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News Brief: U.S. Wildfires, Coronavirus Relief Bill, Russian Election Hackers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've seen the photos - the skies in California, Oregon, across the west just thick with smoke. If you're not wearing your mask because of COVID, you might need to wear one to protect you from the debris in the air. And those skies with that eerie orange light from the fires might make day feel like night. One friend of mine outside San Francisco texted me saying it, quote, "feels like the apocalypse."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Firefighters in California and Oregon and Washington face high winds and high temperatures. About 14 people have died, we're told. In Oregon, more than 10% of the state population - that's half a million people - have been evacuated. And Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency.

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KATE BROWN: We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state.

MARTIN: With us now from Portland is Jonathan Levinson from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Jonathan, good morning. Can you tell us what the situation is in Oregon when it comes to fatalities and just damage?

JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: Nearly a million acres have burned across the state since Monday. That's almost double what burns in an average fire season. And the fires are still growing. There are 3,000 firefighters working across the state. In southern Oregon alone, an estimated 1- to 2,000 homes have been lost. In the northern part of the state, no one's been able to get back to their towns to assess the damage. And fire officials say things are moving so fast that they don't have a good estimate. At least four people have been killed so far in the state. But, you know, same as property damage - fires are still spreading, and they just don't know the extent of the loss yet.

MARTIN: Right. And we know that there's a fire season every year, but this really is just so exceptional. Can you tell us what you have seen as you've been out reporting?

LEVINSON: So I spent the past two days in Clackamas County, and that's just south of Portland. It's a mix of rural and suburban communities. And, you know, people were tense. They know the fire is getting close to their homes. They have no idea where the fire is exactly. They don't know if it's reached their town or their home. They don't know what they're going back to. I spoke to Nancy Price (ph). She's 69. She and her husband had to evacuate their home in nearby Molalla. So that's, like, 20 miles from Portland. And they had to leave so quickly on Tuesday that they didn't pack anything, not even their medication. They were at a makeshift shelter at a community college parking lot when I spoke to them.

NANCY PRICE: The thing that's bothering me the most is we don't know what's going on, how soon we can get back in to see - just to know if we have a home. We don't know. That's the thing I dread the most - is not knowing.

LEVINSON: And so to give you an idea of how fast things are changing, while I was there talking to people, the evacuation zone actually shifted, and the shelter was suddenly elevated to a Level 2, which means prepare to leave. The most urgent, a Level 3 zone, which means leave now, had also moved and was now just a mile away from the shelter. And so suddenly, people who had already evacuated their homes were getting ready to evacuate the shelter.

MARTIN: What about Portland itself, where you are? Do the fires represent a real threat there.

LEVINSON: Well, some cities in northwest - in the northwest part of Clackamas County are - they're really Portland suburbs in places. And a lot of people commute into the city from some of the smaller towns in Clackamas County. The evacuation zone has steadily moved towards the southern edge of Portland. Between Wednesday and Thursday, it came about 10 miles closer. It's now about 6 miles from the southern edge of the city. Portland Fire and Rescue spokesperson said that right now there's no danger to the city, but there is a concern that a fire could start inside the city in the parks. And so Mayor Ted Wheeler issued an emergency order closing the city parks and outdoor properties.

MARTIN: All right. Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting, we appreciate your reporting on all this.

Thank you.

LEVINSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Half of American households are feeling financial pain because of the coronavirus pandemic. And immediate relief doesn't appear to be on its way.

INSKEEP: Senate Democrats yesterday blocked a Republican-backed version of a relief package. Republicans had not acted on the Democratic version. Democrats said Republicans were not doing enough for the unemployed. They differed on how much extra help to give. This is a difficult sign for Americans who relied on those payments. The people who've spoken in favor of more help include Jerome Powell, the Fed chairman, who told us last week that, quote, "more will be needed from Congress."

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JEROME POWELL: I guess I would just say the recovery is continuing. We do think it will get harder from here because of those areas of the economy that are so directly affected by the pandemic still. There's going to be a long period, we believe, where we'll have to take our time and see those people get back to work.

MARTIN: So how long a period are we talking about? We've got NPR economics correspondent Scott Horsley with us.

Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So talks about a new coronavirus relief bill once again gone nowhere in Congress, at least for the time being. Can you just put it into context? How much help does the economy need right now?

HORSLEY: More than lawmakers have been able to agree on so far. You know, the economy has bounced partway back. But as you heard the Fed chairman say, the hill is getting steeper from here. You know, we've recovered so far less than half the jobs that were lost this spring. Job gains have been slowing in the last couple of months, and we continue to see large numbers of people filing new claims for unemployment week after week. At last count, there were almost 30 million people collecting jobless benefits in the U.S. And it's now been six weeks since those benefits were cut by $600 a week.

MARTIN: How's that affecting spending, which is a big driver of the economy?

HORSLEY: Credit and debit card records suggest that spending growth has kind of stalled since the latter part of June. Spending in most areas is still below prepandemic levels. One exception, though, is groceries, where spending is still elevated, and prices are up as well. That is putting a squeeze on some families. I talked yesterday with Gwen Mickens in Tampa. She complained that her last trip to the supermarket sent her back more than $250.

GWEN MICKENS: Short ribs are, like, twice as much as they used to be. And, of course, the bacon is more expensive, as well, and dairy products. And you kind of close your eyes and just pick it up and throw it in the grocery cart.

MARTIN: I know that feeling. So, Scott, why isn't the government's inflation gauge capturing all these changes?

HORSLEY: Every month, the government tries to measure inflation by tracking the prices on a big basket of goods and services. The prices go up and down from month to month, but the basket stays the same. In real life, though, consumers' baskets have changed during the pandemic. You know, we're spending more on things like groceries, where the prices have been going up, and less on things like air travel and concert tickets, where the prices have come down. Harvard economist Alberto Cavallo has crafted a special COVID CPI that tries to account for that evolving basket and measure the inflation that consumers are actually experiencing during the pandemic.

ALBERTO CAVALLO: When you take into account these changes in consumption patterns, it turns out the inflation levels are significantly higher. I would say about 1% more on an annual basis.

HORSLEY: And the people who suffer the most there are those at the bottom of the income ladder, who can least afford it.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: OK, the same Russian group involved in the 2016 hack of Hillary Clinton's campaign is at it again. And they're not the only ones looking to influence the 2020 election.

INSKEEP: Microsoft revealed that hackers with ties to Russia tried to infiltrate the computers of political campaigns and other groups. China and Iran are also active, according to Microsoft. Cyberattacks targeted both President Trump's campaign and Joe Biden's campaign.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and election security, and he's with us now.

Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK, so as we said, Microsoft said yesterday they have detected new hacking attempts. Tell us more about what they found.

PARKS: So the bottom line is this Russian-backed group that's commonly referred to as Fancy Bear - basically, what Microsoft says is they're still at it. They've seen the group try to hack more than 200 organizations over the past year, many with some connection to the election. Think national and state political parties, political consultants who consult with candidates on both sides of the aisle and even think tanks who have some role in kind of shaping foreign policy.

What's also interesting here is that Microsoft says some of the techniques that this group is using are staying the same from four years ago. You know, spear phishing - trying to get people's passwords by getting them to click on a bad link. But some of those techniques are changing. They're adding things that are kind of making it harder for their identities to be detected and also making it potentially easier for them to automate some of these attacks and potentially scale them so they can do more of them.

MARTIN: Steve also mentioned that Microsoft is saying it's not just Russia. China, Iran are also in this.

PARKS: Right. These Chinese and Iranian groups were also observed trying to break into the campaign emails of Biden and Trump campaign staffers, as well as at least one what Microsoft calls a notable former Trump administration official. And this matches up with what we've heard from the national security community - that these three countries, Russia, China and Iran, all have cybercapabilities, and they're all interested in potentially manipulating the election in some way.

But we also know that if a country-backed group breaks in, they do have slightly different strategies. You know, in 2016, we saw how Russia could weaponize a hack when they released those reams of Democratic emails right before the election, right? Whereas China traditionally, when they hack, it's traditionally been for espionage, spying purposes and not necessarily to influence the results so directly.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about something else that is related? I mean, the federal government has a role in all this, clearly. Officials announced sanctions against a Ukrainian lawmaker yesterday who they say is a Russian agent. What can you tell us?

PARKS: Right. This guy's name is Andriy Derkach. He's been peddling this debunked Ukrainian corruption narrative about former Vice President Joe Biden by publishing edited audiotapes and even sending letters to Republican members of Congress, as well as meeting at one point last year with President Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. The Treasury Department announced sanctions on him yesterday and called these narratives that he's been pushing baseless attempts to undermine the Biden campaign and basically said they're clear attempts at election interference.

MARTIN: So bottom line - we're less than two months from Election Day, Miles. Where do we stand? How safe is America's election system?

PARKS: Well, all of this news kind of taken together - it's all just a reminder that these election security threats, these foreign interference threats have not gone away. And there's going to be efforts to manipulate voters with bad information. It's not just the risk, the cyber-risk on voting equipment that's kind of the most obvious red flag. The much easier targets when it comes to foreign interference are these campaign email accounts...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PARKS: ...And then through that, potentially, the minds of the voters. People just need to be looking out for bad information.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks.

Thanks, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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