Oregon Wildfire, Tokyo Olympics Competition Begins, Havana Syndrome: News You Need To Start Your Day

Published July 20, 2021 at 10:38 AM EDT
Players in yellow and white play in a mostly empty soccer arena. An American goalie fails to block a ball as it flies over her head into the net.
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Getty Images AsiaPac
Stina Blackstenius of Sweden scores her team's second goal during their 3-0 win over the United States. The two teams played their opening fixture on Thursday at the Tokyo Stadium. Some competition has already begun ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday.

Good morning ☕️ and happy Wednesday. Here are the important stories we're following for you this morning:

  • Right now, 80 large wildfires are burning across the western United States. The largest of them is the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon and its growing at a rapid rate. The fire is so big, it's creating its own weather.
  • Competition has already begun at the Olympics, ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday. A handful of athletes have already tested positive for COVID-19 and our reporter in Tokyo describes a "kind of eerie quiet" there.
  • The Biden Administration says it is vigorously investigating the latest reports of a mysterious illness affecting dozens of American diplomats.

🎧 Plus, on Up First,our morning news podcast, the bipartisan infrastructure deal gets a Senate vote today.

— The Morning Edition live blog team
Emily Alfin Johnson, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark, Casey Noenickx and William Jones

Just In
Wildfire Season

The Bootleg Wildfire Is One Of Oregon's Largest In History And Is Still Growing

Posted July 21, 2021 at 6:55 AM EDT
A plane drops red fire retardant over a wooded area. The air is filled with smoky haze and barely any blue sky can be seen.
Bootleg Fire Incident Command via AP
A tanker drops retardant over the Mitchell Monument area at the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The Bootleg Fire is burning in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest, a vast expanse of old-growth forest, lakes and wildlife refuges.

Dry and windy conditions in Southern Oregon continue to fuel the Bootleg Fire, one of the largest wildfires in the state's history, and currently the largest in the U.S.

Jefferson Public Radio's Erik Neumann has been covering the fire and shared these updates:

  • As of now the fire is only about 30% contained. The fire has already consumed more than 600 square miles in rural south central Oregon. It's an area larger than Los Angeles.
  • Thankfully there are no fatalities from the fire. About 2,000 homes have already been evacuated.
  • The fire has now gotten so big it's creating its own weather. The puffy white clouds formed by the smoke from the fire are capable of causing lightning strikes — starting new fires.
  • This season's on track to outpace last year's historically bad fire season: "I would categorize this fire season thus-far as historic," Oregon State Fire Marshall Mariana Ruiz Temple said, "in terms of the resources we've deployed."
  • 90% of the state is currently in drought, making the land more prone to fire and the challenge for firefighters more severe.
  • There is hope. There are signs of "monsoon moisture" in the forecast for next week.

For the latest, keep an eye on Jefferson Public Radio's Wildfire Tracker.

Tokyo Olympics 🥇

Olympic Competitions Just Kicked Off In An Eerily Quiet Tokyo

Posted July 21, 2021 at 7:07 AM EDT
Softball players wearing red and yellow uniforms stand play a game on the pitch, with rows of empty seats and mountains in the backdrop.
Yuichi Masuda/Getty Images
Getty Images AsiaPac
Japan's softball team beat Australia 8-1 at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium in Fukushima, Japan on Wednesday.

The opening ceremony isn't until Friday, but some Olympic events have already begun (we're looking at you, softball and soccer).

Among the notable early match-ups:

  • The Japan softball team beat Australia
  • The U.S. softball team defeated Italy
  • The U.S. women's soccer team (reigning World Cup champions) just lost to Sweden.

For more from Tokyo, follow NPR's live updates from the summer Olympics 🥇

NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is in Tokyo, covering his 13th Olympics for us. He says this one is already "easily the strangest, by far."

While there's usually considerable buzz and anticipation in the days leading up to the Games, he reports emerging from a four-day quarantine to "a kind of eerie quiet."

Much of the Japanese public disapproves of holding the Olympics during the pandemic, most events won't allow spectators and the few fans that can attend aren't allowed to cheer or sing. When Japan beat Australia in softball, one report from the stadium said home runs were accompanied only by the sound of "buzzing cicadas and polite applause from the team staff."

Plus, at least 79 people connected to the Games — including at least six athletes — have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the month.

As Goldman explains, his personal experiences with daily testing and quarantine cast doubt on organizers' promises that everyone will be safe. 🎧Listen to his full dispatch here.

NPR Newscast

Deadly Floods In China Are Another Stark Reminder Of Climate Change's Toll

Posted July 21, 2021 at 10:12 AM EDT
Men peer over a concrete ledge at a pile of cars submerged in muddy floodwaters, with high-rise buildings in the distance.
STR/AFP via Getty Images
People look out at cars sitting in floodwaters after heavy rains hit the city of Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province on Wednesday.

Heavy rains and flooding continue to hammer central China.

As NPR's John Ruwitch reports, at least 12 people have died in central Henan province, and at least 100,000 have been evacuated after record rainfall.

State media say a year's worth of rain fell on Henan's provincial capital, Zhengzhou, from Saturday to Tuesday. They're calling it the worst rains in 60 years.

Images online show roads turned into muddy rivers, and people stranded in subway cars with water up to their chests.

Flooding caused a breach in at least one dam in Henan overnight, according to state media. And the Chinese army warned that another was in danger of bursting under the deluge.

Zhengzhou, a city of around 10 million people, has suspended all arriving flights. Heavy rain is expected to continue through Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in southern China, a typhoon with winds of up to 74 miles per hour made landfall in Guangdong province.

The warming climate is making heat waves, droughts and floods more frequent and intense. We saw historic floods in Germany just last week, and many U.S. communities are at risk of extreme flooding because of severe precipitation and sea level rise from climate change.


The Milwaukee Bucks Are NBA Champions After A 50-Year Drought

Posted July 21, 2021 at 8:04 AM EDT
A crowd of male basketball players cheers and claps as Giannis Antetokounmpo, wearing a #34 jersey, holds up a gold trophy.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates winning the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game Six to win the 2021 NBA Finals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin yesterday.

The Milwaukee Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns 105-98 last night, claiming their first NBA title in decades. They did so after being down two games to none, then storming back to win the next four.

As Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM reports, basketball legends Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the team to its last championship in 1971.

Last night, it was Giannis Antetokounmpo — born in 1994 in Greece to Nigerian parents — who carried the team. The newly crowned NBA Finals MVP recovered from a recent injury to score 50 points.

Thousands of fans celebrated outside of the stadium last night. 🎧 Here's what the Bucks' long-awaited victory means to Milwaukee.

Wish You Were Here Series

This Reporter Hiked Colombia's Jungle With Ex-Guerrilla Guides (And You Can Too)

Posted July 21, 2021 at 8:37 AM EDT
A man wearing a helmet and outdoor gear looks in the distance while facing the camera, as a line of people wearing raincoats and helmets walk through the jungle behind him.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Edinson Castro, an ex-FARC rebel, is now a guide for tourists in the jungle.

During Colombia’s decades-long guerilla war, members of the Marxist rebel group known as FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) were known to rappel down cliffs and chain up kidnapped civilians in the jungle.

Colombia-based journalist John Otis reports that after the 2016 peace treaty, many FARC fighters lacked the requisite skills to find jobs in cities. But they did bring a special expertise to one area: navigating the jungle terrain.

So two years, some hospitality courses and Norwegian government funding later, a group of about 30 ex-combatants established a tourism agency in the formerly rebel-held town of Mesetas.

For about $125 each, guests can book a weekend of rafting, rappelling and trekking — and the chance to ask these former guerrillas directly about why they fought and what they do today.

Otis joined one of these outings, where participants rappelled down a 150-foot waterfall canyon, slept in a resettlement camp and chatted frankly by the campfire.

Click here for his story and a bunch of stunning photos. (It’s part of a special series we're calling, “Wish You Were Here,” where NPR reporters take us along on immersive experiences around the world.)


Corporate Boards Find It’s No Easy Business Reining In Executives Who Are Thrill-Seekers

Posted July 21, 2021 at 8:59 AM EDT
Four people in blue spacesuits pose with smiles, outstretched arms and thumbs up in front of a desert landscape.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew, Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk, and Mark Bezos (L to R), pose for a picture in Van Horn, Texas after flying into space yesterday.

You may recall that Jeff Bezos, Amazon's executive chairman, took a trip to the edge of space yesterday. He returned to earth, safe and sound. That meant the other ten members of Amazon's board of directors could breathe a sigh of relief.

He's by no means the only adrenaline-seeking executive. Take Robert Lutz for example.

Lutz has been a top executive at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. He's always enjoyed skiing, riding motorbikes and has even flown fighter planes for fun. He believes more executives should be daredevils:

"As opposed to, you know, calm, peaceful guys who never want to put themselves at risk, always drive at the speed limit, drive a minivan as their only vehicle. Who the heck wants a person like that to lead a corporation or be in a leadership position at a corporation?"
Robert Lutz - Former General Motors, Ford and Chrysler Executive

Then there's Mark Bertolini. Before becoming the head of the health insurance company Aetna, he went skiing. "I caught an edge and hit a tree, and slipped head-first 60 feet into a river," he recalls.

Bertolini faced a long recovery from a coma and broken spine. But once he healed, he didn't give up his passion. He also happens to love motorcycles. And he recalls being asked to look over a contract when he became CEO and chairman that would exclude him from skiing and motorcycling. He successfully fought that restriction despite the pressure.

So, this all begs the question: What, if anything, can companies actually do to rein in risk-taking executives? Take a listen to find out the answer.

Foreign Policy

Dozens Of Americans In Vienna Are Reporting Mysterious Symptoms. Is Russia To Blame?

Posted July 21, 2021 at 6:55 AM EDT
The Vienna skyline includes red and yellow buildings in front of gray high rises.
Alexander Koerner/Getty Images
Getty Images Europe
The skyline of Vienna, Austria pictured in 2016.

The Biden administration says it is “vigorously investigating” reports that dozens of Americans in Vienna are suffering mysterious symptoms that have come to be known as “Havana Syndrome.”

The illness was first reported in Havana in 2016. Symptoms include vertigo, head pressure and brain fog. Cases have sincebeen reported in at least six more places, including Moscow, London and the Washington, D.C. area.

Adam Entous of The New Yorker was the first to report the new cases in Vienna. He told Morning Edition's A Martínez that it’s been very difficult for U.S. officials to pin down the cause:

“They believe increasingly that it's the Russians using some sort of microwave pulse radiation device that's somehow been miniaturized and is very portable and is not easily detected,” Entous said. “And despite all the searching that they've done, they really have not advanced the ball in terms of finding the device or catching culprits in the act.”

And while Entous says the U.S. and Russia have generally had an unspoken rule not to harm each other’s spies, Russia in recent years has tried to push the envelope on what it can get away with.

“If this is what U.S. officials actually think it is, it may be a manifestation of that kind of a step further than has been taken in the past [to] physically harm CIA officers and diplomats in ways that are very ambiguous and deniable,” Entous said. “And so, therefore, very difficult for the U.S. to point the finger at anyone. And if you can't point the finger at anyone, you really can't do anything about it.”

🎧Listen to the full conversation here.


What We Know About The Trump Adviser Charged With Acting As An Agent Of The UAE

Posted July 21, 2021 at 8:21 AM EDT
People stand close together in a group around former President Trump. They wear formal clothes and Tom Barrack claps.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Tom Barrack, on the far left, greets then President-elect Donald Trump during the inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2017.

A longtime friend and adviser of former President Donald Trump has been charged with trying to covertly steer American policy in favor of a foreign country.

Federal prosecutors say Tom Barrack used his influence with Trump to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates.

Ilya Marritz is a contributor to NPR and has been covering Barrack's relationship to Trump.

Here's what Marritz shared about Barrack and the charges against him ⤵

Barrack is a 74-year-old, private equity investor. He connected with Trump in the 1980s when Barrack was handling the sale of the Plaza Hotel. Barrack was one of the few major business leaders to endorse Trump in early 2016.

According to the indictment, when Barrack started raising money for the Trump campaign, he also embarked on a conspiracy to influence the candidate to take positions favorable to the UAE. In an energy policy speech in North Dakota, candidate Trump said he would take the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. He also pledged to "work with our Gulf allies." Prosecutors say the Emiratis saw the speech before it was delivered. And afterwards, an Emirati official wrote to Barrack congratulating him, saying everybody was "happy with the results."

Prosecutors say that after Trump was elected, Barrack and the Emiratis worked on a policy wish list they called the “100 days plan.” It's not clear whether they had any success in influencing U.S. foreign policy once Trump became president.

A spokesperson for Barrack has responded to the seven-count indictment: The spokesperson said Barrack has made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset and that he will plead not guilty.


She's Fighting To Get Her Father Out Of Prison In Rwanda. Now, She Found Spyware On Her Phone

Posted July 21, 2021 at 9:46 AM EDT

During the Rwandan genocide, a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina was widely credited with saving more than 1,000 people by hiding them, while negotiating with killers just outside the doors. The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, which was based on his efforts, made him an international hero.

In the years since, Rusesabagina became a critic of the Rwandan government. He calls President Paul Kagame, who has been in power for 21 years, a dictator.

Then about a year ago, Rwandan authorities arrested Rusesabagina, charged him with terrorism and put him in jail. His lawyers say he's faced cruel treatment while in custody.

Since then, his daughter, Carine Kanimba, has been fighting to get him out.

But after months of suspicion, she's learned that her phone was one of more than 50,000 infected by the military-grade spyware called Pegasus that is licensed by the Israeli company NSO.

That spyware gave someone the ability to surveil her phone.

That includes, Kanimba says, "all [the] communication with my lawyers, with my father's lawyers, with our team and our campaign to free him have been read and intercepted by the Rwandan government."

The Rwandan government denies involvement.

The daughter of Rwandan activist Paul Rusesabagina, Carine Kanimba, poses for a picture.
Carine Kanimba is the daughter of Rwandan activist Paul Rusesabagina.

"I am very scared, to be frank with you," Kanimba told Morning Edition's Noel King, "because not only do they have access to my entire life, my phone conversations, my emails, my photos, my calendar, but they also have access to my location and so that means they can physically hurt me."

Kanimba says her father the Rwandan government kidnapped her father on his way to Dubai last year and brought him to Rwanda to face charges.

"This will not intimidate us into stopping the campaign that we are leading to free my father," Kanimba says, "because he's innocent."

🎧 But she says it has changed how she's leading the fight to free her father. Take a listen.


‘If Anybody Is Lying Here, Senator, It Is You:' Watch Fauci Clash With Rand Paul On Capitol Hill

Posted July 21, 2021 at 9:19 AM EDT

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert confronted Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul yesterday while testifying before Congress.

While it's not the first time the two have clashed, this latest drama centered around comments Paul made about the U.S. helping fund research at a Wuhan virology lab that could have sparked the coronavirus pandemic.

(For context, U.S. intelligence agencies are still investigating the origins of COVID-19, including the theory that it leaked from a lab.)

Paul suggested Fauci had lied to Congress earlier this year when he denied that the National Institutes of Health funded that research.

Fauci rejected those insinuations, saying the study Paul mentioned referenced a different virus entirely.

Then things got heated.

"Sen. Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly,” Fauci said at one point. “And I want to say that officially. You do not know what you are talking about.”

You can watch their exchange here ⤵

KPBS Reports

They Lost Their Son In Afghanistan. As The War Ends, Their Loss Lingers

Posted July 21, 2021 at 7:40 AM EDT

For some, Afghanistan was America’s back burner war, far away, often overshadowed by the war in Iraq.

But for the family of soldiers killed, the loss lingers. Justin O'Donohoe was killed in 2006 when his helicopter crashed in Kunar province. Nine other soldiers were killed in that crash.

I spoke to his family and friends, 15 years later. They say time doesn't heal all wounds.

“You move on with the rest of your and you don't forget, you don't ignore, you don't let it slide by. It's more of a compartmentalization. I have a compartment in me that's Justin.”
Pat O'Donohoe - Justin's father

Those closest to Justin told me what it means for them for the war to end. Here's what they said.

Before You Go
Pop Culture Happy Hour

'Kevin Can F**k Himself' Takes A New Approach To The Traditional Sitcom

Posted July 21, 2021 at 10:27 AM EDT
Mary Hollis Inboden and Annie Murphy are two of the leads in the sitcom, Kevin Can F**k Himself.
Jojo Whilden/AMC
Mary Hollis Inboden and Annie Murphy star in Kevin Can F**k Himself.

What would it really be like to be a sitcom wife whose husband is rude and demanding, and is surrounded by rude and demanding friends? The kind of wife who has settled for a man who lacks any kind of appeal?

As Pop Culture Happy Hour's Linda Holmes notes that's basically the premise of the AMC series Kevin Can F**k Himself.

She and Greta Johnsen of WBEZ's Nerdette podcast talk through how it's kind of a combination of two shows: your traditional, multi-camera comedy with the overbearing audience laughter, combined with a separate sidebar drama.

🎧 Take a listen to the latest episode ofPop Culture Happy Hour.