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Hutchinson takes over governors group as virus resurges

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican whose state is struggling with a resurgence in coronavirus cases and lagging vaccinations, called combatting vaccine resistance a priority as he took over as head of the National Governors Association.

Hutchinson was elected Thursday as the association’s chairman, moving into the role as the delta variant of the virus causes a resurgence in red states like Arkansas. Hutchinson’s state has been at or near the top of the country in new cases per capita, and Arkansas this week saw its biggest one-day jump in hospitalizations since the vaccine became available.

“We have much work to do to overcome vaccine hesitancy, but we can do it together,” he said at the group’s summer meeting, which was held virtually for the second year in a row because of the pandemic.

Hutchinson is taking the reins from New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is leaving the chairmanship at a time he’s facing multiple probes. They include allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment, whether he unethically used state resources for a $5 million deal for his COVID-19 memoir, and his administration’s manipulation of data about COVID-19 outbreaks among nursing home residents.

Cuomo said the pandemic highlighted the importance of governors, as the federal government left it largely up to states to set up massive testing regimes and purchase scores of masks, ventilators and others supplies. He commended Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, a former NGA chairman, for speaking “truth to his own party even when it was hard.” Hogan had said former President Donald Trump left his state vulnerable amid the pandemic.

“Governors have a new credibility, governors have a new status,” Cuomo said. “Let us use it well, and let us use it to do well.”

The NGA chairmanship is the latest national spotlight for Hutchinson, who has gained attention for distancing himself from former President Donald Trump and his state’s embrace of Trumpism. Hutchinson has appeared frequently on cable news and Sunday shows, also talking about the state’s increasingly ominous COVID-19 situation.

Hutchinson warned that Arkansas’ experience could be a grim preview of what awaits other states.

“What I see that we’re experiencing in Arkansas right now with the surge of the Delta variant is going to be a likely experience in the coming months in other states as well,” Hutchinson told The Associated Press in an interview.

Hutchinson this week kicked off a series of town hall-style “conversations” he’ll hold around the state aimed at encouraging people to get vaccinated. The first one began Thursday in Lonoke County, a rural county outside Little Rock where a little over a third of the population is fully vaccinated.

As in other red states, Arkansas’ ability to impose new restrictions because of the latest surge have been curbed by lawmakers angry about restrictions imposed last year. The measures approved by the majority-Republican Legislature include a ban on mask mandates or vaccine requirements by government entities, including schools.

The forums follow other efforts to encourage vaccinations that have had limited success. That included an incentive — offering lottery tickets or gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses for those who get the shots — that so far has had few takers.

“There’s not much more I can do from a weekly news conference or a daily news conference from the state Capitol,” he said. “I want to get out in the community because it’s each community and local leadership that can greatly expand on what we’re trying to do at the state and national level.”

One way to build confidence at the national level, Hutchinson said, would be for the Food and Drug Administration to grant final approval for the vaccines. That would eliminate the justification used by some who haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, he said.

Hutchinson said the NGA’s role in responding to the pandemic will primarily remain communicating with the White House and the federal government, and advocating on behalf of the states. But he said they can also share ideas on how to increase vaccination rates.

“What we’ve learned as governors is communicating between the red and blue states, communicating between the governors, helps us all get the best ideas to address it, to be more innovative,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said governors also need more flexibility from the Biden administration on how they can use funding from the latest round of coronavirus relief funds, and clarity on how they can be used.

The NGA will also likely play a major role in promoting the bipartisan pared-down infrastructure deal. But Hutchinson said there’s not agreement among the association’s members for a second, more expansive package backed by Democrats.

Hutchinson said he’ll also use his chairmanship to promote computer science education in public schools, an initiative he’s advocated at the state level in Arkansas. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, was also elected as the association’s vice chairman.

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Associated Press Writer Marina Villeneuve in Albany, New York contributed to this report

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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