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Creating fire buffers between housing and dry brush, burying spark-prone power lines and lighting more controlled burns to keep vegetation in check could give people a better chance of surviving wildfires, according to experts searching for ways to reduce growing death tolls from increasingly severe blazes in California and across the U.S. West.
Western wildfires have grown ever more lethal, a grim reality that’s been driven by more housing developments sprawling into the most fire-prone grasslands and brushy canyons, experts say. Many of the ranchers and farmers who once managed those landscapes are gone, leaving neglected terrain that has grown thick with vegetation that can explode into flames when sparked.
Killed while evacuating
That’s left communities ripe for tragedy as whipping winds and recurring drought that’s characteristic of climate change stoke wildfires like the ones raging in Northern and Southern California that have killed at least 51 people in recent days.
Hundreds of thousands of people were told to leave their homes ahead of the blazes to get out of harm’s way. Yet some experts say there’s been an over-reliance on evacuation and too little attention paid to making communities safe, as well as not enough money for controlled burns and other preventive measures.
Search crews found many victims inside their vehicles, or just next to them, overcome by flames, heat and smoke as they tried to flee. Survivors of the blaze that nearly obliterated the Northern California town of Paradise and nearby communities spoke of having minutes to escape and narrow roads made impassable by flames and traffic jams.
“There are … so many ways that can go wrong, in the warning, the modes of getting the message out, the confusion … the traffic jams,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension program.
Local safety zones
As deadly urban wildfires become more common, officials should also consider establishing “local retreat zones, local safety zones” in communities where residents can ride out the deadly firestorms if escape seems impossible, Moritz said.
That could be a community center, built or retrofitted to better withstand wildfires, which can exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving little trace of ordinary homes.
Such fire protection measures in buildings can include sprinklers, fire- and heat-resistant walls and roofs, and barriers that keep sparks out of chimneys and other openings, according to the International Code Council, a nonprofit that helps develop building codes used widely in the United States.
Buffers and buried power
Creating more buffers — whether parks, golf courses or irrigated agriculture, like the vineyards that helped keep 2017 wildfires in California’s wine country from spreading into even more towns — around new and old housing developments would help stave off wildfires threatening to overrun cities and towns.
So would burying electric power lines, which can spark and fail in the high winds that drive many of California’s fiercest fires, said Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in California.
Sparks from electrical utility equipment are suspects in the Northern California wildfire that consumed Paradise, destroying some 7,700 homes, and other deadly blazes in the state.
A proven method to prevent wildfires from getting out of control is the use of controlled burns. By intentionally lighting fires, property owners or land managers can remove dead and low-lying trees and brush, material that otherwise accumulates and can accelerate the growth of fires.
In the mid-20th century, California ranchers burned hundreds of thousands of acres annually to manage their lands, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.
That was phased out in the 1980s after California’s fire management agency stepped in to take over the burns, and by the last decade, the amount of acreage being treated had dropped to less than 10,000 acres annually, Quinn-Davidson said.
Former agricultural land that rings many towns in the state became overgrown, even as housing developments pushed deeper into those rural areas. That was the situation in the Northern California town of Redding leading up to a fire that began in July and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. It was blamed for eight deaths.
“You get these growing cities pushing out, housing developments going right up into brush and wooded areas. One ignition on a bad day, and all that is threatened,” Quinn-Davidson said. “These fires are tragic, and they’re telling us this is urgent. We can’t sit on our hands.”
Not forest fires
The latest California fires have fueled debate over the reasons for ever-more deadly wildfires, with President Donald Trump claiming in a tweet Saturday that “gross mismanagement of the forests” was the sole reason the state’s fires had become so “massive, deadly and costly.” He also threatened to withhold federal payments to the state.
However, most of California’s deadly fires of recent years have been in grasslands and brushy chaparral, Keeley said.
“Most of the fires we’ve been seeing in the last couple years that are the most destructive are not in the forest. Thinning isn’t going to change anything,” he said.
Trump’s assertion also ignored the huge federal land holdings in the state and brought a quick backlash, with the president of the California firefighters union describing it as a shameful attack on thousands of firefighters on the front lines.
Feds share the blame, cut funds
To ease tensions, the White House sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to tour fire-damaged areas and offer assistance to California Gov. Jerry Brown.
In an interview before the two-day visit, which began Wednesday, Zinke struck a conciliatory tone and said federal officials share blame for not managing public forest and rangelands aggressively enough.
“We need to work in unison to make sure we thin the forest, especially fire breaks, and make sure we have prescribed burns,” Zinke told The Associated Press. “There’s been a lack of management on Interior lands, on U.S. Forest Service lands and certainly with state lands.”
But it’s California, not the Trump administration that is putting more money behind such efforts.
In response to the deadly blazes of recent years, California lawmakers in September approved a measure that would provide $1 billion over five years for fire protection, including more controlled burns and projects to thin forests and brush land.
By contrast, federal spending on hazardous fuels reduction has been flat in recent years, hovering at just less than $600 million, even as direct firefighting costs jumped to a record $2.9 billion last year.
For 2019, the Forest Service has proposed a $3 million bump for its wildfire fuels program. At Interior, Zinke proposed a $29 million cut in fuel management spending. (VOA)
In a step towards digitisation of the system, Delhi Transport Department will soon issue QR based Smart cards for driving licenses (DLs) and registration certificates (RCs).
As per a statement, the new driving licence will have an advanced microchip with features like Quick Response (QR) code and Near Field Communication (NFC). The new RC will have the owner's name printed on the front while the microchip and the QR code would be embedded at the back of the card.
The cards earlier had embedded chips, but chip reader machines were not available in the required quantity with both the Delhi Traffic Police and the Enforcement Wing of the Transport Department. Moreover, chips were designed and implemented by the states concerned, which resulted in difficulties in reading the chip and retrieving information, especially in case of defaulters.
"Now with the QR based smart card, this issue is resolved. This will enable unification in linking and validating one's information to smart cards with Sarathi and Vahan, the two web-based databases of all driving licenses and vehicle registrations," the release added.
The QR is also being implemented nationwide, the QR code reader is easily procurable and will do away with the requirement of any manual intervention altogether. The new cards will also allow two specific materials for their card manufacturing -- PolyVinyl Chloride or PVC, or PolyCarbonate which is slightly more expensive but more durable. (Card Size - 85.6mm x 54.02 mm; Thickness minimum 0.7 mm)
An October 2018 notification of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) had made changes to the Driving License and Registration Certificate. The new Smart card based DL and RC, will have chip based/ QR code based recognition system. At the same time, documents such as driving license or registration certificates in electronic formats on DigiLockers and mParivahan were also made valid in place of physical documents and treated at par with original documents.
The QR code also has an added advantage of acting as a safety feature on the smart card. The department will be able to retain records and penalties of the DL holder for up to 10 years on the VAHAN database as soon as a driver/ owner's Smart card is confiscated. The new DLs will also help the government in maintaining records of differently-abled drivers, any modifications made to the vehicles, emission standards and the person's declaration to donate organs. (IANS/JB)
Keywords: Delhi, Driving License, Registration License, Digitisation.
LONDON — A work by British street artist Banksy that sensationally shredded itself just after it sold at auction three years ago fetched almost 18.6 million pounds ($25.4 million) on Thursday — a record for the artist, and close to 20 times its pre-shredded price.
"Love is in the Bin" was offered by Sotheby's in London, with a presale estimate of 4 million pounds to 6 million pounds ($5.5 million to $8.2 million).
After a 10-minute bidding war involving nine bidders in the saleroom, online and by phone, it sold for three times the high estimate to an undisclosed buyer. The sale price of 18,582,000 pounds ($25,383,941) includes an auction-house fee known as a buyer's premium.
The piece consists of a half-shredded canvas in an ornate frame bearing a spray-painted image of a girl reaching for a heart-shaped red balloon.
When it last sold at Sotheby's in October 2018, the piece was known as "Girl With Balloon." Just as an anonymous female European buyer made the winning bid — for 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) — a hidden shredder embedded in the frame by Banksy whirred to life, leaving half the canvas hanging from the frame in strips.
Sotheby's received some criticism at the time for failing to spot the hidden shredder. But the 2018 buyer decided to go through with the purchase, a decision that was vindicated on Thursday as the work's price soared. Image source: voa
Sotheby's received some criticism at the time for failing to spot the hidden shredder. But the 2018 buyer decided to go through with the purchase, a decision that was vindicated on Thursday as the work's price soared.
The work quickly became one of Banksy's most famous, and Sotheby's sent it on tour to cities including New York and Hong Kong before Thursday's auction.
Auctioneer Oliver Barker joked that he was terrified to bring down the hammer to end Thursday's sale. There were jitters among Sotheby's staff to the last that Banksy had another surprise planned.
Alex Branczik, Sotheby's chairman of modern and contemporary art, called the shredding "one of the most ingenious moments of performance art this century."
Banksy, who has never confirmed his full identity, began his career spray-painting buildings in Bristol, England, and has become one of the world's best-known artists. His mischievous and often satirical images include two male police officers kissing, armed riot police with yellow smiley faces and a chimpanzee with a sign bearing the words, "Laugh now, but one day I'll be in charge."
Several of his works have sold for multiple millions at auction. In March, a Banksy mural honoring Britain's health workers, first painted on a hospital wall, sold for 16.8 million pounds ($23.2 million) at a Christie's auction, until Thursday a record for the artist.
"Girl With Balloon" was originally stenciled on a wall in east London and has been endlessly reproduced, becoming one of Banksy's best-known images. (VOA/RN)
Keywords: Banksy, Artwork, Auction, Girl With Balloon, Sotheby
WASHINGTON — Suspected ransomware payments totaling $590 million were made in the first six months of this year, more than the $416 million reported for all of 2020, U.S. authorities said on Friday, as Washington put the cryptocurrency industry on alert about its role in combating ransomware attacks.
The U.S. Treasury Department said the average amount of reported ransomware transactions per month in 2021 was $102.3 million, with REvil/Sodinokibi, Conti, DarkSide, Avaddon, and Phobos the most prevalent ransomware strains reported.
President Joe Biden has made the government's cybersecurity response a top priority for the most senior levels of his administration following a series of attacks this year that threatened to destabilize U.S. energy and food supplies.
Avoiding U.S. sanctions
Seeking to stop the use of cryptocurrencies in the payment of ransomware demands, Treasury told members of the crypto community they are responsible for making sure they do not directly or indirectly help facilitate deals prohibited by U.S. sanctions.
Its new guidance said the industry plays an increasingly critical role in preventing those blacklisted from exploiting cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions.
The new guidance also advised cryptocurrency exchanges to use geolocation tools to block access from countries under U.S. sanctions. Image source: Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash
"Treasury is helping to stop ransomware attacks by making it difficult for criminals to profit from their crimes, but we need partners in the private sector to help prevent this illicit activity," Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement.
The new guidance also advised cryptocurrency exchanges to use geolocation tools to block access from countries under U.S. sanctions.
Hackers use ransomware to take down systems that control everything from hospital billing to manufacturing. They stop only after receiving hefty payments, typically in cryptocurrency.
Large scale hacks
This year, gangs have hit numerous U.S. companies in large scale hacks. One such attack on pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline led to temporary fuel supply shortages on the U.S. East Coast. Hackers also targeted an Iowa-based agricultural company, sparking fears of disruptions to grain harvesting in the Midwest.
The Biden administration last month unveiled sanctions against cryptocurrency exchange Suex OTC, S.R.O. over its alleged role in enabling illegal payments from ransomware attacks, officials said, in the Treasury's first such move against a cryptocurrency exchange over ransomware activity. (VOA/RN)
Keywords: Cryptocurrency, United States, Hacking, Ransomware