In Brief: September 13, 2020

Smoke chokes West Coast as wildfire deaths keep climbing

SALEM, Ore. — Wildfire smoke that posed a health hazard to millions choked the West Coast on Saturday as firefighters battled deadly blazes that obliterated some towns and displaced tens of thousands of people, the latest in a series of calamities this year.

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For people already enduring the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic fallout and political tensions evident in the Black Lives Matter protests and far-right counter protests, the fires added a new layer of misery.

“What’s next? You have the protests, coronavirus pandemic, now the wildfires. What else can go wrong?” lamented Danielle Oliver, 40, of Happy Valley, southeast of Portland.

The death toll from the fires in California, Oregon and Washington stood at 31 and was expected to rise sharply. Most of the fatalities were in California and Oregon.

Oregon’s emergency management director said officials were preparing for a possible “mass fatality event” if many more bodies turn up in the ash.

Pence drops plan to go to fundraiser hosted by QAnon backers

BILLINGS, Mont. — Vice President Mike Pence has canceled plans to attend a Trump campaign fundraiser in Montana following revelations that the event’s hosts had expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory.

President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign told The Associated Press on Saturday that Pence’s schedule had been changed, but the campaign did not provide a reason or say whether the fundraiser might be held at a later time. The change comes after the AP reported Wednesday that hosts Cayrn and Michael Borland in Bozeman, Montana, had shared QAnon memes and retweeted posts from QAnon accounts.

The baseless conspiracy theory alleges Trump is battling an entrenched bureaucracy and sex trafficking ring run by pedophiles.

Pence and other Republican candidates are still scheduled to hold a campaign rally Monday afternoon in Belgrade, near Bozeman.

From wire sources

Pence will host a rally earlier in the day in Wisconsin, an event that was added as a substitute for the fundraiser, the Trump campaign said.

Biden audio first shared by ‘Russian agent’ thrives online

WASHINGTON — The leaked recordings were hardly a political bombshell: The apparent phone conversations between Joe Biden and Ukraine’s then-president largely confirm Biden’s account of his dealings in Ukraine.

But the choppy audio, disclosed by a Ukrainian lawmaker whom U.S. officials described Thursday as an “active Russian agent” who has sought to spread online misinformation about Biden, was nonetheless seized on by President Donald Trump as well as his supporters to promote conspiracy theories about the Democratic nominee. Social media posts and videos about the recordings have been viewed millions of times, according to an Associated Press analysis, even though Trump’s own administration says they rely on “false and unsubstantiated narratives.”

The audio’s proliferation on social media shows how foreign operations aimed at influencing the U.S. election are still easily reaching Americans, despite efforts by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to rein in such meddling.

Since there’s no evidence the heavily edited recordings have been stolen or were entirely fabricated, they’ve been able to flourish online, skirting new policies social media companies rolled out to prevent foreign interference in this year’s elections. And unlike in 2016, when Russia used bogus social media accounts or bots to wage a misinformation campaign, this time they’re being spread by legitimate American social media users.

“It’s certainly an influence campaign,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, said of the recordings. “It’s misleading to an audience that doesn’t have the full picture.”

New Orleans under hurricane watch from Tropical Storm Sally

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Tropical Storm Sally formed Saturday off south Florida amid forecasts it would reach hurricane strength early in the week before striking the northern Gulf Coast with high winds and a possible life-threatening storm surge.

The earliest 18th-named storm in an Atlantic tropical season, Sally already was better organized within hours of forming and was expected to become a hurricane by late Monday, the National Hurricane Center said. New Orleans and surrounding areas, along with a stretch of the coast from Grand isle, Louisiana, to the Alabama-Florida line, were placed under a hurricane watch.

Late Saturday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm, and officials in the New Orleans area issued a mandatory evacuation order for areas outside of levee protection, including Venetian Isles, Lake Catherine, and Irish Bayou. The evacuation order was set to go into effect at 6 p.m. Sunday.

The National Hurricane Center said dangerous storm surge was possible along the northern Gulf Coast starting Monday and that hurricane conditions could set in there starting early Tuesday.

The Miami-based center said Sally spent Saturday afternoon sending gusty winds and heavy rains over south Florida. Maximum sustained winds were clocked at 40 mph (65 kph) with higher gusts.

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Harshmallow: Virus prompts pause for Peeps holiday treats

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Peeps treats are going on hiatus for several months — another consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Just Born Quality Confections said it won’t be producing the popular marshmallow sweets for Halloween, Christmas or Valentine’s Day as the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based company prepares for next Easter, PennLive.com reports.

Production of the holiday-shaped candies was suspended in the spring as the coronavirus spread across the state. Limited production resumed in mid-May with protocols in place to protect employees, Just Born said.

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“This situation resulted in us having to make the difficult decision to forego production of our seasonal candies for Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day in order to focus on meeting the expected overwhelming demand for Peeps for next Easter season, as well as our everyday candies,” the company said.

For confectioners, Easter is one of their biggest and busiest times of the year as children — and adults — use the holiday as an excuse to indulge in candy eggs and chocolate bunnies.

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