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Fires in Oregon, California and Washington spread, death toll rises

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Desiree Pierce cries as she visits her home destroyed by the Almeda Fire, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Talent, Ore. “I just needed to see it, to get some closure,” said Pierce.

John Locher | AP

Historic wildfires are burning millions of acres and destroying homes in California, Oregon and Washington state, as officials brace for more fatalities and evacuations. 

The fires have killed at least 20 people across the states and dozens more are missing. More than 1 million acres of land in Oregon have been burned and at least 10% of the state’s population is in evacuation zones. The state has dealt with the worst destruction as blazes have already decimated two towns. 

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that people are still missing and more than 40,000 have fled their homes. The state is preparing for a “mass fatality event” and has declared a state of emergency. Authorities said a man has been arrested and charged with arson in connection with a fire in southern Oregon that has burned hundreds of homes. 

People stand in Alamo Square Park as smoke hangs over San Francisco, California, Sept. 9, 2020.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In California, more than 3 million acres have burned, a record in the state’s history. The August Complex that started from a series of lightning strikes last month has become the biggest wildfire ever in California. The weather in the state could potentially improve with forecasts of less wind and some rainfall. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California gave a bleak update on the situation on Friday afternoon, saying the worst forecasts of climate change has impacted his state. He vowed to direct his administration to speed up California’s environmental goals and invest more in green energy. 

“California, folks, is America fast forward,” Newsom said during a press conference at the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area in Butte County, which is damaged from the North Complex Fire. “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.” 

President Donald Trump will visit California on Monday where he will join local and federal fire and emergency officials to be briefed on the fires. The president is set to visit McClellan Park in Sacramento County, where the state’s fire agency Cal Fire has based its operations. 

Volunteer firefighter Dave White looks on after losing his home in a fire, in Gates, Oregon, on September 10, 2020.

Kathryn Elsesser | AFP | Getty Images

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the amount of land burned by the fires in just the past five days amounts to the state’s second-worst fire season following the season in 2015, and said the fires should be called climate fires, not wildfires. Fires in the state destroyed most of the homes in the town of Malden and killed a 1-year-old boy. 

Climate change has triggered excessive heat and drought conditions across the world that exacerbate wildfires. In fire-prone California, six of the 20 biggest wildfires in state history have occurred this year. 

“This is not an act of God,” Inslee said at a news conference Friday. “This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday said that the state is sending roughly 190 additional firefighters and 50 more trucks to California. Fire crews are also being sent in from Utah and Colorado. 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said the fires demonstrate that climate change poses an “existential threat to our way of life.”

“Our thoughts are also with the millions of Americans living just outside the path of these fires, forced into an awful choice between relocating in the midst of an ongoing pandemic or staying put in a place where every breath they draw forces them to inhale smoke,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday.

“The science is clear, and deadly signs like these are unmistakable — climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life,” Biden said. “President Trump can try to deny that reality, but the facts are undeniable.”  

A car is seen around the town where about 10,000 residents were evacuated as the fire continues, in Molalla, Oregon, September 11, 2020.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

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SpaceX Transporter-1 rideshare launch carries 143 spacecraft

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The Falcon 9 rocket stands on the launchpad in Florida ahead of liftoff for the Transporter-1 mission.

SpaceX

SpaceX launched another rocket into the record books on Sunday with the first mission of its “rideshare” program carrying dozens of small satellites into space.

The Falcon 9 rocket, which took off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, carried 143 spacecraft into orbit — a new global record for the most spacecraft launched at once, and surpassing the mark of 104 set by an Indian PSLV rocket in February 2017.

Called Transporter-1, the SpaceX mission was the first for the company’s SmallSat Rideshare program.

While SpaceX advertises a launch on a Falcon 9 dedicated to a single satellite for $62 million, the company’s SmallSat Rideshare launches give smaller satellites — as small as the size of a mailbox — an option to orbit for as little as $1 million for 200 kilograms.

Such rideshare missions have become increasingly common in the space industry, with international competitors like Arianespace’s Vega looking to claim a share of the growing marketplace of small satellites.

Rideshare missions offer a different option for low-cost satellites looking for a ride to orbit, with smaller rockets like Rocket Lab’s Electron offering a more tailored approach.

“SpaceX is providing a competitive rideshare option, in large part leveraging its Starlink launches,” Bryce Space and Technology senior analyst Phil Smith told CNBC.

The SpaceX service is not quite on demand, Smith said, but companies can pay a premium to launch according to their schedule, rather than the schedule of the primary customer.

“A fairly reliable ‘bus route’ is available,” Smith said of SpaceX, “whereas I suppose one might compare companies like Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit as on-call taxies that get your satellite where you want it ASAP.”

Elon Musk’s company launched 133 satellites for a broad variety of government and private customers, as well as 10 of its own Starlink satellites.

SpaceX’s customers on board Transporter-1 include: Planet Labs, Exolaunch, D-Orbit, Kepler Communications, Spaceflight Inc, Nanoracks, NASA and Capella Space, as well as iQPS, Loft Orbital, Spire Global, ICEYE, HawkEye 360, Astrocast, and the University of South Florida Institute of Applied Engineering.

Notably, the 10 Starlink satellites aboard this mission will be the first in the constellation to deploy to a polar orbit, as the company continues to expand public access to its satellite internet network. Those 10 satellites were added after Momentus took its first Vigoride mission off the Transporter-1 launch earlier this month. Momentus cited additional time needed for regulatory approval as the cause of the change.

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Biden surgeon general pick says U.S. racing to adapt against new Covid strains

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Vivek Murthy, who has been nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as the US Surgeon General, speaks as Biden announces his team tasked with dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware on December 8, 2020.

Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s surgeon general pick said Sunday that the United States is in a race to adapt against the mutating coronavirus which has produced a number of potentially more infectious variants of Covid-19.

“The virus is basically telling us that it’s going to continue to change and we’ve got to be ready for it,” Dr. Vivek Murthy said during an interview with ABC News’ “This Week.”

“We’ve got to number one, do much better genomic surveillance, so we can identify variants when they arise and that means we’ve got to double down on public health measures like masking and avoiding indoor gatherings,” Murthy, Biden’s nominee to be the nation’s next surgeon general, added.

He also called for an emphasis on treatment strategies as well as further investment in testing and contract tracing methods.

“So the bottom line is, we’re in a race against these variants, the virus is going to change and it’s up to us to adapt and to make sure that we’re staying ahead,” Murthy said.

On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant, known as B.1.1.7, was associated with a higher level of mortality. When asked, Murthy said the U.S. still needs more data on the U.K. variant before making the same determination.

Preliminary analysis of the mutated strain, which was first identified in the U.K., suggests it may be the culprit behind Britain’s spike in cases. Johnson has previously said that the new variant could also be as much as 70% more transmissible. The British government has also confirmed that another infectious variant of the coronavirus identified in South Africa has emerged in the United Kingdom.

Read more: 5 things to know about the new Covid strain spreading in the UK

Last month, Colorado announced the nation’s first case of the new and potentially more infectious strain of Covid-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned last week that the U.K. variant, which is already circulating in at least 10 states, could become the dominant variant in the U.S. by March.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top Covid-19 medical adviser, said last week that the Covid-19 vaccines currently on the market may not be as effective against new strains of the coronavirus.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a news conference in the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.

Chris Kleponis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“Bottom line: We’re paying very close attention to it,” Fauci said of the known variants identified in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.

“There are alternative plans if we ever have to modify the vaccine. That’s not something that is a very onerous thing, we can do that given the platforms we have,” he told reporters during a White House press briefing.


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White House says states can’t purchase Covid vaccine directly

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Ron Klain, former White House Ebola response coordinator, speaks during a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Sunday that it’s not possible for U.S. states to purchase Covid-19 vaccines directly from manufacturers, as some have sought to do, under the emergency use authorization issued by the Food and Drug Administration.

“As a matter of law, this vaccine is under an emergency use authorization,” Klain told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when asked about the requests. “I don’t think that’s possible.”

The comments come after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla on Monday to allow the state to purchase vaccines directly from the company, citing tightening supply.

Pfizer told Cuomo that it couldn’t do so under the terms of its December emergency use authorization.

The company said it was open to the idea, but “before we can sell directly to State governments, HHS would need to approve that proposal based on the EUA granted to Pfizer by the FDA.”

The Department of Health and Human Services — at that point still under Republican leadership — accused Cuomo, a Democrat, of attempting to “cut to the front of the line at the expense of fellow jurisdictions.”

Klain said that he believed governors were “understandably frustrated” by the slow pace of vaccinations to date.

The number of vaccines administered lags far behind projections that were made under President Donald Trump, though the pace has picked up in recent weeks. President Joe Biden has pledged that the U.S. will administer 100 million doses of vaccine in his first 100 days in office.

“We are going to ramp up production. We are going to ramp up distribution. We are going to work closely with governors. We are going to get this vaccine to the American people,” Klain said.

The Biden administration has pushed to increase the federal government’s role in the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

T.J. Ducklo, a White House spokesman, earlier rejected state efforts to purchase vaccines directly, saying that “we need to have a national approach to vaccinations, and must ensure states aren’t competing against each other like they did with PPE, ventilators, and tests.”

Ducklo didn’t immediately respond to an email on Sunday. The Department of Health and Human Services also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before Biden took office, other states had asked Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services to allow them to purchase vaccines directly from the manufacturer.

The governors of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — all Democrats — sent a letter Jan. 15 accusing the Trump administration of botching the initial vaccine roll out.

“If you are unable or unwilling to give us that supply, we urge you to grant permission for us to directly purchase vaccines so we may distribute them,” the governors wrote.

At least one of those states appears to have backtracked on the plan since Biden was inaugurated on Wednesday.

Bobby Leddy, a spokesperson for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said in a statement provided to CBS that “we are confident that President Joe Biden will have a clear national strategy that is based in data and science to help our nation overcome this health crisis.”

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