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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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A top Pennsylvania Republican reboots ‘audit’ of 2020 vote, removes Trump ally as chair

A leading Republican Pennsylvania state senator rebooted an Arizona-style investigation of last fall’s vote tally nearly 10 months after President Joe Biden won the state by 80,000 votes, pledging to launch hearings this week.

The refresh has caused infighting between top Pennsylvania Republicans to spill into public view. Last week, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman removed fellow GOP Sen. Doug Mastriano, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, from leading the review, which began last month.

Corman pledged Monday to start the investigation this week under the leadership of GOP Sen. Cris Dush, who traveled with Mastriano in June to visit the site of the so-called forensic audit of about 2 million ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Corman announced Dush’s appointment Friday, saying in a statement that Mastriano “retreated” from conducting the inquiry and “was only ever interested in politics and showmanship and not actually getting things done.”

The kerfuffle has Corman and Dush taking heat from election deniers, who, with Arizona’s review coming to a conclusion, could soon zero in on Pennsylvania as they push for similar reviews across the country — even though the results and Biden’s victory have been affirmed again and again and courts have overwhelmingly rejected legal efforts to overturn them. At the same time, multiple Republicans in the state, one of last election’s most critical battlegrounds, say that it’s time to move on and that continuing to pursue the audit is unwise.

Last month, Mastriano launched his attempt at a ballot review mirroring the Arizona process, which has come under bipartisan scrutiny for a lack of transparency and the disregarding of several best practices and for being carried out by a group with no experience in Arizona elections.

He sent letters asking Philadelphia, York and Tioga counties under threat of subpoena for access to a variety of elections materials and equipment. The Pennsylvania State Department told counties not to comply with “any sham review of past elections that would require counties to violate the trust of their voters” and said it would use “every legal avenue available” to “oppose any attempt to disrupt our electoral process and undermine our elections.”

Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid also warned counties that allowing third-party access to their voting machines would lead to decertification — and that they would be on the hook for the cost of replacement.

The counties didn’t comply with Mastriano’s request. USA Today reported last week that Mastriano, in a since-deleted Facebook live video post, lamented that Republican leaders blocked his plan to obtain subpoenas.

Mastriano’s ouster was met with disappointment and anger on the far right. Audit the Vote PA, a group that has promoted unsubstantiated claims of fraud, said on Facebook that if Dush doesn’t push Corman to reinstate Mastriano, “you will move to the top of our list of Senators who need primaried.”

“We feel like the rug has been ripped out from under our efforts and we WILL NOT sit idly by and let it happen,” the statement continued.

In a statement, Dush denied that he was tapped to lead the effort “for the purpose of killing it.”

“The opposite is true,” he said. “We should have been having hearings and moving toward a more formalized plan to conduct an investigation weeks ago. My team and I are in the process of getting things organized and will work with Senate Leadership to get it done.”

Meanwhile, Corman appeared on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s online broadcast Friday and local right-wing personality Wendy Bell’s Facebook stream to tamp down the idea that he was trying to curb the inquiry.

Corman said the committee needs to focus on ensuring that its subpoenas can withstand court challenges. Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and are conducting the investigation out of the Intergovernmental Operations Committee. Democrats contend that a different Senate committee, State Government, has jurisdiction over elections.

“One of the concerns is who is doing this work, because you want credibility,” Corman told Bell, adding that the investigation must be conducted “in a way that will stand — not just … for Republicans or a segment of the Republican Party. We want people in Pennsylvania to believe in what this investigation” reveals.

Corman also said that he spoke to Trump and that he thinks the former president is “comfortable where we’re heading.” In June, Trump said that if no audit takes place, “there is no way” Corman and other state GOP leaders “will ever get re-elected!”

Pennsylvania conducted two-post election audits confirming the accuracy of last fall’s count, and the results were certified.

Voter fraud in U.S. elections is exceedingly rare. Trump’s top cybersecurity official, Christopher Krebs, said the election last year was “the most secure in American history,” and then-Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread malfeasance.

Mastriano, who participated in pro-Trump events in Washington, D.C., before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, has been one of the biggest purveyors of the false claim that there was widespread fraud in the election. His efforts have boosted his profile and his standing in Trump’s orbit.

Some of his colleagues loudly oppose the review. Last month, Sen. Dan Laughlin, a Republican, said in an op-ed that there was no credible evidence of fraud and that “Donald Trump lost Pennsylvania because Donald Trump received fewer votes.”

And last week, GOP Sen. Gene Law warned that such an audit would “not be a productive undertaking.” He said that Republicans will have to fight “every move associated with” it in court and that Republicans “have not won a court case against the Wolf administration in over two years,” referring to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

He called for Republicans to negotiate with Democrats to pass an election reform package. Wolf vetoed a GOP election law package this year, but he has since expressed more openness to a voter ID provision.

“Many of the emails I receive want an audit because the sender fully believes that Donald Trump will somehow be reinstated as president,” he said in a statement. “That is the underlying rationale for many who support an audit. Unless there is a coup, which is not going to happen in the United States, the 2020 election is over. Biden is the president. An audit is not going to change that fact irrespective of the outcome.”

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