California wildfires: Firefighters making gains as death toll rises to 31

The latest casualty figures mark the greatest loss life from a single California wildfire event in 84 years with 3,500 homes and businesses incinerated and 77,000 hectares scorched.

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Whole neighbourhoods in the city of Santa Rosa have been reduced to gray ash and smouldering ruins dotted with charred trees and burned-out cars.

The official cause of the disaster is under investigation, but officials say power lines toppled by gale-force winds on Sunday night may have sparked the conflagration.

A resurgence of extreme wind conditions that was forecast for Wednesday night and early Thursday failed to materialise, giving fire crews a chance to start carving containment lines around the perimeter of some of the blazes.

But fierce winds are expected to return across much of the state as early as Friday night, and a force of 8,000 firefighters in Northern California are racing to reinforce and extend buffer lines before then, officials said.

Despite progress, fire crews remained “a long way from being out of the woods,” Ken Pimlot, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told reporters in Sacramento.

Mark Ghilarducci, state director of emergency services, added that: “We are not even close to being out of this emergency.”

Authorities have warned that the death toll from the spate of more than 20 fires raging across eight counties for a fourth day could climb higher, with more than 400 people in Sonoma County alone still listed as missing.

0:00 mailman trying to make delivery in fire ravaged neighbourhood Share mailman trying to make delivery in fire ravaged neighbourhood

One of greatest immediate threats to population centres continued to be in the Napa Valley town of Calistoga, whose 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as winds picked up and fire crept closer.

Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said anyone refusing to heed the mandatory evacuation would be left to fend for themselves if fire approached, warning on Thursday: “You are on your own.”

Twenty-nine people, all civilians, were confirmed dead in four counties, tying the record for California’s most lethal wildfire, the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles.

President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the fires, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in eight counties.

Michael Desmond, 63, was among the hundreds of residents of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood who lost their homes.

“I feel violated, like a thief came in,” said Desmond, who sobbed as he surveyed the rubble of the house where he grew up.

Forest fires are common in the western United States during the summer but this year’s blazes in California are among the deadliest ever.

The Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles County in 1933 killed at least 29 people, and 25 people died in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

China congress, leadership shake-up to have implications for Australia

Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to shake up his government’s inner circle and spell out his country’s agenda for the next five years.

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China’s Communist Party next week is having its five-yearly congress from Wednesday, which will include a leadership reshuffle.

Mr Xi is expected to retain his position and install key allies into the politburo standing committee (cabinet of seven) and 25-member wider ministry.

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His second term is expected to wrap up in 2020 and there’s wild speculation over whether he will name a successor or perhaps push for an unconventional third term.

The outcomes of the congress will have implications for Australia, which is dependent on a strong economic relationship with China.

Treasurer Scott Morrison, in a speech to a business function in New York on Thursday, US time, urged caution about China being a key source of growth for Australia.

“The risks to the upside that have borne so much fruit for the Australian economy, can be just as sharp on the downside,” he said.

Given the risk to the economy of a slowing China, the government had sought to expand and diversify other trade relationships.

Mr Morrison reflected on the challenges facing China as it undertook necessary structural reform, weaned itself off investment-led growth and boosted private consumption while reining in debt.

A high level of credit has intensified the risk in China’s financial system, especially among lower-tier banks and in the “shadow banking” sector.

The treasurer also pointed out creating 13-15 million jobs a year to prevent unemployment rising was no easy task.

“China generates more jobs in just over week than we do in a year,” Mr Morrison said.

China’s foreign policy platform will also hold strategic implications for Australia and the Asia Pacific region.

Specific examples include freedom of navigation amid the South China Sea maritime boundary dispute as well as China’s actions on curbing the North Korean nuclear threat.

Mr Xi’s signature One Belt One Road infrastructure bonanza is expected to be heavily spruiked at the congress.

While Australia has not officially signed up to the scheme, Australian businesses could be in the running for contracts in third-party countries.

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US, UK police look at Weinstein sex claims

Detectives in New York City and London are taking a fresh look into sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein now that some 30 women have accused the Hollywood film producer of inappropriate conduct.

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New York Police Department spokesman Peter Donald said on Thursday that investigators are reviewing police files to see if anyone else reported being assaulted or harassed by him.

So far, no filed complaints have been found, he said, other than one well-known case that prompted an investigation in 2015, but authorities are encouraging anyone with information on Weinstein to contact the department.

London police were also looking into a claim it had received from the Merseyside force in northwest England, British media reported Thursday. Merseyside police said the allegation was made a day earlier and concerned “an alleged sexual assault in the London area in the 1980s.”

Some 30 women – including actresses Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow – have now spoken out to say Weinstein had sexually harassed or sexually assaulted them. Rose McGowan, who has long suggested that Weinstein sexually assaulted her, tweeted on Thursday that “HW raped me.”

The initials were an apparent reference to Weinstein, and The Hollywood Reporter said the actress had confirmed she was referring to the disgraced film mogul. The New York Times earlier reported that Weinstein paid a financial settlement of $US100,000 ($A127,820) to McGowan in 1997 over an incident in a hotel room at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein,” Weinstein’s representative Sallie Hofmeister said Thursday.

Weinstein was sacked on Sunday by The Weinstein Co., a studio he co-founded with his brother.

Some of the allegations involved conduct at hotels in Beverly Hills, but police there didn’t return calls on whether they were investigating any possible crimes.

Detectives in the NYPD’s special victims unit have been told to identify and speak with any potential victims, including the women who spoke about their encounters with Weinstein in a recent New Yorker article, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press.

In The New Yorker expose, a former actress, Lucia Evans, said Weinstein forced her to perform oral sex in 2004 when she was a college student.

At least one other unnamed woman said she was raped by Weinstein, but the article did not disclose when or where it happened. A third woman, actress Asia Argento, told the magazine that Weinstein forcibly performed oral sex on her in 1997 at a hotel in France.

Weinstein, through a spokeswoman, has denied any nonconsensual sexual conduct with any women.

The media mogul has long been a major figure at the Academy Awards, where his films have regularly won Oscars.

He reappeared briefly on Wednesday outside a Los Angeles home, telling the paparazzi he’s “not doing OK,” but he’s hoping for a “second chance,” according to video posted by celebrity website TMZ. He also told the photographers he needs to “get help” and “we all make mistakes.”

Actress Kate Beckinsale has also recounted she was 17 when Weinstein greeted her in his bathrobe. Years later, Beckinsale said, she met Weinstein again and he asked if he had tried anything at their first meeting. She said she realised “he couldn’t remember if he had assaulted me or not.”

Hachette Book Group has also “terminated” Weinstein Books.

Canada cans ‘inappropriate’ asylum seeker questionnaire appearing to target Muslims

Canadian authorities have withdrawn a border control questionnaire that appeared to single out Muslim asylum seekers crossing into the country from the US.

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The questionnaire was deemed “inappropriate and inconsistent with government policy” by government department Public Safety Canada, after asking claimants how they felt about women who do not wear religious head coverings, and equality between men and women, reports The Toronto Star.

Some of the other 41 questions appeared to specifically target Islamist groups, asking respondents about their view on the Islamic State and the Taliban.

No other religious practices or terrorist groups were mentioned.

The questionnaire was reportedly only used in Quebec.

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Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had suspended “that version” of the guide after their office became aware.

“The minute we became aware of the interview guide, we were immediately concerned and contacted the RCMP,” Mr Bardsley said.

“Some of the questions were inappropriate and inconsistent with government policy.”

Asylum seekers from Haiti leave Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Canada.AAP

Canada has seen an enormous increase in asylum seekers attempting to cross in to the country from the US. 

Police have caught up to 13,200 people seeking refuge in Canada since January due to the Trump administration’s hardening stance on illegal immigrants.

The number increased by more than six times in July and August compared to previous months, official data showed on Tuesday.

Canada’s immigration ministry said more than 5,700 people were intercepted by the RCMP in August, while over 3,150 were detained in July.

The monthly average for the first half of the year was 727 people.

Once intercepted by police, people are handed over to border authorities for their asylum applications to be processed.

Most asylum seekers who arrived during the summer were Haitians fleeing the United States ahead of the expected loss at the end of the year of temporary protection granted to nearly 60,000 people from the country following a devastating 2010 earthquake.

Faced with the sudden influx of asylum seekers, the Canadian government has increased personnel on the border and built temporary shelters for migrants.

– With AFP

Fatah and Hamas: A decade of strained relations

The split, which has at times erupted into deadly conflict, has seen rival administrations run by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and by Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

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Here is a look back at the history of the dispute:

Islamists win at the polls

In 2006, the Islamists of Hamas take part in elections to the Palestinian parliament for the first time, sweeping to a landslide victory over Fatah, which had dominated it since it was established.

A unity government is installed with Hamas taking key posts but it is dogged by International demands, rejected by the Islamists, that they renounce violence and recognise Israel and past peace deals.

Hamas seizes Gaza

In early 2007, simmering tensions between the rival factions erupt into bloody clashes in Gaza. 

After a week of violence in June, Abbas dismisses the unity government and declares a state of emergency in the territory.

But Hamas fighters rout pro-Abbas forces and take control, a move the president calls a coup. 

Reconciliation stillborn

In April 2011, Fatah and Hamas say they have reached an understanding to create an interim government to prepare for elections, but implementation is repeatedly delayed.

In January 2012, the rivals strike a prisoner exchange agreement. The following month, they agree that Abbas should lead an interim government, but the deal is disputed within Hamas and never implemented.

In April 2014, the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas finally agree on a unity government.

It is sworn in on June 2 but fails to exercise authority over Gaza where Abbas accuses Hamas of setting up a parallel administration.

In July-August 2014, the factions put up a united front after Israel launches a 50-day blitz against Gaza in response to rocket fire, but the unity government falls apart months later.

Pragmatism

In May 2017, Hamas makes a major revision to its founding charter, easing its stance on Israel after having long called for its destruction.

The Islamist group says its struggle is not against Jews but against Israel as an occupier, and accepts the idea of a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.

The group — which remains blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union as well as Israel — is seen as seeking to ease its isolation without marginalising hardliners in its ranks.

Pressure and concessions

Tensions persist over the formation by Hamas of an “administrative committee” in Gaza which is seen as a rival Palestinian government.

Abbas puts the squeeze on Hamas including by cutting payments for electricity supplies to the territory.

An Egyptian-led reconciliation push receives a major boost when Hamas agrees on September 17 to dissolve the committee and cede civil power, saying it is ready for talks on a new unity government and elections.

Egyptian push

In early October, Palestinian Authority prime minister Rami Hamdallah visits Gaza for the first time since 2015. 

His ministers take formal control of government departments in the territory.

On October 10, the two factions open detailed reconciliation talks mediated by Egypt in Cairo.

On October 12, the two sides announce they have reached a deal.

Fatah says Abbas will visit Gaza within a month and sanctions he had imposed on the territory will soon be lifted.

Some 3,000 Palestinian Authority police officers are to redeploy to Gaza, a member of the negotiating team says.

But the two sides remain sharply at odds over the future of Hamas’s 25,000-strong armed wing, which the Islamists say is non-negotiable.

White House chief of staff not quitting, says job is not to control Trump

In a rare appearance before reporters, the retired general sought to project an aura of calm in a White House that has been criticized as chaotic.

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“Unless things change, I‘m not quitting, I‘m not getting fired, and I don’t think I’ll fire anyone tomorrow,” Kelly told reporters.

Kelly replaced Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, after a tumultuous first six months in office and sought to bring order to an often chaotic operation at the White House.

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Under his watch, Trump parted ways with chief strategist Steve Bannon and other top officials, while new restrictions were set to streamline meetings and material for the president.

But reports of both Kelly’s and the president’s frustrations have persisted, sparking continued speculation of pending shakeups.

Trump has confided to friends that he has felt constrained by some of Kelly’s moves to limit access to him and some administration officials have privately chafed at the restrictions as well, sources familiar with the internal dynamics of the White House have said.

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Disarray within the executive branch has concerned officials outside the administration. Republican Senator Bob Corker has said Kelly is one of three officials including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “those people that help separate our country from chaos.”

He later told the New York Times that Trump risked setting the nation “on the path to World War Three.”

Critics of the president say his frequent use of Twitter has contributed to a sense of chaos.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly attends a news conference in which he spoke on political issues.AAP

But the retired Marine made clear that he did not see his job as the arbiter of Trump’s tweets, pushing back at criticism that his penchant for order and organization had not extended to control over the president’s favorite mode of social media communication.

“I was not brought to this job to control anything but the flow of information to our president so that he can make the best decisions,” Kelly told reporters.

“I was not sent in to or brought in to control him and you should not measure my effectiveness as a chief of staff by what you think I should be doing,” he said.

Cole Miller attacker gets seven-year term

The man who dealt the punch that killed Brisbane teenager Cole Miller has been sentenced to seven years in jail for the “cowardly” attack.

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New Zealand national Armstrong Renata fronted the Brisbane Supreme Court on Friday, having pleaded guilty to a count of unlawful striking causing death over the senseless January 2016 assault.

The 23-year-old was sentenced to seven years jail, with Justice Helen Bowskill describing the Fortitude Valley incident as “cowardly and violent”.

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She said his actions stole the life of a young man and “destroyed” those of his family and close friends.

But she said it was also a “tragedy” that Renata himself, who will be required to serve 80 per cent of his term, found himself in the prisoner’s dock.

Renata punched the promising water polo player in the head while out in the Fortitude Valley nightclub district on January 3, 2016.

The 18-year-old suffered massive brain trauma, with his family making the heartbreaking decision to turn off his life support on January 5.

Before the sentence was handed down, the court heard victim impact statements from Cole Miller’s parents describing the “nightmare” of losing their beloved son.

The talented water polo player’s father Steven said his youngest son was a “kid with a dream” and his death had thrown the family into “utter turmoil”.

He said Cole’s life was “violently cut short” in an act that marked the start of a “nightmare” for his loved ones and friends.

“(It’s) a nightmare that no one should have to endure,” Mr Miller told the court.

“It’s been a long 20 months since then (and) I know my children suffer everyday.”

“(The) tragic loss of their brother … is a burden they will carry forever.”

At times dabbing his eyes with a tissue, Mr Miller described lying awake at night listening to his wife Mary-Leigh cry.

He then read his wife’s statement in which she described having to take anti-depressants and sleeping tablets to cope with the devastation of her loss.

She said she was engulfed by grief whenever left alone and remembered her son as a beautiful, quiet and gentle young man.

Renata appeared distressed in the dock as he listened to the heart-wrenching statements, later making his own apology to the court.

“From the very bottom of my heart, I am truly sorry,” he said.

It comes after Renata’s co-accused, Daniel Maxwell, walked from court in August after being handed an 18-month suspended sentence for starting the fight that led to Mr Miller’s death.

Maxwell has since been deported to New Zealand.

Renata’s more than 600 days in pre-sentence custody were declared as time already served.

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Loan clampdown helping house prices: RBA

Moves by regulators to tighten mortgage lending standards are working and have helped ease Australia’s overheated property market, the Reserve Bank says.

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The central bank maintained its view that key risks to the country’s financial system stem from high levels of household borrowing and warned that an increase in interest rates could hit heavily-indebted households, but also said it has seen a moderation in riskier types of lending.

Investor lending has slowed significantly across all states as a result of steps by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) to restrict growth in loans, the RBA said in its half-yearly Financial Stability Review on Friday.

“In Sydney and Melbourne, housing price growth has slowed and auction clearance rates have fallen,” the RBA said.

“A range of factors have contributed to the slowing, including increased housing supply, higher interest rates for some borrowers and an apparent reduction in demand from foreign buyers.”

APRA in March told lenders to limit higher risk interest-only loans, which set off a fresh round of rate increases by the major banks, raising the costs for speculative property investors.

While house prices have continued to remain high, data showed this week that the national median house price fell during the September quarter – the first quarterly fall recorded since December 2015.

The central bank again singled out Brisbane’s apartment market as a weak link, saying the increase in supply has resulted in falling prices and no growth in rents there.

However, there are few signs of settlement defaults on purchased properties so far, it said.

That situation could change in the event of interest rates rising.

“Higher interest rates, or falls in income, could see some highly indebted households struggle to service their debt and so curtail their spending,” , the Reserve Bank said.

Economists widely expect the RBA to start lifting rates from a record low of 1.5 per cent by the middle of next year but some are betting the change could flow through sooner if economic growth and inflation show signs of improvement.

The central bank said conditions in retail property markets across Australia have been subdued, with rents staying flat and price growth lagging that of other commercial property segments.

Banks have expressed concern over the outlook for the retail sector due to rising competition, changing consumer preferences and the failures of some well-known retailers, it said.

However, Australia’s financial system remains in an overall strong position and its resilience to shocks has increased over recent years, boosted by high profit levels at banks even as bad and doubtful debts remain around historical lows, the central bank said.

Mother, son miraculously survive 10 days lost in NSW bush by ‘using leaves to collect water’

Delirious, dehydrated and with their badly scratched legs bound up in reeds, a mother and her young son have been found alive after surviving 10 days in remote bushland in the NSW Hunter Valley.

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Michelle Pittman, 40, and her son Dylan, nine, went missing while bushwalking in rugged terrain in the Mount Royal National Park north of Singleton 10 days ago.

Family members shared missing posters on social media but a search of the national park was only launched after Ms Pittman’s black four-wheel-drive was discovered four days ago.

Emergency services tracked their movements through the national park with fresh footprints and grass tied around trees indicating the pair was still alive.

“The indicators were fresh so there was real hope we would find these people,” Ambulance NSW Inspector Andrew Steenson told the Seven Network.

The mother and son found their way back to a roadway just after 1pm on Thursday where they were picked up by passing police.

NSW Police Inspector Joanne Schultz said it was amazing they’d survived in the remote and rugged landscape.

“It is absolutely extraordinary – an incredible story,” she told Seven.

“There are some steep slopes and thick scrub and it drops off by about 500 metres in some parts of the search area.”

Insp Steenson says Ms Pittman and Dylan are in “remarkably good physical condition”.

The pair had some scratches and bites but were fairly well hydrated “due to some quite ingenious survival tactics”, he said in a statement.

They reportedly used leaves to collect water and removed ticks and leeches from each other.

But after days without adequate food and water the mother and son had become delirious and reportedly removed their shoes. They’d wrapped reeds around their feet.

“The body does some strange things when put into stressful situations,” Insp Steenson said.

Ms Pittman and Dylan have been taken to Singleton Hospital for treatment.

Accusations fly as ACT pill tests stopped

Shelved plans to run a pill testing trial at Canberra’s Spilt Milk music festival have spewed over into a political scrap.

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The ACT government and police cleared a path for the Australian-first trial at the November 25 event in an effort to reduce harm to recreational drug users.

But organisers have pulled the plug on the trial over an apparent authorisation bungle.

Acting health minister Shane Rattenbury, from the ACT Greens, is livid about the decision and is pointing the finger of blame at his Liberal foes.

Canberra Liberals MP Jeremy Hanson wrote to his federal colleagues on September 28 to suggest the trial was on shaky legal ground, fanning fears about potential indemnity claims.

Mr Rattenbury accused his opponent of using murky back channels to lobby his “mates on the hill” to stymie the trials.

“The Canberra Liberals’ campaign to undermine and sabotage pill testing in the ACT is based purely on ideology and not on evidence,” he said.

Mr Rattenbury fears the festival will now be more dangerous than if the pill testing trials went ahead.

But Mr Hanson is stoked the trial’s been spiked.

“Not only does pill testing send the message illegal drug use is sanctioned by the government, experts have stated the tests cannot detect every substance in the sample, and lawyers have raised serious legal concerns.” he said.

Mr Hanson gave the government and event organisers a clip around the ears for their apparent failure to get proper permission.

“It gives me no confidence the ACT government can conduct a pill test if they cannot even organise basic documentation and approvals,” he said.

Event organisers Kicks Entertainment have been contacted for comment.