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Firefighters on Tuesday began to gain control of wildfires in the Black Hills of South Dakota that have forced the evacuation of more than 400 homes and closed the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Three separate wildfires were burning near Rapid City, with the largest near Schroeder Road in the Nemo area. That fire has burned nearly 8.1 square kilometers (3.3 square miles). But officials said they expected to contain about half of the fire by the end of the day.
“It’s not over yet, but we’re in a pretty good spot,” said Governor Kristi Noem, who traveled to Rapid City to help oversee the fire response.
But the Republican governor acknowledged that fire danger had not passed, declaring a state of emergency until June. She cited “widespread drought conditions, low humidity, high wind and high temperatures that create serious peril for our state.” The order allows state agencies to assist in tackling the wildfires.
The Schroeder Road fire has crossed into two neighborhoods near Rapid City, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday. At least one home has been destroyed, as well as several other structures. No injuries have been reported.
“There was quite a firefight last night,” said Rob Powell, the firefighting official overseeing the response.
As winds died down throughout the day, firefighting crews worked on the ground and from aircraft to contain the fire.
Two smaller blazes were burning southwest of Rapid City, including one inside the grounds of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The monument, as well as surrounding roads, were closed through at least Wednesday. One fire has burned an estimated 47 hectares (117 acres) and is 30% contained. The other is about 4 hectares (9 acres), and officials hoped to have it 50% contained by the end of the day.
The fire near Mount Rushmore threatened 15 structures, including park facilities and private homes, but none have been destroyed, according to Great Plains Fire Public Information Officer Travis Mason-Bushman. He said the fire was near main access roads to the monument but wasn’t close to the visitor center.
“The challenge is that it’s burning in some pretty steep and rugged terrain,” he said. “We need to bring in hand crews.”
About 60 firefighters responded to the fire, as well as a South Dakota National Guard Black Hawk helicopter that was dumping water.
On Monday, multiple fires burst up across the region as winds in some places reached as high as 130 kph (81 mph). Firefighters initially responding to the Schroeder fire found “a fast-moving ground fire in extreme fire danger condition,” officials reported. They immediately called for assistance from firefighters around the region, with about 250 responding.
The governor noted that it was “really early” in the year for wildfires and that battling them had taxed nearly all available resources. Officials said they do not have the firefighters to tackle more large blazes and were instead trying to snuff out smaller ones quickly.
“We’re probably one of the first in the nation for 2021 facing this kind of a situation,” Noem said.
Rapid City officials said they would not open up evacuated neighborhoods on Tuesday but hoped to allow people to return to their homes early Wednesday.
Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said his family was among those who were evacuated.
“I watched a neighbor’s house go up in flames, so, it touches all of us,” Thom said Monday.
Voice of America – English
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The U.S. State Department has ordered the departure of non-essential diplomats from Myanmar, it said in a statement Tuesday, amid a crackdown on protesters that has killed hundreds since the country’s military coup began.
Daily rallies across Myanmar by unarmed demonstrators demanding the restoration of the elected government and the release of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds.
“The Burmese military has detained and deposed elected government officials. Protests and demonstrations against military rule have occurred and are expected to continue,” the State Department said in a statement, using Myanmar’s former name of Burma.
In mid-February, the State Department authorized a “voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and their family members,” the statement said, adding that the department had “updated that status to ordered departure.”
The civilian death toll from the military’s crackdown has now passed 520, with world powers ramping up their condemnation of the military’s campaign in the wake of its February 1 coup.
“The Department of State made the decision to authorize ordered departure from Burma because the safety and security of U.S. government personnel and their dependents, as well as private U.S. citizens is the department’s highest priority,” a spokesperson said.
Review after 30 days
The ordered departure status will be reviewed in 30-day increments, the spokesperson added.
The U.S., Britain and the EU have all imposed sanctions in response to the coup and crackdown, but so far diplomatic pressure has not persuaded the generals to ease off.
Voice of America – English
The United States and other key members of the global coalition to defeat Islamic State are voicing renewed concerns about the terror group against the backdrop of a massive campaign to root out operatives trying to turn a once-liberated area into a new stronghold.
Foreign ministers with the so-called Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Small Group met virtually Tuesday, more than two years after the collapse of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, to focus on what they describe as increased activity in areas once controlled by the group’s fighters.
“The threat remains,” the ministers said in a joint communique following the meeting about the group, also known as ISIS or by the Arabic acronym Daesh. The ministers added that they “took note of the resumption in Daesh/ISIS activities in areas where the Coalition is not active.”
FILE – Iraqi mourners carry a coffin at the funeral of eight people killed a day earlier in attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, in the al-Bou Dor village of the Salaheddin governorate north of the capital, March 13, 2021.
But while the communique called on coalition members to provide “adequate military and civilian resources” to partner forces in both Iraq and Syria and welcomed NATO’s pledge to expand its training mission in Iraq, it offered little in the way of specifics.
Since the fall of the self-declared caliphate, the U.S. and other coalition members have provided training, supplies and funds to security forces in Iraq and the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria. But there are concerns that the present levels of support may not be enough.
In Syria, SDF commanders have repeatedly warned that IS has been finding ways to exploit weaknesses in SDF and Iraqi defenses, helping to drive the recent surge in attacks.
U.S. officials have likewise raised concerns about the ability of IS to use areas in which its supporters have been concentrated, like the al-Hol displaced persons camp in northeastern Syria, to create new operational hubs.
They also warn that the terror group’s ambitions are likely not limited to reasserting territorial control.
“There continues to be a cadre of capable ISIS actors in Syria who have experience with plotting attacks further afield, and who we assess retain aspirations to continue doing that,” John Godfrey, acting U.S. special envoy to the Defeat IS coalition, told reporters Monday — a day ahead of the virtual ministerial meeting.
“They’ve demonstrated some connectivity to actors further afield that we’re very closely focused on,” Godfrey added. “(It) argues, I think, for a sustained pressure — counterterrorism pressure, that is — against those elements, working in partnership with the local partners on the ground.”
The latest attempt to unleash such pressure began last Sunday when about 5,000 SDF troops began a two-week-long crackdown on IS at the al-Hol camp, home to some 10,000 IS family members, some of whom are thought to be taking orders from IS leaders in Iraq.
“The purpose of the operation is to remove ISIS elements from al-Hol in order to bolster the safety and security of the camp,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday. “Maintaining security in and around al-Hol remains essential to facilitating humanitarian access and safeguarding innocent civilians that are there.”
Of particular concern are a rash of execution-style murders at the camp, which have increased sharply since January.
United Nations officials say at least 42 murders have been reported this year, including children and teenagers, though some Kurdish officials suggest the number is even higher.
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) March 18, 2021
SDF forces, backed by U.S. intelligence and surveillance, have captured 53 suspected IS operatives, including five IS cell leaders, officials said Tuesday.
They also said troops had recovered laptops and other material that could provide intelligence on the terror group’s plans.
#SDF announces on social media it has captured 53 suspected #ISIS operatives, including 5 cell leaders just 3 days into its crackdown on ISIS activity at #alHol camp in NE #Syriahttps://t.co/Pzp09lu8Dx
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) March 30, 2021
There are concerns, however, that the SDF campaign against IS in al-Hol may not be enough — officials and analysts warn that the terror group has been gaining strength in areas supposedly controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“West of the #Euphrates River, areas where we do not control, where the [#Syria] regime controls ground w/their #Russia patrons, the conditions are as bad or worse than those that spawned the original rise of #ISIS” warns @CENTCOM‘s McKenzie
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) August 12, 2020
One of the biggest concerns has been the Central Syrian Desert.
“ISIS maintains control over several mountainous areas overlooking key roads from which it can restrict regime transit,” said Eva Kahan, a fellow at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
She added that efforts by Russian and Iranian forces have done little to restrict the terror group’s freedom of movement.
“ISIS is spinning up large and well-trained cells … and sending them across the Euphrates River to launch destabilizing attacks in SDF-held territory,” Kahan said.
Voice of America – English
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