President Donald Trump announced that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a raid in Syria. Wochit
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump did not give House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or other key members of Congress advance notice of the Saturday night raid that ended in the death of terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Trump said he knew about plans for the top-secret mission for three days but kept most members of Congress in the dark because he feared the information would be leaked to the public and endanger the lives of American forces.
“Washington leaks like I’ve never seen before,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Sunday. “There’s no country in the world that leaks like we do. And Washington is a leaking machine.”
Trump, who announced al-Baghdadi’s death during a nationally televised address to the nation, said he was notifying Pelosi and other members of Congress on Sunday.
The raid, carried out Saturday night by special operations forces in northwestern Syria, comes amid increasingly hostile relations between Trump and House Democrats who are conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
In a statement, Pelosi saluted the “heroism, dedication and skill” of the military and intelligence officials who played a role in the mission and said she was relieved that no U.S. personnel died in the raid.
But, she said, “the House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top congressional leadership were notified of in advance.”
McConnell called al-Baghdadi’s death “a significant step for the campaign against ISIS, for the future of the Middle East and for the safety of the American people and free people around the world.”
His office did not say whether he had been given advance notice of the raid.
In his remarks to reporters, Trump said he withheld information about the raid from most Congress members until American forces were out of harm’s way because he didn’t want them to be “greeted with firepower like you wouldn’t believe.”
“A leak could have caused the death of all of them,” he said.
Only a handful of people knew details of the mission, Trump said. They included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Gen. Mark Milley and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The only people who knew were the few that I dealt with,” Trump said.
Trump said he informed Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, of the raid before making the announcement Sunday. He said he also spoke to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., shortly before his televised address.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee and is one of the leaders of the impeachment investigation against Trump, was not notified.
Neither was Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., his office said.
Al-Baghdadi, possibly the most wanted man in the world, died in Saturday’s raid after being chased into a dead-end tunnel by U.S. special operations forces. Trump said al-Baghdadi was killed after detonating an explosive suicide vest. Three of al-Baghdadi’s children also were killed in the blast.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Graham complimented Trump for carrying out the mission.
“ISIS is a depraved organization,” Graham said. “They’re religious Nazis. It cannot be accommodated. It cannot be negotiated with. They have to be destroyed and marginalized.”
Asked if Trump was wrong to withhold information about the mission from Democrats, Graham said he didn’t know.
“That is not my concern today,” he said.
“This is a moment where President Trump’s worst critics should say, ‘Well done,’ ” Graham said.
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it’s “ironic that several of the things Trump has castigated likely helped secure this victory” – including CIA intelligence, Kurdish cooperation, and the U.S. counterterrorism troop presence in Syria.
Miller said he found Trump’s praise of the intelligence community, in particular, to be quite ironic: “It’s the very professional intelligence community that he constantly derides that’s helped him claim credit for killing Baghdadi.”
Trump has clashed repeatedly with intelligence officials throughout his presidency, mostly over two high-profile investigations.
One is Russian interference in the 2016 election to benefit the Trump; the other is the ongoing impeachment inquiry that centers on Trump’s own dealings with the president of Ukraine.
“When we use our intelligence correctly, what we can do is incredible,” Trump told reporters Sunday. “When we waste our time with intelligence that hurts our country, because we had poor leadership at the top, that’s not good.”
Since the election, Trump has periodically questioned the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did indeed seek to influence 2016 in his favor by hacking prominent Democrats and pushing fakes news about candidate Hillary Clinton.
The president has accused Barack Obama-era intelligence officials – such as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan – of somehow conspiring to pin the Russia plot on him.
Brennan, a frequent critic of Trump, weighed in on Twitter, praising U.S. special operations forces and intelligence personnel for their “courage, skill and dedication.”
“Your continued success dismantling terrorist organizations saves countless innocent lives,” he tweeted.
Strong praise & deep gratitude to our special forces & intelligence personnel who brought ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to justice. Thank you for your courage, skill, & dedication. Your continued success dismantling terrorist organizations saves countless innocent lives.
In February of 2017, less than a month after his inauguration, Trump tweeted that “the real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
In May of 2018, Trump claimed on Twitter that “Brennan started this entire debacle about President Trump.”Trump and aides have said they suspect Ukraine interfered in the election – one of the topics of the call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that is central to the impeachment drive.
House Democrats are investigating whether Trump held up military aid to Ukraine until it agreed to investigate the 2016 election and U.S. Democratic opponent Joe Biden. The probe began after a whistleblower’s complaint.
Throughout the process, Trump and his allies have accused the whistleblower of having links to the intelligence community. Democrats have accused Trump of seeking to “out” the whistleblower for political reasons.
On Sunday, both Trump and his critics praised the U.S. intelligence community – the latter group saying it performed well despite past attacks from the commander in chief.
Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” called Trump’s praise “grudging at best.”
He also noted that Trump never used the term “CIA.”
“That’s no coincidence,” Whipple said.
Trump did not mention CIA Director Gina Haspel or acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire in his initial remarks praising the intelligence community but later thanked both in response to a question about who was involved.
Anti-Trump Republican strategist Rick Tyler said the al-Baghdadi operation “eviscerates his systematic undermining of American intelligence capabilities.”
The announcement of al-Baghdadi’s death came three weeks after Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, a move that sparked bipartisan criticism that he had abandoned the Syrian Kurdish forces who fought alongside U.S. forces against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
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WASHINGTON — When President Trump announced on Sunday morning that a special forces raid had resulted in the death of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he said two things that might have sounded contradictory.
One was that Mr. al-Baghdadi, cornered in a tunnel by American forces, had detonated a suicide vest and that “his body was mutilated by the blast.” The other was that, as Mr. Trump put it, “test results gave certain immediate and totally positive identification. It was him.”
Mr. Trump did not provide any details of how that identification was made. But the quick turnaround after Mr. al-Baghdadi’s violent demise suggests that American Special Operations forces came equipped with the appropriate biometric and especially DNA technology.
The latest DNA-testing machines, which are now used by some state and local authorities, can provide a positive identification in about 90 minutes, according to David H. Kaye, a Penn State Law School professor who specializes in the field.
The known timeline of events suggests that an initial identification of Mr. al-Baghdadi came almost immediately, but that firm confirmation may have taken a few more hours.
President Trump said that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, was killed in a raid in northwestern Syria this weekend.CreditCredit…Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Trump said on Sunday that officials had gathered at the White House to monitor the raid, by Army Delta Force commandos, around 5 p.m. in Washington on Saturday. He added that American forces remained in the compound occupied by Mr. al-Baghdadi in northwestern Syria for about two hours.
By 9:23 p.m., Mr. Trump was confident enough about the outcome to hint at Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death with a tweet saying, “Something very big has just happened!” But United States officials did not confirm the ISIS leader’s killing for reporters for several more hours. Mr. Trump announced it to the world from the White House on Sunday at 9 a.m.
Delta Force missions targeting so-called high value targets such as Mr. al-Baghdadi often include personnel with specialized expertise in areas ranging from intelligence collection to bomb disposal. Some are also trained in biometrics and have responsibility for helping to identify targets who are captured and killed, according to American officials familiar with the process.
When Mr. al-Baghdadi killed himself with a suicide vest, it most likely fell on members of that team to determine whether it was indeed the man they had been hunting. That can be challenging, and grisly, work, particularly when the person in question has detonated an explosive vest.
It might be possible to get fingerprint identification from a person who had died so violently, or try to scan their eyes if they remain intact. But the devices that special operators rely on in the field to use such data require that the target be a living person with a pulse to provide accurate results.
Team members would also collect DNA samples, in the form of body parts or blood. Over the past two to three years, advances in DNA technology have led to the production of portable Rapid DNA devices, which can provide accurate automated results in as little as 90 minutes. Both the Pentagon and the F.B.I. have invested in the technology.
Rapid DNA machines can be as small as a microwave, and easily stored in a military helicopter. It is not known whether the forces who conducted Saturday’s raid had one on hand. One official said that had not been the practice of special operators to date. The samples could have been flown to a military facility elsewhere for the DNA testing.
If DNA provided the positive identification, as is likely, a key question is what sample the military used to confirm a match.
Identifying someone by DNA often involves matching one sample to another that is known to come from the same person. It is possible that the United States sampled and stored Mr. al-Baghdadi’s DNA when he was imprisoned at American-run detention center in Iraq in the mid-2000s. But officials said that, given the earlier state of technology at that time, it was likely that the military retained little more than biometric data such as fingerprints and facial photos.
But DNA matches can also be conducted by comparing a person’s sample to that of a close relative.
Mr. Kaye said there was nothing particularly surprising about how quickly Mr. al-Baghdadi was identified. Even if American forces in the region lack the latest portable kits, older laboratory DNA tests now take only about eight hours to produce a reliable sample.
“It’s probably right, is the bottom line,” he said.
President Trump’s successful operation to take out Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent Democrats scrambling on Sunday, as several top party leaders had complained publicly in recent days that the White House had no “real plan” to combat the terror group following the U.S. pullout in Syria.
In a dramatic sign of how Democrats’ messaging apparently backfired on Sunday, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” ran an ill-timed sketch suggesting that Trump had created “jobs” for ISIS — just hours before the president held a news conference announcing al-Baghdadi’s demise. The sketch apparently aired around the time the two-hour late-night raid in northwest Syria was underway.
“It’s genuinely fascinating watching Democrats in real-time struggle to figure out what to say about this,” journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote on Sunday. “They want to be patriotic and anti-ISIS, but also need a way to malign Trump without contradicting their gushing Obama praise over OBL: not an easy balancing act. Good luck!”
Through the day, the Democrats — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez and former Vice President Joe Biden — seemingly settled on a new strategy. They praised the troops who executed the historic raid, while pointedly avoiding complimenting the president in any way.
In some cases, the Democrats complained that they were not informed in advance of the operation, while the Russian military was told so that their airspace could be used. The president suggested Sunday that Democrats in Congress, who have been conducting an impeachment inquiry against him that has been fraught with leaked information to the media, were not notified before the raid because of concerns they might compromise the operation with leaks.
“I congratulate our special forces, our intelligence community, and all our brave military professionals on delivering justice to the terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” Biden, one of the many Democrats seeking to unseat Trump in 2020, said. He went on to call on Trump to “keep up the pressure to prevent ISIS from ever regrouping or again threatening the United States.”
Pelosi, meanwhile, praised the “heroism, dedication and skill of our military and our intelligence professionals and acknowledge the work of our partners in the region,” then condemned Trump’s “green-lighting of Turkish aggression into Syria against our Kurdish partners.”
However, in May 2011, when President Obama announced Usama bin Laden’s death, Pelosi, D-Calif., was less reluctant to praise the commander-in-chief.
“I salute President Obama, his national security team, Director Panetta, our men and women in the intelligence community and military, and other nations who supported this effort for their leadership in achieving this major accomplishment,” Pelosi said at the time.
Some commentators also noted that The Washington Post also had applied a different standard on Sunday than it did when bin Laden was killed. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48,” read a head-turning, since-changed headline in the Post.
But in 2011, the Post’s headline announcing bin Laden’s death flatly called him the leader of a “terrorist group.”
In her statement Sunday, Pelosi further demanded that the “House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top congressional leadership were notified of in advance, and on the administration’s overall strategy in the region.”
That was a complaint that has already resonated among progressive commentators and journalists on Twitter. CNBC reporter John Harwood remarked: “Trump didn’t give Pelosi advance word, indicating he didn’t trust her to keep intel secrets Pelosi was ranking Dem on Intel Committee. … Trump gave top Russian officials classified info in Oval Office.”
For his part, Menendez, D-N.J., on Sunday also steered clear of praising or saluting Trump, and instead exalted “our men and women in uniform who successfully executed the attack on a brutal murderer who mercilessly killed Americans, terrorized populations across the Middle East, and threatened regional peace and security.”
The operation, Menendez said, “is a testament to the courage of our military who put their lives at risk every day to protect our nation, and a sobering reminder of the importance of sustained American leadership with reliable and capable partners on the ground, including the Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi military.”
Republicans, on the other hand, called the ISIS leader’s death the culmination of the Trump administration’s campaign against the terror group. The so-called ISIS caliphate that dominated Iraq has largely crumbled under a withering barrage of airpower from U.S. and allied forces in the region.
GOP Tennessee Rep. Mark Green, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, praised the soldiers who carried out the raid, then added: “Of course, I commend the president. I mean, we got one bada– president to make this kind of decision, and his statement this morning was awesome. It was awesome.”
“We got one bada– president to make this kind of decision, and his statement this morning was awesome. It was awesome.”
— GOP Tennessee Rep. Mark Green
Other Republicans echoed that sentiment, although with somewhat less colorful language.
“President Trump and the Trump administration had already largely decimated and destroyed ISIS — the body of the snake,” GOP Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe told Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.” “But, yesterday they cut off the head of the snake in killing Baghdadi. “
Georgia GOP Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, suggested Trump’s decision not to inform congressional Democrats in advance of the raid was sound.
“Anybody who looks to ISIS right now ought to look to their leader who went pretty, cowered in a corner and blew himself up,” Collins said. He added that the “bigger story” was that Trump “can’t get information from his own intel committee about Syria. It goes to show you that this president who has been attacked and who has been harassed by an impeachment pro for the last 10 months, while all of this is going on in the House, has shut down my committee.”
The spin commenced immediately after Trump’s speech to the nation Sunday morning, when he announced that the ISIS leader — a notorious murderer and rapist whom Trump called a “gutless animal” — had died “in a vicious and violent way, as a coward, running and crying.”
al-Baghdadi detonated an explosive vest as U.S. Special Operations Forces stormed his compound in the Idlib Province, Trump said, killing him and three of his children.
“No personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of Baghdadi’s fighters and companions were killed with him,” Trump announced, adding that the U.S. recovered “highly sensitive” materials related to ISIS. “You are the very best anywhere in the world,” Trump later said of the U.S. forces.
Trump said al-Baghdadi died while being chased down by U.S. forces in a tunnel, and that the ISIS leader was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.”
The Washington Post’s headline calling ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi an “austere religious scholar” is “sick and repulsive,” Fox News host Sean Hannity said Sunday, following the confirmation of his death at the hands of U.S. special forces.
Al-Baghdadi, who took over as the head of ISIS after his predecessor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed in 2010, was said to have detonated a suicide vest as U.S. special forces closed in. Troops were sent to attack a compound in northern Syria where al-Baghdadi was located, according to a U.S. defense official.
No U.S. Special Operations forces were harmed or killed during the mission, and Trump claimed the operation had been in the works for several weeks.
Hannity called al-Baghdadi an “evil SOB” whom the awesome might of the American military finally defeated. He wrote that the Washington Post needed to be “educated” about the horrors he perpetrated upon innocent people.
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“An ‘austere religious scholar’? ‘Dead at 48’? No—he was cornered by the greatest toughest best military heroes on earth!! How about we killed the evil SOB. This is exactly why America will never trust these mainstream corrupt fake news outlets ever again,” Hannity tweeted.
“Let me educate the Washington Post. Al-Baghdadi was the leader of ISIS. The terror organization that is responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people,” he continued.
Hannity also claimed ISIS forces took pleasure in torturing their victims and shamed the Washington Post for trying to paint al-Baghdadi as anything other than a terrorist.
“ISIS terrorists take pleasure in beheadings and burning people alive in cages,” he wrote. “They use cars and trucks to mow down innocent people. To describe Al-Baghdadi as an ‘austere religious scholar’ is sick and repulsive.”
“Regarding our al-Baghdadi obituary, the headline should never have read that way and we changed it quickly,” Washington Post Vice President of Communications Kristine Coratti Kelly told Fox News earlier.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a civil rights icon whose five decades in Congress were tarnished in his final years in office, died Sunday of natural causes at the age of 90, according to several friends.
His death comes after a long and illustrious career that spanned more than 50 years and 27 terms in office but ended in 2018 with a resignation amidst claims of sexual harassment and verbal abuse of employees and misuse of taxpayer funds to cover-up those claims.
Conyers’ tenure was a remarkable 53-year-run during which the lawmaker, the son of a well-known labor lawyer in Detroit, compiled a near-record legacy of civil rights activism, longevity and advocacy for the poor and underprivileged.
He died with the sixth-longest tenure in congressional history.
“For a long time he was black America’s congressman,” said Sam Riddle, a longtime family friend and consultant to the Conyers family, who confirmed the death Sunday. “On the streets of Detroit, he’ll be mourned.”
Conyers was born in Detroit and graduated from Northwestern High School. After a tour of duty with the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Conyers returned home to earn bachelor’s and law degrees from Wayne State University.
His law practice and work in the auto plants in Detroit led him to the office of former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, where he worked as a legislative assistant for three years. But by 1964, at the age of 35, Conyers went after a seat of his own in Congress, winning the first of 27 general elections and serving portions of Detroit and some surrounding Wayne County suburbs for the next five decades.
He may not have had many bills that carried his name — only 26 of the 712 bills he introduced became law, according to the Library of Congress — but he fought for issues of civil rights and social justice, including seeking reparations for the descendants of African-American slaves, modifying the mandatory sentences for those convicted of non-violent drug crimes, defending assaults on the Voting Rights Act, reforming laws that put juvenile offenders in prison for life and calling for investigations into police brutality of African-American men.
And he was the key sponsor of the bill, introduced each session for 20 years, that designated the third Monday of January as a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Conyers introduced the bill four days after King was assassinated in 1968, but it wasn’t signed into law until 1989.
In the thick of the civil rights battles, Conyers walked alongside King and other leaders of the movement in Selma, Ala., to bring equal voting rights to blacks.
In 2015, during his 50th year in Congress, Conyers told the Washington Post that King was one of the most important historical figures in history.
“I felt the civil rights movement was a powerful chapter in American history, King to me is the outstanding international leader of the 20th century without ever holding office,” he said. “He advanced us forward even though there was a terrible loss of life and violence and injustice. But Martin Luther King Jr. moved us in a way that changed history.”
He moved among those involved in the disturbance in Detroit in August 1967, urging calm. And he burnished his civil rights record even more by hiring icon Rosa Parks after she moved from Alabama to Detroit. The secretary and receptionist job in Conyers’ Detroit office was a job she held until her retirement in 1988.
Career ends amidst a sex scandal
Despite facing a rising chorus of voices demanding he step down because of the sexual harassment claims, Conyers, D-Detroit, refused to do so for several months in 2017. The scandal was a swift and crushing fall from grace for the longest-serving active member of Congress.
Conyers, 90, resigned after an article on BuzzFeed.com detailed a secret settlement of more than $27,000 with a former staffer who accused him of making sexual advances toward her and paying her out of funds from his taxpayer-supported office.
Within days, several other women had come forward with accusations against Conyers, who, despite his express denials that he harassed anyone, saw House leaders and members of his own party abandon him, with three of the four Democrats in the Michigan delegation calling for him to resign.
In addition to Marion Brown, the staffer who received the settlement, six other women claimed they either experienced or saw him touching and rubbing women in his office, making sexual advances toward them or making inappropriate remarks. One of them filed a lawsuit against him early this year and then withdrew it, saying she didn’t want to hurt Conyers’ reputation.
Another woman, Washington lawyer Melanie Sloan, also told the Free Press that Conyers had verbally mistreated her, forced her to babysit his children and, on one occasion, showed up at a meeting with her at his office in his underwear —though she didn’t consider it sexual harassment.
From accusation to resignation, Conyers’ colleagues went from being warily supportive, urging caution while an investigation by the House Ethics Committee was completed to issuing outright calls for his resignation, even from at least one fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus,which he helped to create in 1971.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who is the third-ranking Democrat in the House and had been a colleague of Conyers’ on the Congressional Black Caucus since 1993, called for him to resign shortly after similar calls by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Conyers’ lawyer, Arnold Reed, of Southfield, had reiterated on several occasions that the congressman was not ready to resign and wanted to see the ethics investigation completed.
But with allegations swirling not only over the harassment claims but his use of taxpayer funds to pay at least one settlement, he abruptly stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, a position he had held for more than two decades.
Then — with media reports that some members of the caucus were privately urging him to resign — he suddenly quit Washington, missing several votes, including one mandating sexual harassment training for members, as he headed back to Detroit and his family.
Conyers record in Congress
During his time in office, which he won with huge margins ever two years like clockwork, Conyers was considered one of the most liberal members of Congress, with a 100% rating from the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign.
The conservative Freedom Works gave him a 15% rating, while the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity give him ratings of 8% and 6% respectively.
Conyers, however, had already come under scrutiny twice from the House Ethics Committee in Congress for possible transgressions in his office.
In 2003, the Free Press reported on complaints from six unnamed Conyers aides who said they were forced to work on various campaigns, including a failed legislative campaign for Conyers’ wife, Monica, on government time. A follow-up Ethics Committee report, however, focused on allegations that the congressman used staff to babysit his sons, help his wife with her law studies and chauffeur him to private events.
Conyers’ office denied the accusations and eventually reached a deal to ensure staff knew where their responsibilities began and ended.
In 2014, Conyers nearly didn’t get the chance to run for reelection because of irregularities in the petitions he filed to run for office. Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett said he had used ineligible people to gather signatures, but a federal court disagreed and the state Legislature passed a law that people who collected signatures didn’t need to be registered voters.
Free Press Washington Bureau reporter Todd Spangler contributed to this report.
Contact Kathleen Gray: email@example.com or on Twitter @michpoligal
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He told the Mail On Sunday: “Just for the record, my arrest was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. It probably saved my life.”
Townshend explained that he had been putting off having a bowel cancer check until cops raided his home.
He added: “While I was waiting for the police to go through my computers I decided to have that long-postponed colonoscopy. The doctor showed me the polyp. He said ‘this would have killed you in six months’. So it sort of saved my life.”
Townshend, who survived abuse as a child, said the stigma of his brush with the law still haunts him.
He added: “It’s something I think about a lot. I’m very much involved in supporting charities that deal with the consequences of the sexual abuse of children, including those that are photographed. So no, I don’t think it has passed.”
In Northern California wine country, authorities ordered 2,000 people to evacuate as a wildfire burned 49 buildings and exploded to 25 square miles. Authorities said on Thursday night that the fire is 5% contained. (Oct. 25) AP, AP
SAN FRANCISCO – Close to 200,000 Northern California residents, many of them left in the dark by a third power shutdown in a month, have been ordered to leave their homes as historic winds fueled an explosion of wildfires in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, shut off power to an estimated 2.3 million people across 38 counties starting Saturday evening in an effort to avoid having its equipment spark fires amid dry conditions and powerful winds. But the precautionary move did not prevent the Kincade Fire from igniting late Wednesday, and early indications point to malfunctioning PG&E equipment as the cause of it.
The blaze has now grown to 30,000 acres and was only 10% contained as of Sunday morning, forcing authorities to impose mandatory evacuations for 180,000 residents in Sonoma County, best known for its wine production.
Flames also flared up on both sides of Interstate 80 near the Carquinez Bridge in the city of Vallejo, 20 miles north of Oakland, forcing the freeway to be shut down in both directions and the nearby California State University Maritime Academy to be evacuated.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency as the extreme weather conditions significantly heightened the risk of wildfires.
Concerns that the winds could blow embers and spread the Kincade Fire across a major highway prompted the evacuation orders covering parts of Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that was devastated by wine country fires two years ago.
“This is the largest evacuation that any of us … can remember,” the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office tweeted Sunday morning in English and Spanish, warning later that the winds were starting to whip up again.
The large expansion in the number of people told to leave their homes, from 90,000 Saturday night, reflected the increasingly dangerous conditions created by the winds picking up.
On Sunday morning, the National Weather Service reported wind gusts topped 90 mph in Healdsburg Hills North. Winds could lead to “erratic fire behavior” and send embers for miles, Cal Fire warned.
The wind event expected to peak early Sunday would likely be the strongest in several years, PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel said.
More than 3,000 firefighters with nearly 300 engines and 10 helicopters were battling the blaze, which had destroyed 79 structures. No fatalities have been reported.
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said his deputies have encountered resistance from from some residents in the evacuation zone determined to stay in their homes, and he again made a call for them to heed warnings and leave. Essick also said the exodus has gone smoothly.
“Although I’ve heard people express concerns that we are evacuating too many people, I think those concerns are not valid at this point,” said Essick, who noted 24 people died in the 2017 fires.
As if a reminder of the threat the current fire represents were necessary, photos of the popular Soda Rock Winery outside Healdsburg engulfed in flames spread through social Sunday. Some of the winery’s buildings traced to 1869.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. PG&E equipment has been blamed for some of California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfires the last two years, and the utility acknowledged a broken jumper wire was found on a transmission tower near where the Kincade Fire started.
The company said this third wave of blackouts would affect about 940,000 homes and businesses for 48 hours or longer. Most of the impacted customers are in the Bay Area, along with some in the Sierra foothills.
In Southern California, which was also the subject of preventive outages late last week, crews in the Santa Clarita area north of Los Angeles had made progress battling the Tick Fire.
That blaze, which began Thursday, was 65% contained after burning 4,615 acres and destroying 22 structures. The vast majority of the 50,000 residents who were forced to leave their homes have been allowed to return as winds tapered off.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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