(LOS ANGELES) — Wildfire scientists and fire officials are pleading with people to forego fireworks this Fourth of July, as unprecedented heat waves and drought conditions have elevated fire risk in the western United States.
In an open letter published this week in The Conversation, an online publication for academics and researchers, more than 150 scientists said they are “gravely concerned about the potential for humans to accidentally start fires” in the West, as extreme heat, record-setting drought and dry vegetation are “setting the stage for widespread fire activity.”
“We urge people to skip the fireworks this July 4th and to avoid other activities that could start an unintentional wildfire,” the letter stated. “This will be critical for a safe Independence Day holiday, good practice for the rest of the fire season, and one way we can adapt to more safely live in increasingly flammable landscapes.”
The number of wildfires caused by humans spikes on the Fourth of July, particularly in the West, according to a 2020 study published in the journal MDPI.
Nationwide, nearly 30% of all fires started by fireworks from 2014 to 2018 were reported on the Fourth of July, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Half of reported fires on the holiday during that time were started by fireworks.
But fireworks aren’t the only cause for concern this fire season.
“With this year’s tinder-dry grasslands and parched forests, sparks from anything — a cigarette, a campfire, a power line, even a mower blade hitting a rock — could ignite a wildfire, with deadly consequences,” the scientists wrote in The Conversation.
Over 90% of the West is currently considered to be in a drought, with record-breaking heat in the Northwest leading to “worsening drought conditions across the region,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
A day after declaring a statewide drought emergency, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte asked residents to “please use caution outdoors” ahead of the holiday weekend.
“Montana’s facing critical fire weather conditions, and it’s going to take all hands on deck to reduce the risk of wildfires,” the governor said in a video statement Friday.
Several communities in Colorado have canceled Fourth of July fireworks displays amid elevated fire risk, according to ABC Denver affiliate KMGH-TV. Many Arizona cities are doing the same, ABC Phoenix affiliate KNXV-TV reported.
In Utah, several cities have already banned fireworks due to the drought, ABC Salt Lake City affiliate KTVX-TV reported. Officials in Ada County, Idaho, have also restricted fireworks, according to ABC Boise affiliate KIVI-TV.
“Those aerial fireworks can land anywhere, and they can travel great distances,” Idaho Department of Lands Fire Management Bureau Chief Josh Harvey said during a press briefing Thursday in which state officials urged people not to set off fireworks amid the extreme conditions. “Please do not use aerial fireworks anywhere in the state.”
(NEW YORK) — Hurricane Elsa, the first of the Atlantic season, could take many paths when it reaches the United States, from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast to Florida — including Surfside, where rescue operations are ongoing following last week’s condo collapse.
The good news is the latest guidance on Friday evening shows the forecast track shifting west and avoiding a direct hit on Miami. Any potential impacts from Elsa are much lower than 24 hours ago, but the chance for heavy rain, gusty winds and scattered thunderstorms remain.
Elsa continues to race across the eastern Caribbean Sea as a Category 1 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph. Friday evening it was moving very quickly to the west at 30 mph.
Elsa crossed over St. Lucia Friday morning after blowing through Barbados, where it brought wind gusts of 86 mph.
A hurricane warning is now in effect for Jamaica and a hurricane watch has been issued for eastern Cuba.
By late Saturday morning, conditions will begin deteriorating across parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti as Elsa closes in.
The latest forecast still has Elsa weakening to a tropical storm after hitting Cuba and then turning northward over the southeast Gulf of Mexico into Monday and potentially bringing notable impacts to Florida’s Gulf Coast later Monday into Tuesday.
Elsa could potentially impact the ongoing rescue efforts in Miami-Dade County following last week’s deadly condo collapse
As of Friday at least 20 people have been confirmed dead and 128 others remain unaccounted for.
The first rain bands in South Florida, including Miami, are expected Monday morning.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said crews are securing equipment, preparing for the possible impact.
But Florida may be spared from a major hit. With several days still to go, Elsa could take other paths, either hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast states or staying east of Florida and impacting the Carolinas.
“Unfortunately for my teammates, my culinary skills do not match my nationality. At least Shane and Oleg with whom I have already lived were warned this time. Creation so French today: chocolate crepe, strawberries, (how’s that a tortilla?),” the translated tweet said.
The 43-year-old first shared the video Monday and as the floating disc of dough made its rounds on social media, comments varied with some hailing the snack as hilarious and original, to others calling it dismal and disappointing.
Although the recipe may not be Le Cordon Bleu-worthy, Pesquet gets serious points for creativity and credit for the first known crepe served in space.
(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden has announced his support for the recommendation that prosecution of sexual assaults and sexual harassment cases be removed from the military chain of command in favor of independent prosecutors to handle those cases.
Recommended by an independent civilian panel that looked at sexual assault in the military, the change has been long been supported by advocates for sexual assault victims who say it will improve the handling of sexual assault allegations.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had already announced that he backed the same recommendation made by the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault on the Military when the group presented him with recommendations.
“I strongly support Secretary Austin’s announcement that he is accepting the core recommendations put forward by the Independent Review Commission on Military Sexual Assault (IRC), including removing the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault from the chain of command and creating highly specialized units to handle these cases and related crimes,” Biden said in a statement released Friday.
“Sexual assault is an abuse of power and an affront to our shared humanity,” he added. “And sexual assault in the military is doubly damaging because it also shreds the unity and cohesion that is essential to the functioning of the U.S. military and to our national defense.”
“Today’s announcement is the beginning, not the end of our work,” Biden said. “This will be among the most significant reforms to our military undertaken in recent history, and I’m committed to delivering results.”
Biden said he looked forward to working with Congress “to implement these necessary reforms and promote a work environment that is free from sexual assault and harassment for every one of our brave service members.”
The change to remove the military chain of command from prosecutions has been the centerpiece of legislation championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., for the last decade.
Recently, Gillibrand has received bipartisan support for a bill that has been previously voted down and not backed by the Pentagon.
But Gillibrand’s bill has not received the support of key lawmakers on the Armed Services Committees who are opposed to the removal of the chain of command from all felony cases, not just sexual assault prosecutions.
While Biden expressed support for the change in military sexual assault prosecutions, ahead of Friday’s announcement two senior administration officials seemed to indicate that Biden does not support broader changes in Gillibrand’s bill.
The officials said the independent panel recommends that the changes be enacted by Congress this year but that they not go into effect until 2023 to help build the infrastructure needed to bring special victims prosecutors on board.
“We reject the notion that shifting legal decisions about prosecution from command to prosecutors diminishes the role of those commanders,” said one of the officials.
“We believe, instead, that it enhances their role and places them in the lead of taking care of their people — the number one job of commanders — and creating climates of no tolerance for sexual assault, sexual harassment, and related crimes” the official added.
(NEW YORK) — Thursday marked a major pandemic milestone — air travel exceeded pre-pandemic levels for the first time as people took to the skies for the July 4th holiday.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported it screened 2,147,090 nationwide Thursday, surpassing the checkpoint volume for the same day in 2019 by 58,330.
It’s a remarkable recovery from the height of the pandemic when fewer than 100,000 people were flying in the U.S. each day.
Experts predict airlines will carry the most passengers since the start of the pandemic this weekend.
Domestic destinations like Las Vegas, Miami and Orlando are the most popular, according to the travel booking site Hopper. The Caribbean and Mexico are the most popular international destinations, according to Hopper economist Adit Damodarn.
“July 4th is the most searched weekend of summer 2021 thus far,” Damodarn said.
American Airlines is operating nearly 5,500 daily flights between Thursday and Monday, with the busiest travel days being Thursday and Friday, a spokesperson said.
United Airlines expects to fly 2 million customers from Thursday to Tuesday, with Thursday and Monday anticipated to be its busiest days. Delta Air Lines said approximately 2.2 million customers are expected to fly with the airline between Friday and Tuesday.
The busiest airports will be Chicago O’Hare, LAX, and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, according to Hopper. The busiest day to depart is Friday and the busiest day to return will be Monday.
“Travel is back,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told ABC News.
“July 1 is going to be the busiest day since COVID started, but it’ll only have that record for four days because July 5 is going to break it. It’s just another indication of how we really are on the road to recovery,” Kirby said.
TSA warned of staffing shortages at more than 100 airports last month and continues to ask for volunteers to help meet demand.
“Because of the fact that you know there are shortage and staffing, you know they’re going to be long lines, just be patient,” Everett Kelley, president of AFGE, the union that represents Transportation Security Officers, told ABC.
TSA has said it hopes to hire 6,000 new officers to handle the summer travel boost.
It has resorted to offering recruitment incentives such as $1,000 to officers who accept employment with the agency.
They say they are prepared to handle the increased traveler volume this weekend.
(SURFSIDE, Fla.) — At least 20 people, including three children, have been confirmed dead and 128 others remain unaccounted for since a 12-story residential building partially collapsed in South Florida’s Miami-Dade County last week.
The partial collapse occurred around 1:15 a.m. on June 24 at the Champlain Towers South condominium in the small, beachside town of Surfside, about 6 miles north of Miami Beach. Approximately 55 of the oceanfront complex’s 136 units were destroyed, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Raide Jadallah. Since then, hundreds of first responders have been carefully combing through the debris in hopes of finding survivors.
Two more bodies were pulled from the rubble on Thursday night, including that of a 7-year-old girl who was the daughter of a Miami firefighter, according to Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. The firefighter was not part of the crew that discovered the girl’s body but he was notified, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Chief Alan Cominsky.
“It goes without saying that every night since this last Wednesday has been immensely difficult,” Levine Cava said during a press briefing in Surfside on Friday morning. “But last night was uniquely different. It was truly different and more difficult for our first responders.”
Meanwhile, 188 people who were living or staying in the condominium at the time of the disaster have been accounted for and are safe, according to Levine Cava, who has stressed that the figures are “very fluid” and “continue to change.” The number of those accounted for has gone up as detectives continue to audit the list of people reported missing, a development that Levine Cava called “very good news.”
However, no survivors have been discovered in the rubble of the building since the morning it partially collapsed, and the hope that more people would be found alive appeared to be fading Friday.
Cominsky said rescue workers are “emotional” after the discovery of a first responder’s own daughter, which “takes a toll.” But he said that won’t stop them from continuing to search for those who are still missing.
“I just was hoping that we would have some survivors,” Cominsky said at the press briefing on Friday morning.
City of Miami Department of Fire Rescue Chief Joseph Zahralban later confirmed in a statement that a member of the team lost his 7-year-old daughter in the disaster.
The massive search and rescue operation, now in its ninth day, was temporarily halted for much of Thursday due to safety concerns regarding the structural integrity of the still-standing section of the building. Movement in the pile of rubble as well as in the remaining structure prompted the hourslong pause, according to Scott Nacheman, a structure specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue support team.
Structural engineers, who have been on site monitoring the situation, are currently planning for the likely demolition of the rest of the condominium amid the ongoing search and rescue mission, according to Levine Cava. Nacheman, who is helping develop those contingency plans, told reporters it would be “weeks” before a “definitive timeline” is available.
The structure was cleared by crews last week, and all search and rescue resources have since been shifted to focusing on the pile of rubble. But the two sites are side-by-side and the remaining building has posed challenges for the rescuers trying to locate any survivors or human remains in the wreckage.
“Given our ongoing safety concerns about the integrity of the building, we’re continuing to restrict access to the collapse zone,” Levine Cava said during a press briefing in Surfside on Thursday evening.
Shortly after search and rescue efforts resumed Thursday evening, the Miami-Dade County mayor noted that the crews “looked really, really excited to get back out there.”
Levine Cava told reporters on Friday morning that structural engineers are working to expand the search area as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so.
“Here we are, day nine,” she said. “Our first responders have been hard at work, as they have been this entire time, continuing to search through the pile that is accessible to them.”
Heat, humidity, heavy rain, strong winds and lightning storms have also made the conditions difficult for rescuers, periodically forcing them to pause their round-the-clock efforts in recent days. Officials are monitoring weather systems in the region as the Atlantic hurricane season ramps up.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said his office is beginning to prepare a potential state of emergency declaration due to Hurricane Elsa, the first of the Atlantic season, which could possibly hit Surfside. The storm’s track is not yet clear, but DeSantis said tropical force winds could arrive in South Florida as early as Sunday night. So officials are making the necessary preparations to ensure that both the search area and the remaining structure in Surfside is protected.
“This is just what we do but we are adding the special emphasis on this site because we understand the sensitivities involved,” DeSantis said during the press briefing on Friday morning.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden traveled to Surfside on Thursday to meet with officials, first responders, search and rescue teams, as well as families of the victims. Recalling the 1972 car accident that killed his first wife and 1-year-old daughter as well as badly injuring his two sons, the president told reporters: “It’s bad enough to lose somebody but the hard part, the really hard part, is to not know whether they’ll survive or not.”
The cause of the partial collapse to a building that has withstood decades of hurricanes remains unknown and is under investigation.
Built in the 1980s, the Champlain Towers South was up for its 40-year recertification and had been undergoing roof work — with more renovations planned — when it partially collapsed, according to officials.
A structural field survey report from October 2018, which was among hundreds of pages of public documents released by the town of Surfside late Sunday, said the waterproofing below the condominium’s pool deck and entrance drive was failing and causing “major structural damage to the concrete structural slab below these areas.”
A slew of lawsuits against the Champlain Towers South Condo Association have already been filed on behalf of survivors and victims, alleging the partial collapse could have been avoided and that the association knew or should have known about the structural damage. A spokesperson for the association told ABC News they cannot comment on pending litigation but that their “focus remains on caring for our friends and neighbors during this difficult time.”
The association’s board released a statement Friday saying its surviving members “have concluded that, in the best interest of all concerned parties, an independent Receiver should be appointed to oversee the legal and claims process.”
“We know that answers will take time as part of a comprehensive investigation,” the statement continued, “and we will continue to work with city, state, local, and federal officials in their rescue efforts, and to understand the causes of this tragedy.”
(NEW YORK) — As Americans flock back to air travel, airlines are scrambling to retrain crew and staff airport operations positions — the job hasn’t been easy with flight cancellations piling up.
Southwest canceled 2,687 flights in June according to flight tracking site Flightaware.com. In that same period, United canceled 189, Delta 106, and American canceled 2,423.
Southwest has blamed weather and a temporary IT outage in mid-June, but documents obtained by ABC News and conversations with flight crews detail more than just weather problems.
“Southwest is facing labor shortages, from the ramp to customer service agents to our flight attendants, pilots, and a lot of those are, they’re having trouble filling,” Southwest captain and president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Casey Murray told ABC News.
American has explained its recent problems citing staffing shortages, telling customers to expect up to 80 cancellations a day through July 15.
Besides cancellations, Southwest also saw 34,250 delayed flights in June, significantly higher than United which saw just 8,440 delayed flights during the same period. Delta delayed 11,057 flights in June, while American Airlines delayed 20,418, according to FlightAware.
Southwest flight attendant and union president Lyn Montgomery has been flying for Southwest for 29 years, and says this is the worst she’s ever seen.
“It’s the lowest morale we’ve ever seen. We are normally a pretty happy workforce who work for Southwest Airlines and have always taken pride in that, but right now morale is at the lowest it’s ever been,” Montgomery told ABC News.
As Americans began to travel for Father’s Day weekend, more than 20% of Southwest flight attendants called in sick, according to internal documents obtained by ABC News. Many of those sick calls were due to fatigue, according to Montgomery.
The airline is now offering flight crews up to double pay to pick up open shifts through July 7, the airline acknowledged.
On Thursday, Southwest had scheduled 3,445 flights scheduled but canceled 212 of them.
In a statement to ABC News Southwest said: “Our People are expert problem solvers persevering with fewer options available to them right now as we deal with a combination of disruptive weather, very full flights, and a flight schedule built for nonstop, point-to-point travel. We’re aware of the frustration this disruption is having on our Employees and Customers. We apologize and we are dedicated to doing better.”
Captain Murray said as more pilots come out of training, cancellations should subside. Southwest does have new flight attendants in training as well, but airline training programs take weeks to months before new hires work their first shifts.
(WASHINGTON) — The government took the first steps to end surprise medical billing on Thursday, getting the ball rolling on a law that was passed under former President Donald Trump’s administration and takes effect this January.
The law bans health care providers from issuing surprising bills that are shockingly high because patients unknowingly got out-of-network procedures even though they were at doctors’ offices or hospitals that take their insurance. One example of the practice is a patient getting surgery at a hospital that’s in-network but then being billed thousands of dollars because the anesthesiologist who put them under was out-of-network.
Starting in January, instead of being charged a high out-of-network rate without advanced notice, the new rule issued by the Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday mandates that hospitals and doctors’ offices notify patients when they’re receiving out-of-network care and charge people an in-network price for it. It also creates a complaint system to report surprise billing.
“It bans high out-of-network charges that come without advanced notice,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a press conference on Thursday.
The enactment of this law is a big deal on both sides of the aisle. Becerra called it bipartisan hallmark legislation “only second to the Affordable Care Act” in the “major difference” it will make in Americans’ lives and healthcare. The bill, pushed by the Trump administration and written with Republican and Democrat input in Congress, was signed last year.
About one of every five trips to the emergency room and one of every six inpatient hospital stays result in care from an out-of-network provider and subsequent surprise medical bills, according to one 2020 study.
Thursday’s rule is the first of major regulatory interpretation of the new law and, along with future rules to come, will set the guidelines for how to eliminate surprise medical billing, both for patients and for health care providers.
“We’re striving to make everything as simple, straightforward and clear as we can so that everyone can assert their rights and know what they should and shouldn’t do,” Becerra said.
“But it’s all critical because it prevents people from being blindsided with some of these charges.”
Here’s what the first rule does:
It forces health care providers to give notice of out-of-network care and get consent for it. In emergency situations, patients would be billed in-network rates for care, regardless of whether it’s in-network under their health insurance plan. “Health care providers and facilities must provide patients with a plain-language consumer notice explaining that patient consent is required to receive care on an out-of-network basis before that provider can bill at the higher out-of-network rate,” HHS said in a statement.
It sets up an arbitration process for patients to report hospitals and doctors who issue surprise medical bills. The health care providers can then be billed thousands of dollars in fines if they continue to issue those surprise bills.
It sets up how much hospitals and doctors should be charging for out-of-network care in unexpected settings. It will be a standard, in-network rate, and while patients will still be responsible for paying it, rates aren’t expected to be as astronomically high. “Patient cost-sharing, such as co-insurance or a deductible, cannot be higher than if such services were provided by an in-network doctor, and any coinsurance or deductible must be based on in-network provider rates,” HHS said in the statement.
The rule also doesn’t address ambulance rides, which experts say remains a hole in surprise medical billing. Over half of all emergency ambulance rides were charged out-of-network rates in 2018, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the data. Cynthia Cox, vice president of KFF, also pointed out on Thursday that patients might unknowingly give “consent” to hospitals for out-of-network charges by signing forms that are put in front of them.
“Still making my way through the rule, but there is some good and bad news for patients in here,” Cox tweeted. “The good includes that emergencies are defined broadly & retroactive ER coverage denial is no longer allowed. The bad is that some patients might inadvertently sign away their rights.”
Senior HHS officials described it as primarily focused on patients and their financial liabilities after surprise medical billing, acknowledging that many questions still need to be answered on how it will work for insurance companies and doctors offices or hospitals — clarity that is expected in future rules.
“We want to make sure that we put enough meat on this bone so that no one is surprised about how it needs to be implemented, not just the patients but also the providers and insurers. And so we certainly have to work on this whole issue of arbitration, and the cost, there will be a need to make further clarifications on definitions,” Becerra said.
(WASHINGTON) — Over the objections of three conservative justices, the US Supreme Court has turned away an appeal from a Washington State flower shop that violated state anti-discrimination law by refusing to serve a same-sex couple on religious grounds.
The decision means a California Supreme Court judgment against Arlene’s Flowers and owner Barronelle Stutzman will stand. In 2013, Stutzman refused to arrange wedding flowers for a pair of long-time customers — Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed — saying that doing so would violate her religious beliefs.
“After Curt and I were turned away from our local flower shop, we cancelled the plans for our dream wedding because we were afraid it would happen again. We had a small ceremony at home instead,” said Robert Ingersoll in a statement. “We hope this decision sends a message to other LGBTQ people that no one should have to experience the hurt that we did.”
With help from the ACLU, the couple sued the shop under Washington’s anti-discrimination law, which says businesses that are open to the general public cannot refuse to serve someone based on sexual orientation, even on the basis of sincere religious beliefs.
After years of legal proceedings, the state’s highest court sided with the couple. In 2018, the US Supreme Court remanded an appeal from Arlene’s Flowers back to the state for a second look. A year later, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed its original decision.
“The adjudicatory bodies that considered this case did not act with religious animus when they ruled that the florist and her corporation violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination by declining to sell wedding flowers to a gay couple, and they did not act with religious animus when they ruled that such discrimination is not privileged or excused by the United States Constitution or the Washington Constitution,” the court wrote.
“The State of Washington bars discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. We therefore hold that the conduct for which Stutzman was cited and fined in this case—refusing her commercially marketed wedding floral services to Ingersoll and Freed because theirs would be a same-sex wedding—constitutes sexual orientation discrimination under the [law],” the Washington high court wrote in 2019.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch indicated that they would have taken up the case to review the judgment against the shop. The justices who voted to reject the case did not elaborate.
Lawyers for Stutzman in a statement online called the decision “devastating news.”
“The Supreme Court has once again said that critical nondiscrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people are legally enforceable and has set a strong and definitive precedent,” said Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group.
Earlier this week, the court delivered another win for LGBT rights advocates by rejecting the appeal of a Virginia school board seeking to impose a transgender bathroom ban. The move means schools in at least five states can no longer discriminate on the basis of gender identity in the use of restroom facilities.
The Court has sought to balance religious liberty and LGBT rights in a number of recent decisions.
The justices unanimously sided with Catholic Social Services this month in its dispute with the City of Philadelphia over discrimination against LGBTQ people in screening parents for foster care.
(NEW YORK) — Hurricane Elsa, the first of the Atlantic season, could take many paths when it reaches the United States, from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast to Florida — including Surfside, where rescue operations are ongoing.
Elsa is over St. Lucia Friday morning after blowing through Barbados, where it brought wind gusts of 86 mph.
A hurricane warning has been issued for Haiti, where heavy rain, flash flooding and rough winds are expected when Elsa charges in Saturday afternoon, likely as a Category 1 hurricane.
By Sunday night into Monday, Elsa will pass over Cuba as a tropical storm with heavy rain, flash flooding and 65 mph winds.
On Monday, Elsa will reemerge in the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm with winds of about 65 mph.
By Monday evening, Elsa will approach the Florida Keys as a strong tropical storm with winds near 65 mph.
The National Hurricane Center forecasts Elsa will move up the west coast of Florida, from Key West to Tampa, Monday night through Tuesday night.
Elsa could potentially impact the ongoing rescue efforts in Miami-Dade County following last week’s deadly condo collapse.
As of Friday at least 18 people, including two children, have been confirmed dead and 145 others remain unaccounted for.
The first rain bands in South Florida, including Miami, are expected Monday morning.
But Florida may be spared from a major hit. With several days still to go, Elsa could take other paths, either hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast states or staying east of Florida and impacting the Carolinas.