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Northern California wildfire death toll hits 56 as searches intensify

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Authorities have reported eight more fatalities from an ongoing wildfire in northern California, bringing the death toll to 56 in the deadliest blaze in state history.

The announcement came Wednesday after authorities ramped up the search for more victims. They said 130 people were still unaccounted for.

The Camp Fire has grown in size to more than 555 square kilometres and has destroyed nearly 9,000 homes. At an evening news conference, officials said that more than 5,000 fire personnel are battling the blaze that is now 35 per cent contained.

The fire that started last Thursday has displaced 52,000 people and incinerated Paradise, a town in the Sierra foothills about 280 kilometres north of San Francisco.

Officials said that 1,385 people were being housed in shelters, adding that there is a norovirus outbreak at the shelter in the nearby city of Chico.

Survey the damage to one California community from above:

A wildfire has destroyed more than 7,600 homes, and most of Paradise, Calif. 0:58

“Progress is being made,” said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), at a news conference. He was flanked by California Gov. Jerry Brown, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and other officials.

Fire crews in northern California seized on improved weather on Wednesday in their six-day-old battle to suppress the Camp Fire, as diminished winds and rising humidity allowed firefighters to carve containment lines around more than a third of the perimeter.

“This is one of the worst disasters I’ve seen in my career, hands down,” Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters in Chico.

A search and rescue worker assists a cadaver dog that fell through the rubble while looking for Camp Fire victims in Paradise, Calif. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

The Camp Fire — fed by drought-desiccated scrub and fanned by strong winds — has capped a catastrophic California wildfire season that experts largely attribute to prolonged dry spells that are symptomatic of global climate change.

Wind-driven flames roared through Paradise so swiftly that residents were forced to flee for their lives with little or no warning. Officials say they’re looking to bring in mobile homes for thousands of people who have lost their houses.

Mark Ghilarducci, of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, says U.S. and state officials also are looking into hotels and rental properties to house people driven from the town of Paradise and neighbouring communities.

Stories of survival

Anna Dise, a resident of Butte Creek Canyon west of Paradise, told KRCR-TV that her father, Gordon Dise, 66, was among those who died in the fire. They had little time to evacuate and their house collapsed on her father when he went back in to gather belongings.

Dise said she could not drive her car because the tires had melted. To survive, she hid overnight in a neighbour’s pond with her dogs.

“It was so fast,” Dise said. “I didn’t expect it to move so fast.”

A helicopter drops water on a burning ridge in the Feather River Canyon, east of Paradise, on Sunday. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

The Butte County disaster coincided with a flurry of blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which has killed two people, destroyed more than 400 structures and, at its height, displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills west of Los Angeles.

Zinke toured the burned out remains of Paradise on Wednesday, saying it’s not the time to “point fingers.” He lamented the destruction and said there are many factors in wildfires, including rising temperatures.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, centre, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, second from right, tour the fire-ravaged Paradise. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

After touring some of California’s earlier wildfire zones in August, Zinke had blamed “gross mismanagement of forests” because of timber harvest restrictions that he said were supported by “environmental terrorist groups.”

But when pressed by reporters on Wednesday, Zinke demurred. “Now is really not the time to point fingers,” he said. “It is a time for America to stand together.”

He was visiting the town with Jerry Brown days after U.S. President Donald Trump also blamed “poor” forest management for the fire. Brown says climate change is the greater source of the problem.

Still, the governor said in a phone call today, Trump pledged “the full resources of the federal government.”

The fatality count from the Camp Fire far exceeds the previous record for the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California history — 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.

Cause unknown

The origins of both fires are under investigation. Utility companies, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, reported to regulators they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas around the time the blazes were first reported. Shares in PG&E plunged Wednesday after the utility said in the filing that it could face a significant financial hit if its equipment is found to be the cause.

A fireplace and chimney are all that remains of a house on Busch Drive, a casualty of the Woolsey Fire, on Wednesday in Malibu, Calif. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A group of three law firms representing multiple victims of the Camp Fire has filed a lawsuit against PG&E, alleging negligence by the utility company and that “its inexcusable behaviour contributed to the cause” of the blaze.

Speaking to KRCR-TV early Wednesday in the Feather River Canyon to the northeast of Chico, Cal Fire official Josh Campbell said strong wind gusts in the canyon of up to 50 km/h were actually helping local crews by slowing the spread of the fire.

“This gives us the opportunity to construct our lines, so we can be ready for the fire and put it out,” he said.

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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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