California Wildfires Burn 1M Acres and Counting

California Wildfires Burn 1M Acres and Counting

More than 1.25 million acres of wildfire in Northern and Central California have ignited a man versus nature fiasco as local firefighters are spread thin and left without adequate resources. Cal Fire, the California agency responsible for fighting wildfires, said 650 wildfires of all sizes have caused the extensive damage the state since Aug. 15, with more than 1,400 buildings destroyed.  The fires are collectively larger than the state of Delaware.  

The wildfires follow a statewide heatwave that reached triple-digit temperatures and an unprecedented surge in lightning strikes – more than 13,000 lightning strikes, with 233 strikes alone in the past 24 hours. 

The fires are exacerbated by dry summer air and strong winds, both of which California is currently experiencing. These factors have contributed to a ‘perfect storm’ for the natural disaster, as fire departments struggle to combat the rapidly expanding blaze, with the brunt of the damage in the top half of the state. 

Fire departments are usually aided by inmate firefighters during peak fire season, but thousands of prisoners have been released due to overcrowding concerns regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. California Governor Gavin Newsom said the state will hire more than 800 additional firefighters to fill the void.

Newsom declared a state of emergency last week, asking for additional fire engine resources from over half a dozen states across the country, as well as Canada. Arizona has contributed 10 fire engines, Oregon has contributed 25, and Texas and New Mexico have contributed five each, said the governor in a press briefing on Friday. 

A helicopter drops water on the Soledad Fire in California on July 5, 2020. (Tyler Kelleher/Zenger)


Two fire department vehicles sit outside the Lake Fire on August 14, 2020. (Tyler Kelleher/Zenger)

Nearly 50,000 people were instructed to evacuate their homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains and east of San Jose. To minimize exposure to Covid-19, evacuees have been encouraged to stay with family and friends rather than pack into confined indoor shelters. Authorities prioritized shelters for people who have no other place to stay, and have been enforcing pandemic protocol, such as masks, throughout the emergency. 

The largest fire, named the SCU Lightning Complex, has burned 363,772 acres of land east of San Jose, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. This fire is at 15% containment as of Tuesday. 

The wine country northeast of San Francisco, including Napa and Sonoma counties, is the second largest area at risk, with 356,326 acres burned at 27% containment. Tens of thousands of structures remain at risk. The Global Supertanker, a firefighting airplane that can hold 19,600 gallons of water, has been deployed to the area.

The CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains has devoured 78,869 acres of land and is at 17% containment.

Kim-Flud Markey, a mother of four and longtime resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, evacuated her home with her family last week in accordance with local fire department instruction. They thought they had reached safety upon reaching a hotel, but were instructed to evacuate further the next day to escape the drastically worsening fire.

“The fire department simply does not have the resources to contain it,” Flud-Markey told Zenger News. “They are doing everything they can, but low visibility from the smoke has restricted air support.” The Flud-Markeys evacuated all of their animals from the house, including horses, chickens, goats and an 85-pound turkey. “People have been so kind as to open their fenced property to house our animals while we are sheltering. They are all safe. Our two dogs have stayed with us.” said Flud-Markey. 

The wildfires come as California residents expect rolling electricity blackouts to conserve energy during the heatwave. The three biggest energy providers in California, Pacific Gas & Electric, So Cal Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, collectively had a megawatt shortage of over 4,000 on Monday, enough to power for roughly 3 million residences. 

A helicopter drops water on the Lake Fire in California on August 12, 2020. (Tyler Kelleher/Zenger)


A helicopter drops water on the Tujunga Fire outside Los Angeles on July 31, 2020. (Tyler Kelleher/Zenger)

An estimated 10 percent of the state’s wildfires are triggered by electric power lines every year, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. However, the California Independent System Operator maintains that rolling blackouts are unrelated to the wildfires, and serve to stabilize California’s immense power grid instead.

Cal Fire continues encouraging residents to be prepared for wildfires.

The National Interagency Fire Center said 93 very large wildfires have burned 1,832,101 acres nationally as of Aug. 25.  Outside of California, Oregon and Arizona reported the most fires of a significant size.

(Edited by Bryan Wilkes and Allison Elyse Gualtieri.)

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The Real Jurassic Park: Marine Fossils Discovered In Chilean Desert

The Real Jurassic Park: Marine Fossils Discovered In Chilean Desert

The surprise discovery of fossils from two dinosaur-related marine reptiles in the world’s driest desert provides new insights into Earth’s evolution, Chilean scientists say. Finding remains of these ancient sea snakes from the Jurassic Period in today’s Atacama Desert offer researchers important clues as to how the planet changes over long periods of time.

“We tend to think that places do not change,” said Rodrigo Otero, paleontologist and head of the Chilean research team. “We usually talk about climate change when we should be talking about climate dynamics.” The recent finds in the Atacama Desert are a demonstration of that.”

Today, the Atacama is the driest desert in the world. But 150 million years ago, it was a maritime basin, Otero notes.

“Territories change over time — and that is a fact we have to accept and learn to live with,” he said.

Climate dynamics are echoed by changes in animal life. Two examples of the so-called Plesiosauria, which inhabited the world 160 million years ago, have been identified for the first time in the Atacama Desert by a group of researchers from the University of Chile and the Museum of Natural and Cultural History of the Atacama Deser that is headed by Ortero.


“The most important thing this discovery tells us is what the geography was like at the end of the Jurassic Period,” he said.

Plesiosauria were closely related to and lived with dinosaurs; they are reptiles that inhabited the water around the same time the supercontinent Pangaea started breaking up into smaller units that became today’s continents. Corresponding Plesiosauria remains have been found in Cuba and Europe, but this is the first time they have been identified in Chile.

“This (discovery) means there was a kind of marine corridor between what today would be the North Atlantic and the South Pacific. This marine corridor was what would today be the Caribbean,” said Ortero. “At that time, in the Upper Jurassic, which is when these fossils are from, the separation of the continents had already begun. It was an important separation that allowed a marine corridor deep enough for these animals to pass through.”

A researcher from the University of Chile digs out the fossils of the new spices of Plesiosauria. (University of Chile/Real Press)


The fossils of the new spices of Plesiosauria on display in an undated photograph in Chile. (University of Chile/Real Press)

Finding remains of Plesiosaurs in the Atacama Desert isn’t new. The first vertebra from that period was found in 1863 and discoveries increased in the 1970s. Until now, it was not possible to identify exactly what animal the fossils represented.

One fossil corresponds to Vinialesaurus, a marine reptile of about 4 meters (13 feet) that also lived in the Caribbean area. Before this investigation, the presence of Vinialesaurus was only known in Cuba. The other is the Muraenosaurus, 6 meters long, and from which the second-most-complete fossil in South America has been obtained.

The new study determined the remains of Muraenosaurus and Vinialesaurus that were found correspond to the Oxfordian, a Jurassic Period geological age that runs from 163 to 157 million years B.C.


An illustration of the Muraenosaurus. (Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology/Real Press)


An illustration of the Muraenosaurus. (Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology/Real Press)

The last Plesiosaurs became extinct around 66 million years ago, around the same time as the great dinosaurs. Dinosaurs can be traced directly to today’s birds; there is no direct linkage between Plesiosaurs and any animals living today. That made identifying Plesiosaur fossils a challenge.

What we do know: Both genus of Plesiosaurs were characterized by having skulls of about 30 centimeters (12 inches), with somewhat cylindrical neck vertebrae, robust bodies and fins of moderate length. They were marine reptiles of variable size, depending on the species. While the Muraenosaurus reached a length of 6 meters (20 feet), the extension of the Vinialesaurus would have reached about 4 meters, the scientists reported.

The Muraenosaurus is a well-known form in the Middle Jurassic of Europe, although scarce in the south. In fact, until now, only a fragmentary record of this genus was known in the Southern Hemisphere, specifically in Calovian rocks (166 to 163 million years ago) in Argentina.

The fossils of the Plesiosauria discovered in Chile in an undated photograph. (University of Chile/Real Press)

When these Plesiosaurs lived, part of the territory that is now northern Chile was part of the supercontinent Gondwana, while another part was submerged in the ocean. A large area of modern Chile corresponded to a wide marine basin that reached Argentina.

In addition to providing a snapshot of how and when the breakup of Pangaea into Gondwana and Eurasia happened, the discovery supplies important information about how the fauna developed from the Jurassic Period up until today, Otero said.

But he underscores a more critical finding: Earth is not static.

“The human being can accelerate the process of change, but the changes are going to happen anyway,” he said.

(Edited by Fern Siegel and Matthew Hall.)


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Endangered snow leopard poaching, conservation efforts continue

Endangered snow leopard poaching, conservation efforts continue

Visitors to the Bronx Zoo in New York might meet Leo the snow leopard, but they will hardly know he came all the way from Pakistan. 

“I raised him like a child,” said Kamaluddin Rummi, an official of the wildlife department in the Gilgit-Baltistan area. “He used to sleep in my bed. He went to Bronx in 2007.”

Not every snow leopard in the area is as lucky as Leo, though. Poaching and conflict with local communities threaten their lives and habitat. Only last month a mother and two cubs fell victim to poachers near the Hoper Glacier in the region over which both Pakistan and neighboring India lay claim. The poacher was arrested on August 6, after he uploaded a picture with the dead leopard on social media.  

The man not only confessed to his crime but also named his friends as accomplices, telling the authorities that they had set the cubs free after killing the mother. The poachers have been fined and jailed, and despite the local forest department launching a search for the two cubs, none were found. 

“We set up a camp near the place where the snow leopard was killed,” said Mohammed Mujeeb, a forest officer in the Gilgit-Baltistan range. “Twelve days had passed when the culprits were apprehended. The chances of the cubs’ survival were nil.” 

The officials managed to recover the skin of the dead animal. In the local black markets of Gilgit Baltistan, the hide would have fetched $2,000. But, according to Mujeeb, once shipped to other major cities like Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore, the price could go up to $6,000.

The efforts of the forest department did not go unnoticed by the World Wildlife Fund. 

“We are extremely saddened to learn about the recent poaching incident involving a female snow leopard,” WWF tweeted, following up with praise for the authorities involved in the apprehension of the poachers. 

Nicknamed “mountain ghost,” the elusive snow leopard is rarely spotted in the wild. Wildlife experts estimate about 3,500-7,000 of them are left in their natural habitat worldwide, according to the Snow Leopard Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that works towards the conservation of big cats in the country. And only around 200-420 of them are in Pakistan, the foundation says, quoting the Snow Leopard Trust.

“Our own survey has shown that number is not more than 200,” said Ali Nawaz of The Snow Leopard Foundation. “In the past, it was more a guesstimate rather than scientific. We have done a survey on scientific grounds. Having said that, it is very difficult to come up with exact or near to exact figure of such an elusive animal.” 

In Pakistan, the leopard’s habitat is spread over nearly 31,000 square miles (80,000 sq km), of which 60 percent is in Gilgit-Baltistan, the foundation says. Other provinces of the country where the leopards have been found include Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, two protected areas — Khunjerab National Park and Central Karakoram National Park — constitute the core snow leopard area. But exactly how many snow leopards are poached every year in these protected zones remains unknown. 

About 220-450 snow leopards might have been poached annually worldwide since 2008, says a 2016 report by Traffic, a global nongovernmental organization working for the preservation of biodiversity. This in turn means the number of poaching episodes is at least four a week. But this is likely a low estimate, the report notes, as wildlife crime is difficult to detect — especially given the difficult terrain and governance issues in disputed territories.

Nawaz likened it to coming up with a number for smuggling. “According to our poaching and trade survey, eight to 10 snow leopards are killed annually in Pakistan,” he said. 

Several programs try to preserve endangered animals in Pakistan by involving the local communities. The local population benefits from the funds only if they lend a hand to protecting wildlife. One such program is trophy hunting, introduced in the 1990s — but not hunting the snow leopard, of course.  

Every year, the governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan issue licenses to domestic and international hunters to hunt endangered markhors, a large wild goat, which is the national animal of Pakistan. Communities that agree to prevent poaching of carnivores are given the lucrative annual permits. Across Pakistan’s snow leopard range, village cooperatives raised nearly $670,000 in 2019 from the permits, according to the wildlife departments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. 

“Earlier, markhor was just a large goat, but now it is a goat worth millions,” said Zakir Hussain, Chief Conservator of Wildlife for Gilgit-Baltistan.
He said four permits to hunt markhors were issued in 2019 for $667,000, of which 80% percent went to the local community. “They are bound to spend 50% of the amount on social development and another 20% on habitat development,” he said. “This way they feel ownership of the wildlife in their areas. And this ownership has resulted in an increase in the population of markhors in Gilgit-Baltistan.”
A growth in markhor population a win-win for goats and snow leopards, who need wild herd animals to sustain their population.

Locals help the wildlife authorities investigate poaching incidents, and communities that regulate their livestock grazing patterns efficiently tend to attract a larger population of wild goats and therefore more hunting permits. 

But the conflict between humans and animals continues. Every year there are reports of livestock attacked by snow leopards and of the big cat being shot by angry people. 

“Retaliatory killings are a knee-jerk reaction,” said Nawaz. “When they happen, communities try to cover it up to prevent trouble with the authorities and (conservation program funding) investors.” 

American organization Snow Leopard Trust runs livestock insurance programs with the Snow Leopard Foundation of Pakistan.

For a herder living in the snow leopard’s habitat, the health and well-being of their livestock are inseparable from their livelihood, which a snow leopard attack has the potential to destroy. “A single attack can result in the loss of up to 25 domesticated animals,” the Snow Leopard Trust says, and given the poverty in the region, it is next to impossible for a family to recover from such a loss.  

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Cathy Jones.)

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Ecologists blast government over Mauritius oil spill

Ecologists blast government over Mauritius oil spill

A delayed governmental response to a Japanese oil tanker running aground late last month off the island of Mauritius has helped created a spill that’s becoming “an ecological catastrophe of massive proportions,” a Greenpeace representative tells Zenger News.

Sunil Dowarkasing, a native of the east African island nation, says the unresponsiveness of the oil tanker’s owner also contributed to the disaster, which took a major turn for the worse on Aug. 6, when leakage from the vessel, the MV Wakashio, became visible in the lagoon where it had run aground.

“The government took too much time to respond to this incident,” says Dowarkasing. “As soon as the ship wrecked, the government should have begun taking precautions [against a spill] and we would never have been in such a situation.”

He also blasted the vessel’s owner, Nagashiki Shipping. “That Japanese company had only one thing in mind, to save their ship, but our government has to save its lagoon. But they didn’t think about that. They were just relying on what the Japanese were saying.”

While the government and the vessel’s owner mainly stayed on the sidelines in the immediate aftermath of the grounding, Dowarkasing says locals did try to minimize damage to the lagoon and nearby shore by installing protective booms that would sop up at least some of the leaked oil.

Locals have been making homemade booms in a bid to mitigate the devastating oil slick, which has even reached the mainland’s mangroves. (Sunil Dowarkasing/Newsflash)


Homemade booms on the water. (Sunil Dowarkasing/Newsflash)


Men work on the water. (Sunil Dowarkasing/Newsflash)

The government defends its actions related to the spill. In a statement released on Aug. 13, officials said they are “taking all the necessary measures to prevent another oil spill from the bulk carrier, MV Wakashio, and 3,184 tons of fuel oil have already been pumped [from it].”

It added that according to Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, there is no trace of fuel oil on such surrounding islands as Ilot Mangenie and Ile aux Cerfs. Some environmental groups disagree with that assessment.

The head of the government also said “an investigation into MV Wakashio is already underway to determine the cause of the grounding. The investigation will soon be concluded and followed by the necessary actions.”

Greenpeace’s Dowarkasing, meanwhile, said there is some good news: Thanks mainly to the efforts of locals, 445 metric ton of oil had been collected from the lagoon itself as of the day before, plus 90 metric tons of sludge.

“But there is still between 300 to 500 metric tons around, either floating or deposited on the shoreline,” he says. “The biggest problem now is that this oil is spreading. When that happens, it becomes thinner and will sink … This is where it becomes more dangerous to our marine ecosystems.”

He said that in addition to impacting the life cycles of a variety of marine life, the spill will likely affect the coral within the lagoon, as well as mangroves on the nearby shore.

Seconding Dowarkasing’s alarm over potential harm from the spill is Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, who says he and his colleagues are in a race against time to protect critically endangered species from the mishap.

A view of the water. (Sunil Dowarkasing/Newsflash)


Men working along the water. (Sunil Dowarkasing/Newsflash)


A view of the water. (Sunil Dowarkasing/Newsflash)

Tatayah said that the MWF had spent “nearly 40 years working on these islands and restoring these islands and [the spill] is heartbreaking to the hundreds of people that have worked, most of the time volunteered, months and years of their lives to restore these species and these ecosystems.”

Among the steps MWF has taken so far to help protect species potentially impacted by the spill is to rescue some members of such endangered species as olive white eyes birds and fodies birds, and moved some endangered plants away from the beach.

Further complicating such clean-up efforts are several external factors that can’t be controlled, Greenpeach’s Dowarkasing notes. “If there’s a change in the wind, for example, there will obviously be a change in the direction of the waves,” he says. “There will also be a change in the direction of the current. So these three factors will eventually spread it.”

Beyond that, Dowarkasing is also concerned that a man-made action – the government’s possible use of detergents to break up the spill — will turn into “another catastrophe.” “When using such detergents, you’re not removing the oil, you’re simply breaking it into smaller pieces, which will sink on the land and in the ocean.” It could not be immediately determined if the government planned to take such a step.

Mauritius, with a population of just under 1.3 million, has become a popular spot for eco-tourism in recent decades, thanks to such unique wildlife as Telfair skinks and day geckos. Tatayah and others worry that the destination’s popularity with such visitors could take a hit from the spill.

For all the potential damage the Mauritius spill might do locally, at a total of about 4,000 tons of fuel on board the MV Wakashio, it’s still relatively small when compared to such disasters as the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in 2010, which released an estimated 420,000 tons of fuel into the Gulf of Mexico, and the 37,000 tons of oil that were spilled into Prince William Sound off Alaska by the wreck of Exxon-Valdez tanker in 1989.

(Edited by Matthew Hall and Allison Elyse Gualtieri.)

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Catalytic platinum is big business now

Catalytic platinum is big business now

HARARE, Zimbabwe—Parked behind 50 other cars in front of a gas station in Bulawayo’s Central Business District, early on a Friday morning, 30-year-old Henry Chinula flicks through a magazine he keeps in the car to kill time while waiting for his turn to fill up.

Outside, a middle-aged man with dreadlocks and a brown jacket unexpectedly leans near his closed window and offers a greeting. Chinula hesitantly lowers the window just below his eyes in case it is a distraction for a robbery. To his surprise, the man starts mumbling about exhaust pipe dust and dishonest mechanics who steal from oblivious vehicle owners.

The man offers Chinula what he claims is a good deal in U.S. dollars on his catalytic converter. Many ordinary Zimbabweans have been impoverished due to the economic meltdown and have turned to buying catalytic converters to resell them in Harare. Some businesses, including landlords, have stopped accepting local currency, since its value continues to plummet.

A catalytic converter removed from a truck exhaust pipe before it is ground into dust in a dealer workshop in Bulawayo. (Lungelo Ndhlovu/Zenger)

A catalytic converter is part of the emission control system located in a box on the exhaust pipe under a car. More technically, “A catalytic converter is an exhaust emission control device that reduces toxic gases and pollutants in exhaust gas from an internal combustion engine into less toxic pollutants by catalyzing a reduction and oxidation reaction into less harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen gas,” said Lawrence Mashungu, a climate change mitigation and renewable energy expert who works in the Climate Change Management Department of Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement.

Removing catalytic converters is a booming business in Zimbabwe because the dust they give off is rich in platinum, palladium, rhodium and sometimes gold that can be easily sold in markets in Zambia and South Africa where they can fetch more than $200, Wellington Madumira, a lobby and advocacy officer for the Zimbabwe Regional Environment Organization (ZERO), told Zenger News.

Some catalytic converter dealer groups, such as “Procatzim,” advertise on Facebook that high-end models can fetch car owners up to $170, while ordinary ones are worth $100. Once removed or damaged, it generally costs between $1,000 to $2,500 to replace the catalytic converter on a vehicle.

Components of a catalytic converter removed from a truck exhaust in a dealer workshop in Bulawayo. (Lungelo Ndhlovu/Zenger)

“It must be noted that most of the cars that we have in Zimbabwe are from developed countries such as Japan, China, Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S.A.,” Mashungu said. “They are being dumped here mainly because they would have failed the emission level tests in those jurisdictions.”

In Zimbabwe, there is a huge desire to own cars, leading to a rise in imports, specifically of used Japanese cars. The country now has more than 900,000, according to transport minister Joel Biggie Matiza.

“Across the country, there has been a scramble for catalytic converters found in cars imported from Japan since 2019. Most motorists are unaware that dubious mechanics have since made a killing off of the devices taken from their cars,” he said.

Motorist Tapfuma Machakaire said he was duped by a mechanic who led him to believe that the removal of the catalytic converter improves engine efficiency . “As we speak, my car doesn’t have the catalytic converter device because it was removed by the mechanic. I was lucky to be present during my car’s exhaust repairs when the mechanic removed it and told me he was going to pay me $65 USD for the powder,” he said.

Amkela Sidange Vellah, the environmental education and publicity manager for the Environmental Management Agency, has warned against removing catalytic devices, saying it is dangerous to the environment.

“When they are removed from cars, it means we are going to release more toxic gases and emissions into the atmosphere, which will impact the environment negatively,” she said.

The total annual greenhouse gas emissions for Zimbabwe in 2016 was nearly 66 metric tons of CO2, according to data from Climate Watch.

Sidange Vellah said that Zimbabwean law mandates that the agency monitor and inspect vehicle exhaust emissions in the country, which could leave owners open to consequences.

“Those vehicles that are found emitting outside the specifications are either given an environmental protection order to repair their cars,” she said, “or are fined.”

(Edited by Ashley Perry and Cathy Jones)

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