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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Wildfire Just Miles From World-Famous Sequoia Trees; Russia's Grain Blockade Creating Weather Shortage In North Africa; Police In China Clash With Protesters Demanding Savings From Banks. Aired 5:30- 6a ET

Aired July 11, 2022 - 05:30   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: In California, the Washburn Fire that's been burning since Thursday in Yosemite National Park has now doubled in size, consuming more than 2,000 acres. And it's now just a couple of miles from the famed Mariposa Grove, which is home to some 500 majestic Sequoia trees that are thousands of years old.

On Sunday, fire crews set up sprinklers -- part of an effort to protect the 209-feet-tall Grizzly Giant, the second-largest Sequoia in the park.



SCOTT GEDIMAN, CHIEF PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICERS, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK: This is steep, heavily forested terrain and so the air support is certainly helpful, but we've got a lot of hotshot crews and firefighters on the ground that are going in to suppress the fire. So it's really a ground and air attack, coordinated."


HILL: Now, while Yosemite Park is still open, the community at the south end of the park is now under a mandatory evacuation and an air quality advisory has been issued for the entire Bay Area.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the weather is going to help tamp down those flames anytime soon. Temperatures creeping into the triple digits once again and they're expected to continue rising throughout the week.

Meteorologist Gene Norman is standing by with more here. Just can't catch a break out there.

GENE NORMAN, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely right, Erica. And from the visible satellite picture on Sunday, you can see the spread of that smoke. So the wind is also pushing it up toward Lake Tahoe and as you mentioned, those air quality alerts for the San Francisco area. Now, this fire developed in one of the highest levels of drought in

California. The entire state is under drought, but these dark red areas here -- that's the highest level. And at 2,000 acres and no containment, it's going to be tough to really make -- to make some headway on this.

And as far as the temperatures go, the weather service just issued a new update on the heat advisory and it comes very close to where that fire is. Central California, the San Joaquin Valley, and up into sections of Northern California under a heat advisory. Also, parts of the southwest sections of southern Arizona could see temperatures topping close to 115. Reading, 111. Near the fire, at or near the 100- degree mark, so no help there and no rain in sight either.

Also, there are -- there are heat advisories in effect for Texas all the way up to Oklahoma City. Triple digits on the map once again, especially in the middle of the country.

On the east and west coast, not too bad, Erica -- 84 in New York, 80 in L.A.

HILL: Eighty-four feels downright balmy when I look at that map. Gene, appreciate it -- thank you.

Still to come here, a new mission to Moscow in an effort to free two detained Americans. Plus, a welcomed trend to start the week at America's gas pumps.



HILL: At least 15 people have been killed in a Russian strike on an apartment block in Donetsk in the eastern part of Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities say more victims may still be trapped under the rubble. Russian forces are ramping up their efforts to take control over the entire Donbas region.

Scott McLean joining us live from Kyiv this morning. So I guess the big question for a lot of folks Scott is whether the Ukrainians have both the firepower and the manpower to hold on to that region.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Erica, this is precisely the question that's going to be answered over the next few days as the fighting really ramps up there. Both sides have reported that the fighting has intensified in the northern part of the Donetsk region with heavy shelling taking place there.

The Ukrainians say that they've managed to push the Russians back in many places, but the Russians also claim that they have captured one village on the Ukrainian side of the Seversky Donets river. That is significant because that river has been a real natural barrier preventing the Russians from easily moving that front line forward.

The Ukrainians say that the shelling has really not stopped, even in Chasiv Yar. Chasiv Yar is the same town where after two missile strikes on an apartment building, rescue efforts are continuing to try to pull people out from under the rubble. This building -- part of it looks like it's been absolutely obliterated.

Eighteen people confirmed dead by local authorities. Eight have not been pulled out alive. What is now clear though is whether that eight includes the two people that the Ukrainians say that they've been able to talk to from under the rubble as they've worked to get to them and actually free them.

The situation is much different in the southern part of the country. This is where the Ukrainians have stepped up efforts to hit Russian supply lines. It's also where they say that they've taken a village near the city of Kherson. Kherson has long been occupied by the Russians.

In a new interview with the British newspaper The Times, the Ukrainian defense minister says that effort to take the south was given -- that order to take the parts of the south along the coast was given by President Zelenskyy. Of course, that would really the economy in Ukraine's ability to export things.

He says that Ukraine's issue right now is not manpower. He says if you include police and territorial defense, they have about a million troops strong.

He says the issue isn't even pledges for Western weapons. He's satisfied there. The issue is the speed that those weapons are getting to the front lines, saying that every day that they're sitting around waiting for Howitzers to arrive, for instance, they could be losing 100 men -- Erica.

HILL: Wow, it puts it in perspective. Scott, appreciate it -- thank you.

The impact of Russia's war on Ukraine is growing and not just in Ukraine. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa depend on wheat from the region. And now, Moscow's blockade of millions of tons of grain is really beginning to create a food crisis.

CNN's David McKenzie joining us now live from Tunisia. What is at stake, David?


Well, what is at stake is the very stability of these nations. In the U.S. and across the world, people are struggling with inflation hitting their pocketbooks, but here it's much more serious. And the war in Ukraine is threatening the very democracy, the country, and the people and what they can put on the table.


MCKENZIE (voice-over): Racing to feed a nation in the closing days of Tunisia's summer harvest. Russia's cynical ploy to hold hostage more than 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain is leading to a food crisis here in Tunisia and much of North Africa. [05:45:00]

MCKENZIE (on camera): Are you worried it will have a long-term impact on Tunisia?

HABIB MRABET, REGIONAL DELEGATE OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE (through translator): The war has really impacted both the consumer and our agricultural productions. Right now, every country must become self-reliant. If that's not possible, things are going to get very difficult.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): They're scrambling to increase that production and change consumer habits. In sunbaked Tunisia, farmers grow hard wheat to make pasta and couscous.

MCKENZIE (on camera): But for soft wheat -- the wheat that makes bread -- Tunisia gets around 60% of it from Ukraine and Russia. And an official told me that they'll never be able to make up that number here -- not in five years; not even in 10.

MCKENZIE (voice-over): And that spells trouble, says Shukri Amnoundi.

SHUKRI AMNOUNDI, BAKER: (Speaking foreign language).

MCKENZIE (voice-over): "We can only sell what the government gives us," he says.

The baguettes are subsidized by a government heavily in debt. Tunisia can barely afford imported flour from outside of Ukraine.

AMNOUNDI: (Speaking foreign language).

MCKENZIE (voice-over): "It's about daily survival. When the people are hungry they rebel," he says.

Here, they are just recovering from a crushing COVID pandemic and a decade of political uncertainty. The impact of the war in Ukraine could not have come at a worse time.

Even retired professionals like Houria Bousad and her husband can only afford a few luxuries.

HOURIA BOUSAD, RETIRED TEACHER: The prices, all the time they are going up.

MCKENZIE (on camera): And what does that mean for you and your family?

BOUSAD: Young people -- they cannot marry now. They not have enough money to live. They cannot have a family.

NASIR TIMOMI, BUTCHER: (Speaking foreign language).

MCKENZIE (voice-over): "I've sold nothing today," says Nasir Timomi -- "absolutely nothing. This place should be jam-packed before the Eid holiday," he says, "but nobody can afford meat." On the roadside, farmers like Walid are struggling to sell their sheep for Eid celebrations. The sheep don't seem to mind.

WALID OLAIMI, SHEEP FARMER: (Speaking foreign language).

MCKENZIE (voice-over): "Animal feed prices are double because of Ukraine. It's a chain reaction that's bad enough now," he says, "but the effect of the war is really going to be felt next year."


MCKENZIE: Well, it's a glorious day here in Tunis. But if you just scratch under the surface here Erica, you can see how people are struggling. And the government is trying to expand the amount of that hard wheat that they grow in this country, but these kinds of solutions don't get fixed overnight.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, I can see a really bad scenario not just for here in Tunisia. In the whole of North Africa and parts of the rest of the Middle East and East Africa, it shows the impact of this war is far from Ukraine's shores -- Erica.

HILL: Yes, it's so true. Appreciate the reporting. Thank you.

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson expected to travel to Russia in the coming weeks to discuss the possible release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. Now, both are considered to be wrongfully detained by the U.S. government.

News of Richardson's trip comes just days after Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in Moscow. She told the court she accidentally packed two cannabis oil cartridges that were found in her bag at the airport.

Could Joe Biden face a primary challenge in 2024? The new CNN reporting is ahead.

And up next, protesters demand answers with their life savings on the line.



HILL: The Twitter saga continues. The company now vowing to take Elon Musk to court for backing out of his deal to buy the company. Musk claims Twitter's problem with bots is behind his decision to bail out. Since news of Musk's offer first broke, the stock market has tanked, including shares of Tesla, which Musk was likely relying on to fund the deal.

In China, police clashing with hundreds of peaceful protesters demanding their life savings back from banks facing a worsening cash crisis.

CNN's Steven Jiang is live in Beijing this morning. So, Steven, what happened to their money? STEVEN JIANG, CNN BEIJING BUREAU CHIEF: Eric, that is, indeed, a multi-million-dollar question and nobody seems to know the answer. After the protests, the local authorities issued a vague statement promising to speed up their investigations into the four rural banks involved and give the depositors a proper answer soon. But the problem is they had heard it before and nothing happened.

That's why more than 1,000 people showed up on Sunday morning to stage this rare protest in a police state under a strict zero-COVID policy. You know, the authorities have been hellbent to prevent this from happening, even trying to tamper with these people's COVID health codes to stop them from leaving their homes. But that effort failed after a nationwide outcry.

That's why during the protests most demonstrators trained their fire at the local authorities, unfurling national flags, chanting slogans, and with some banners accusing the local police of using violence against them.

Their peaceful messages and tactics didn't make their protest last that long. After a few hours, you see hundreds of security personnel -- many in plain clothes -- charging towards the crowd, forcibly removing everyone, including the elderly and children. And anyone who resisted got beaten up, kicked, and punched -- some sustaining injuries, according to some protesters.

And their actions and plight really have struck a chord with many across the nation because they are mostly low-income workers who have lost their entire life savings thanks to their faith in the country's banking system. Not to mention, this is happening at a time when the economy is already being battered by the country's zero-COVID policy. And this, of course, is also very sensitive politically as Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to take a precedent-breaking third term later this year.


So all of this, Erica, is why the authorities there taking no changes, ruthlessly crushing this rare and peaceful protest -- Erica.

HILL: Wow, awful. Steven, we know you'll stay on top of it for us. Thank you.

WNBA players honoring Brittney Griner during the league's All-Star Game. Andy Scholes with us for this morning's Bleacher Report. Just the latest that we're seeing in terms of honoring Brittney Griner.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Yes -- certainly, she was on everyone's mind yesterday, Erica. Brittney Griner, an 8-time WNBA All- Star herself. And the league named her an honorary starter for this year's game in Chicago. The fans giving a huge ovation when Griner's name was announced. Then after halftime, all of the players came out wearing Griner's number 42 jersey.

Griner's wife Cherelle was sitting courtside for this game.

The 13-time All-Star Sue Bird says they're going to continue to do what they can to bring her home.


SUE BIRD, SEATTLE STORM GUARD: We just wanted to make sure at some point that we were able to, on national television -- obviously, in front of a sold-out crowd -- put Brittney's name in the forefront. And that was our way of honoring here.

Maybe someone turned on the T.V. and doesn't know about the story and was like oh, why are they all wearing the same jersey number? And in those moments, it brings awareness. And what that does is it constantly reminds the Biden administration that we're supporting them and whatever they need to do to get Brittney home we're behind them.


SCHOLES: Now, as for the WNBA All-Star Game, Team Wilson beating Team Stewart 134-112. Las Vegas Ace's guard Kelsey Plum scored 30 points for Team Wilson and was named the game's MVP.

All right. Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, winning his fourth-straight Wimbledon title yesterday beating Nick Kyrgios in four sets. Kyrgios won the first set and like usual, was very animated as he dropped the next three.

Now, this is Djokovic's seventh Wimbledon crown and he's now just one behind Rafael Nadal for the most men's Grand Slam titles. But Djokovic says he won't be able to tie the record at next month's U.S. Open due to COVID vaccine requirements.


NOVAK DJOKOVIC, 21-TIME GRAND SLAM CHAMPION: I'm not vaccinated and I'm not planning to get vaccinated. So, the only good news I can have is them removing the mandate -- mandated green vaccine card, or whatever you call it, to enter the United States or exemption. It's -- or, yes -- I don't know -- I don't think exemption is realistically possible.


SCHOLES: Yes. Djokovic also can't play the Australian Open in 2023 because he had his visa revoked after entering the country unvaccinated.

All right. A year after becoming baseball's first 2-way All-Star, Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani does it again. The Angels' Mr. Everything was named to the American League pitching staff yesterday, two days after he was selected by fans to start the game as the designated hitter in the American League.

And for the first time since 1992, two brothers are going to start together on the All-Star team. Wilson Contreras, of the Cubs, is going to start at catcher for the National League. His brother, William, of the Braves, will be the D.H.

The All-Star game is going to be held a week from tomorrow at Dodger Stadium in L.A.

All right. And finally, let's go to Kansas City for the 7th inning condiment race. Mustard was holding off ketchup and relish in the hot dog derby when things took a turn for the worst. Mustard's pants began to fall down. But the mascot tried to keep going despite the wardrobe malfunction but ended up faceplanting on the warning track.

Mustard, though, showing the heart of a champion, Erica. He got up, finished the race, and ended up getting a huge ovation from the crowd. So he may not have gotten first place but he was first in our hearts with that kind of effort.

HILL: Oh, you took the words right out of my mouth, Andy Scholes. Love it. Thank you.

SCHOLES: All right.

HILL: Finally, "Thor" hammering the competition at the box office.




HILL: "Thor: Love and Thunder" scoring a blockbuster $143 million opening weekend in North America. While fans may love it, critics less impressed, giving it a 68% score on Rotten Tomatoes versus the 81 from audiences.

Thanks so much for joining me this morning. I'm Erica Hill. "NEW DAY" starts right now.