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Thousands of homes remain under threat as California’s biggest wildfire continues to gain strength across western parts of the US.

It comes amid fresh calls for politicians in Washington to take “bold action” against climate change as more than 85 large wildfires continue to burn around the country.

The Dixie Fire started on 14 July and has already destroyed more than a dozen houses and other structures.

It has combined with smaller fires and has been sweeping through the small north Californian community of Indian Falls.

A firefighter passes a burning home during the Dixie fire in Plumas County, California. Pic: AP
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A firefighter passes a burning home during the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, California. Pic: AP

Rick Carhart, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, revealed that firefighters carrying hand tools were forced to hike through rugged terrain where emergency vehicles cannot reach.

He said: “It has been burning in extremely steep canyons, some places where it is almost impossible for human beings to set foot on the ground to get in there.

“It’s going to be a long haul.”

More on California Wildfires

Fire officials said the blaze had charred nearly 298 square miles of timber and brush in Plumas and Butte counties and is now estimated to be 21% contained.

The fire has led to evacuation orders in several small mountain communities and along the west shore of Lake Almanor, a popular resort area in north California where about 10,000 homes remain under threat.

Crews have been forced to hike through rugged terrain as part of the firefighting effort against the Dixie Fire
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Crews have been forced to hike through rugged terrain as part of the firefighting effort against the Dixie Fire

Firefighters also reported progress against the nation’s largest wildfire, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, containing 46% of the blaze that had consumed nearly 640 square miles.

More than 2,200 firefighters battled the blaze and had worked on constructing containment lines at the north and eastern edges to try to hold back the flames.

The fire, which is said to have been caused by lightning, has burned 67 homes, mainly cabins, and at least 2,000 houses were under evacuation orders.

Oregon governor Kate Brown told CNN’s State of the Union that it is imperative federal and state authorities invest in mitigation measures such as tree thinning to limit the number of similar massive blazes.

Scott Griffin surveys his property which was destroyed by the wildfires in Oregon
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Scott Griffin surveys his property which was destroyed by the wildfires in Oregon

But she conceded that “the harsh reality is that we’re going to see more of these wildfires”.

On Twitter, she added: “We are feeling the impacts of climate change in real time here in Oregon.

“Historic fires, extensive drought, unprecedented heat – we need bold action from Congress to complement the steps we’re taking at the state level.”

The fires in the US are mostly in western states.

The Tamarack fire continues to threaten communities on both sides of the California-Nevada state line. Pic: 564 Fire/via REUTERS
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The Tamarack Fire continues to threaten communities on both sides of the California-Nevada state line. Pic: 564 Fire/Reuters

Elsewhere in California, the Tamarack fire south of Lake Tahoe continues to threaten communities on both sides of the California-Nevada state line.

In Montana, officials were focusing on structure protection for three fires amid weather forecasts of rising temperatures, low humidity and westerly winds.

In Washington state, firefighters battled two blazes in Okanogan County that threatened hundreds of homes and caused hazardous air quality conditions.

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What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

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What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

In an era of orbital satellites so advanced that they are able to make out objects half the size of cars from space, a spy balloon might seem like a bit of a relic.

They were a prominent tool for reconnaissance during the Cold War and were even used in a more basic form for intelligence gathering in the Napoleonic Wars more than 200 years ago.

But security experts say the balloons are just the “tip of a revolution” in the development and use of new high-altitude surveillance craft, with the UK even investing millions in a project to develop spy balloons last year.

It comes as the US military on Friday said it was tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon, described as being the size of three buses, that has been flying over northwestern America in recent days.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana but the Pentagon would not confirm whether it was the surveillance balloon
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A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana

Read more:
Chinese spy balloon flying over US airspace, says Pentagon
Spy balloon over US is actually a ‘civilian airship’, says China

A senior defence official said the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, while China has not immediately denied the balloon belonged to them.

Beijing admitted that the balloon had come from China, but insisted it was a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace and that it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is postponing a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.

What are spy balloons?

The devices are lightweight balloons, filled with gas, usually helium, and attached to a piece of spying equipment such as a long-range camera.

They can be launched from the ground and are sent up into the air where they can reach heights of between 60,000ft (18,000m) and 150,000ft (45,000m), above the flight paths of commercial aircraft in an area known as “near space”.

Once in the air, they travel using a mixture of air currents and pressurised air pockets, which can act as a form of steering.

Why are they still useful in the satellite era?

According to defence and security analyst Professor Michael Clarke, the biggest advantage of spy balloons over satellites are that they can study an area over a longer period of time.

Sky News' Defence Analyst Prof Michael Clarke
Image:
Professor Michael Clarke

“The advantage is they can stay in one place for a long time,” he told Sky News.

“Because of the way the Earth rotates, unless a satellite is over the Equator, you need three to five satellites going all the time to track the same spot.

“These balloons are also relatively cheap, and much easier to launch than a satellite.”

Will balloons continue to be used in future for spying?

Very much so, according to Professor Clarke.

Despite the wide use of satellite technology, countries including the UK are also focusing on the development and use of spycraft to operate in the upper atmosphere.

In August, it was announced the Ministry of Defence had agreed a £100m deal with US defence company Sierra Nevada to provide high-altitude unmanned balloons to be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Professor Clarke said: “(These balloons) are the very tip of the revolution for passive upper atmosphere aircraft.”

He said other defence firms, such as BAE, were working on ultralight solar-powered drones which are able to operate in the upper atmosphere and stay in place for up to 20 months.

Why have China used them now?

According to Professor Clarke, the use of these balloons, if indeed they were launched by China, will likely have been a message to the US following its decision to open new military bases in the Philippines.

“I think it’s a challenge,” he said.

“They (China) are signalling that if the US is going to come closer to them then they will be more aggressive with their surveillance.

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Could there be a US-China war?

Watch: Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

“It is also caused a political issue in the US now, because it will be seen as a sign of weakness not to shoot it down.

“This causes some embarrassment, but the US doesn’t need to respond.”

The balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

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Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, says that those involved should be ‘cool-headed’

Military and defence leaders said they considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

Professor Clarke added: “I think the debris issue is a bit of an excuse. It was over one of the least densely populated areas of the US and if they needed to they could have asked everyone to stay inside.

“I don’t think they wanted to make it a bigger issue, because China are daring them to shoot it down and make it an international issue.”

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Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

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Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has spoken with a senior Chinese official about his postponed trip to the country.

US officials said Mr Blinken spoke to the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi today postponing the planned visit.

But the secretary of state “indicated he would plan to travel” to China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow”.

Officials also said they “noted” China’s statement of regret but said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred”.

The diplomatic wrangling comes after a Chinese surveillance balloon has been tracked by US intelligence in recent days.

In a press conference today, the US defence department has said the Chinese spy balloon is heading eastwards but poses “no physical or military threat” to civilians.

The Pentagon’s press secretary would not confirm the current location of the balloon, which is operating at around 60,000ft.

There is also no evidence of any nuclear or radioactive material on board but it has the ability to be manoeuvred, according to Brigadier General Pat Ryder.

The spy balloon's route from China over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and into Montana
Image:
The spy balloon’s route from China over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and into Montana

Watch:
Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

He also rejected Chinese claims that the balloon was in fact a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace.

The US authorities said it now knows the object – spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base – was a Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites to collect information.

A map showing where the balloon was spotted and the US's Malmstrom Air Force Base
Image:
A map showing where the balloon was spotted and the US’s Malmstrom Air Force Base

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.

Senior state department officials described the incident as a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law” and said conditions were “not right at this moment” for Mr Blinken to travel.

Mr Blinken was prepared to depart for China tonight before the trip was postponed, Sky News understands.

He plans to travel “when conditions allow”, according to officials.

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Pentagon spokesman said that suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over the US has ‘violated international law’, adding that it doesn’t pose any physical threat for people on the ground.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing admitted the balloon had come from China – but said it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

The Pentagon spokesperson said it is “monitoring the situation closely and will continue to review options”.

Read more:
What are spy balloons?

China responds to claims by the US that it has identified a Chinese 'surveillance balloon' over Montana
Image:
China responds to claims by the US that it has identified a Chinese ‘surveillance balloon’ over Montana

The balloon will probably remain over the US for a few days, the spokesperson added.

US officials also confirmed military intelligence had previously seen similar surveillance balloons elsewhere.

The object is believed to have flown over the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska, and through Canada before entering the US.

Military and defence leaders had considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defence leaders to review the threat profile of the balloon and possible responses, which were presented to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

President Biden, speaking at a White House conference about jobs earlier today, refused to answer questions on the topic.

The US has engaged Chinese officials “with urgency” and communicated the seriousness of the situation.

China and the US have experienced tensions of late, clashing over Taiwan and China’s human rights record and its military activity in the South China Sea.

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What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

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By

Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

In an era of orbital satellites so advanced that they are able to make out objects half the size of cars from space, a spy balloon might seem like a bit of a relic.

They were a prominent tool for reconnaissance during the Cold War and were even used in a more basic form for intelligence gathering in the Napoleonic Wars more than 200 years ago.

But security experts say the balloons are just the “tip of a revolution” in the development and use of new high-altitude surveillance craft, with the UK even investing millions in a project to develop spy balloons last year.

It comes as the US military on Friday said it was tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon that has been flying over northwestern America in recent days.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana but the Pentagon would not confirm whether it was the surveillance balloon
Image:
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana

Read more:
Chinese spy balloon flying over US airspace, says Pentagon
Spy balloon over US is actually a ‘civilian airship’, says China

A senior defence official said the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, while China has not immediately denied the balloon belonged to them.

Beijing admitted that the balloon had come from China, but insisted it was a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace and that it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

What are spy balloons?

The devices are lightweight balloons, filled with gas, usually helium, and attached to a piece of spying equipment such as a long-range camera.

They can be launched from the ground and are sent up into the air where they can reach heights of between 60,000ft (18,000m) and 150,000ft (45,000m), above the flight paths of commercial aircraft in an area known as “near space”.

Once in the air, they travel using a mixture of air currents and pressurised air pockets, which can act as a form of steering.

Why are they still useful in the satellite era?

According to defence and security analyst Professor Michael Clarke, the biggest advantage of spy balloons over satellites are that they can study an area over a longer period of time.

Sky News' Defence Analyst Prof Michael Clarke
Image:
Professor Michael Clarke

“The advantage is they can stay in one place for a long time,” he told Sky News.

“Because of the way the Earth rotates, unless a satellite is over the Equator, you need three to five satellites going all the time to track the same spot.

“These balloons are also relatively cheap, and much easier to launch than a satellite.”

Will balloons continue to be used in future for spying?

Very much so, according to Professor Clarke.

Despite the wide use of satellite technology, countries including the UK are also focusing on the development and use of spycraft to operate in the upper atmosphere.

In August, it was announced the Ministry of Defence had agreed a £100m deal with US defence company Sierra Nevada to provide high-altitude unmanned balloons to be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Professor Clarke said: “(These balloons) are the very tip of the revolution for passive upper atmosphere aircraft.”

He said other defence firms, such as BAE, were working on ultralight solar-powered drones which are able to operate in the upper atmosphere and stay in place for up to 20 months.

Why have China used them now?

According to Professor Clarke, the use of these balloons, if indeed they were launched by China, will likely have been a message to the US following its decision to open new military bases in the Philippines.

“I think it’s a challenge,” he said.

“They (China) are signalling that if the US is going to come closer to them then they will be more aggressive with their surveillance.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Could there be a US-China war?

Watch: Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

“It is also caused a political issue in the US now, because it will be seen as a sign of weakness not to shoot it down.

“This causes some embarrassment, but the US doesn’t need to respond.”

The balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, says that those involved should be ‘cool-headed’

Military and defence leaders said they considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

Professor Clarke added: “I think the debris issue is a bit of an excuse. It was over one of the least densely populated areas of the US and if they needed to they could have asked everyone to stay inside.

“I don’t think they wanted to make it a bigger issue, because China are daring them to shoot it down and make it an international issue.”

Spy balloon threatens efforts to ease US-China relations

Distrust between the Chinese and the Americans is as high as it’s been for decades.

An incident like this would serve to feed that distrust no matter when it happened, but coming, as it has, just days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s highly significant visit to Beijing could seriously undermine tentative efforts being made on both sides to try to halt any further deterioration in relations.

Mr Blinken is expected to land in Beijing on Sunday and had planned to meet his opposite number Qin Gang as well as Wang Yi, China’s highest ranking diplomat.

A huge amount of painstaking diplomatic effort will have gone into making such a visit possible – the fact it was happening at all is a progress of sorts.

In recent days there has even been suggestions Mr Blinken might meet with President Xi Jinping himself.

If so, he would be the first US secretary of state granted this level of access in five years and it would be a major sign both sides are serious about attempting to smooth over their deeply damaged relations.

The Chinese leader and US President Joe Biden both recognised when they met at the G20 summit late last year that they need to do more to ensure that their distrust and competition does not descend into conflict and confrontation.

This visit was a clear part of that effort. But mutual recognition that spiralling tensions aren’t a good thing is not the same thing as the active rebuilding of trust.

This incident will likely be seen by the Americans as flying in the face of both. And there is, perhaps, an awareness here in Beijing of just how much jeopardy this incident poses to those fledgling efforts.

Indeed, at a regular news conference in Beijing on Friday, there was a clear desire on the Chinese part to contain speculation.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China was “verifying” the situation and added: “I would like to emphasise that until the facts are clarified, speculation and hype will not be helpful to the proper resolution of the issue.”

Given the low ebb of current relations between the two, Mr Blinken’s visit was not expected to deliver any breakthroughs. It was being framed more as a chance for both sides to restate their positions and red lines and keep the channels of dialogue open.

It will likely never be known if this spy balloon was purposefully scheduled ahead of the visit or if it’s just unfortunate timing, but if it forces Mr Blinken to cancel, the ramifications for the longer term project of containing deteriorating relations could be very serious indeed.

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