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California wildfires could become ‘explosive’ due to windy conditions

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The overall death toll from the outbreak of fires in both Northern and Southern California reached at least 31 on Sunday evening and appeared likely to rise as fierce winds fanned the raging flames.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Department in the northern part of the state said late Sunday that 228 people are unaccounted for, but officials held out hope that many were safe but had no cell phones or other way to contact loved ones.

Statewide, 150,000 remained displaced as more than 8,000 fire crews battled wildfires that have scorched nearly 1,040 square kilometres of land, with out-of-state crews continuing to arrive.

The worst of the fires was in northern California, where flames reduced the town of Paradise, population 27,000, to a smoking ruin days ago and continued to scorch surrounding communities.

The number of people killed in that fire alone — at least 29 — matches the deadliest single fire on record in California, a 1933 blaze in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, though a series of wildfires in Northern California wine country last fall killed 44 people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes. 

As forensic teams combed through what little remained of Paradise on Sunday, a parking lot became a staging area for hearses. Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the county was bringing in more rescue workers and consulted anthropologists from California State University at Chico because in some cases “the only remains we are able to find are bones or bone fragments.”

“This weighs heavy on all of us,” Honea said.

‘Explosive fire behaviour’

Authorities were also bringing in a DNA lab and encouraged people with missing relatives to submit samples to aid in identifying the dead after the blaze — called the Camp Fire — destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, nearly all of them homes.

Glenn Forrest’s family lost two homes and a business in the fire. He told CBC News that he didn’t think his family would make it out of the fire zone alive. “This is the first time in my life, I think, that I ever felt like I could have died at any moment.”

He credits his mother for staying calm as she drove through flames and hot ash. “There were cars swerving everywhere, cars turning around. We were afraid we would either get hit by another car … or a tree would fall. Our car could have caught fire or exploded.”

Firefighters gained modest ground overnight against the Camp Fire, which grew slightly to 440 square kilometres from the day before but was 25 per cent contained, according to state fire agency, Cal Fire.

Both Northern and Southern California continue to deal with deadly wildfires that have killed at least 31 people as of Sunday. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

But Cal Fire spokesperson Bill Murphy warned that gusty winds predicted into Monday morning could spark “explosive fire behaviour.”

Two people were also found dead in a wildfire in Southern California, where flames tore through Malibu mansions and working-class Los Angeles suburbs alike. The severely burned bodies were discovered in a long residential driveway in celebrity-studded Malibu, where those forced out of homes included Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian West, Guillermo del Toro and Martin Sheen.

Actor Gerard Butler said on Instagram Sunday that his Malibu home is “half-gone,” and shared a photo of himself standing in front of a burned-out section of the house and a badly burned vehicle.

Meanwhile, veteran actor James Woods, who often uses his Twitter following to espouse conservative views, has been using his account to help reunite families with loved ones, including pets. He started the hashtags #SoCalFiresJamesWoods and #CampFireJames to consolidate information so it’s easier for people to find loved ones in the chaos.

Flames also besieged Thousand Oaks, the Southern California city still mourning the 12 people killed in a shooting rampage at a country music bar Wednesday night.

Dana Baker, a Canadian who lives and works in Thousand Oaks, told CBC News the community is having trouble coping with the fires so soon after the shooting.

“I am tired. Between not sleeping well, trying to check on everybody, you know, to make sure they’re OK after two tragedies. No one is OK,” she said. “I can hear sirens right now. We’re all just on edge.”

Winds hamper firefighting efforts

Fire officials said Monday that the Woolsey Fire, the larger of the region’s two fires and the one burning in and around Malibu, grew to 395 square kilometres and was 20 per cent contained.

But the strong, dry Santa Ana winds that blow from the interior toward the coast returned after a one-day lull, fanning the flames.

The number of structures destroyed by both Southern California fires climbed to at least 370, authorities said, while emphasizing that more than 50,000 had been saved. Looting was also reported in areas affected by the southern fires and arrests were made, police reported.

Yuba and Butte county sheriff deputies carry a body bag containing a deceased victim in Paradise on Saturday. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

All told, 300,000 people were under evacuation orders up and down the state.

Gov. Jerry Brown said he is requesting a major-disaster declaration from U.S. President Donald Trump that would make victims eligible for crisis counselling, housing and unemployment help, and legal aid.

Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and the building of homes deeper into forests have led to longer and more destructive wildfire seasons in California.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Asked about the tweet, L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said he found it very hurtful to first responders. “I can tell you that we are in extreme climate change right now. We don’t control the climate. We’re doing all we can to prevent incidents and mitigate incidents and save lives,” he told reporters at a news briefing. “I personally find that statement unsatisfactory and it’s very hurtful for all first responders putting their lives on the line to protect lives and property.” 

Tearful residents react after deadly fires rip through their neighbourhoods:

California residents react to deadly fires that swept in and destroyed homes. 1:01

On Sunday, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen warned the California was “entering a new normal” and that fires in the state grew far more quickly in 2018 than they did even 10 years ago.

“The rate of spread is exponentially more than it used to be,” Lorenzen said.

While California officially emerged from a five-year drought last year, much of the northern two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry.

The Camp Fire burns along the top of a ridge near Big Bend, Calif., on Saturday. Crews working to contain the blaze overnight faced deteriorating weather conditions as winds picked up and humidity dropped. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

In Paradise, a town founded in the 1800s, residents who stayed behind to try to save their properties or who managed to return despite an evacuation order found incinerated cars and homes.

Wearing masks because the air was still heavy with smoke, people sidestepped metal that had melted off of cars or Jet-Skis as they surveyed their ravaged neighbourhoods. Some cried when they saw nothing was left.

Jan McGregor, 81, got back to his small two-bedroom home in Paradise with the help of his firefighter grandson. He found his home levelled — a large metal safe and pipes from his septic system the only recognizable traces. The safe was punctured with bullet holes from guns inside that went off in the scorching heat.

“We knew Paradise was a prime target for forest fire over the years,” he said. “We’ve had ’em come right up to the city limits — oh, yeah — but nothing like this.”

McGregor said he probably won’t rebuild: “I have nothing here to go back to.”

Firefighters gather for a morning briefing in Paradise on Saturday. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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