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Oregon city looks like a bomb flattened it as state deploys mobile morgue for wildfire victims

Over a million acres have burned in Oregon, displacing thousands of people in what officials describe as a “perfect storm.”

Elias Marat

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As the West Coast continues struggling to control devastating fires, the small city of Detroit, Oregon, which lies roughly 120 miles southeast of Portland, has been destroyed by the fires so comprehensively that it “looks like a bomb went off,” according to local residents.

The flattening of the rural town comes as Oregon State Police have deployed the first-ever mobile morgue in expectation of what officials have warned over the weekend could be a “mass fatality incident,” with at least 10 deaths confirmed and another 50 people unaccounted for.

The small city of Detroit, which has a population of about 210 residents, is only one of multiple towns that have been devastated by the unprecedented wildfires that have spread across western Oregon, forcing tens of thousands to be evacuated and displacing countless people as thousands of homes have been reduced to ashes.

“We have approximately 20-25 structures still standing, and the rest are gone,” the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District announced on Facebook.

Hi everyone, I returned from our district late last night. I'll start with the good news: Idanha is safe. As far as we…

Posted by Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District on Sunday, September 13, 2020

Detroit’s City Hall, which also serves as the district office for the local fire department, was one of the many buildings consumed by flames.

“Our primary focus is protecting the structures that are still standing,” officials said. “Several of our firefighters have also lost their homes. They are working through their own losses while also fighting to protect homes still intact.”

Sandi Elwood, who grew up in Detroit, was horrified when she drove into town to assess the damage. Multiple buildings were utterly annihilated by the fires, including her old church, the bar where she once worked, the marina where she would hang out during the summer, as well as her mother’s home and those belonging to countless others.

“I thought, ‘What did I just see?’” Elwood told the Oregonian.

Her mother, who was evacuated from the city, still hasn’t seen the scorched ruins of her hometown – but is feeling numb nevertheless.

“The reality will probably hit her when she’s standing on her property,” Elwood said.

Elizabeth Smith was another Detroit local whose every possession was lost when the wildfire swept through the town.

“Our homes are absolutely destroyed,” Smith told KATU. “I’ve seen a few videos and photos and my lovely little house that we remodeled 12 years ago in this beautiful canyon area is absolutely flattened. It looks as though a bomb went off.”

The small community had gone from no evacuation order to an urgent level three “go now” mandatory evacuation notice in a matter of only a few hours. Some residents remain frustrated by the poor communication.

“I’m not going to blame anybody. It’s what it is,” said Detroit Mayor Jim Trett. “But yeah, we would have liked to have more of an alert. But I can’t blame anybody because this thing just came like a freight train.”

The mayor compared the explosive Lionshead Fire to the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California, two years ago.

“If you remember the Paradise Fire in 2018, it’s the same topography: three canyons coming down like a funnel into the city of Paradise at the bottom of the funnel,” Trett explained. “When I heard that two years ago I said, that’s Detroit.”

The terrible damage wrought by fires remains incalculable, as huge fires spanning several have burned 4.6 million acres so far – an area equivalent to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

The 94 major blazes have mainly burned rural zones and forest land, but major urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland have seen their air quality plummet and the sun blotted out due to the toxic smoke being pumped out of the fires, increasing the risk of lung infections and infectious diseases.

Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Chief Doug Grafe expects that at least eight of Oregon’s wildfires will continue burning “until the winter’s rains fall,” while California still has four months left of fire season.

Emergency workers are also fighting to recover bodies from the fire, and in some cases have located the corpses of victims but have been unable to recover them due to harsh conditions.

Dozens remain missing in the western Oregon counties of Jackson, Lane, and Marion, according to Gov. Kate Brown.

For the first time in Oregon’s history, the state has now activated a 75-person regional response team to recover bodily remains and operate a mobile morgue. The state has long trained for such an event but up to now, hasn’t been forced to use it. Certified death investigators, law enforcement personnel, criminalists and forensic scientist will be aiding the team’s efforts, reports the Oregonian.

While Oregon’s fires usually consume 500,000 acres annually in the state, “this week alone, we burned over a million acres of beautiful Oregon,” Gov. Brown said.

“We saw the perfect fire storm,” she added. “We saw incredible winds. We saw very cold, hot temperatures and, of course, we have a landscape that has seen 30 years of drought.”

The terrible nature of the fires confirms the worst forecasts of climate experts, Oregon-based wildland fire ecologist and former wildland firefighter Timothy Ingalsbee told Democracy Now.

“These are climate fires,” Ingalsbee said. “And they’re the product of extreme heat waves and prolonged droughts and then very low humidities.”

“Though some scientists hesitate to attribute a single event to climate change, these are exactly the conditions predicted by climatologists,” he added. “And where once they were rare — I mean, they’re not entirely unprecedented in our prehistoric past — they will become much more frequent in the days ahead.”

Animals

More than 5,000 baby seals wash up on Namibia beach in unprecedented die-off

Elias Marat

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Thousands of dead seal pups have washed ashore on the coast of Namibia, raising grave concerns from conservationist groups.

Locals were in shock after an estimated 5,000 premature cape fur seal pups washed up along the coast of Pelican Point peninsula, turning the popular tourist destination known for its thriving schools of dolphins and seal colonies into a pup graveyard.

Cape fur seals are often referred to as the “dogs of the ocean,” owing to their playful nature and abundant energy. However, the seals are known to desert their young or suffer miscarriages when food supplies are scarce.

The unprecedented die-off of the 5,000 Cape fur seals is now being probed by the country’s fisheries ministry, reports Bloomberg.

Nearly all were born prematurely before quickly dying, according to marine biologist Naude Dreyer of  Ocean Conservation Namibia.

“When the pregnant female feels she does not have enough reserves, she can abort,” he explained. “A few premature deaths is a natural event, but thousands of premature dead pups is extremely rare.”

Dreyer noticed the masses of dead seal pups while flying his drone over the Pelican Point seal colony on Oct. 5.

“This is the situation at Pelican Point, Namibia,” his non-profit group wrote in a Facebook post. “All the little red circles mark dead seal pups. A rough estimate brings the numbers to more than 5,000 at our seal colony alone. This is tragic, as it makes up a large portion of the new pup arrivals expected in late November.”

This is the situation at Pelican Point. All the little red circles mark dead seal pups. A rough estimate brings the…

Posted by Ocean Conservation Namibia on Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The seals are commonly found across the southern Atlantic coastlines of the African continent, spanning Namibia and South Africa to the southern tip of Angola.

“Normally cape fur seals would give birth from mid-November until early December,” Dr. Tess Gridley told Africa News.  “That’s the height of pupping that we would normally expect but what has been happening this year is there has been an increase in abortions that was first seen starting in August and really sort of peaked just last week in October.”

However, female cape fur seals are increasingly appearing emaciated and starving, raising alarm among conservationists about the long-term health of the typically thriving seal population.

 “There are about 1.7 million cape fur seals in total and about a million of those are actually in Namibia so in terms of the overall number of animals, they are quite resilient to these effects,” Gridley explained.

“But one issue that we do think might happen in the future is you will see a dip in reproduction potentially going forward particularly now for those animals that have unfortunately died,” she continued. “They are not going to be recruited into the population, so you might see a localized effect at the Pelican Point colony and also we are trying to monitor to see whether there is a wider scale impact that might affect other colonies as well.”

An absence of fish in the region and the spread of disease and toxins in the water are among the possible reasons behind the die-off. 

“The seals look a bit thin and it could likely be caused by a lack of food,” Dreyer said. “Other seal colonies at other beaches look much better and they do not record the same amount of premature pups.”

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Animals

The Amazon rainforest is coming dangerously close to permanently converting into dry savannah

Elias Marat

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(TMU) – A vast swathe of the Amazon is teetering on the brink of disaster and risks crossing the tipping point of transforming from a closed canopy rainforest teeming with life to an open savannah with few trees as climate conditions deprive the region of rainfall and effectively kill its unique ecosystem, scientists have warned.

Rainforests are extremely sensitive to even the slightest changes in rainfall and moisture levels, and extended periods of drought and fire can be devastating in areas that rely on rain for sustenance. In the Amazon, such conditions would transform the lush rainforest into a semi-arid savannah-like mixture of woodland and grassland while also boosting the risk of fire.

While such dramatic changes to the Amazon were believed to be worst-case scenarios that could happen decades away, a team of Europe-based scientists warned on Monday that the tipping point is now dangerously close.

A new study published in the journal Nature Communications found that as much as 40 percent of the existing Amazon rainforest is already seeing so little rainfall that it could exist as a savannah-like environment, deprived of its canopy-like tree coverage and with far less biodiversity.

Researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Center used computer models and data analysis to stimulate the effect of continued climate change resulting from emissions from burning fossil fuels from now until the end of the century to find the results.

Rainforests typically create their own rainfall through water vapor, which then sustains and even extends the reach of tree levels.

However, when rain levels plummet, forest land also begins to fade away and degrade – resulting in a drier landscape that becomes more susceptible to the ravages of fire, drought, and ultimately, total deforestation.

The situation in the Amazon has only grown worse as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has stubbornly pushed forward the opening of the rainforest to economic development, unleashing a wave of human-caused fires meant to illegally clear one of the region so that it can be exploited by miners, cattle ranchers, loggers, and big agricultural interests.

This year’s fires in the Brazilian Amazon are the worst in a decade, marking a dizzying 60 percent rise in fire hotspots compared to last year’s infamous blazes.

The rainforest is so delicate that even the most subtle changes in climate conditions can have an outsized impact on the ecological balance of the environment, said the study’s lead author, Arie Staal.

“As forests grow and spread across a region, this affects rainfall,” he told The Guardian. “Forests create their own rain because leaves give off water vapor and this falls as rain further downwind. Rainfall means fewer fires leading to even more forests.”

However, the loss of large areas of rainforest mean a precipitous drop in rainfall levels across the region.

“Drier conditions make it harder for the forest to recover and increase the flammability of the ecosystem,” Staal said.

At that point, the rainforest crosses a threshold and converts into a savannah-type environment – a conversion that is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

“It is harder to return from the ‘trap’ caused by the feedback mechanism in which the open, grassy ecosystem is more flammable, and the fires, in turn, keep the ecosystem open,” Staal said.

Experts have warned that the Amazon rainforest is a crucial barrier to the catastrophic breakdown of global climate conditions. Without the Amazon rainforest, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could become out of control and drive global warming to intolerable levels while the change in rainfall patterns could impact the entire Western Hemisphere.

Tragically, the loss of rainforests like the Amazon would also entail the extermination of a huge portion of global species.

“We understand now that rainforests on all continents are very sensitive to global change and can rapidly lose their ability to adapt,” said study co-author Ingo Fetzer of the Stockholm Research Center. “Once gone, their recovery will take many decades to return to their original state. And given that rainforests host the majority of all global species, all this will be forever lost.”

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Environment

Hurricane Sally brings massive destruction to Gulf Coast in “epic proportion flooding event”

Elias Marat

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(TMU) – While Hurricane Sally has weakened to a tropical storm, it has also unleashed massive destruction on the Gulf Coast at a steady, drawn-out rate while bringing “catastrophic and life-threatening” flooding to the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama, reports the National Hurricane Center.

A bruising storm surge and torrential rain has already demolished infrastructure, knocking down a section of the Pensacola Bay Bridge – also known as the Three-Mile Bridge – and inundating the city’s downtown in about 3 feet of rain while flooding neighborhoods, homes, and businesses across the region.

Authorities are urgently warning residents to flee however they can as high water vehicles and boats conduct rescue efforts to help people escape their flooded homes.

“We believe that this is an epic proportion flooding event,” Escambia County Public Safety Director Jason Rogers told WEAR. “There is extremely high water, moving water that is very dangerous. We don’t believe that we have yet seen the worst of the flooding.”

Sally, which managed to reach the level of a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 105 mph, downgrade to a tropical storm early Wednesday after it made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama.

However, the storm’s impact remains deadly as winds hit 70 mph as of Wednesday afternoon while the eye of the storm was roughly 30 miles west-northwest of Pensacola.

Authorities are warning about the ferocity of the storm, which is creeping north-northeast at an excruciatingly grueling pace of only 5 mph, ensuring thorough destruction across the region as it threatens to potentially produce almost three feet of rain in areas as well as seven-foot-high storm surges, ensuring floods across the region.

“We anticipate the evacuations could literally be in the thousands,” warned Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.

Upwards of half a million homes and businesses across Southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle had lost power as of Wednesday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us.

The National Weather Service declared a flash flood emergency for “severe threat to human life & catastrophic damage from a flash flood” The warning covers sections of coastal Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, as well as Gulf Shores and Pensacola.

Emergency services have been deluged by 911 calls across Alabama and Florida all Wednesday, according to several local governments, but first-responders have struggled to rescue residents due to the treacherous conditions, according to Santa Rosa County Public Safety Director Brad Baker.

Boats across the area have been crushed or unmoored amid the raging storm, with some boats being slammed into tourist shops and restaurants along marinas. One dramatic photo shared on Instagram showed a loose boat siting in the flooded courtyard of an Orange Beach condominium building, while flooded streets are filling up with debris and downed tree limbs.

Sally’s landfall came 16 years to the day since Category 3 Hurricane Ivan slammed the same area.

Many residents, well aware of the dangers of such storms, have prepared by purchasing essential supplies and preparing their generators for bruising storm surges.

However, the intensity and trajectory of the slow-moving tropical storm is likely to have unpredictable results.

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