about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Mountain Village. There are 204 personnel working the East Fork fire, which has grown to 190 square miles (492 square kilometers). Additional personnel are expected to arrive Monday, when even more favorable weather conditions are also expected, including increased cloud cover, higher humidity and cooler temperatures. Officials also said the front may switch the wind direction to the southwest, which would help push the fire away from villages. Also read: Massive New Mexico wildfire grows, but Taos safe for now Even though there are no mandatory evacuations, the combined 700 residents of St. Mary’s and Pitkas Point, located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south, have been on alert since Friday to prepare for possible evacuation. Nearly 150 residents from the affected communities have already temporarily relocated to the southwest Alaska hub community of Bethel. St. Mary’s is located about 450 miles (724 kilometers) west of Anchorage.
As flights resume, plight of Afghan allies tests Biden’s vow
Evacuation flights have resumed for Westerners, but thousands of at-risk Afghans who had helped the United States are still stranded in their homeland with the U.S. Embassy shuttered, all American diplomats and troops gone and the Taliban now in charge. With the United States and Taliban both insisting on travel documents that may no longer be possible to get in Afghanistan, the plight of those Afghans is testing President Joe Biden’s promises not to leave America’s allies behind. An evacuation flight out of Kabul on Thursday, run by the Gulf state of Qatar and the first of its kind since U.S.-led military evacuations ended Aug. 30, focused on U.S. passport and green card holders and other foreigners. For the U.S. lawmakers, veterans groups and other Americans who’ve been scrambling to get former U.S. military interpreters and other at-risk Afghans on charter flights out, the relaunch of evacuation flights did little to soothe fears that the U.S. might abandon countless Afghan allies. A particular worry are those whose U.S. special immigrant visas — meant for Afghans who helped Americans during the 20-year war — still were in the works when the Taliban took Kabul in a lightning offensive on Aug. 15. The U.S. abandoned its embassy building that same weekend. Read: Biden defends departure from ‘forever war,’ praises airlift “For all intents and purposes, these people’s chances of escaping the Taliban ended the day we left them behind,” said Afghanistan war veteran Matt Zeller, founder of No One Left Behind. It’s among dozens of grassroots U.S. groups working to get out Afghan translators and others who supported Americans. An estimated 200 foreigners, including Americans, left Afghanistan on the commercial flight out of Kabul on Thursday with the cooperation of the Taliban. Ten U.S. citizens and 11 green-card holders made Thursday’s flight, State Department spokesman Ned Price said. Americans organizing charter evacuation flights said they knew of more U.S. passport and green-card holders in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere awaiting flights out. In the U.S., National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said Thursday’s flight was the result of “careful and hard diplomacy and engagement” and said the Taliban “have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort.” But many doubt the Taliban will be as accommodating for Afghans who supported the U.S. In Mazar-e-Sharif, a more than weeklong standoff over charter planes at the airport there has left hundreds of people — mostly Afghans, but some with American passports and green cards — stranded, waiting for Taliban permission to leave. Afghans and their American supporters say the Taliban are blocking all passengers in Mazar-e-Sharif from boarding the waiting charter flights, including those with proper travel papers. Zeller pointed to the Taliban appointment this week of a hard-line government. It includes Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a $5 million bounty for alleged attacks and kidnappings, as interior minister, a position putting him in charge of granting passports. The Trump administration all but stopped approval of the Afghan special immigrant visas, or SIVs, in its final months. The Biden administration, too, was criticized for failing to move faster on evacuating Afghans before Kabul fell to the Taliban. The U.S. had also required some visa-seekers to go outside the country to apply, a requirement that became far more dangerous with the Taliban takeover last month. “There are all of these major logistical obstacles,” said Betsy Fisher of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal services to SIV applicants. “How will people leave Afghanistan?” Read: War is over but not Biden’s Afghanistan challenges She said with no clear plan in place, the U.S. government could wind up encouraging people to go on risky journeys. In July, after Biden welcomed home the first airlift, he made clear the U.S. would help even those Afghans with pending visa applications get out of Afghanistan “so that they can wait in safety while they finish their visa applications.” Since the military airlifts ended on Aug. 30, however, the Biden administration and Taliban have emphasized that Afghans needed passports and visas. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday the administration was looking at steps like electronic visas. Hundreds of Afghans who say they are in danger of Taliban reprisals have gathered for more than a week in Mazar-e-Sharif, waiting for permission to board evacuation flights chartered by U.S. supporters. Among them was an Afghan who worked for 15 years as a U.S. military interpreter. He has been moving from hotel to hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif and running out of money as he, his eight children and his wife waited for the OK from the Taliban to leave. “I’m frightened I will be left behind,” said the man, whose name was withheld by The Associated Press for his safety. “I don’t know what the issue is — is it a political issue, or they don’t care about us?” The interpreter’s visa was approved weeks before the last U.S. troops left the country, but he could not get it stamped into his passport because the U.S. Embassy shut down. He said Thursday that he doesn’t trust Taliban assurances that they will not take revenge against Afghans who worked for the Americans. Read:Biden: Another attack likely, pledges more strikes on IS Biden, already criticized for his handling of the evacuation, is being pushed by Democrats and also on both sides by Republicans, with some saying he’s not doing enough to help America’s former allies and others that he’s not doing enough to keep potential threats out of the U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Mike Waltz, both Republicans, said in a statement that hundreds of those at-risk Afghans and U.S. residents remain “trapped behind enemy lines.” The Biden administration “must provide Congress and the American people ... with a plan to get them safely out of Afghanistan.” The Association of War Time Allies estimates tens of thousands of special immigrant visa applicants remain in Afghanistan. An American citizen in New York is trying to get two cousins out of the country who applied for SIVs late last year and were still waiting for approval when the U.S. Embassy shut down. She said both cousins worked for a U.S. aid group for a combined eight years and are frightened the Taliban will find them. “They’re scared, they feel abandoned. They put their entire lives at risk, and when the U.S. was exiting, they were told they would get out,” said the American, Fahima, whose last name and the name of the aid group are being withheld to protect her cousins. “Where is the helping hand?”
Officials anticipate progress fighting fire near Lake Tahoe
While firefighters confront aggressive winds and flames in some southeast sections of the Caldor Fire, many crews are shifting their focus to repairing areas for residents to return in the coming days — a sign of confidence that they’ll continue to make progress containing the wildfire. Officials lifted the mandatory evacuation order for the 22,000 residents of South Lake Tahoe on Sunday, allowing some residents to trickle back into the smoke-cloaked city. But the wildfire remains 48% and areas south of the resort town like Meyers and the ski resort Kirkwood remain battlefields for the more than 5,000 personnel working to contain the 338 square-mile (876 square-kilometer) wildfire from threatening Lake Tahoe, the surrounding resort communities and the homes of employees who staff casinos, restaurants and ski resorts. Read: Lake Tahoe residents relieved homes spared from wildfire “We’re also looking long term — what’s going to happen, four, five or six days down the road. We want to make sure we’re planning and having stuff ready and completed so that when (repopulation) comes available,” Cal Fire official John Davis said. “And if it comes sooner, we are already in the planning process for the whole area that’s still under evacuation order.” When the Caldor Fire gobbled up pine trees and crossed the Sierra Nevada last week, South Lake Tahoe, transformed into a ghost town. The city appeared slightly rebounded on Monday, yet mostly empty compared to normal holiday weekends. “I was honestly convinced this place was gonna go down,” Lake Tahoe Community College student Dakota Jones said Monday upon his return. “It was nice to see that I was wrong.” The lifting of mandatory evacuation orders for the Tahoe area marked a milestone in the fight against the Caldor Fire, which erupted Aug. 14 and spread across dense forests, tree-dotted granite cliffs and scattered cabins and hamlets in the northern Sierra Nevada. At its peak, the fire was burning as many as 1,000 acres an hour. Through tactics including bulldozing defense lines and air-dropping 1,600 gallons (6,057 liters) of Lake Tahoe water onto the flames, crews have successfully carved a perimeter around much of the wildfire. Read: Lake Tahoe evacuees hope to return home as wildfire slows Fire officials said they expected crews in hot spots to continue to confront challenging conditions, but hoped to make enough progress to lift evacuation orders still in place in the coming days. But much will depend on the weather, particularly the nature of wind and rain that thunderstorms expected next weekend may yield. Winds have been easing, allowing firefighters to make progress containing the conflagration, but authorities remain concerned about southwest winds sparking spot fires. In Northern California, the weather is expected to cool slightly and the humidity to rise starting on Tuesday. “We are drier than I have seen on my 20 days on this fire,” Jim Dudley, incident meteorologist, said Monday. “There’s a lot of potential weather-wise for little things to become maybe not so little.” California and much of the U.S. West have experienced dozens of wildfires in the past two months as the warming, drought-stricken region swelters under dry heat and winds drives flames through vegetation. More than 14,500 firefighters were battling 14 active fires in the state on Monday, and since the year began more than 7,000 wildfires have devoured 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers). Read:High winds threaten to whip up flames approaching Lake Tahoe No deaths have been reported specifically from the fires, which have shut down all national forests in the state. Further south, the National Weather Service in Oxnard, California said hot dry weather was expected for interior valleys and deserts with elevated fire conditions through Friday.
Lake Tahoe residents relieved homes spared from wildfire
Connor Jones sunbathed with his dog on the otherwise empty beach at Ski Run Marina on Monday, as residents trickling back into town filled up their cars at a gas station behind him and employees of a water sports rental company docked jet skis and boats they had anchored away from the shores of Lake Tahoe to prevent them from igniting from wildfire. He and others living in the resort city of South Lake Tahoe breathed a collective sigh of relief on Sunday when officials downgraded a mandatory evacuation order put in place a week ago to a warning. “I figure they wouldn’t take repopulation lightly and, if they made the decision to allow people to come back, then they were probably confident that they’re not going to have any issues,” he said. When the Caldor Fire gobbled up pine trees and crossed the Sierra Nevada last week, South Lake Tahoe, a scenic community of 22,000 people on the California-Nevada state line, transformed into a smoke-choked ghost town. Read: Lake Tahoe evacuees hope to return home as wildfire slows After worrying throughout all of last week about the fire approaching their homes and landmarks they hold dear, residents who returned on Monday said they were thankful firefighters had stopped the blazes on the town’s doorstep. But it appeared most residents remained away and most shops remained closed in usually thriving Labor Day destination town. While many large wildfires have ripped through large swaths of Northern California in recent years, it’s the first time in more than a decade that South Lake Tahoe residents saw a blaze get this close. As of Monday evening, 5,072 firefighting personnel were battling the Caldor Fire, which had scorched roughly 338 square miles (876 square kilometers). The threat to the region hasn’t entirely vanished, with mandatory evacuation orders remaining for parts of unincorporated El Dorado County south of South Lake Tahoe, including Meyers and Christmas Valley. And questions remain about the smoke blanketing the region and how long it may take for the clean air and crystalline waters that draw millions of tourists to the area annually to return. Authorities warned residents, that in the absence of humans, bears had gone to town, spreading trash. “The delicate balance between humans and bears has been upset,” and anyone who thinks a bear may have entered their home should call law enforcement, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Sgt. Simon Brown said. Chirawat Mekrakseree said he had seen signs. of bears sifting through the trash at his restaurant on Lake Tahoe Boulevard, My Thai Cuisine. Mekrakseree plans to reopen and start serving curries and noodle dishes on Wednesday but worries the tourists he depends on may not come back while the smoke lingers. And he doesn’t know what to tell his staff about when business will return to normal after an already uncertain year with the pandemic, he said. “Everybody has expenses, rent, car payments,” he said as he power-washed ash off outdoor picnic tables. “They’re asking me how long (until they return to work) and I can’t tell them how long.” Read:High winds threaten to whip up flames approaching Lake Tahoe California and much of the U.S. West have experienced dozens of wildfires in the past two months as the drought-stricken region swelters under hot, dry weather and winds drives flames through bone-dry vegetation. More than 14,500 firefighters were battling 14 active fires in the state on Monday, and since the year began more than 7,000 wildfires have devoured 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers). The lifting of mandatory evacuation orders for the Tahoe area marked a milestone in the fight against the Caldor Fire, which erupted Aug. 14 and spread across nearly 338 square miles (876 square kilometers) of dense national parks and forests, tree-dotted granite cliffs and scattered cabins and hamlets in the northern Sierra Nevada. At its peak, the fire was burning as many as 1,000 acres an hour and virtually razed the small community of Grizzly Flats. In recent days, winds eased and firefighters took advantage of the better weather to hack, burn and bulldoze fire lines, managing to contain 44% of the perimeter by Monday. Authorities said containment lines were holding up but they were concerned about extremely low humidity and a slight increase in wind, which could spur spot fires up to half a mile (0.8 kilometers) away. “We are drier than I have seen on my 20 days on this fire,” Jim Dudley, incident meteorologist, said Monday. “There’s a lot of potential weather-wise for little things to become maybe not so little.” In South Lake Tahoe, gas stations and grocery stores quickly reopened but eateries and a ski gear shops remained closed. Dakota Jones returned Monday to his apartment with his roommates, who were in the process of moving when the fire approached, and a U-Haul full of their belongings. The Lake Tahoe Community College student said he worried he’d find buildings damaged and ashen, and was pleasantly surprised to see the town largely untouched. “I was honestly convinced this place was gonna go down,” said Jones, who is not related to Connor. “It was nice to see that I was wrong.” Read: Wildfire evacuees flood Lake Tahoe roads in rush to flee California has experienced increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires in recent years as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years. Scientists have said weather will continue to be more extreme and wildfires more frequent, destructive and unpredictable. No deaths have been reported specifically from the fires, which have shut down all national forests in the state. In Northern California, the weather is expected to cool slightly and the humidity to rise starting on Tuesday. Further south, the National Weather Service in Oxnard, California said hot dry weather was expected for interior valleys and deserts with elevated fire conditions through Friday.
Biden defends departure from ‘forever war,’ praises airlift
A defensive President Joe Biden on Tuesday called the U.S. airlift to extract more than 120,000 Americans, Afghans and other allies from Afghanistan to end a 20-year war an “extraordinary success,” though more than 100 Americans and thousands of others were left behind. Twenty-four hours after the last American C-17 cargo plane roared off from Kabul, Biden spoke to the nation and vigorously defended his decision to end America’s longest war and withdraw all U.S. troops ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline. “I was not going to extend this forever war,” Biden declared from the White House. “And I was not going to extend a forever exit.” Biden has faced tough questions about the way the U.S. went about leaving Afghanistan — a chaotic evacuation with spasms of violence, including a suicide bombing last week that killed 13 American service members and 169 Afghans. Read: War is over but not Biden’s Afghanistan challenges He is under heavy criticism, particularly from Republicans, for his handling of the evacuation. But he said it was inevitable that the final departure from two decades of war, first negotiated with the Taliban for May 1 by former President Donald Trump, would have been difficult, with likely violence, no matter when it was planned and conducted. “To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask, ‘What is the vital national interest?’” Biden said. He added, “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan.” Asked after the speech about Biden sounding angry at some criticism, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president had simply offered his “forceful assessment.” Biden scoffed at Republicans — and some Democrats — who contend the U.S. would have been better served maintaining a small military footprint in Afghanistan. Before Thursday’s attack, the U.S. military had not suffered a combat casualty since February 2020 — around the time the Trump administration brokered its deal with the Taliban to end the war by May of this year. Biden said breaking the Trump deal would have restarted a shooting war. He said those who favor remaining at war also fail to recognize the weight of deployment, with a scourge of PTSD, financial struggles, divorce and other problems for U.S. troops. “When I hear that we could’ve, should’ve continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan at low risk to our service members, at low cost, I don’t think enough people understand how much we’ve asked of the 1% of this country to put that uniform on,” Biden said. In addition to all the questions at home, Biden is also adjusting to a new relationship with the Taliban, the Islamist militant group the U.S. toppled after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America, and that is now once again in power in Afghanistan. Biden has tasked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to coordinate with international partners to hold the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave in the days ahead. “We don’t take them by their word alone, but by their actions,” Biden said. “We have leverage to make sure those commitments are met.” Biden also pushed back against criticism that he fell short of his pledge to get all Americans out of the country ahead of the U.S. military withdrawal. He said many of the Americans left behind are dual citizens, some with deep family roots that are complicating their ability to leave Afghanistan. Read: Biden: Another attack likely, pledges more strikes on IS “The bottom line: 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” Biden said. “For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out, if they want to come out.” Biden repeated his argument that ending the Afghanistan war was a crucial step for recalibrating American foreign policy toward growing challenges posed by China and Russia — and counterterrorism concerns that pose a more potent threat to the U.S. “There’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, want more in this competition, than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan,” he said In Biden’s view the war could have ended 10 years ago with the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida extremist network planned and executed the 9/11 plot from an Afghanistan sanctuary. Al-Qaida has been vastly diminished, preventing it thus far from again attacking the United States. The president lamented an estimated $2 trillion of taxpayer money that was spent fighting the war. “What have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?” Biden asked. Congressional committees, whose interest in the war waned over the years, are expected to hold public hearings on what went wrong in the final months of the U.S. withdrawal. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Tuesday described the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation as “probably the biggest failure in American government on a military stage in my lifetime” and promised that Republicans would press the White House for answers. Meanwhile, the Senate met briefly Tuesday, with Vice President Kamala Harris presiding over the chamber, to pass by unanimous consent a bill that increases spending for temporary assistance to U.S. citizens and their dependents returning from another country because of illness, war or other crisis. Biden quickly signed the legislation, which raises funding for the program from $1 million to $10 million. A group of Republican lawmakers gathered on the House floor Tuesday morning and participated in a moment of silence for the 13 service members who were killed in the suicide bomber attack. Read: Biden vows to finish Kabul evacuation, avenge US deaths They also sought a House vote on legislation from Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., which among other things would require the administration to submit a report on how many Americans remain in Afghanistan as well as the number of Afghans who had applied for a category of visas reserved for those employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government. The GOP lawmakers objected as Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., gaveled the House into adjournment. They then gathered for a press conference to denounce the administration. For many U.S. commanders and troops who served in Afghanistan, it was a day of mixed emotions. “All of us are conflicted with feelings of pain and anger, sorrow and sadness, combined with pride and resilience,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He commanded troops in Afghanistan earlier in his career. “But one thing I am certain of, for any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine and their families, your service mattered. It was not in vain.”
War is over but not Biden’s Afghanistan challenges
With the final stream of U.S. cargo planes soaring over the peaks of the Hindu Kush, President Joe Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to end America’s longest war, one it could not win. But as the war ended with a chaotic, bloody evacuation that left stranded hundreds of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghans who had aided the American war effort, the president kept notably out of sight. He left it to a senior military commander and his secretary of state to tell Americans about the final moments of a conflict that ended in resounding American defeat. Biden, for his part, issued a written statement praising U.S. troops who oversaw the airlift of more than 120,000 Afghans, U.S. citizens and allies for their “unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve.” He said he would have more to say on Tuesday. “Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended,” Biden said in his statement. The muted reaction was informed by a tough reality: The war may be over, but Biden’s Afghanistan problem is not. Read:Biden: Another attack likely, pledges more strikes on IS The president still faces daunting challenges born of the hasty end of the war, including how to help extract as many as 200 Americans and thousands of Afghans left behind, the resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees who were able to flee, and coming congressional scrutiny over how, despite increasingly fraught warnings, the administration was caught flat-footed by the rapid collapse of the Afghan government. Through the withdrawal, Biden showed himself willing to endure what his advisers hope will be short-term pain for resisting bipartisan and international pressure to extend his Aug. 31 deadline for ending the American military evacuation effort. For more than a decade, Biden has believed in the futility of the conflict and maintained that the routing of Afghanistan’s military by the Taliban was a delayed, if unwelcome, vindication. Turning the page on Afghanistan is a crucial foreign policy objective for Biden, who repeatedly has made the case for redirecting American attention toward growing challenges posed by adversaries China and Russia — and for shifting America’s counterterrorism focus to areas with more potent threats. But in his effort to end the war and reset U.S. priorities, Biden may have also undercut a central premise of his 2020 White House campaign: a promise to usher in an era of greater empathy and collaboration with allies in America’s foreign policy after four years of Trump’s “America first” approach. “For someone who made his name as an empathetic leader, he’s appeared ... as quite rational, even cold-hearted, in his pursuit of this goal” to end the war, said Jason Lyall, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. Allies — including lawmakers from Britain, France, and Germany — chafed at Biden’s insistence on holding fast to the Aug. 31 deadline as they struggled to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies. Armin Laschet, the leading conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor, called it the “biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.” At home, Republican lawmakers have called for an investigation into the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation, and even Democrats have backed inquiries into what went wrong in the fateful last months of the occupation. And at the same time, the massive suicide bombing in the final days of the evacuation that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 180 Afghans is raising fresh concern about Afghanistan again becoming a breeding ground for terrorists. Biden blamed his predecessor, Donald Trump, for tying his hands. He repeatedly reminded people that he had inherited an agreement the Republican administration made with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces by May of this year. Reneging on the deal, Biden argued, would have put U.S. troops — who before Thursday had gone since February 2020 without a combat fatality in the war — in the Taliban’s crosshairs once again. The president’s advisers also complained that the now-ousted Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani was resistant to finding a political compromise with the Taliban and made strategic blunders by spreading largely feckless Afghan security forces too thinly. Read: Biden vows to finish Kabul evacuation, avenge US deaths Republicans — and even a few Democratic allies — have offered withering criticism of the administration’s handling of the evacuation, an issue that the GOP is looking to weaponize against Biden. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Monday the withdrawal date set by Biden was a political one designed for a photo op. Absent from McCarthy’s criticism was any mention that it was Trump’s White House that had brokered the deal to end the war. “There was a moment in time that had this president listened to his military, there would still be terrorist prisoners inside Bagram, we would be getting every single American out, the military would not have left before the Americans,” McCarthy said. “Every crisis he has faced so far in this administration he has failed.” It remains to be seen if criticism of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan will resonate with voters. An Associated Press-NORC poll conducted earlier in August found that about 6 in 10 Americans said the war there was not worth fighting. An ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted Aug. 27-28 found about 6 in 10 Americans disapproving of Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan. That poll also found most said the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan until all Americans and Afghans who aided the U.S. had been evacuated. The poll did not ask whether people approved of withdrawal more generally. After backing the 2001 U.S. invasion, Biden became a skeptic of U.S. nation-building efforts and harbored deep doubts about the Afghan government’s ability to develop the capacity to sustain itself. His opposition to the 2009 “surge” of U.S. troop deployed to Afghanistan when he was vice president put him on the losing side of conflicts with the defense establishment and within the Obama administration. Biden, in recent weeks, told aides that he viewed his counsel against expanding the American involvement more than a decade ago to be one of his proudest moments in public life. But his tendency to speak in absolutes didn’t help his cause. In July, Biden pushed back at concerns that a Taliban takeover of the country would be inevitable. Weeks later, the group toppled the Afghan government. The president also expressed confidence that Americans would not see images reminiscent of the U.S. evacuation from Vietnam at the end of that war in 1975, when photos of helicopters evacuating people from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon became gripping symbols of U.S. failure. Read: Biden holds to Kabul Aug. 31 deadline despite criticism In fact, they saw images of desperate Afghans swarming the Kabul airport — at least one falling to his death after clinging to a departing U.S. aircraft. Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos during an Aug. 18 interview that the U.S. military objective in Afghanistan was to get “everyone” out, including Americans and Afghan allies and their families. He pledged American forces would stay until they accomplished that mission. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that there was “a small number of Americans, under 200, likely closer to 100, who remain in Afghanistan and still want to leave.” The swift military evacuation now yields to a murkier diplomatic operation to press the Taliban to allow Americans and their allies to depart peacefully by other means. Biden believes he has some leverage over the Taliban, former U.S. enemies turned into pragmatic partners, as Afghanistan faces an economic crisis with the freezing of most foreign aid. But U.S. commanders say the situation in Afghanistan could become even more chaotic in the coming weeks and months.
Taliban control now-quiet Kabul airport after US withdrawal
The Taliban were in full control of Kabul’s international airport on Tuesday, after the last U.S. plane left its runway, marking the end of America’s longest war. Vehicles carrying the Taliban raced back and forth along the Hamid Karzai International Airport’s sole runway on the northern, military side of the airfield. Before dawn broke, heavily armed Taliban fighters walked through hangars, passing some of the seven CH-46 helicopters the State Department used in its evacuations before rendering them unflyable. Taliban leaders later symbolically walked across the runway, marking their victory while flanked by fighters of the insurgents’ elite Badri unit. “The world should have learned its lesson and this is the enjoyable moment of victory,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a livestream posted by a militant. Mujahid also addressed the gathered members of the Badri unit. “I hope you be very cautious in dealing with the nation,” he said. “Our nation has suffered war and invasion and the people do not have more tolerance.” Read:As US military leaves Kabul, many Americans, Afghans remain At the end of his remarks, the Badri fighters shouted: “God is the greatest!” Later speaking to Al-Jazeera Arabic on the tarmac, Mujahid rejected having a caretaker government and insisted that Kabul remained safe. “There will be security in Kabul and people should not be concerned,” he said. In another interview with Afghan state television, Mujahid also discussed restarting operations at the airport, which remains a key way out for those wanting to leave the country. “Our technical team will be checking the technical and logistical needs of the airport,” he said. “If we are able to fix everything on our own, then we won’t need any help. If there is need for technical or logistics help to repair the destruction, then we might ask help from Qatar or Turkey.” He didn’t elaborate on what was destroyed. Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. military’s Central Command, earlier said troops “demilitarized” the system so it can never be used again. Officials said troops did not blow up equipment in order to ensure they left the airport workable for future flights, once those begin again. In addition, McKenzie said the U.S. also disabled 27 Humvees and 73 aircraft so they cannot be used again. Taliban fighters draped their white flags over barriers at the airport as others guarded the civilian side of the airfield. Inside the terminal, several dozen suitcases and pieces of luggage were left strewn across the floor, apparently left behind in the chaos. Clothes and shoes also were scattered. A poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed anti-Taliban fighter, had been destroyed. “Afghanistan is finally free,” said Hekmatullah Wasiq, another Taliban official. “The military and civilian side are with us and in control. Hopefully, we will be announcing our Cabinet. Everything is peaceful. Everything is safe.” Wasiq also urged people to return to work and reiterated the Taliban pledge offering a general amnesty. “People have to be patient,” he said. “Slowly we will get everything back to normal. It will take time.” The airport had seen chaotic and deadly scenes since the Taliban blitzed across Afghanistan and took Kabul on Aug. 15. Thousands of Afghans besieged the airport, some falling to their death after desperately hanging onto the side of an American C-17 military cargo jet. Last week, an Islamic State suicide attack at an airport gate killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. Read:Last troops exit Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war But on Tuesday, after a night that saw the Taliban fire triumphantly into the air, guards now blearily on duty kept out the curious and those still somehow hoping to catch a flight out. “After 20 years we have defeated the Americans,” said Mohammad Islam, a Taliban guard at the airport from Logar province, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle. “They have left and now our country is free.” “It’s clear what we want. We want Shariah (Islamic law), peace and stability,” he added. Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, similarly praised the takeover in an online video early Tuesday. “Thank God all the occupiers have left our country completely,” he said, congratulating fighters by referring to them as mujahedeen, or holy warriors. “This victory was given to us by God. It was due to 20 years of sacrifice by the mujahedeen and its leaders. Many mujahedeen sacrificed their lives.” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative who oversaw America’s talks with the Taliban, wrote on Twitter that “Afghans face a moment of decision & opportunity” after the withdrawal. “Their country’s future is in their hands. They will choose their path in full sovereignty,” he wrote. “This is the chance to bring their war to an end as well.” But the Taliban face what could be a series of major crises as they fully take over the government. The majority of the billions of dollars Afghanistan holds in foreign reserves is now frozen in America, pressuring its now-depreciating Afghani currency. Banks have implemented withdrawal controls, fearing runs on their deposits in the uncertainty. Civil servants across the country say they haven’t received their salary in months. Medical equipment remains in short supply, while thousands who fled the Taliban’s advance remain living in squalid conditions. A major drought also has cut into the country’s food supplies, making its imports even more important and raising the risk of people going hungry. Read:Afghanistan after US pullout: Qatar emerges as key player During the evacuation, U.S. forces helped evacuate over 120,000 U.S. citizens, foreigners and Afghans, according to the White House, making it the largest airlift in the history of the American military. Coalition forces also evacuated their citizens and Afghans. But for all who got out, foreign nations and the U.S. acknowledged they didn’t evacuate all who wanted to go. At the airport’s eastern gate, a handful of Afghans still tried their luck to get in, hoping for any flight. As of now, however, commercial airlines are not flying into the airport and it remains unclear who will take over managing the country’s airspace. On their way out, the U.S. military warned pilots the airport was “uncontrolled” and “no air traffic control or airport service are available.” Several of those trying to come into the airport came from Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan that saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting. One of the men, Hekmatullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, carried paperwork he said showed he worked as a translator. Hekmatullah said he had waited four days for an opportunity to leave. “But now I don’t know what chances I have,” he said.