Death Toll Rises as Wildfires Burn Across West Coast

George Coble carries a bucket of water to put out a tree still smoldering on his property destroyed by a wildfire Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Mill City, Ore.

George Coble carries a bucket of water to put out a tree still smoldering on his property destroyed by a wildfire Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Mill City, Ore. AP Photo/John Locher


Connecting state and local government leaders

STATE AND LOCAL NEWS ROUNDUP | A federal appeals court says ex-felons will need to pay fines and restitution before they can get their voting rights back … Minneapolis City Council balks at temporary police precinct … Des Moines schools start virtual in violation of state order.

Dozens of people are missing and at least 33 have died as wildfires raged on the west coast, forcing whole communities from their homes and making the air hazardous to breathe. On Saturday, firefighters made progress on containing several fires in Oregon, but then on Sunday authorities in the southern part of the state warned that strong winds could cause fires to grow around the city of Medford. Amid the fires, which had consumed more than 1 million acres as of Friday, the state’s fire marshal, Jim Walker, abruptly resigned after being put on leave. A source told The Oregonian that State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton had lost confidence in Walker’s ability to respond to the wildfires. In California, where blazes have consumed more than 3.1 million acres and 29 fires are burning, Gov. Gavin Newsom called the disasters a “climate damn emergency.” Newsom acknowledged the failure in forest management that contributed to the fires, but emphasized that the focus should be on climate change. “Mother Nature is physics, biology and chemistry. She bats last and she bats 1,000. That’s the reality,” he said. “The debate is over, around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes.” In Washington state, a wildfire manager for the state said he’s short the manpower and equipment he would normally have to deal with the blazes, saying both the prolonged fire season and Covid-19 have contributed to the problems. [The Oregonian; Oregon Public Broadcasting; CalMatters; Spokesman Review; Weather Channel]

DON’T MISS: A devastating account of a father’s search for his 13-year-old son as fires burned in Oregon. [Statesman Journal]

FLORIDA VOTING | People previously convicted of felonies in Florida who still owe fines or restitution won’t be able to vote this fall after a Friday ruling by a federal appeals court. The court overturned a lower court decision, which found a Florida law requiring these fines be paid was unconstitutional, amounting to a poll tax. “Because the felons failed to prove a violation of the Constitution, we reverse the judgment of the district court and vacate the challenged portions of its injunction,” Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court voted 6-4. The decision stems from a 2018 ballot initiative, in which a supermajority of Florida voters agreed that people convicted of felonies who had served their sentences should be allowed to vote. But Republican lawmakers in Florida then passed a law requiring that fees and restitution needed to be paid before voting rights would be restored, with Gov. Ron DeSantis arguing that voters had thought this would be part of finishing sentences. Civil rights groups expressed outrage at the decision. “This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the A.C.L.U.’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. One problem? Many people don’t know how much they owe and arcane court systems often can’t provide clear answers. [Miami Herald; New York Times; CBS News]

POLICE PRECINCT | A Minneapolis City Council committee rejected a plan to relocate the police department’s Third Precinct, which was evacuated and burned during protests following the police killing of George Floyd in March. Some on the council had proposed relocating the precinct to a nearby warehouse with a $1.2 million-a-year lease, saying it was necessary both for officers and the neighborhood where they work. “I do consider this location to be critical,” City Coordinator Mark Ruff said. “Without a location, the effectiveness of the police department to respond is significantly diminished.” Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said that the city was going about changing the police department in the wrong order and should instead be focused on reforms right now. “I think that this is a failure of our priorities,” Ellison said. “We asked that there be real, meaningful change when it comes to all decisions regarding public safety ... and yet we are very quick to rush to business as usual.” [Star Tribune]

VOTER ID LAW | North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper last week urged a federal appeals court not to lift the injunction preventing S.B. 824, a law that requires voters to show a photo ID before casting their ballot, from taking effect before the November election. The measure has been blocked by federal and state judges. Lawyers for Cooper’s administration argued that “lifting the injunction now would be disastrous” because election officials have already started to mail absentee ballots. “The brunt would be borne by the same voters whom S.B. 824 targeted for disenfranchisement in the first place: minority voters who are both least likely to possess photo IDs that satisfy S.B. 824 and most vulnerable to Covid-19,” the lawyers argued. [Washington Post]

IOWA SCHOOLS | Schools in Des Moines started their academic year virtually last week, in violation of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ order that schools resume instruction in person. The Des Moines schools superintendent, Thomas Ahart, said that the decision felt like “science versus politics” given the surge in coronavirus cases throughout the state. “The last thing I want to do is make this political. What I desperately want to do is to be able to honestly tell my staff and my students and their families that I’m doing everything in my power to keep them safe.” [New York Times]

Laura Maggi is the managing editor of Route Fifty and Emma Coleman is the assistant editor.

NEXT STORY: Oregon Wildfires Prompt Evacuation Advisories for About 500,000