In devastated California, President Donald Trump pledges federal help – and delivers blame

CHICO, CALIFORNIA (WASHINGTON POST) – President Donald Trump toured a scene of surreal devastation on Saturday (Nov 17), picking his way around burned trees and the hulking skeletons of vehicles as he pledged federal resources to help Californians recover from the most deadly and destructive wildfire in state history.

“This is very sad to see, but we’re all going to work together,” Mr Trump said after a walking tour of a burned-out RV park and housing tract in Paradise.

As he spoke, a thick haze of smoke hung in the air. Stone and brick chimneys – all that remained of some homes – were visible from Mr Trump’s motorcade.

The president also criticised forest-management decisions that he suggested are at least partly to blame for the disaster, even though the fires are considered to be more related to a record drought, high winds and a changing climate.

But unlike earlier comments in which he threatened to withhold federal funding if changes were not made, Mr Trump provided a reassuring note.

“You’ve got the federal government”, at the ready, he promised.

Referring to the staggering loss of life – more than 70 deaths have been recorded so far, and that number is expected to rise – Mr Trump sounded shaken.

“As far as the lives are concerned, nobody knows quite yet. We’re up to a certain number, but we have got a lot of people that aren’t accounted for yet. Right now, we want to take care of the people who are so badly hurt,” Mr Trump said.

California Govenor Jerry Brown walked with Mr Trump and told reporters that the state’s requests are being answered.

“It’s just the big, massive cleanup after a terrible tragedy,” said Mr Brown, a frequent Trump critic. “The federal government can provide some help, and a lot of money and some expertise. We’ll all pull through it together.”

Mr Trump toured fire-damaged areas in both Northern and Southern California, making a rare visit to a state he has often demonised as a “sanctuary” for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Mr Trump’s one-day visit to the state thrust him into a role of uniter and consoler that he has never occupied comfortably. The president seemed moved by the scale of the loss around him and was solicitous of Mr Brown and govenor-elect Gavin Newsom. But he said more about the firefighters and other rescuers deployed to the fire than about the victims.

At an incident command centre in Chico, Mr Trump called the fire “a monster” and praised rescuers.”They’re out there fighting, and they’re fighting like hell,” Mr Trump said. “It’s like total devastation.”

The Camp Fire covers an area north of Sacramento that is the size of Chicago. Firefighters said on Saturday that it is slightly more than 50 per cent contained.

As of Saturday morning, there were 71 deaths and 9,700 homes destroyed as a result of the 150,000-acre fire, which started on Nov 8, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

Mr Trump said other countries, including Sweden, do a better job “cleaning the floor” of the forest, to reduce forest fires. He said he hopes the Camp Fire will be the last one of such size and devastation because of changes to forest-management practices.

“I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent,” Mr Trump said. “Hopefully, this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one.”

All of California is in some stage of drought or abnormally dry conditions, with much of the burned area of Butte County in moderate drought.

As Mr Trump drove from Paradise to a meeting with rescuers, local and law enforcement officials, supporters and a few protesters lined the road. One protester held aloft a sign reading, “Moron, we are in a drought.”

Governor Brown and Mr Newsom flew with Mr Trump and stood with him as he spoke to reporters aboard Air Force One.

“Yes, yes,” Mr Brown responded when asked whether the fires are linked to climate change. “We’ll let science determine this over a longer period of time,” he said. “Right now we’re collaborating on the most immediate response, and that’s very important.”

Mr Trump jumped in a few moments later: “We have different views but maybe not as different as people think.”

Mr Trump has called climate change “a hoax”, but has also said it is real.

“Trump is basically ducking the fact that climate change has to be taken in account in understanding the conditions that set the stage for the fires,” said environmentalist and former State Department official Rafe Pomerance.

“I think what he needs to do is get his facts first, then open his mouth,” said Ms Natalie Smith, 51, who evacuated her rented Paradise home. “We’ve got people up there we don’t even know if they’re alive, and he’s worried about cleaning up our forests? We’ve got thousands of people with no homes sleeping on the ground, and he’s worried about us cleaning up our forests? Really?”

On top of that, she said, Mr Trump’s visit to see the devastation tied up traffic on Saturday. “Fly over it!” Ms Smith said.

Of all the possessions she lost, she was most upset about never seeing her wedding ring and great-grandmother’s china again. “I got out with the clothes on my back and my cat in a box,” she said.

Mr Trump drew wide criticism for a tweet last week blaming the wildfires on “gross mismanagement” of California timberlands and threatening to hold back federal funding from the Democrat-led state.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor,” he wrote. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Mr Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters, called Mr Trump’s words “ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering as well as the men and women on the front lines”.

No wildfire in California history has done more damage than the Camp Fire. It burned down the forest town of Paradise, Mr Trump’s first stop after landing at a military base north of Sacramento.

The Woolsey Fire started northwest of Los Angeles the same day and has been moving toward the Pacific Coast. It has killed at least two people and destroyed 483 structures. Among the areas threatened by the fire is Thousand Oaks, which is still grieving after 12 people were killed in the Nov 7 mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill.

The list of people unaccounted for in the Camp Fire exceeded 1,000 last Friday, after officials released more than 600 names in an effort to identify those found by friends and relatives.

Signs of the wildfires were everywhere in the region Mr Trump toured.

In the morning, trucks carried modular homes north on the highway toward Chico. Local weather reports deemed the air quality “dangerous for everyone” 100 miles south of Paradise.

Mr Tony Terrano, a 47-year-old welder and fabricator from Magalia, near Paradise, thought he could defend his home with a water hose. Six days later, the water ran out, and he and his three-year-old pit bull Mo Mo fled on foot.

Firefighters spotted him, he said, and took him to a sheriff’s command centre, where he got a ride to the Red Cross shelter at the Neighbourhood Church in Chico. There, a half-dozen evacuees sat outside and watched TV news coverage of Mr Trump’s visit.

“We’re happy he’s here because we need the funding,” said Ms Allison Bazan, a 24-year-old criminal-justice student, who lost the Paradise home she and her husband had moved into three months ago. “We’d like our town to be rebuilt. People need to put political points of view aside right now if they want their town rebuilt. We need to look at this from a financial standpoint more so than personal opinion.”

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China defers Tonga's loan payments as Pacific nation signs up to Belt and Road

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – Tonga has signed up to China’s Belt and Road initiative and has received a reprieve from Beijing on the timing of debt payments shortly before an onerous schedule to repay loans was due to start.

Lopeti Senituli, political advisor to Tongan Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva, told Reuters by email on Sunday that Tonga had signed a Belt and Road memorandum of understanding, and that the concessional loan had been deferred for five years.

Tonga is one of eight island nations in the South Pacific that owe significant debt to China. The deferment came just as Tonga was set to commence principal repayments on the debt, which is expected to put severe strain on its finances.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to request for comment on Sunday.

Tonga’s financial reliance on China dates back just over a decade after deadly riots in the capital of Tonga, Nuku’alofa, destroyed much of the small Pacific nation’s central business and government districts.

The government rebuilt the city with Chinese financing, and the roughly $65 million in China’s initial loans to the island now exceeds $115 million, due to interest and additional borrowings. This represents almost one-third of Tonga’s annual gross domestic product, budget papers show

The issue of Chinese-issued debt has been at the forefront of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, held in Papua New Guinea (PNG). On Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence criticized President Xi Jinping’s flagship programme, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

While most Pacific island nations are not APEC members, their representatives were invited to attend events, and have been engaged in talks with larger regional neighbors such as China and Australia.

China’s official Belt and Road website reported last week that Fiji had made a commitment to Belt and Road, joining the likes of Samoa and PNG.

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U.S. allies counter China with alternative electricity plan for PNG

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – The United States and three of its Pacific allies said on Sunday they would work with Papua New Guinea to ensure most of the country had access to electricity by 2030, as Western powers seek to contain China’s economic influence in the region.

Leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand met in PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit to unveil the plan, which seeks to boost the power grid’s reach to 70 percent of the population from 13 percent currently.

PNG is home to 8 million people, four-fifths of whom live outside urban areas and with poor infrastructure. The developing nation has emerged as a flashpoint in Washington’s and Beijing’s competing strategic efforts to lock-in alliances in the region.

“This initiative will also be open to other partners that support principles and values which help maintain and promote a free, open, prosperous and rules based region,” a White House statement said.

The four nations did not specify what kind of power-generation would be used, or the cost of the plan. However, an Australian government spokeswoman told Reuters it would contribute A$25 million ($18.3 million) in the first year of the initiative.

China has poured investment into development projects in the region, including plans to build a large hydropower generation plant in PNG under President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road initiative.

Belt and Road was first proposed in 2013 to expand land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment from Beijing.

On Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence took direct aim at Belt and Road at an APEC address, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has for decades enjoyed largely unrivalled influence among Pacific island nations. China has only recently turned its attention to the region with a raft of bilateral financing agreements to often distressed economies.

($1 = 1.3633 Australian dollars)

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Why 85 is the new 65 in an ageing Irish workforce

Working past the traditional retirement age of 65 is becoming a growing trend in Ireland.

Almost 60,000 people aged 65 and over were listed as working in 2016, an increase of a third since 2011.

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Apec can set global direction on trade, do more in shaping rules for digital economy: PM Lee

PORT MORESBY – Leadership from a regional forum of Asia-Pacific economies is needed more than ever given mounting pressures against multilateralism and free trade, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“We can set the global direction and encourage others to follow our example of working together, rather than of going it alone,” he added.

Mr Lee spoke on Sunday (Nov 18) at a leaders’ retreat in the capital of Papua New Guinea, which is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit. The leaders were discussing current global challenges and the future of digital economy in Apec.

Apec can do much more to shape progressive digital trade rules for emerging areas in the digital domain such as e-payments and digital identity, he said.

Mr Lee began his speech by congratulating Papua New Guinea for successfully hosting the annual summit.

He noted that Apec started in 1989 as an informal gathering of 12 like-minded economies that shared a vision of an integrated, vibrant and prosperous Asia-Pacific. The grouping now has 21 members.

The hope was that member economies could cooperate on a non-binding and voluntary basis to liberalise trade, he said, adding that Apec has succeeded in this core mission.

Citing how tariffs in Apec today are a third of what they were at its founding, he said the grouping has made steady progress towards the target goals of free trade and investment that were set in Bogor, Indonesia in 1994.

He called on fellow leaders to press on with efforts to form a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

The FTAAP is a long-term goal to link Pacific Rim economies and harmonise various regional and bilateral free trade agreements.

Mr Lee said the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which will come into force in December, is an “encouraging development”.

The revised free trade pact between 11 nations, minus the United States, is seen as one of the pathways to the FTAAP.

Mr Lee also welcomed other complementary regional integration initiatives that can bring the world closer together.

Asean and six partner countries including Australia, China and Japan had agreed last week to reach a deal on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2019, a free trade pact that is seen as another pathway to the FTAAP.

Besides trade, Apec can also positively influence the emergence of the global digital economy, Mr Lee said.

He made the point that virtually every type of cross border transaction now has a digital component, such as data management, cybersecurity or internet connectivity.

Platform companies such as Alibaba and Amazon Digital are turning millions of small enterprises around the world into micro-multinationals, he said, exponentially increasing the number of participants in the digital economy.

But current trade rules have to be updated to address the increasing digitalisation of trade and accommodate more sophisticated transactions and consumers, he added.

For instance, new mechanisms to deal with cross border flows of data are needed, Mr Lee said.

At the same time, the mechanisms must allow for regulation to keep data secure and protect privacy.

Mr Lee said Japan, Australia and Singapore are co-convenors of a widely supported World Trade Organisation effort to develop new rules in e-commerce, which will provide business certainty and keep the e-commerce space open.

But Apec can do much more to advocate standards, he added.

“These progressive digital trade rules will support SMEs’ digitalisation efforts, and also facilitate investments by the big players, global digital companies,” he said, urging Apec leaders to press on with other initiatives to support businesses in adopting digital technologies.

“Our goal of a productive, innovative, and sustainable digital economy is entirely achievable,” he said.

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Martin demanding review of Dail pact

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin has doubled down on his demand for a “substantive” review of the confidence-and-supply arrangement.

Mr Martin said this review must happen before he will consider renewing the deal which underpins the Fine Gael-led Government. Speaking at the Fianna Fail President’s Dinner in Dublin, Mr Martin used the vast majority of his speech to attack Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael.

He accused Fine Gael leader of trying to “manufacture a political crisis” after a number of ministers called for the review of the confidence and supply agreement to be expedited.

He said the speeches he heard at Fine Gael’s Ard Fheis showed the objective for Fine Gael “is holding power, not what you do with it”.

“I am saying to Fine Gael, please; don’t give us any lectures about responsible politics or the need for stability,” he said.

“There is an agreed process. It requires a substantive review which should be completed. Stop trying to manufacture a political crisis and start focusing on doing your jobs.”

Mr Martin also accused the Government of “massaging” homelessness figures and said Mr Varadkar does not acknowledge a problem until it is at crisis level.

“The housing emergency is the direct result of a Government which refused to undertake even basic planning, ignored population projections and has failed to deliver on any of the four housing strategies published in the last five years,” he said.

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Why I pedal my rickshaw in Delhi’s toxic air

“My eyes hurt and I struggle to breathe while pedalling my rickshaw. My body tells me to stop and run away from Delhi’s toxic smog, but I have to keep going to earn for my family. Where else would I go? The streets are our home,” says Sanjay Kumar.

He came to Delhi five years ago from the eastern state of Bihar in search for a job, but couldn’t find success. He chose to be rickshaw puller to feed himself and send some money to his family.

That left him very little to rent a house, and he started sleeping on the streets.

“I long for a bed but I know that’s a distant dream. I long for proper meals but that too is scarce. The least I expect is to breathe clean air, but in winter months that too has become impossible. You can go to the comfort of your house, but I have to be on the street all the time,” he adds.

Air quality in the city worsens every year in November and December as farmers in the neighbouring states burn crop stubble to clear their fields. People also set off firecrackers to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali and it adds to the unhealthy cocktail of toxic gases.

Delhi has thousands of rickshaw pullers who provide last-mile connectivity to people. But as pollution levels reach 30 times the safe limit in some areas in winters, rickshaw pullers are worst affected.

Pedalling a rickshaw puts extra pressure on the lungs, and severe pollution makes the situation worse. The tiny toxic particles, known as PM2.5, can get deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream.

India’s Supreme Court also recently took notice of their plight. While hearing a pollution-related petition recently, the court told the government that advising people to stay indoors wasn’t a solution.

“They are doing heavy duty manual work. You cannot tell them that you stop your work because it is unsafe for you to work in the morning. This is a very critical situation,” the court said.

Every rickshaw puller I met was either coughing or complained about difficulty in breathing. Some of them even struggled to finish sentences. At one metro station, the smog was so thick that one could almost taste ash. And the visibility was so poor that it was impossible to see beyond a few meters.

But rickshaw pullers could still be seen on the street, trying hard to pedal in the smog.

Jai Chand Jadhav, who came to Delhi seven years ago from the eastern state of West Bengal, says taking a break is not an option.

“I earn around 300 rupees ($4 ;£3) a day and spend some of that on buying food and save the rest for my wife and two children. My family depends on me, so I have to keep working – even if I am struggling to breathe,” he says.

Mr Jadhav starts his day at 6am and goes to a nearby metro station to pick early morning commuters. He works until 11am before trying to find free food at temples and charity homes.

He spends money on buying meals only when he can’t find free food. Mr Jadhav continues to work until midnight and rests only when there are no commuters. He gets his evening meals from some restaurants which distribute leftover food to the homeless.

But it’s not always easy to find free food and going hungry is not very uncommon for the rickshaw pullers of Delhi. “I am used to sometimes pedalling my rickshaw without eating anything and I can handle that. But smog is the worst. It makes me feel like I am pedalling with a 50kg weight on my chest,” he says.

He has been unwell in the past few days and his coughing became worse the day after Diwali last week.

“I don’t understand why people set off firecrackers when the air is so bad. They go back to their homes but people like me have to suffer the consequences of their actions. People are just so insensitive in this city,” he adds.

As he continues to talk, several rickshaw pullers gather around him – each complaining about the smog. One of them is Anand Mandal, who ended his 18-hour-long work day at midnight.

“Such long working hours are really tough. My chest is burning and I struggle to breathe properly, specially while pedalling. Last year, a colleague of mine had similar symptoms for days and he ended up in a hospital and couldn’t work for months. I am really scared and praying that it doesn’t happen to me,” he says.

It’s the same story for most rickshaw pullers across the city.

Himasuddin, who started working in old Delhi two decades ago, says the air was never so bad in Delhi.

“As a rickshaw puller, I hardly contribute to pollution. Ours is a clean way of transportation. But it’s ironic that we are the worst affected from the toxic smog,” he says.

He wants the government to help rickshaw pullers.

“At the very least they can give us temporary shelter. We are dying a slow death and it’s not even our fault. Nobody cares about us as if we don’t even exist,” he says.

His frustration is understandable. The state and federal governments both routinely come up with “stay indoors” during the smog season.

But unfortunately this is not an option for Delhi’s rickshaw pullers, who have to just pedal on.

“I guess hunger is a bigger problem than pollution for us. And that’s why nobody cares. But we have to continue working no matter what,” Himasuddin adds before disappearing into the thick smog.

Pictures by Ankit Srinivas

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Democrat Andrew Gillum concedes Florida governor's race, congratulates Ron DeSantis

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Democrat Andrew Gillum, who had sought to become Florida’s first black governor, conceded on Saturday (Nov 17) as a recount of ballots neared its end, and he congratulated rival Republican Ron DeSantis, an ally of President Donald Trump.

Gillum, the liberal mayor of Tallahassee, had initially conceded the race to DeSantis, a conservative former congressman.

But Gillum later withdrew that concession when the results were close enough for an automatic recount.

On Saturday, he said that process was drawing to a close.

“This has been the journey of our lives. We’ve been so honoured by the support that we’ve received,” Gillum said in a video statement. “Stay tuned, there will be more to come. This fight for Florida continues.”

DeSantis said on Twitter, “This was a hard-fought campaign. Now it’s time to bring Florida together.”

After Gillum initially conceded the contest on election night, his subsequent calls for every vote to be counted echoed similar appeals from fellow Democrat US Senator Bill Nelson.

A recount is continuing in the race between Nelson and his challenger for the Senate seat, outgoing Republican Governor Rick Scott.

That recount has become the subject of an intense political battle with Republicans including Trump claiming without evidence that the process was marred by fraud.

Both parties and their supporters filed multiple lawsuits challenging the process, with Republicans urging a strict standard on which votes were counted while Democrats contested rules that they saw as disenfranchising voters.

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North Shore Rescue warns hikers of icy mountain conditions

Watch your step, hikers.

That’s the message from North Shore Rescue (NSR), as temperatures dip below freezing in alpine areas of the North Shore.

There may be a dearth of snow on the slopes, but the search-and-rescue organization says the trails have become treacherously icy and are advising anyone headed into the backcountry to ensure they are prepared.

“Running shoes are not appropriate footwear for these conditions, and those going on hikes should have good supportive footwear (with an aggressive tread) and micro spikes at a minimum,” wrote the team in a Facebook post on Saturday.

“If you aren’t prepared, please turn around and select an alternate route,” it added.

The team said that the sunny weekend weather has drawn a large number of people to the mountains, many of whom were observed slipping and falling on Mount Seymour’s trails and wearing inappropriate footwear.

In addition to footwear that can handle the ice, NSR recommends hikers always let someone know where they are going, plan their trip, avoid hiking alone, and always travel with the 10 essentials.

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Canmore, London, Langley ‘top’ online list of Canada’s coziest cities for 2018

Looking for a cozy getaway? One with little traffic and nature knocking on the doorstep?

Look no further than Canmore, Alta., which recently ‘topped’’s list of ‘Canada’s coziest cities for 2018.’ The website says a cozy city is “a place with attractions that provide warmth, relaxation, and community. It’s a city with a welcoming hotel at the end of the night. It’s a town that says, ‘You’re family here.’”

In making the list, which was created from hotel data, Expedia said each location had at least 100 reviews with a comfort score of 3.5 stars and higher.

Expedia then listed the top 55 cities, though it added the list was in no particular order. Yet in saying that, it listed Canmore as No. 1, with London, Ont., as No. 2 and Langley, B.C., as No. 3. Rounding out the top five were Dartmouth, N.S., and Sudbury, Ont.

In describing Canmore, Expedia wrote, “Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Canmore is a place that inspires fire pits, relaxing spas, and sights that take your breath away. Given how many glowing reviews we saw, there’s definitely something magical about it.”

It also highlighted a few top attractions:

  • With views that look out to the Three Cities mountain range and a menu that includes craft soda along with sudsy pints, Grizzly Paw Pub & Brewing Company is a top-notch cozy bar to unwind in.
  • When you’re ready to have your muscles kneaded and joints popped, there’s nothing better than a spa day. Make a date at the best in the city, Verde Day Spa, for pampering you deserve.

For London, Expedia said the Ontario city of 383,000 “offers a little bit of something for everyone seeking respite from the chill: comfort food, rare vinyl record shops, and tons of community events. If you’re looking for local stores with sweet gems any hipster would fight you for, this is the place.”

And for Langley, “With berry fields and an old-fashioned movie theatre, the quaint town of Langley is a cozy place to visit just outside of bustling Vancouver, and it got top marks from visitors.”

Provincially, British Columbia was the runaway winner, with 20 cities in the list of 55, including three in the Okanagan: West Kelowna (6th), Osoyoos (20th) and Vernon (46th).

Next was Ontario at 14, with Alberta third with six. Every province had at least one listing, though the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut were left off the list.


Kelowna to host International Indigenous Tourism Conference in 2019

Stephen Colbert offers Canadian tourism board new ad celebrating legal weed

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