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News brief: Ukraine grain deal, Oak Fire, Indiana special legislative session

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ukraine says it's preparing to reopen ports on the Black Sea as part of a United Nations-brokered deal to export millions of tons of grain trapped by the war.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

But can the grain be exported safely? That's in doubt now because Russia dropped missiles on the main port of Odesa less than 24 hours after signing this deal - a deal that the U.N. and Turkey worked on to address global food shortages and rising prices.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Joanna Kakissis has been following this story from Kyiv. Joanna, tell us why this deal is so important and why it's now in question.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So the U.N. and Turkey brokered this deal between Russia and Ukraine because these two countries are top producers of grain, cooking oil and fertilizer. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has blocked those exports, and food prices are soaring. People in some countries are also going hungry because they lack food staples like wheat and sunflower oil. So this deal is supposed to secure the shipment of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports, including Odessa. It's also - is supposed to facilitate the shipment of Russian grain and fertilizer, which are blocked because of Western sanctions on Russian banking and transport. On Saturday, however, less than 24 hours after this deal was signed, Russia hit the port of Odesa with missiles. World leaders condemned the strike, but Ukraine says it still wants to move forward with shipping that grain.

MARTINEZ: And why is exporting this grain so important for Ukraine?

KAKISSIS: So Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says agricultural exports would bring in $10 billion to the Ukrainian economy, and that is life-saving cash for a country that's expected to lose up to half of its GDP this year. Ukraine usually exports at least 4 million metric tons of grain a month, but just about half of that is getting out now. Ukraine also has about 20 million tons of grain from last year's harvest in storage. And now this year's harvest is coming in, and it risks going bad because there's nowhere to store it. I spoke to Ukraine's deputy agriculture minister, Taras Vysotsky, and he worries farmers won't be able to begin planting this fall.

TARAS VYSOTSKY: And if farmers stop planting, this means we will have much worse problems later. If you don't plant, then you lose a whole year. And even if you open logistics after, we won't have goods to be exported.

KAKISSIS: He says if that happens, the country's agriculture industry could collapse.

MARTINEZ: Joanna, what's Russia saying about this deal and the global food shortages?

KAKISSIS: So Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is in Africa this week, and he insists Russian grain and fertilizer can actually do more to ease the food crisis. His spokesperson also admitted that Russian missiles did actually strike the port of Odesa. But she claims Russia did not actually violate the grain transport deal because it hit a military target at the port. The language in this deal is very vague about what port infrastructure is protected. So Ukraine is asking for more security guarantees to safely transport the grain the world needs so badly to feed countries that need it.

MARTINEZ: All right. That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis reporting from Kyiv. Joanna, thanks.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: A state of emergency has been declared in Mariposa County, Calif., after a fast-moving wildfire burned thousands of acres over the weekend.

FADEL: The Oak Fire is California's largest wildfire this year. It sent thousands of residents fleeing their homes in the mountain communities near Yosemite National Park. And that's about 150 miles east of San Francisco. Thousands of firefighters are trying to cope with steep terrain and scorching weather conditions that are fueling the growing blaze.

MARTINEZ: Joshua Yeager with member station KVPR has been reporting from the area. Joshua, you were in the town of Mariposa just a few miles south of where this fire has been spreading. What'd you learned?

JOSHUA YEAGER, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, the Oak Fire is 15,600 acres, with no containment. And Cal Fire officials are concerned with the explosive rate of growth that they're seeing. The fire became California's biggest of the year so far within hours of igniting. Mike Van Loben Sels is a local Cal Fire chief, and he tells me this is one of the most extreme fires that he's seen in 30 years.

MIKE VAN LOBEN SELS: We had some very, very extreme fire behavior, some very, very extreme spotting.

YEAGER: And spotting, for those who don't know, is when embers fly ahead of the fire and spark new ones. He says that's happening two or three miles from Oak Fire. And those new fires could merge with the existing one, growing the blaze and making it much harder to control.

MARTINEZ: And, Joshua, what have you heard from people who have had to flee?

YEAGER: Well, almost 4,000 people have been evacuated already. Some of them are gathering at the Mariposa Elementary School, which is run by the Red Cross. The organization says about a hundred people have used their shelter in the last two days. And ten structures have been destroyed so far by the Oak Fire, according to the official tally. It could be weeks before people are able to return to their homes, unfortunately. And some evacuees have said that the hotel rooms are sparse and expensive. One of the evacuees I spoke to was Marty Vittore. He and his wife, Debra, live in the small mountain community of Lushmeadows, which is in the evacuation zone.

MARTY VITTORE: I stepped out on my back porch and just saw a boiling cloud of, you know, smoke just boiling off. And you knew it was close right away.

YEAGER: And we should say that a lot of people, because they were forced to flee so quickly, had to leave pets behind. But emergency workers are trying to rescue them, too.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. How worried are fire officials about what might happen?

YEAGER: Well, like I said, this fire is just growing at an alarming rate. Since Friday, it became the largest in the state. And even the International Space Station tweeted that they could see smoke from outer space. And as you said, the governor declared a local emergency here, which makes this fire a top priority for officials. There's just a vast amount of dead trees in this particular area of the forest that's been weakened by our ongoing drought here in California and the West. And bark beetle infestations killed thousands and thousands of trees.

What's making matters worse is in this particular area, there hasn't been any modern recorded fire history since the 1920s. So that bone-dry vegetation combined with the scorching weather - it's just - it's a catalyst for this fire to spread really quickly. And the forecast is not on firefighters' side - low humidity coupled with triple-digit temperatures moving into next week in August. Emergency workers tell me they're preparing for a long, long fight.

MARTINEZ: Joshua Yeager is with member station KVPR. Joshua, thanks a lot.

YEAGER: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Indiana is likely to join around a dozen states that have moved to restrict abortions in the last few weeks.

FADEL: Today, lawmakers will gather in the state Capitol for a special legislative session. One of the issues they'll address is a bill that would ban most abortions. Vice President Kamala Harris is headed to Indianapolis today to discuss reproductive rights with some of these lawmakers.

MARTINEZ: For more, we're joined now by Brandon Smith, statehouse bureau chief for Indiana Public Broadcasting. Brandon, Republicans have the majority in the statehouse. So what do they want to do with abortion in Indiana?

BRANDON SMITH, BYLINE: Well, fundamentally, they want to ban it, but just how far they go is the unknown here. But let's start with what the head of the Indiana Senate, Rodric Bray, said as he unveiled the initial abortion bill last week.

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RODRIC BRAY: Our underlying goal is to protect human life, promote more adoption and less abortion by limiting abortion to the life of the mother, rape and incest.

SMITH: Now, complicating this is that Indiana is already in the spotlight on this issue after a 10-year-old Ohio girl who had been raped had to come here for an abortion. But there are deep divisions within the Republican caucuses. Some think the initial bill is too lax, while others think it's too harsh.

MARTINEZ: Now, Democrats - they're in the minority here. How much wiggle room do they have to change an abortion ban in this special session?

SMITH: Yeah. Normally I'd say very little because they're not just in the minority; they're in the super minority in both chambers. But because of how much disagreement there is among Republicans, there's potentially an opening for Democrats to have an impact. For instance, they can force votes on amendments that could put Republicans in a tough spot. Now, Democrats also serve as a voice of warning here. So Senate Democratic leader Greg Taylor, for instance, is warning Republicans about serious public backlash.

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GREG TAYLOR: Just watch when people get a hold of this piece of legislation and find out that we have an outright ban on abortion in Indiana. It's going to get worse.

MARTINEZ: What about voters in Indiana, Brandon? What have they been saying about abortion and abortion rights?

SMITH: Well, there have already been significant abortion rights rallies downtown and at the statehouse since the Supreme Court's ruling. There are more expected this week, including from now some antiabortion groups. As I said, the spotlight has been on Indiana and abortion over the last couple of weeks, in part because of that 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio. And that spotlight will get even brighter still today as Vice President Kamala Harris comes to town as the debate begins. But lawmakers only have through August 14 to finish their work, so only about three weeks because of the rules of how Indiana special sessions work. And just going through their normal legislative process, which is what they planned, will take about two weeks, meaning that if the two chambers can't agree, lawmakers could potentially run out of time.

MARTINEZ: All right. That's Brandon Smith of Indiana Public Broadcasting. Brandon, thank you.

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

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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