Start Your Day Here: California's Wildfires Still Burn, Plus Some Notable Firsts In Sports

Published September 13, 2021 at 7:41 AM EDT
The shell of a home remains after it was destroyed by the Caldor Fire on Sept. 1 in Twin Bridges, Calif.
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The shell of a home remains after it was destroyed by the Caldor Fire on Sept. 1 in Twin Bridges, Calif. The fire is now 65% contained.

Good morning,

We're rounding up the top stories to help you start the week. Here's what we're following:

Weekend recap: The nation marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, and the government declassified an FBI report showing ties between the hijackers and Saudi nationals living in the U.S. Read more on the weekend's news.

Wildfires in the spotlight: President Biden plans to survey the damage of California's ongoing Caldor Fire today and talk about extreme weather preparedness and prevention.

Sports highlights: There were two first-time champions in the U.S. Open singles finals over the weekend; here's what you should know about the rising stars. In football, Maia Chaka became the first Black woman to officiate an NFL game.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, an NPR investigation finds the federal government is selling flood-prone homes to often unsuspecting buyers.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Dana Farrington, Rachel Treisman, Chris Hopkins and Manuela López Restrepo)


Secretary Blinken Will Testify About The U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Today

Posted September 13, 2021 at 10:44 AM EDT
A man in a suit and tie sits facing away from the camera, in front of a blue map on a screen and an American flag.
Alex Brandon/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is pictured at a State Department media briefing in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will soon be testifying on Capitol Hill — and facing a grilling from lawmakers — about the country's withdrawal from Afghanistan.

He's set to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow.

All of this is happening during the takeover of the Taliban's new interim government, rising humanitarian concerns and growing questions over the justification behind a recent U.S. drone strike in Kabul.

Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania — a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — toldMorning Edition that she plans to ask Blinken about the decision to abandon Bagram Air Base, the withdrawal timeline and what equipment the U.S. left behind.

"Those are some of the questions that I know that I'm interested in, and I'm sure my colleagues have other questions," she said. "Importantly, this is a 20-year conversation that we're having today, not just the two- or three-week conversation.”


Meet The 2 First-Time Champions Of The U.S. Open Singles Finals

Posted September 13, 2021 at 10:14 AM EDT

We're following the stories (and careers) of two incredible athletes after this weekend's U.S. Open singles finals.

Eighteen-year-old Emma Raducanu of Great Britain, who entered the tournament as a little-known qualifier, finished her history-making run by beating 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez to win the women's singles title.

Russia's Daniil Medvedev dashed the Grand Slam hopes of tennis great Novak Djokovic, becoming a first-time major champion in the process.

"Two different days and two very different mood: These two teenagers sort of whimsically playing this who-would-have-thunk-it final, versus Djokovic going for history, but it was a strong event for the sport overall," Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated told NPR's A Martínez.

Listen to their conversation here and read more about the breakout stars below.

Raducanu has made tennis history

A brunette woman wearing a red athletic top and navy skirt kisses a silver trophy.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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Emma Raducanu of Great Britain celebrates with the championship trophy after defeating Leylah Fernandez of Canada during their Women's Singles final match at the U.S. Open in New York City on Saturday.

Raducanu, born to a Romanian father and Chinese mother, has been playing tennis since age 5. She has dual citizenship in Canada and the U.K. Here are some of her recent claims to fame:

  • She is the first qualifier in either men's or women's tennis to even make it the finals of a Grand Slam tournament.
  • She is the first female British player to win a Grand Slam event in 44 years.
  • Her match against Fernandez marked the first time two teens have squared off in a final in more than 20 years.

Wertheim described their match as a "nice reminder of why we like sports and their unpredictability."
"The bigger context here is, Rafael Nadal wasn't here, Roger Federer wasn't at the U.S. Open, the Williams sisters — combined age of more than 80 — they weren't there either, and there was sort of this existential question hovering over tennis: How is the sport going to move past the towering stars, the titans? And we got a glimpse," he said.

Read more about Raducanu here.

Medvedev denied his opponent's bid for history

A man wearing a blue shirt smiles at the camera while holding a silver trophy.
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Daniil Medvedev of Russia celebrates with the championship trophy after defeating Novak Djokovic of Serbia to win the Men's Singles final match at the U.S. Open in New York City on Sunday.

Medvedev ended Djokovic's high-profile bid for a Grand Slam (winning all of the major tournaments in a calendar year) on the court on Sunday.

How did he do it? Wertheim described Medvedev as being "steady and crisp and precise, and took advantage of an uncharacteristically nervous opponent on the other side of the net."

Wertheim attributed Djokovich's mistakes both to fatigue and "the sheer weight of the occasion."

As the Associated Press put it: "A lot of Djokovic's issues had to do with the No. 2-ranked Medvedev, who used his 6-foot-6 frame to chase down everything and respond with seemingly effortless groundstrokes — much the way Djokovic wears down foes — and delivered pinpoint serving."

Read more about their match here.


The Spending Bill Dominates Congress' Fall Agenda, But It's Not Their Only Focus

Posted September 13, 2021 at 9:53 AM EDT

The Senate is back in session today after a summer recess with a long to-do list.

At the top of that list is the $3.5 trillion spending package, which has yet to be finalized. NPR’s Deirdre Walsh tellsMorning Edition that Democratic leaders had set this week as their own deadline to get the details together on major policy initiatives including expanded health care, universal pre-K and initiatives to fight climate change.

But Democrats’ hopes of getting the budget through by the end of the month are threatened by Senate Democratic moderate Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who’s concerned about the amount of spending and the impact it could have on inflation.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., arrives for a vote on Capitol Hill on Aug. 7
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key moderate in the infrastructure agreement, arrives for a procedural vote to advance the $1 trillion bipartisan bill, at the Capitol in Washington on Aug. 7.

To get the deal through, Senate Democrats need every member of their caucus to stick together. (They’re using a process called reconciliation that would allow them to pass the budget without any Republican support.)

That means Manchin has leverage, and will likely force the budget to get smaller, Walsh says, even as progressives are adamant that the package maintain its ambitious scope.

And that’s not even all lawmakers have to do. They also have to:

  1. Fund the government to avoid a shutdown by the end of the month
  2. Raise the debt ceiling to allow the Treasury to borrow money or risk default by the middle of October

Walsh says negotiators are trying to package these items into one big bill. That bill could also include emergency funding President Biden has requested for Hurricane Ida recovery and Afghan refugee programs.
But for this, unlike for the spending package, Democrats would need Republican votes in the Senate, “and that’s a tough hurdle,” Walsh says.

Music Awards

Highlights From The MTV VMAs

Posted September 13, 2021 at 9:26 AM EDT
A Black man wearing light pink pants and an open jacket smiles onstage while holding a microphone with one hand and a gold statue in the other.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
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Lil Nas X accepts Best Direction for "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)" onstage during the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards at Barclays Center on Sunday in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

MTV's Video Music Awards returned to the stage after 2020's socially distanced show. The show also marked the network's milestone 40th year.

It was a big night for Olivia Rodrigo, Justin Bieber and Lil Nas X, among others. Here are some of the memorable moments and "Moon person" winners.

Standout performances and memorable moments

The night saw performances from Justin Bieber, Camila Cabello, Chlöe, Lil Nas X, Machine Gun Kelly, Kacey Musgraves, Ed Sheeran, Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes, Olivia Rodrigo, Shawn Mendes, Twenty One Pilots and others. Watch those videos here.

Some stars were making their VMA debuts with brand new songs. Musgraves performed "Star-Crossed," the title track off her recently released studio album, while Chlöe (who you may know as half of the sister R&B duo Chlöe x Halle) performed her debut solo single "Have Mercy" onstage for the first time.

Other veterans returned to the stage: Brooklyn legend Busta Rhymes performed a medley of some of his biggest hits, while Alicia Keys honored the anniversary of 9/11 by finishing her performance with a piano version of "Empire State of Mind."

Some other notable moments, as collected by MTV: Olivia Rodrigo descended onstage from a cloud (Good 4 Her, honestly), Doja Cat danced mid-air after being introduced by fellow gravity-defier Simone Biles (and later accepted an award dressed as a worm) and the Foo Fighters received the VMA's first-ever Global Icon Award.

See USA Today's ranking of the performances.

A star-studded roster of nominees and winners

Justin Bieber led with seven nominations, followed by Megan Thee Stallion (who got six but went home empty-handed). Billie Eilish, BTS, Doja Cat, Drake, Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo and Giveon each got five nominations.

Lil Nas X won the top prize for video of the year with "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," then began his acceptance speech by thanking "the gay agenda." That video also won for best direction and best visual effects.

Justin Bieber won the awards for artist of the year and shared "best pop" with Daniel Caesar and Giveon for "Peaches."

Olivia Rodrigo's "Drivers License" won song of the year and best push performance of the year. She also took home the award for best new artist.

Here's the full list.

A milestone birthday

The awards show paid tribute to MTV's history from start to finish.

It opened with a surprise appearance from Madonna, a VMA legend with 20 moon person awards to her name.

The queen of pop celebrated her decades-long relationship with MTV — and New York City — in a video sequence that showed her in the back of a taxi, in Times Square and eventually live onstage at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, surrounding by screens projecting some of her iconic music videos (and dropping her trench coat to reveal a cheeky leather outfit).

"Forty years ago, another underdog arrived in New York City, hoping to create something revolutionary. An all-music channel premiered in the middle of the night and called itself MTV," Madonna said. "We found each other and formed a bond that changed my life, changed music and created a whole new art form. That's why there's only one place to be tonight."

Cyndi Lauper, who won a moon person at the first-ever VMAs in 1984, reminded viewers of how much has changed since then. In brief remarks before presenting an award, she tied her hit song to the fight for women's rights.

"Yeah, girls still wanna have fun," Lauper said, as the crowd roared. "But we also want to have funds. Equal pay. Control over our bodies! You know, fundamental rights."

The evening ended with another nod to the past. The Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star," the very first video to air on MTV in 1981, played over the closing credits.


Taking an Environmental Stand Poses A Deadly Risk in Some Countries, Group Says

Posted September 13, 2021 at 9:16 AM EDT
Solemn-looking women wearing colorful pink and blue dresses and jackets hold signs with the image of a woman's face and words in Spanish.
Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images
Honduran women take part in a protest in demand of justice in the murder of activist Berta Caceres, during the second anniversary of her death, at the Public Ministry headquarters in Tegucigalpa on March 2, 2018.

Activists opposed to logging operations in South America and Asia were among a record 227 people murdered in 2020 for their grassroots environmental efforts, international human rights group Global Witness says in a report released Monday.

More than half of the killings occurred in just three countries: Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines, the group says.

“As the climate crisis deepens, forest fires rampage across swathes of the planet, drought destroys farmland, and floods leave thousands dead, the situation for frontline communities and defenders of the Earth is getting worse,” according to the report.

Indigenous communities, which make up only about 5% of the world’s population, bore the brunt of the anti-activist violence, accounting for more than a third of those killed, it said.

The total figure for 2020 was up from the 212 reported by Global Witness the previous year.

In Colombia, where 65 such activists were killed, a third of the attacks “targeted indigenous and afro-descendant people, and almost half were against small-scale farmers.”

No attacks were recorded in North America or Europe, and only one – in Kiribati – took place in Oceania. On a per capita basis, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala and the Philippines were the most dangerous places to be a grassroots environmental activist, according to the report.

While the highest number of killings – 23 – was linked to logging, others were linked to water and dams, mining, illegal crop substitution and agribusiness. In some places, protest has been either stigmatized or criminalized, the group has previously reported.

Global Witness says its report documents the deliberate killing of “people who take a stand and carry out peaceful action against the unjust, discriminatory, corrupt or damaging exploitation of natural resources or the environment.”

The group says it collects data by reviewing publicly available online reports and datasets from international and national sources and counts only killings that have “clear, proximate and documented connections to an environmental or land issue.”

The number of such deaths last year was more than double the figure in 2013, but Global Witness says it believes its data represents an undercount because it relies on the level of transparency, press freedom and civil rights in the individual countries.

The group is calling for urgent action and recommends that companies and governments be “held to account for violence against land and environmental defenders, who are often standing on the frontline of the climate crisis.”


Maia Chaka Is The 1st Black Woman To Officiate An NFL Game

Posted September 13, 2021 at 8:32 AM EDT
Maia Chaka arrives for an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the New York Jets on Sunday
Jacob Kupferman/AP
FR171784 AP
Line judge Maia Chaka arrives for an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the New York Jets on Sunday in Charlotte, N.C.

Maia Chaka has made history as the first Black woman to officiate an NFL game. She said ahead of Sunday’s game between the New York Jets and the Carolina Panthers that it would be a proud moment.

“This historic moment to me is an honor and it’s a privilege that I’ve been chosen to represent women and women of color in the most popular sport in America, proving that I can defy the odds and overcome,” Chaka said in a video released by the NFL.

She said she hopes she can inspire and empower others “to step outside the box and to do something different.” Chaka is the second woman hired as an NFL official (the first was Sarah Thomas, who refereed the Super Bowl this year).

When the announcement came in March that she would be added to the NFL officiating roster, Chaka said she was personally honored.

“But this moment is bigger than a personal accomplishment," she said. "It is an accomplishment for all women, my community, and my culture.”

Chaka has made a career officiating college football and is a health and physical education teacher in Virginia Beach public schools. She joined the NFL’s Officiating Development Program in 2014.

The Undefeated reports that Chaka has the words “hustle, grind, conquer, dominate” on a wall in her office, and that her first dream as a kid was actually to be the first woman in the NBA. Read that profile here.

International Dispatch

This 107-Year-Old Pianist Just Released Her 6th Album

Posted September 13, 2021 at 8:12 AM EDT
A woman with short brown hair sits at a black piano, with her hands on the keys and foot on the pedals, and sheet music in front of her.
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
Colette Maze plays her Steinway piano, one of two pianos in her apartment.

Colette Maze has been playing the piano for a century, and at the age of 107 has just released her sixth album. Music, along with a sense of humor and optimism have buttressed this centenarian through an often difficult life.

Born in 1914, Maze began playing the piano at the age of 5. She says she found the affection she missed at home in music.

“I always preferred composers who gave me tenderness,” she says. “Like Schumann and Debussy. Music is an affective language, a poetic language. In music there is everything — nature, emotion, love, revolt, dreams, it’s like a spiritual food.”

Maze studied at the prestigious Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, auditioning for a spot with the school’s director, legendary pianist Alfred Cortot.

But at that time and in that milieu, the piano was meant to be a pasttime, not a profession, for a girl, and her family did not encourage her. Her wealthy parents cut her off entirely when she became a single mother — a scandal in 1949.

Maze’s son Fabrice says his mother was an artist isolated in a conventional, bourgeois family.

A woman with short brown hair with a white streak, wearing black pants and a blue shirt, stands between a brown wooden piano and a man wearing jeans, a navy button-down shirt, tan jacket and glasses inside of an apartment.
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
Colette Maze and her son Fabrice pose in her Paris apartment, standing beside the Pleyel piano she received on her 18th birthday.

“She was never lucky in her sentimental life and she was never understood by her family,” he says. “But she fought, and her piano was a source of equilibrium throughout her life.”

He began to think about recording his mother when she was in her 90s. To leave a trace, but also because she’s the last living pupil of Cortot, who taught a special technique focusing on relaxing the arms and hands.

“The way she’s touching the piano is very special,” says Fabrice. “It’s very rare.”

Maze says she believes in looking at life through an angle of joy.

“Youth is inside us,” she says. “And if you appreciate what’s beautiful around you, you will find a sense of wonder in it.”

A black-and-white photo of a young, dark-haired woman wearing a lace top with a bow necktie.
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
An older photo of young Colette Maze, who has been playing the piano for more than a century.


Biden Heads To California As The Caldor Fire Continues To Burn

Posted September 13, 2021 at 7:45 AM EDT
A fire captain is seen in the forest in South Lake Tahoe trying to prevent the spread of the Caldor Fire.
Jae C. Hong/AP
Will Fitch, fire captain from Cosumnes Fire Department, holds a fire line to keep the Caldor Fire from spreading in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Sept. 3.

Nearly a month after the Caldor fire began raging in California, President Biden is making a trip out West with an emphasis on fire preparedness and prevention.

Biden's going to Boise, Idaho, to visit the National Interagency Fire Center before heading to Sacramento, Calif., for a briefing on recent fires in that state. He'll also take an aerial tour of the damage in El Dorado County and give remarks on wildfire response and prevention in the afternoon.

The Caldor fire slowed over the weekend, but winds are forecasted through this week so there’s a potential for additional spread. Biden signed a disaster declaration for California yesterday to provide federal assistance for recovery efforts.

The fire has burned through roughly 219,000 acres, according to Cal Fire, and is about 65% contained.

See a list of the areas under evacuation orders or warnings here, including local shelter information. NPR member station CapRadio in Sacramento has this guide to preparing for a wildfire.

Climate change has made these kinds of destructive wildfires more likely because of hotter temperatures and drier vegetation, and has also extended the length of fire season.


How California’s Gubernatorial Recall Election Will Unfold

Posted September 13, 2021 at 7:42 AM EDT
California Gov. Gavin Newsom stands in front of a "Vote No" sign at a rally against the gubernatorial recall election on Sunday in Sun Valley.
Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP
FR170512 AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a rally against the California gubernatorial recall election on Sunday in Sun Valley, Calif.

California's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, is just the fourth governor in American history to face a recall vote. That election ends tomorrow.

Recall elections are a relatively obscure political tool. So how do they work?

Joshua Spivak, author of Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom, took questions on the process from NPR's A Martínez. Here are the highlights:

Let's start with the basics. Voters have to make two choices here. Explain them.

They have a process where you vote yes or no on whether Gov. Newsom should be recalled or removed. And then there’s a second vote, on the same day, as to who should replace him. And with 46 candidates, it results in an odd situation where Newsom could lose with 49.9% of the vote, and his replacement could win with less than 3% of the vote.

Eighteen years ago, California voters removed Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. What similarities and what differences do you see this time round?

The similarities are not that great. There does feel a bit of a circus atmosphere, but nowhere near the same as back then. There is voter anger, there is definitely a partisan divide. But the partisan divide is much greater than it was back in 2003. Additionally, the state is vastly more Democratic today.

➡️ NPR's Domenico Montanaro lays out more of the political consequences of the election and how the vote came to be.


Catch Up On These Stories From The Weekend

Posted September 13, 2021 at 7:41 AM EDT
A man in a navy uniform, pictured from behind, stands at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum behind a granite monument covered in small American flags and colorful flowers.
Craig Ruttle/Pool via Getty Images
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Flags and flowers adorn the names of the victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, during a ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on Saturday in New York City.

The live blog was offline this weekend, and hopefully you were, too. Here are some of the storylines we're catching up on this morning:

Somber reflections, and some new information, two decades after 9/11

Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (find all of NPR's anniversary coverage here).

Americans gathered at ceremonies in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., to commemorate the thousands of lives lost — read more about those events and see photos.

Vice President Harris and former President George W. Bush both spoke at the memorial event in Shanksville, the site of the Flight 93 crash. Each of their remarks touched on the importance of resilience and unity, with Bush lamenting the current era of political division in what appeared to be a reference to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

President Biden visited all three memorial sites on Saturday. He did not make formal remarks, but released a video message the previous day, acknowledging the pain that families are still feeling and calling on Americans to embrace unity.

He also declassified a 16-page FBI report tying 9/11 hijackers to Saudi nationals living in the U.S., which you can read about here.

North Korea says it successfully tested long-range missiles

North Korea says it test-fired what it described as newly developed long-range cruise missiles over the weekend, the first known missile launch since March.

The Korean Central News Agency reports that the tests were conducted on Saturday and Sunday, and that the missiles hit targets more than 900 miles away.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, cruise missiles are intended to "fly under the radar and evade missile defenses." UN resolutions prohibit North Korea from testing ballistic missiles, but not cruise missiles.

"South Korea and the U.S. say they are analyzing the launches," Kuhn adds. "Whether or not they knew about them over the weekend, they remained silent until Monday." Read more here.

Tropical Storm Nicholas is closing in on the Texas coast

Forecasters expect Nicholas to bring heavy rain and floods to coastal parts of Texas, Mexico and Louisiana, parts of which are still recovering from Hurricane Ida.

The National Hurricane Center said early Monday that the storm has maximum sustained winds of about 60 miles per hour, and could strengthen into a hurricane before reaching the northwest Gulf Coast.

It's expected to produce total rainfall of up to 10 inches in Texas and southwest Louisiana over several days, with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches in some portions of coastal Texas. Read more about how these states are preparing, and follow NPR and local member stations for continued coverage.