Nation roundup for May 17


Investigators look for arson in Calif. wildfires

SAN DIEGO (AP) — With evacuation orders being lifted Friday, investigators worked to determine whether an unusually early and intense outbreak of wildfires in Southern California this week was ignited by something as ordinary as sparks from cars or something as sinister as an arsonist.

State fire officials said the first of at least 10 blazes that erupted between Tuesday and Thursday was found to have been caused by a spark from malfunctioning construction equipment. But it could take months to get to the bottom of the most damaging fires.

“We are not ruling out anything,” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said.

All together, the wildfires have raced through an estimated 20,000 acres about 30 miles north of San Diego, causing more than $20 million in damage. One burned body was found in an encampment of homeless people. At least eight houses and an 18-unit condominium complex were destroyed, and tens of thousands of people were warned to leave their homes.

Eight of the blazes popped up between late morning and sundown on Wednesday, raising suspicions that some had been set.

The region has become a tinder box in recent days because of conditions not normally seen until late summer — extremely dry weather, 50 mph Santa Ana winds and temperatures in the 90s. On Friday, though, cooler weather aided the 2,600 firefighters, and thousands of people began returning home.

In one of the hardest-hit cities, Carlsbad, investigators finished examining the burn site across the street from a park and focused on interviewing people who called a hotline that was set up to report any suspicious activity.

“Do people have suspicions? Yes,” said police Capt. Neil Gallucci, noting there has been no lightning that could explain the blazes. “But can we confirm them? The answer is no.”

36.1M expected to hit road for Memorial Day

NEW YORK (AP) — A strong case of cabin fever and a little more money to spend should inspire a greater number of Americans to hit the road this Memorial Day weekend.

That’s the forecast from auto club AAA, which on Friday said it expects a total of 36.1 million people to travel 50 miles or more. If that estimate holds true, it would be the largest amount of people traveling during the holiday weekend since 2005.

Most will drive to their vacation spots, but more people are expected to fly or take a cruise or train this year compared with a year ago, AAA said.

The improving job market and a rise in disposable income are fueling the increase in holiday travel plans, AAA found in its annual survey. The desire to get out of the house after a brutally cold winter is another strong incentive to hit the road.

“Thoughts of historic cold are still fresh in the minds of Americans in many parts of the country,” said AAA’s Chief Operating Officer Marshall Doney, in a statement. “The winter blues appear to have given Americans the travel bug.”

Of the total travelers, 31.8 million are expected to drive, up 1.3 percent from 31.4 million last year. Gas prices are less of a concern for drivers, since they are expected to be lower than last year’s average of $3.63, thanks to rising supplies, AAA said.

Airports will be busier, with 2.6 million people expected to fly this year, up 2.4 percent from last year. And 1.7 million people will take a cruise, train or bus, a 6.5 percent jump from a year ago.

Travelers can expect to pay more for their getaways. Hotel rooms are likely to cost $3 more a night from last year, at an average of $169 per night, AAA said. The average cost of a round-trip plane ticket is $227, up from $215 a year ago. Car rentals will average $44 a day during the weekend, up 1 percent from a year ago. A 3.4 percent increase in personal income from last year should help cover those additional costs, the auto club said.

The AAA forecast represents an 18 percent increase in travelers from 2009, the low point of the recession, when only 30.5 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day. The number has been increasing steadily since 2011. The busiest travel weekend was in 2005, when 44 million people went away.

Last year, AAA said more people traveled during the Memorial Day weekend than it projected. It had expected total travel to fall nearly 1 percent from the year before to 34.8 million. But 35.5 million Americans actually traveled last year, according to a survey conducted following the holiday weekend.

For its forecast, AAA works with research company IHS Global, which uses economic data to come up with its projections. A separate company, D.K. Shifflet &Associates surveys more than 50,000 households after the trips have been taken.

Oil rises on US housing data, Ukraine tensions

Associated Press

The price of oil rose past $102 a barrel Friday on strong U.S. construction activity and increased tensions in Ukraine.

Benchmark U.S. crude for June delivery rose 52 cents to close at $102.02 a barrel in New York. Oil gained 2 percent for the week.

Brent crude for July delivery, a benchmark for international oil used by many U.S. refineries, rose 60 cents to $109.75 in London. The Brent crude June contract expired Thursday.

The Commerce Department said Friday that U.S. housing construction surged to its highest pace in six months, which could signal higher demand for gasoline, diesel, and the crude oil needed to make those fuels.

U.S. economic data this week was mixed, however. The Federal Reserve said Thursday that industrial activity slowed in April, and the Commerce Department said Tuesday that retail sales were weak in April.

Crude prices were pushed higher, though, by signs of increased demand in the U.S. and around the world. The Energy Department reported surprisingly high demand for gasoline this week, and the Paris-based International Energy Agency increased its prediction for global crude demand.

Tensions in Ukraine continue to hang over the oil market. Traders worry that the conflict could bring new sanctions by the West that could keep Russian oil and gas from world markets.

In the U.S., the average retail price of gasoline rose less than a penny to $3.65 per gallon. That’s the same as it was a month ago, and five cents cheaper than last year at this time.

In other energy futures trading in New York:

— Wholesale gasoline rose 1 cent to close at $2.974 a gallon.

— Natural gas fell 5.6 cents to close at $4.413 per 1,000 cubic feet.

— Heating oil rose 0.3 cent to close at $2.954 a gallon.

AP Writer Pablo Gorondi contributed to that story from Budapest.

 

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