As Winds Rise Once More, Firefighters Fear 'Flare-Up' In Massive Thomas Blaze

A firefighter snaps a quick picture amid efforts to contain the Thomas Fire in Montecito, Calif., earlier this month.

Chris Carlson/AP

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Chris Carlson/AP

For the past few days, the weather in Southern California granted firefighters a rare reprieve. Winds dropped, humidity ticked up a tad — and for a brief span, at least, firefighters had a little natural help reining in the massive Thomas Fire northwest of Los Angeles, which they had 60 percent contained by Wednesday morning.

But that lull didn’t last long.

The strong winds and low humidity that helped fan the blaze into California’s second-largest wildfire on record are returning. In certain areas, winds are expected to reach 15 to 30 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph.

And experts fear the fire’s dangerously erratic behavior will return with them.

“There is potential for a flare-up,” Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the local weather service, tells The Los Angeles Times.

A firefighting crew climbs a steep hill in Montecito, Calif., while battling the Thomas Fire earlier this month.

David McNew/Getty Images

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David McNew/Getty Images

That is far from good news for residents who have been facing down the angry orange glow of the blaze since it took hold Dec. 4. In the more than two weeks since then, the Thomas Fire has been blamed for two deaths, destroyed at least 750 homes and burned roughly 272,000 acres — or a span larger than all of New York City and Boston combined. Before the fire is finally contained, it is expected to pass the 2003 Cedar Fire as the largest since Cal Fire began keeping such records in 1932.

Member station KPCC reports that “more than 8,000 firefighters from nearly a dozen states” have been gathered to battle the blaze.

NBC and The Associated Press note that while the sprawling Thomas Fire is creeping toward a rather notorious perch in history books, it is far from alone. In fact, the blaze is part of an increasing trend:

“Cal Fire reported 6,982 fires in California from Jan. 1 to Dec. 17, including the devastating North Bay fires in October. Those fires scorched more than 505,900 acres, more than double last year’s burned acreage count. During that same period in 2016, the state firefighting agency reported 4,759 fires that burned 244,304 acres.

“California’s five-year average for wildfires during that time frame is 4,787 and 202,737 acres burned.

“The significant increase in the numbers and size of fires is largely because the state is coming off one of its wettest winters in years in 2016-2017, which left hillsides covered in grass and other vegetation. That grass dried out in summer and turned into tinder, providing fuel for rapidly spreading fires often pushed by strong winds that can carry hot embers for miles and turn small spot fires into infernos.

“The startling number of dead and dying trees also has exacerbated the wildfire threat, Cal Fire officials said. An estimated 129 million trees covering 8.9 million acres have died in California due to drought and bark beetle infestation, according to the USDA Forest Service.”

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Episode 670: The Santa Suit

Jacob and Robert take a Santa selfie

This episode originally ran on December 18th, 2015.

Santa only has one outfit, but it’s a great one: red pants, red jacket with white fur cuffs, a big belt and shining shoes. People shell out upwards of $100 for a high quality Santa suit. And if that suit is made overseas, a chunk of that price tag might go towards tariffs. But to figure it out, first we have to decide: should the Santa suit count as “fancy dress” or a “festive article”? The difference can be make or break for a business, which is why companies engage in what’s known as “tariff engineering” to make their products fit in one category over another.

Tariffs were the second law enacted by congress, and they’re still causing strife. The laws that used to regulate the price of cast iron and tanned leather are now so complex that Santa’s fur cuffs and toy sack are the subject of litigation. Marc Beige of Rubie’s Costume Co. brought his case to the United States Court of International Trade.

We’ve got an update on the outcome of the case at the end of today’s episode.

Music: Sunnyside Social Club‘s “Carol of the Bells.”

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, PocketCasts and NPR One.

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Surgery For Saving Babies From 'Water On The Brain' Developed in Uganda

About 180,000 babies develop hydrocephalus each year in sub-Saharan Africa. Baby Faridah received treatment for the deadly condition this year at the CURE Children’s Hospital of Uganda in Mbale, Uganda.

Christopher Mullen, CURE International

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Christopher Mullen, CURE International

It’s not everyday that surgeons develop a new brain surgery that could save tens of thousands of babies, even a hundred thousand each year. And it’s definitely not everyday that the surgery was developed in Uganda, for babies born in poor countries.

But that’s exactly what neurosurgeons from Boston and Mbale, Uganda, report Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The treatment is for a scary condition in which a baby’s head swells up, almost like balloon. It’s called hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain.” But a more accurate description is “spinal fluid inside the brain.”

Inside our brains, there are four chambers, which continually fill up and release spinal fluid. So their volume stays constant.

In babies with hydrocephalus, the chambers don’t drain properly. They swell up, putting pressure on the brain. If left untreated about half the children will die and the others will be badly disabled.

Aisha holds her baby daughter Faridah at CURE Children’s Hospital of Uganda.

Christopher Mullen, CURE International

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Christopher Mullen, CURE International

Traditionally doctors treat hydrocelphalus in the U.S. with what’s called a shunt: They place a long tube in the baby’s brains, which allows the liquid to drain into the child’s stomach.

But a third of the time, these shunts fail within two years, says Dr. Jay Riva-Cambrin, a neurosurgeon at the University of Calgary. “Imagine buying a car and having the dealer tell you, ‘By the way, there’s a 40 percent chance the car won’t be on the road in two years.’ You’be like ‘No way.’ “

That failure rate is tolerable here in the U.S. because children can rush quickly to a hospital and have an emergency surgery to fix the shunt, says Dr. Benjamin War, a neurosurgeon at Harvard Medical School, who led the development of the new method at a clinic in Mbale Uganda. “Some kids wind up having dozens of these shunt operations over over the years,” he says.

But for many kids in rural Uganda — and other poor countries — emergency neurosurgery isn’t an option. “They’re going to die from a shunt malfunction,” Warf says. “I can’t put a shunt in a baby and then send them back to a rural village in western Uganda or southern Sudan because it would take days to return to the clinic.”

So Warf and his colleagues decided to innovate. He took a technique that works in adults and then tweaked it a bit so that it would have a better chance in working with babies.

In the new method, doctors basically poke a hole in the brain’s chambers so they can drain. They also burn the area of the brain that produces spinal fluid so the chambers don’t fill up as quickly.

The team knew the procedure fixed the hydrocephalus. But the big question was whether or not the method caused more damage to the brain than using a shunt.

After 15 years of testing and optimizing, he and his team can finally say that their approach — at least in the short term — appears to be just as effective as the procedure commonly used here in the U.S.

In the study, Warf and his colleagues tested the two methods on about 100 children in Uganda. After 12 months, the doctors couldn’t detect a difference in the children’s brain volumes or cognitive skills.

“Although there are big caveats to the study, I’m just so thrilled about it,” says Dr. Tamara Simon, a pediatrician at the University of Washington, who wasn’t involved in the study.

In particular, Simon says, the study followed the children only for only about a year. “We need a better handle on cognitive outcomes in general and more long-term studies,” Simon says.

And all the children in the study had very low cognitive scores, so it might have been difficult to detect differences in outcomes between the two surgical methods.

“Still though, the work is really exciting, and I hope a similar study can now be done in the U.S.,” Simon adds.

Yes, you read that correctly. The new technique has been so successful in the developing countries that American doctors are now traveling to Uganda to learn how to do the technique from Ugandan doctors.

“The doctors at the clinic in Uganda are wizards at the [new] method,” Riva-Cambrin says. “They’re the ones that taught me the procedure.”

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Scientists Use Gene Editing To Prevents A Form Of Deafness in Mice

Scientists used a new gene-editing technique to prevent a form of deafness in mice.

Scientists have now edited genes inside mice to prevent a form of inherited deafness.

While cautioning that much more research is needed, the scientists said they hope the technique might someday be used to prevent deafness in children born in families with a history of genetic hearing loss.

Before that could happen, however, extensive tests would be needed to determine whether the treatment is safe — and whether it would actually work in humans.

“We’re hopeful that our results will help guide the development of such strategies,” says David Liu, a genetic engineer at Broad Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The results were reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Liu performed his experiments on a type of mouse known as a Beethoven mouse. These mice carry a defect that causes them to lose their hearing starting early in life. It’s probably not what caused the famous German composer Ludwig von Beethoven’s deafness. Still, the same defect does cause deafness in some families.

“Humans that are born with even one bad copy of this gene experience progressive hearing loss that’s evident in their early childhood and by the time they reach late childhood they’re profoundly deaf,” Liu says.

Liu used the gene-editing technique CRISPR Cas-9 to design a way to knock out the defective gene, which destroys tiny hairs inside the ear needed for normal hearing. Liu then injected the gene-editor into the ears of Beethoven mice one day after the animals were born.

Once inside the ear, the gene editor “homes in on the mutant gene” and cuts the DNA “so that mutant gene can no longer poison the hair cells and cause the hair cells to eventually die,” Liu says.

Since these mice still have a second, healthy version of the necessary gene, the idea was that the elimination of the defective gene would allow healthy hearing development.

When Liu tested the treated mice a month later, they could hear much better in the ears that got edited.

The treated ears could hear sounds that were “about as quiet as a normal quiet conversation,” Liu says, “whereas the uninjected ears of the same mice have lost enough of their hearing that they required sounds that were about as loud as a garbage disposal in order to register a response.”

Similar approaches could possibly be developed to prevent hearing loss in babies born with the same defect and other inherited mutations that cause hearing loss, Liu says. In addition, gene editing could potentially restore hearing to people who lost it from loud noise or infections, he says.

The latest work follows experiments published in 2015 using a different gene-editing technique to alter the same inherited form of deafness in mice.

Other researchers praised the recent work by Liu and his colleagues.

“It is is an extraordinary thrill to be working in this field at this time,” says Fyodor Urnov, associate director at the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Seattle. Urnov wrote a commentary accompanying the report in the journal. “We no longer are relegated to just sequencing DNA and staring glumly at genetic destiny.”

The development is the latest in the rapidly moving field of gene therapy and gene editing. The Food and Drug Administration approved the first gene-therapy product to treat a form of leukemia in August and a second for a form of lymphoma in October. On Tuesday, the agency approved the first gene therapy to treat an inherited disorder — a form of inherited blindness.

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Judges Erase One-Vote Lead In Virginia, Throwing State Politics Into Disarray

The Virginia House of Delegates in a 2014 file photo.

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

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Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

For 20-odd hours, Virginia Democrats were giddy with the news that a recount had delivered Shelly Simonds a seat in the House of Delegates with a victory margin of a single vote. The Democratic win would mean a 50-50 party split in the House of Delegates, ending 17 years of Republican control and forcing a rare power-sharing agreement.

Republican leaders issued a statement congratulating Simonds. Democrats began dreaming about the possibility of expanding Medicaid and increasing the minimum wage. All that appeared to be left was the official certification of the vote by three-judge panel on Wednesday.

But the Democratic giddiness came to an abrupt end when the judges declared that one uncounted ballot should go to David Yancey, the Republican incumbent. That decision left both candidates with 11,608 votes: a tie.

“While it appeared yesterday that Shelly Simonds was elected, it’s obvious now that the result will remain unclear for a while longer,” Virginia House GOP leaders Kirk Cox, Tim Hugo and Nick Rush said in a statement.

The Republican leaders said that during the recount, an over-vote on one ballot – where a voter has marked more than one valid choice – had not been counted for either candidate. A Republican official and recount observer believed the vote was clearly for Yancey, but the Republicans say a Democratic official had convinced the Republican observer not to count the ballot. Then this morning, the Republican wrote to the recount court claiming he had made the wrong decision and the vote should count for Yancey.

Democrats responded with a statement that the panel’s decision “was wrong, and Delegate-elect Shelly Simondsshould have been certified the winner.” Party leaders said they are assessing their legal options, pointing out that “[t]he Republicans themselves had affirmed that this result was accurate yesterday before changing their minds today.”

But here’s where things get really interesting: Virginia law says the state election board shall “determine by lot which of the candidates shall be declared elected.” And it gets even better: whoever is the loser after the lots are drawn could potentially then ask for another recount of the original ballots.

In other words, it appears likely that control of Virginia’s House of Delegates will come down to a game of chance.

That’s quite a comedown for Virginia Democrats. Their gubernatorial candidate, Ralph Northam, won an easy victory in last month’s election, which also saw the party pick up at least 15 seats in the House of Delegates – due in part to voters’ unhappiness with President Donald Trump.

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Reggie 'Combat Jack' Ossé, Hip-Hop Journalist And Podcaster, Dies At 48

Reggie “Combat Jack” Ossé attends the Spotify Mogul launch party in May 2017. The hip-hop personality has passed away at the age of 48.

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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Reggie Ossé, better known to hip-hop world as podcast host Combat Jack, has passed away from colon cancer. Chris Morrow, Ossé’s friend and his co-founder of Loud Speaker Networks, confirmed his death, telling NPR that he died this morning at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York. Ossé was 48 years old.

In October of this year, Ossé shared that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of colon cancer with his fans online.

Ossé was born and raised in Brooklyn. Before Combat Jack, he worked as music attorney, representing the likes of Jay-Z and Capone-N-Noreaga during the fledgling stages of their careers. In 1989, Ossé switched from entertainment law to entertainment journalism. He would go on to work for MTV Networks before launching his own Internet radio show titled The Combat Jack Show in 2010.

The Combat Jack Show started on a lark — with a crazy crew of sidemen including Dallas Penn, Premium Pete, an occasional Just Blaze, DJ Benhameen and producer A-King — on its way to becoming a pioneering hip-hop podcast. The show scored some of the rarest and rawest hip-hop interviews of an era when rap’s center of gravity started its move toward the Internet. Ossé was able to get gems out of otherwise reserved or reclusive rappers by employing a type of interview style many emulate today. From Scarface playing guitar live and proclaiming his love for Pink Floyd to Prodigy detailing his own childhood kidnapping to J. Cole telling the story of how he wanted to sign Kendrick Lamar, listeners knew they would always get something special out of a Combat Jack interview.

Ossé co-founded the Loud Speakers Network, a family of podcasts, in 2013. Before his passing, Ossé produced and hosted groundbreaking podcast Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty earlier this year. Produced in conjunction with Gimlet Media, the series about the life and death of the notable hip-hop industry executive Chris Lighty became hip-hop’s first serial narrative podcast when it debuted on Spotify. “For Reggie to bring back the legacy of my brother Chris through the Mogul series was monumental for me and the culture of hip-hop,” Chris’s brother Dave Lighty tells NPR.

In an interview with NPR Music earlier this year, Ossé explained why he felt it was necessary to champion Lighty’s work ethic and accomplishments.

“Our culture is so rich — not just in hip-hop but [black culture],” Ossé said. “We have been the creators of culture since we hit this land. Let’s look beyond the parameters that we already know and just really try to expand the dimensions of telling our stories.”

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Big Thief, 'Mythological Beauty' (Live)

Big Thief‘s “Mythological Beauty” appears, on first listen, to be a calm folk-rock song. But, like Adrianne Lenker’s other work, the lyrics tell a powerful story about family, pain and loss.

Speaking to her mother, Lenker sings, “There is a child inside you who’s trying to raise a child in me.” In telling the story of a childhood accident which left her with a permanent scar on her head, Lenker breaks away from the gentle vocals of the rest of the song for one line: “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag, soaking up blood with your eyes.”

Big Thief performed “Mythological Beauty,” as captured in this 360-degree virtual reality video, and several other songs at KCRW.

Watch Big Thief’s full Morning Becomes Eclectic performance at

Photo by Spencer C. Amonwatvorakul/KCRW.

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8 Americans Among The Dead In Yucatan Bus Crash

Mexican police officers stand guard near the tour bus that overturned Tuesday morning in Quintana Roo state. Twelve people were killed, including 8 Americans.

Maneul Jesus Ortega Canche/AFP/Getty Images

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Maneul Jesus Ortega Canche/AFP/Getty Images

Officials in the Quintana Roo state say that eight Americans are among those killed in a bus crash Tuesday in eastern Mexico.

Twelve people died after the tour bus they were riding in flipped over en route to Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. Two Swedes and one Canadian were also confirmed dead, The Associated Press reports. A Mexican tour guide was also killed.

The U.S. State Department confirmed “multiple” U.S. citizens among the dead, as well as several injured. The AP reports that 20 people were hurt in the crash.

“We express our heartfelt condolences to all those affected by this tragedy,” the U.S. Embassy in Mexico said in a statement. “We are in contact with local authorities, and will continue to monitor the situation. We have staff on the scene and at local hospitals to assist victims and loved ones.”

We can confirm the deaths of multiple U.S. citizens in #Mexico bus accident, and several injuries. We express our heartfelt condolences to those affected by this tragedy. We are in contact w/ local authorities, have staff on scene to assist and will continue to monitor situation.

— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) December 20, 2017

The passengers were largely tourists from two Royal Caribbean cruise ships and were headed on an excursion to the Chacchoben ruins.

The local police chief had a possible explanation for the crash: the driver might have lost control of the bus after one of its tires exploded.

“It seems a front tire of the bus exploded, making it lose control and leave the asphalt,” Carlos Briceno Villagomez, head of the police in the Bacalar municipality, told a Mexican TV network, according to Reuters.

The crash occurred on a flat stretch of road and apparently didn’t involve any other vehicles, Reuters reports. The driver, who was injured in the crash, has been arrested, according to the news service.

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