Tag Archives: flee

Pope ‘saddened’ that people are vacationing to flee COVID-19 lockdowns

Pope Francis condemned on Sunday people who had gone abroad on holiday to escape coronavirus lockdowns, saying they needed to show greater awareness of the suffering of others.

Speaking after his weekly noon blessing, Francis said he had read newspaper reports of people catching flights to flee government curbs and seek fun elsewhere.

“They didn’t think about those who were staying at home, of the economic problems of many people who have been hit hard by the lockdown, of the sick people. [They thought] only about going on holiday and having fun,” the Pope said.

“This really saddened me,” he said in a video address from the library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

The traditional Angelus blessing is normally given from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, but it was moved indoors to prevent any crowds gathering and limit the spread of COVID-19.

“We don’t know what 2021 will reserve for us, but what all of us can do together is make a bit more of an effort to take care of each other. There is the temptation to take care only of our own interests,” he added.

Many countries have imposed strict restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has killed some 1.83 million people worldwide, according to the latest Reuters tally.

WATCH | Pope calls for ‘vaccines for all ‘ in Christmas message:

Pope Francis delivered his traditional Christmas Day message virtually from inside the Vatican, urging countries and companies to provide ‘vaccines for all.’ 0:48

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Thousands forced to flee after volcano erupts in eastern Indonesia

A volcano in eastern Indonesia erupted Sunday, sending a column of ash as high as 4,000 metres into the sky and forcing thousands of people to leave their homes.

Nearly 2,800 people from at least 28 villages fled from the slopes of Mount Ili Lewotolok, which is located on Lembata island of East Nusa Tenggara province, as the volcano began erupting, said Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Raditya Jati. There were no reports of deaths or injuries from the eruption.

The Transportation Ministry said a flight warning had been issued after the eruption and a local airport had been closed as ash rained down on many areas of the island.

Mount Ili Lewotolok has been erupting off and on since October 2017. The Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation Center raised the volcano’s alert level to the second-highest level on Sunday after sensors picked up increasing activity.

The 5,423-metre volcano is one of three currently erupting in Indonesia along with Merapi on Java island and Sinabung on Sumatra island.


The 5,423-metre volcano is one of three currently erupting in Indonesia. (Muhammad Ilham/Reuters)

They are among more than 120 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines around the Pacific Ocean.

After the eruption, the Disaster Mitigation Agency advised villagers and climbers to stay four kilometres from the crater and be aware of the peril of lava.

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‘Catastrophe’ looms as displaced Syrians flee toward closed Turkish border

“The children. Thousands of children under the trees.”  

That’s the answer that came crackling back from Dr. Tammam Lodami on the phone from the northern Syrian town of al-Dana when asked for a description of conditions on the ground.  

North of Idlib city and west of Aleppo, the town is caught between a two-pronged advance by Syrian government troops and their Russian backers as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seeks to regain control of the last opposition enclave in the country.  

“This is the case,” Lodami said as he struggled to convey the scale of the crisis he’s witnessing, the arrival of tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the conflict and headed towards a closed Turkish border with no shelter and temperatures dipping as low as –7 C.  

“My English is humble,” he said. “I want to reach my voice to the world.”  

But very little seems capable of permeating the indifference of the world and that elusive body known as the diplomatic community these days, not even when warnings sound of another possible escalation in a war about to enter its 10th year.  


Dr. Tammam Lodami, a dentist who now works as an administrator for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations in the northern Syrian town of al-Dana, says the town where he normally practises is overflowing with people displaced from elsewhere in the country. (Submitted by Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations)

“You can consider these days as a catastrophe,” said Lodami, a dentist by trade who now works for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM).

“Families leave their towns and homes for fear of indiscriminate bombardment. [The Syrian regime forces] target hospitals, medical centres, ambulances, schools, markets and civilians. Everything.”

‘Fastest-growing displacement’

Syria has spent the war systematically corralling rebel opposition fighters, extremist groups, political activists and hundreds of thousands of displaced people into Idlib province.

Now the Assad regime seems to be coming for its opponents, among them al-Qaeda-linked miliants, with Russian airstrikes paving a brutal path for troops on the ground.  

Regime forces began their advance in April 2019,  but it has been picking up steam.  Some 800,000 Syrians have fled their homes in northwestern Syria since early December, according to the UN’s office for humanitarian affairs.

On Tuesday, spokesperson Jens Laerke described it as the largest number of people displaced in a single period since the start of the Syrian crisis almost nine years ago.

It’s “the fastest-growing displacement we’ve ever seen in the country,” he said at a news conference in Geneva.  


An internally displaced girl looks out from a tent in Azaz, Syria, on Thursday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

It’s not difficult to understand why when faced with the daily images of the damned coming out of Idlib:  relatives weeping over the charred bodies of loved ones killed in airstrikes, White Helmet rescue workers plucking bloodied and crying children out of the rubble.  

Roads leading toward the Turkish border are clogged with vehicles loaded down with families lucky enough to have them or to clamber on carrying what they can.

Many are headed toward Atmeh, a sprawling camp of about one million people along Syria’s still-closed border with Turkey.

‘Emergency conditions’

Dr. Okbaa Jaddou, a pediatrician there, said their hospital has only 40 beds.

“On [these] beds, we put 80 [children] or maybe 120 [children], because [there are]  so many people now,” he said in a Skype interview on Wednesday. “We are operating in emergency conditions.”

Originally from Hama, a city further south, Jaddou has been living at Atma for two years.  

“I was displaced and I [haven’t] found any place more safe than the Syrian-Turkish border because the [Syrian] regime has bombed everywhere.”  

“If the situation [continues], we are going to see a very big crisis on the Turkish-Syrian border.”


Internally displaced people receive bread at a makeshift camp in Azaz, Syria, on Thursday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Idlib was supposed to be a “de-escalation zone,” agreed to in a ceasefire deal worked out between Turkey, which supports some rebel groups inside Idlib, and Russia.

An estimated 1,800 civilians, according to new reports, have been killed since then.  

The recent deaths of a number of Turkish soldiers killed by Syrian shelling has raised tensions considerably. Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered troop reinforcements to the border.

Alarm bells

“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today,” he said to thundering applause in the Turkish parliament, “regardless of the lines of the [ceasefire].”  

The prospect of Syrian and Turkish troops trading fire in a direct confrontation has sounded alarm bells.  

“What we must absolutely prevent is this developing into wider conflict between the Turks, the Syrians and the Russians,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a director of the group Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to NGOs working in Syria.

An ex-soldier and chemical weapons expert, he would like to see NATO countries, including Canada, do more to support Turkey in the current crisis.

But Turkey has also angered Western allies in recent months by moving against Syrian Kurds in the northeast credited with helping allied troops fighting the Islamic State or ISIS.  


Roads leading towards the Turkish border are clogged with vehicles loaded down with families. (Submitted by Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations)

De Bretton-Gordan said the view in the United Kingdom at least is that it shouldn’t get involved until it’s all over and then help to pick up the pieces.  

“You know, I’ve had meetings with British government ministers asking for this but there is a view certainly here in London that the whole of Idlib that’s not under Turkish or Russian control is being run by the Jihadis. That’s just not the case.”  

Doctors on the ground at the Bab al Hawa hospital near the Turkish border estimate that 95 per cent of the victims of the latest offensive are civilian, with two-thirds women and children.  

Morale threatened

“Three million civilians trapped,” said de Bretton-Gordon. “If there’s no medical support to help them, their morale completely goes. And as we know at the moment, most of them are rushing towards the Turkish border.”  

The presence of a stronger Turkish military presence along that border offers comfort to those sheltering nearby, according to Jaddou, but few believe Turkey is strong enough to face Syria given the Russian and Iranian allies supporting Damascus.  

“Ten minutes ago, I heard four bombings from Turkish cannons,” he said.  

“But these four bombings cannot change the situation because Russia supports the Assad regime with their war planes.

“Idlib, the last opposition castle, is going to surrender. Because people with only rifles cannot fight war planes.”  


Lodami described an ever-growing ‘catastrophe’ to CBC News by phone from al-Dana in Idlib province, where for the past few days he says he’s witnessed thousands of Syrians trying to escape fierce fighting. (Submitted by Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations)

In al-Dana, Lodami doesn’t want to talk about the Turkish-Syrian confrontation. It’s a political question and he is concerned with helping the needy, he said.  

“How we will [face] our God with the children?” he asks. “All the world.  All the world there is a very big problem. They don’t give any care or interest in these children and women under the trees.”  

Ask him what their immediate needs are and the answer comes without a pause.

“We need peace. Just peace.” 

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Ex-Nissan chair Carlos Ghosn, wanted by Interpol, denies family helped him flee to Lebanon

Interpol issued a wanted notice Thursday for former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn, who jumped bail in Japan and fled to Lebanon rather than face trial on financial misconduct charges, in a dramatic escape that has confounded and embarrassed authorities.

Lebanese Justice Minister Albert Serhan told The Associated Press in an interview that the Red Notice for the ex-automotive titan was received earlier in the day by the prosecution. Red Notices are requests to law enforcement agencies worldwide that they locate and provisionally arrest a wanted fugitive.

Serhan said the Lebanese prosecution “will carry out its duties,” suggesting for the first time that Ghosn may be brought in for questioning, but also said Lebanon and Japan don’t have an extradition treaty, ruling out the possibility that Beirut would hand Ghosn over to Japan.

The Interpol notice is the latest twist in Ghosn’s daring escape, which spanned three continents and involved private planes, multiple passports and international intrigue. Turkey made several arrests Thursday as part of an investigation into how he passed through the country.

Ghosn skipped bail and fled before his trial on financial misconduct charges. He issued a statement Thursday that said his family didn’t play a role in his escape.

“There has been speculation in the media that my wife Carole and other members of my family played a role in my departure from Japan. All such speculation is inaccurate and false,” the statement read.

“I alone arranged for my departure. My family had no role whatsoever.”

Ghosn, who is Lebanese and also holds French and Brazilian passports, was set to go on trial in Japan in April. He arrived in Lebanon on Monday via Turkey and hasn’t been seen in public since.

In a statement released Tuesday, Ghosn said he left for Lebanon because he thought the Japanese judicial system was unjust, and he wanted to avoid “political persecution.” He said he would talk to reporters next week.

A Japanese court had granted him bail — despite prosecutors fighting against it — with conditions he be monitored and could not meet with his wife, who is currently in Lebanon, according to media reports. The court previously allowed them to speak by video calls.

Ghosn’s $ 14-million US bail, which he posted on two separate instances to get out of detention, is being revoked.

A hero in Lebanon

Ghosn, who grew up in Beirut and frequently visited, is a national hero to many in this Mediterranean country. He has close ties to senior politicians and business stakes in a number of companies. People take special pride in the auto industry executive, who is credited with leading a spectacular turnaround at Nissan beginning in the late 1990s and rescuing the automaker from near-bankruptcy.

Even as he fell from grace internationally, politicians across the board mobilized in his defence after his arrest in Japan in November 2018, with some suggesting his detention may be part of a political or business-motivated conspiracy. Lebanon’s foreign minister repeatedly called for his release.

Serhan said prosecutors will summon Ghosn and listen to him, and “at a later stage if there are any measures to be taken, then the precautionary measures will be taken.”

“We are a country of law and respect the law and … I can confirm that the Lebanese state will implement the law,” the justice minister said.

At the same time, Serhan said that Lebanon has not received an official extradition request from Japan, and he noted that the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.

“Mr. Ghosn arrived to Lebanon as any ordinary citizen.… Lebanese authorities have no security or judiciary charges against him. He entered the border like any other Lebanese using a legal passport,” he added.

Turkey detains 7 as part of investigation

Earlier Thursday, Turkish police detained seven people — including four pilots — in an investigation into how Ghosn transited through Istanbul en route to Lebanon after fleeing Japan, a police spokesperson told Reuters.

The spokesperson said the other detainees were two airport ground workers and one cargo worker and all seven were expected to give statements before a court on Thursday.

Media reports said Turkey’s Interior Ministry had begun an investigation into Ghosn’s transit.

It is unclear how Ghosn avoided the tight surveillance he was under in Japan and showed up in Lebanon. Ghosn’s lawyers in Japan said they had no knowledge of the escape, and they had all his passports. Ghosn has French, Lebanese and Brazilian citizenship.

However, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported Thursday that authorities allowed Ghosn to carry a spare French passport in a locked case while out on bail, shedding some light on how he managed his escape to Lebanon.

A plane carrying Ghosn arrived at 5:30 am local time Monday at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, Turkish news website Hurriyet reported, adding that prosecutors ordered the arrests after widening their investigation.

Flight tracking data from that time suggests that Ghosn used two different planes to fly into Istanbul and then on to Lebanon.

Hurriyet, citing an interior ministry official, said Turkish border police were not notified about Ghosn’s arrival, and neither his entry nor exit were registered.

The businessman was smuggled out of Tokyo by a private security company days ago, the culmination of a plan that was crafted over three months, Reuters has reported.

The Lebanese minister for presidential affairs, Selim Jreissati, told the An-Nahar newspaper that Ghosn entered legally at the airport with a French passport and Lebanese ID.

Japanese prosecutors raid Tokyo home

Japanese prosecutors on Thursday raided Ghosn’s Tokyo home, but prosecutors and police did not immediately comment as government offices in Japan are closed this week for the New Year’s holidays.

Japanese media showed investigators entering the home, which was Ghosn’s third residence in Tokyo since he was first arrested a year ago. Authorities have now searched each one.


Japanese prosecutors carry bags as they leave Ghosn’s Tokyo residence as part of a probe into his escape. (Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images)

Ghosn, who was charged in Japan with underreporting his future compensation and breach of trust, has repeatedly asserted his innocence, saying authorities trumped up charges to prevent a possible fuller merger between Nissan Motor Co. and alliance partner Renault SA.

In Beirut’s affluent residential neighbourhood of Ashrafieh, several security guards stood outside Ghosn’s rose-coloured mansion Thursday along with about two dozen journalists. Since news of his arrival, journalists, including many from the Japanese media, have flocked outside the building, trying to capture any proof of his presence.

At one point, a Lebanese lawyer who said he worked for Nissan appeared, claiming the building belonged to the auto company, not to Ghosn.

One of Ghosn’s neighbours, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they are “split as to whether they are with or against his return.”

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Some people flee, others restock before Australian wildfires worsen

Thousands of tourists fled Australia’s wildfire-ravaged eastern coast Thursday ahead of worsening conditions as the military started to evacuate people trapped on the shore further south.

Cooler weather since Tuesday has aided firefighting and allowed people to replenish supplies. Vehicles formed long lines at gas stations and supermarkets, and traffic was gridlocked as highways reopened. But fire conditions were expected to deteriorate Saturday as high temperatures and strong winds are forecast to return.

“There is every potential that the conditions on Saturday will be as bad or worse than we saw” on Tuesday, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.

Authorities said 381 homes had been destroyed on the New South Wales southern coast this week and at least eight people have died this week in the state and neighbouring Victoria, Australia’s two most-populous states, where more than 200 fires are currently burning.

Fires have also been burning in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania.

Worst on record

The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has led authorities to rate this season the worst on record. About five million hectares of land have burned, at least 17 people have been killed and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.

Prime Minster Scott Morrison said the crisis was likely to last for months.

“It will continue to go on until we can get some decent rain that can deal with some of the fires that have been burning for many, many months,” Morrison told reporters on Thursday.

New South Wales authorities on Thursday morning ordered tourists to leave a 250-kilometre (155-mile) zone along the picturesque south coast. State Transport Minister Andrew Constance said it is the “largest mass relocation of people out of the region that we’ve ever seen.”

New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a seven-day state of emergency starting Friday, which grants the New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner more control and power.

It’s the third state of emergency for New South Wales in the past two months, after previously not being implemented since 2013.

“We don’t take these decisions lightly but we also want to make sure we’re taking every single precaution to be prepared for what could be a horrible day on Saturday,” Berejiklian said.

A statewide total fire ban will be in place on Friday and Saturday.

In Victoria, where 83 homes have burned this week, the military was helping thousands of people who fled to the shore as a wildfire threatened their homes Tuesday in the coastal town of Mallacoota. Food, water, fuel and medical expertise were being delivered and about 500 people were going to be evacuated from the town by a naval ship.

“We think around 3,000 tourists and 1,000 locals are there. Not all of those will want to leave, not all can get on the vessel at one time,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

A contingent of 39 firefighters from the United States and Canada landed in Melbourne on Thursday to help with the catastrophe.

Smoke from the wildfires made the air quality in the national capital, Canberra, the world’s worst in a ranking index Thursday and was blowing into New Zealand.


A resident waters his garden wearing a mask as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra on Thursday. (Mark Baker/Associated Press)

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Residents of northwestern Syria flee from government forces’ new offensive

Syrian government forces pressed ahead Monday with a new military assault on the country’s last rebel stronghold that began last week, an offensive that has set off a mass exodus of civilians fleeing to safer areas near the Turkish border.

Under the cover of airstrikes and heavy shelling, Syrian troops have been pushing into the northwestern province of Idlib toward a major rebel-held town, Maaret al-Numan. The town sits on a key highway linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest.

The immediate goal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces appeared to be reopening the highway, which has been closed by the rebels since 2012.

Idlib province is dominated by al-Qaeda-linked militants. It’s also home to three million civilians, and the United Nations has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border. The United Nations says over half of the civilians in Idlib have been internally displaced following continuing reports of airstrikes in the area.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is alarmed by the escalation of fighting and is calling for an immediate halt to hostilities, his spokesperson said late Monday.

The spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, said earlier that a UN-negotiated, six-hour humanitarian pause had enabled safe passage for more than 2,500 people to flee.


A displaced Syrian child holds a piece of bread while sitting out in the open in the countryside of Idlib province. (Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past three days, some 39 communities were reportedly been affected by shelling in northern Hama, southern Idlib and western Aleppo governorates, while 47 communities were reportedly hit by airstrikes, Dujarric said.

“The UN urges all parties to ensure the protection of civilians, and to allow sustained and unhindered access by all humanitarian parties to provide life-saving assistance to all in need,” the UN spokesperson said.

Residents of villages and towns in southern parts of Idlib province have been fleeing with their belongings in trucks, cars and on motorcycles.

The government’s ground offensive resumed last week after the collapse of a ceasefire, which had been in place since the end of August.

‘The destruction is massive’

Before this latest bout of violence, the UN reported that some 60,000 Idlib residents had already been displaced since the government’s bombing campaign began late last month.

The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said Syrian troops were a few kilometres away from Maaret al-Numan, adding that the town “might surrender to the army without fighting.”

The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, said Maaret al-Numan and the nearby town of Sarqeb were almost empty after tens of thousands of civilians left to escape heavy aerial and ground bombardment.

“As you can see the destruction is massive. Residents were forced to flee this area,” said a member of the White Helmets in a video as he walked through Maaret al-Numan. “They had to choose between death or fleeing to the unknown further north.”


Airstrikes on a rebel-held town killed several people and wounded more than a dozen in the northwestern province of Idlib on Saturday. (Ghaith al-Sayed/The Associated Press)

Syrian troops have also nearly surrounded a Turkish observation post near the village of Surman in Idlib province, according to Al-Watan and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor.

Turkey is a strong backer of some rebel fighters, and has 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria as part of an agreement. The deal was brokered last year along with Russia, one of Assad’s main backers.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists in Syria, said government troops have captured approximately 35 villages and hamlets near Maaret al-Numan in the past few days.

Also Monday, a vehicle rigged with explosives blew up in a market in a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters, killing five people and wounding others, state media and opposition activists said.

State news agency SANA said the blast occurred in the village of Suluk near the Turkish border, putting the death toll at five people and reporting that several more were injured.

A similar death toll was also given by the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition and the Observatory, which also said 20 people were wounded.

Suluk is near the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad in Raqqa province. Turkish troops and Turkey-backed fighters captured Tal Abyad and Suluk from Kurdish-led fighters in October. Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria pushed back Syrian Kurdish fighters from some border areas.

Explosions in north Syria areas controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters killed scores of people in recent weeks.

Turkey blames Syrian Kurdish fighters for these attacks, a claim that the Kurds deny.

Separately, Russia’s military said insurgents used drones to attack its Hmeimeem air base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast a day earlier. The two drones were shot down and caused no damage or injuries, said Maj.-Gen. Yuri Borenkov of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Opposing Sides in Syria.

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Australians shelter and flee as firefighters battle 150 bushfires

Australian officials ordered people in several communities, including a major tourist destination, to flee immediately on Wednesday as firefighters struggled to contain bush fires raging across the country’s east coast.

While a cool change overnight brought some relief for firefighters in New South Wales (NSW) state, attention shifted to its northern neighbour Queensland, where hot, dry and windy conditions had created a severe fire danger.

Authorities issued a “leave immediately” warning, the highest level, for several areas including Noosa, a popular beachside holiday destination 150 kilometres north of Brisbane, the state capital of Queensland.

“Conditions are now very dangerous and firefighters may soon be unable to prevent the fire advancing,” Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) said in the emergency warning. “The fire may pose a threat to all lives directly in its path.”


Danny Wearne surveys the bush fire damage to his property on Wednesday in Rainbow Flat, Australia. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington told Reuters many of the residents in the affected north, accessible only by ferry or via the beach, had got out this week.

But he added that winds were picking up, making things particularly tricky.

80 fires across Queensland

“There are plenty of crews battling the fire, including two helicopters,” he said.

The blaze in Noosa is one of more than 80 fires across Queensland, leaving firefighters stretched.

QFES said one its water-bombing helicopters crashed while battling a fire in Pechey, west of Brisbane, though the pilot escaped with minor injuries.


Residents defend a property from a bush fire at Hillsville near Taree, Australia, on Tuesday. (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

Bush fires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of this year’s outbreak in the southern hemisphere spring have caught many by surprise. They have so far claimed three lives.

Fires expected for weeks

Blazes have been spurred by extremely dry conditions after three years of drought in parts of NSW and Queensland, which experts say has been exacerbated by climate change.

Around 150 fires were burning across both states by mid-afternoon local time.


Sharnie Moren and her 18-month-old daughter Charlotte amid thick smoke rising from bushfires near Coffs Harbour, Australia, on Tuesday. (Dan Peled/AAP Image/Reuters)

More than 1.1 million hectares of land have either burned or are burning, and the hot and windy conditions are set to spike again next week.

“We will not have all these fires contained before then,” NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday morning. “We will not have all these fires contained and locked up for many, many weeks.”

‘What we need is rain’

“Unfortunately, what we need is rain. What we need is meaningful rain. And there is certainly nothing in the forecast for the foreseeable future that’s going to make any discernible difference to the conditions that we are experiencing.”

Some 50 homes were destroyed in NSW on Tuesday, when flames came within metres of homes in Greater Sydney amid potentially “catastrophic” high winds and searing heat. But no deaths were reported as warning systems and evacuation plans ahead of what officials said was the greatest threat in at least a decade appeared to save lives.


Locals watch wildfires near the small town of Nana Glen, Australia. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

“It was just chewing up everything,” Karen Weston told Australian Broadcasting Corp. of a fire near Taree on the mid-north coast.

“I’ve survived two other bush fires before this but never anything like this,” Weston said from an evacuation centre. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Russell Crowe’s property threatened

Academy award winning actor Russell Crowe tweeted photos and video footage on Wednesday of firefighters using helicopters to water-bomb his property near Nana Glen, an inland rural community some 580 km north of Sydney in NSW. Crowe said the property had “lost a couple of buildings,” some fires were still burning and “we are out of water.”


The fires have sparked increasingly acrimonious debate over Australia’s climate change policies, with the ruling conservative Liberal Party and the minor opposition Australian Greens exchanging barbs.

Former deputy prime minister and current lawmaker Barnaby Joyce was among those who have suggested that climate activists were at least partly responsible for the fires by lobbying to reduce so-called “back burns,” fires deliberately lit to clear out dry undergrowth.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, meanwhile, said link between the fires and the government’s support of the coal industry were “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has repeatedly declined to comment on climate change during the current crisis, called for moderation in the debate on Tuesday evening.

Fitzsimmons waded in on Wednesday, saying when asked: “We are mindful that the science is suggesting, and we are experiencing, that fire seasons are starting earlier and are extending longer,” he said. “There is no doubt that this drought is having a profound effect.”

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Separate wildfires rip through California, thousands flee

Separate wildfires were ripping through northern and southern California Friday, forcing tens of thousands from their homes and prompting officials to declare a state of emergency.

The fast-moving Camp Fire advanced to the outskirts of the northern California city of Chico early on Friday after it left the nearby town of Paradise in ruins.

Fire officials issued evacuation notices for homes on the east side of Chico, a city of about 93,000 people about 145 kilometres north of Sacramento.

"Firefighters continue to actively engage the fire in order to protect life and property," the Chico Fire Department said in a tweet.

Flames from the unchecked, 8,100-hectare Camp Fire, which began early Thursday, were being driven westward by 56 km/h winds, fire officials said. The fire earlier ripped through Paradise, about 30 kilometres east of Chico.

Reporter Laura Anthony, of the local ABC station KGO, shot video of a "firenado" in Paradise Thursday.  


"The town is devastated, everything is destroyed. There's nothing much left standing," said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spokesperson Scott McLean.

"This fire moved so fast and grew so fast a lot of people got caught by it."

Residents raced to escape on roads that turned into tunnels of fire as thick smoke darkened the daytime sky on Thursday, wiping out what a Cal Fire official said was a couple of thousand structures.

"We were surrounded by fire, we were driving through fire on each side of the road," said police officer Mark Bass, who lives in Paradise and works in Chico. He evacuated his family and then returned to the fire to help rescue several disabled residents, including a man trying to carry his bedridden wife to safety. "It was just a wall of fire on each side of us, and we could hardly see the road in front of us."

Harrowing tales of escape and heroic rescues emerged from Paradise, where the entire community of 27,000 was ordered to evacuate. Witnesses reported seeing homes, supermarkets, businesses, restaurants, schools and a retirement home up in flames.

Residents described fleeing their homes and then getting stuck on gridlocked roads as flames approached, sparking explosions and toppling utility poles.

"Things started exploding," said resident Gina Oviedo. "People started getting out of their vehicles and running."

Many abandoned their cars on the side of the road, fleeing on foot. Cars and trucks, some with trailers attached, were left on the roadside as evacuees ran for their lives, said Bass, the police officer. "They were abandoned because traffic was so bad, backed up for hours."

Rescuers used a bulldozer to push abandoned cars out the way to reach Feather River Hospital and evacuate patients as flames engulfed the building, Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter told reporters.

McLean said an as yet unspecified number of civilians and firefighters had been injured, and that it could be days before authorities would know whether anyone had died.

Acting California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in the area and requested a federal emergency declaration, saying that high winds and dry brush presented ongoing danger.

2 uncontained fires in SoCal

Meanwhile, portions of Southern California remained under siege early Friday as two large fires threatened many Ventura County communities. The National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings for fire dangers in many areas of the state, saying low humidity and strong winds were expected to continue through the evening.

Firefighters battle the Camp Fire as it tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday. Separate wildfires were ripping through the northern and southern parts of the state on Friday, sending tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

The Woolsey Fire, which began overnight, covered more than 3,000 hectares Friday morning and was threatening 75,000 homes, the Ventura County Fire Department said on Twitter, adding there had been no reports of fatalities or severe injuries as yet. 

The nearby Hill Fire covered about 4,000 hectares, according to Cal Fire. 

Actor Rainn Wilson said that resident of Thousand Oaks, still reeling from a Wednesday night shooting in which a gunman killed 12 people at a bar before killing himself, were now having to flee their homes.

TV personality Adrienne Janic said on Twitter that firefighters were using her home as a command centre.

Actor James Woods stayed up all night posting tweets to help families find their missing loved ones under the hashtag #CampFireJamesWoods.

The two fires burning just northwest of Los Angeles were zero per cent contained, and mandatory evacuations were in place for L.A. County and Ventura County.

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Hurricane Florence set to hit U.S. East Coast as 1 million flee and mayors declare states of emergency

Hurricane Florence churned Tuesday toward the U.S. Eastern Seaboard as a storm of "staggering" size, forcing a million people to evacuate their homes along the coast. Many more were left to wonder where they might be safe if days of torrential rains unleash floods from the mountains to the sea.

"This one really scares me," U.S. National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham warned.

Florence is so wide that a life-threatening storm surge was being pushed 480 kilometres ahead of its eye, swirling clouds that could deluge states from South Carolina to Ohio and Pennsylvania as it slows and then stalls over land.

"You're going to get heavy rain, catastrophic life-threatening storm surge, and also the winds," Graham said.

U.S. President Donald Trump says the federal government is "absolutely, totally prepared" for "a storm that is going to be a very large one, far larger than we have seen in perhaps decades."

Trump plans to request recovery funds from Congress for rebuilding after the hurricane. In a briefing Tuesday, he praised the co-operation between different levels of government responding to the disaster and said the U.S. government's much criticized response to deadly hurricanes in Puerto Rico were "an incredible unsung success." 

Sustained winds were 215 km/h Tuesday morning, but it remains a Category 4 storm and is expected to intensify to near Category 5 status as it slows over very warm coastal waters.

The storm is currently around 650 km south of Bermuda and is moving at 26 km/h.

'Extremely life-threatening'

The eye of the massive storm is forecast to make landfall late Thursday or early Friday along a stretch of coastline already saturated by rising seas, and then meander for days. Seven-day rainfall totals are forecast to reach 25 to 50 centimetres over much of North Carolina and Virginia, and even 75 centimetres in some places.

Jim Carter and Rob Quinn board up Lagerheads Tavern in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., as they prepare for Hurricane Florence. (Ken Blevins/The Star-News via Associated Press)

Combined with high tides, the storm surge could swell as high as 3.7 metres.

"The water could overtake some of these barrier islands and keep on going. With time, the wind pushes the water into every nook and cranny you can think of," Graham said. "All you have to do is look up at your ceiling, and think about 12 feet [3.7 metres] (of water). That, folks, is extremely life-threatening."

Mayors of Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina have declared states of emergency.

'Get ready now'

The director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that power in areas affected by the hurricane could be off for weeks. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said his state is "in the bull's-eye" and urged people to "get ready now."

This image provided by NOAA shows Hurricane Florence, third from right, on Tuesday as it threatens the U.S. East Coast. At right is Hurricane Helene, and second from right is tropical storm Isaac. (NOAA/Associated Press)

The very centre of that bull's-eye may be Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine Corps training base, where authorities were opening emergency operation centres, staging equipment and urging families on the base to build survival kits with food and equipment needed to sustain themselves for 72 hours.

Mandatory coastal evacuations were in effect for civilians in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, but the military base posted on Facebook that different chains of command would decide whether to release non-essential personnel, and some relatives vented fears that they wouldn't be able to leave in time.

Florence could hit the Carolinas harder than any hurricane since Hazel packed 209 km/h winds in 1954. That Category 4 storm destroyed 15,000 buildings and killed 19 people in North Carolina. In the six decades since then, many thousands of people have moved to the coast.

High waves 

Ahead of Florence's arrival, barrier islands were already seeing dangerous rip currents and seawater flowed over a state highway — the harbinger of a storm surge that could wipe out dunes and submerge entire communities.

Watches in effect Tuesday forecast a storm surge of up to 3.7 metres at high tide from Cape Fear to Cape Lookout in North Carolina. A hurricane watch was in effect for Edisto Beach, S.C., to Virginia's southern border, with the first hurricane-force winds arriving late Thursday.

Trump speaks with reporters about Hurricane Florence after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

For many people, the challenge could be finding a safe refuge: If Florence slows to a crawl, it could bring torrential rains into the Appalachian mountains, causing flash floods and mudslides across a region getting lots of rain recently.

"This is going to produce heavy rainfall, and it may not move very fast. The threat will be inland, so I'm afraid, based on my experience at FEMA, that the public is probably not as prepared as everybody would like," said Craig Fugate, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Florence's projected path includes half a dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous hog farms that store animal waste in massive open-air lagoons.

Duke Energy spokesperson Ryan Mosier said operators would begin shutting down nuclear plants at least two hours before hurricane-force winds arrive.

All signs pointed to a stronger, slower, wider and wetter hurricane in the days ahead, forecasters said.

Category 5 scenario

A warm ocean gives hurricanes their fuel, and Florence is moving over an area with water temperatures nearing 30 C, hurricane specialist Eric Blake wrote. With little wind shear to pull the storm apart, hurricane-strength winds have been expanding to 64 kilometres from the eye of the storm, and tropical-storm-force winds 240 km from the centre. Information gathered Tuesday by a hurricane-hunting aircraft suggests it will intensify again as it nears the coast, approaching the 253 km/h threshold for a worst-case Category 5 scenario.

Two other storms were spinning in the Atlantic as the 2018 hurricane season reaches its peak. Isaac became a tropical storm again approaching the Caribbean, while Hurricane Helene was veering northward, no threat to land.

Preston Guiher carries a sheet of plywood as he prepares to board up a Wells Fargo bank in preparation for Hurricane Florence in downtown Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday. (Mic Smith/Associated Press)

In the Pacific, Olivia became a tropical storm again, on a path to hit the Hawaiian islands early Wednesday.

Airlines, including American, Southwest, Delta and JetBlue, have begun letting affected passengers change travel plans without the usual fees.

Liz Browning Fox was planning to ride out the storm with her mother and brother in the Outer Banks, defying evacuation orders. The 65-year-old, who lives in the village of Buxton, said her house was built in 2009, up on a ridge, and made to withstand a hurricane. But even the most secure homes could be surrounded by water, or penetrated by wind-launched debris, officials warn.

"You never know, there could be tree missiles coming from any direction," she said. "There is no way to be completely safe," but going inland might not be much safer. "I don't know where to go from here."

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Venezuelan migrants face uncertainty as they flee starvation

A bridge in western Venezuela connecting the beleaguered state with neighbouring Colombia serves as a daily microcosm for the ongoing exodus of Venezuelans from their homes.

A constant flow of Venezuelans enter Colombia on foot via the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, with countless others crossing the border unofficially through smuggling routes and other potentially more dangerous channels.

CBC's Adrienne Arsenault is in the border town of Cucuta reporting on the crisis as thousands of Venezuelans continue to flee on a daily basis. Here, she describes the situation at the border:

Venezuelan migrants, fleeing inflation and starvation at home, crowd along a bridge into neighbouring Colombia in the hopes of starting new lives elsewhere. CBC's Adrienne Arsenault reports from Cucuta, Colombia. 1:52

The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled since 2014 as a result of severe inflation and food shortages. One expert, citing contacts at the IOM who say that estimate is "very conservative," believes the crisis will become much worse.

"We know that thousands leave every day, so if you do the math, I think if we're not there [yet], we'll be at the same scale of the Syrian displacement quite soon," said Feline Freier, a professor and researcher at the Universidad del Pacífico in Peru.

"Although some governments in the region still choose to frame this whole issue in terms of economic migration, we're not talking about economic migration. We're talking about forced displacement. These people leave Venezuela because if they do not leave, they don't survive."

'Plain rice was a luxury'

Food and medicine shortages are rampant under President Nicolas Maduro, whose administration has refused to accept international aid thus far.

"The stories I was told already in May were that people had not eaten anything but cornstarch for months, cornstarch mixed with water. For many, plain rice was a luxury," Freier said, referring to interviews she conducted with Venezuelan families who had migrated farther west to Peru.

"Women who can't breastfeed also give their babies cornstarch mixed with water, which leads to malnutrition and starvation in many."

Four-year-old Luna Francesca Moreno holds up a piece of bread. Her mother, Sandra Negrin, said she decided to leave Venezuela to save her daughters from starving. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC News)

At a special meeting of the Organization of American States last week, delegates from Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and the United States called on Maduro to accept food and medical supplies for his country's most vulnerable people and allow international aid groups to work in the country.

A Venezuelan diplomat at the meeting ignored these requests, saying that the discussion on Venezuela's migrant crisis is part of a U.S.-led plot to justify an invasion of his country. On Sunday, Venezuela's foreign minister accused the U.S. of seeking an intervention and supporting military conspiracies following a New York Times report that U.S. officials had met with Venezuelan military officers to discuss a coup plot.

Perils along the border

The bridge outside of Cucuta is a major choke point for the influx of Venezuelans into Colombia. While Venezuelan professionals such as doctors and engineers have found work in Colombia's big cities or its oil industry, the bulk of the poor have settled in border towns. Others continue farther west toward Ecuador and Peru.

But for all those crossing the border, the first stop is this marketplace just outside Cucuta: 

For many Venezuelan migrants, arriving in Colombia is just the start of their journey as they search for opportunities away from their home country. CBC's Adrienne Arsenault reports from Cucuta, Colombia. 1:24

Initially, neighbouring countries facilitated the arrival of Venezuelans by granting temporary work and residence permits. But as the exodus has grown, some have tightened entry requirements; in response, OAS member nations urged Venezuela to provide passports and other travel documents to Venezuelan citizens who want to leave.

That request is counterproductive, according to Freier.

"It is impossible for Venezuelans right now [to get a passport] because of corruption and because of the lack of material and basically the collapse of the state," she said. "That will only lead to more irregular migration within the region."

A man helps a woman crawl out from a hole under a door in Cúcuta, Colombia. The hole marks the end of an illegal smuggling route that starts in Venezuela. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC News)

Freier recommends that South American nations reinforce the regular migration channels to mitigate the dangers facing those forced to forego the official checkpoints — especially along the Colombian border.

"We have a problem with paramilitary groups, we have a problem with human trafficking, we have a problem with labour and sexual exploitation, we have a problem with children being recruited for child-mining," Freier said.

"We need political or economic pressure on the Maduro regime and we also need for our regional governments to get together and think about how to manage the flows on a more technical and pragmatic basis."

Watch more of Adrienne Arsenault's coverage from Colombia tonight at 10 p.m. ET on The National.

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