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Morning News Brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tens of thousands of people in Colorado are sleeping in shelters after wildfires forced them out of their homes.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The governor declared a state of emergency as people fled the fires, driven by winds of up to 100 miles per hour. Those winds explain why people had to flee so quickly.

INSKEEP: Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch has been covering the fires and joins us now. Sam, good morning.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are you seeing?

BRASCH: So I've been out there for the last almost 24 hours at this point, and the most shocking part of these fires is just the setting. This is not a disaster taking place in forest or mountain towns, but it's in suburbs. The winds you mentioned drove these rapid grass fires through Superior and Louisville. They're a couple of towns just north of Denver. And these are normal neighborhoods with more than 20,000 people. You know, think houses and apartments and strip malls. Authorities completely evacuated both towns and parts of others, which gridlocked the main routes out. And I watched people drive through mall parking lots and over bike paths in some cases to find a way out.

And when the fire did arrive, it burned down entire subdivisions, not to mention a Target and a hotel. And so many people are still unsure about what happened to their homes. I met Anna Shurshmiva (ph) at an emergency shelter just as she had received a video from a neighbor showing part of her cul-de-sac in flames.

ANNA SHURSHMIVA: That's my house. I know exactly that's my house. And it's still - and it's still good. But I have no idea what's going on right now because maybe it's from a couple of hours ago.

BRASCH: She is a Russian immigrant. Before she evacuated, she managed to grab just a pair of clothes and her naturalization papers.

INSKEEP: Wow. I want to observe what you're saying here, Sam. We focused a lot on the wildland-urban interface, these neighborhoods that are built out in mountains and wilderness, in forests and so forth. We've come to expect that kind of fire. You're saying this is in a place where people had no reason necessarily to expect this kind of fire. So how did they start?

BRASCH: Well, you know, I think this is part of it. We got to start thinking about the wildland-urban interface as including suburbs and grasslands. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle confirmed that the high winds downed many power lines in the area, and early evidence suggests that is probably what sparked these fires, and they took off amid these really high winds and super-dry conditions. Authorities claim the blaze consumed the length of entire football fields in seconds as it advanced over these grasslands and through these towns.

INSKEEP: How many people have been injured or killed?

BRASCH: That's a tough question right now. We're not exactly certain. A spokesperson at a hospital in the area told us six people were taken in for treatment related to the fires, though we're not sure exactly what kind of injuries they have. And we've also heard from a different hospital in the area where they had to evacuate patients, starting with those in critical care. Yesterday, Sheriff Pelle said he - that he wouldn't be surprised if there were more injuries or fatalities, given how quickly the fire spread. And emergency officials are hoping to make a better damage assessment as soon as things calm down.

INSKEEP: Sam, as a sometime visitor to Colorado, I would think of Colorado in December as covered in snow. It is winter. The idea of a wildfire at this time of year sounds unusual. Should it?

BRASCH: Absolutely should. We've had an incredibly dry winter here in the Front Range. We've gotten pretty much no snow east of the mountains, where most people live. And that's a pattern that's likely to become more frequent due to climate change. We're going to see more winter wildfires because we have more dry weather and warmer weather in the winter.

INSKEEP: So what does the immediate future look like the next few hours and days?

BRASCH: So the wind has continued through last night, as have the fires, but forecasters are actually expecting it to snow over the next few days in Colorado, starting as early as today. So that's the good news, though power outages could be a problem due to the high winds, especially as it gets cold.

INSKEEP: Reporter Sam Brasch, Colorado Public Radio, thanks so much, and happy new year.

BRASCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for a bit less than an hour yesterday.

MCCAMMON: Russia has assembled as many as 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine. President Biden again warned Putin of the economic consequences for Moscow if Russian forces invade. And Putin responded that such a move by the U.S. could lead to a complete rupture of ties between the nations.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been covering this. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did they say?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it was a 50-minute call that a senior administration official told reporters was serious and substantive. U.S. officials say Putin didn't offer any signs of whether he's going to invade, but, you know, he's repeatedly made clear of his concerns about security, as well as NATO and Western allies encroaching on his borders. You know, Biden offered two possible paths forward, the official said. One is focused on diplomacy that leads to some kind of de-escalation, and the other is about deterrence and the serious consequences should Russia decide to take action.

INSKEEP: We're, of course, trying to figure out what was said in a call that we didn't hear. So what did the Russians say about it afterward?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, the Kremlin had their own readout of the call. And, of course, that can sometimes divert from what the White House says. But Russian officials describe the call as good and frank. But they also said that Putin warned Biden that more economic sanctions would be a huge mistake and could lead to a complete rupture of relations. But both leaders did acknowledge that there are areas where meaningful progress can be made, as well as some other areas where agreements may be impossible.

INSKEEP: There is a lot here that seems to be implied. Russia has massed these troops but said, well, they're on our territory; we're not doing anything. They're thought to have demands, but it's not seen as particularly specific what the demands are. Is there any indication that Moscow is looking for a diplomatic way out of this?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, each side is highlighting possibilities for progress. But again, actions kind of speak louder than words. And as Sarah did say, there are tens of thousands of troops on the Ukraine border, and U.S. officials say they've seen no significant signs of de-escalation. I spoke with Samuel Charap, who was a top Russia adviser in the Obama administration and is now at the RAND Corporation. You know, he's not that optimistic.

SAMUEL CHARAP: I don't yet see a pathway out of this where everyone can go home and there's no conflict. It seems clear to me that Putin is not willing to take away the threats until he gets something. And if he doesn't get something, he seems prepared to act.

ORDOÑEZ: Putin also faces some domestic challenges. You know, Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Kennan Institute. He points to Putin's own words about the deep heritage and history that Russia has with Ukraine as a reason to be together.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: By that very same token, the prospect of going to war to force something on such a close neighbor is not very attractive for the majority of Russians. And again, I think Putin has to understand that. He is a savvy enough politician in Russia that he's probably reading those tea leaves.

ORDOÑEZ: And if Russian lives are lost in the process, he says that could be very damaging to Putin.

INSKEEP: You know, I was talking through this whole process yesterday with my 16-year-old because she was asking, what is it like when two presidents talk to each other? And why do they even do that? And how do they make progress that way? And I had a little difficulty answering, so help me out here, help her out here. Where do the talks go from here, Franco?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, a lot of this call was focused on future dialogue. And the two sides are going to meet again on January 10 in Geneva, where they'll hold security talks. And there's going to be a lot more talks going forward. So you can expect a lot of strategy sessions ahead.

INSKEEP: Constant conversation. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, the United States Census Bureau counts the population and the demographics of the United States.

MCCAMMON: And now NPR News has taken a count of the Census Bureau itself. This look finds the Census Bureau is led mostly by white people; 4 in 5 senior executives at the federal agency identified as white and not Hispanic. But starting next month, Robert Santos is set to be the first Latino director to lead the bureau.

INSKEEP: NPR census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang is with us. He's covered the census for a long time. Hansi, welcome back.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And happy new year to you. Of course, diversity is always good, but why is it important who leads the Census Bureau particularly?

WANG: Well, people of color make up about 2 in 5 U.S. residents, but when we looked at the latest public data, we found only about 1 in 5 senior executives at the Census Bureau identified as either American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander or multiracial. And we're talking about the highest-ranking career civil servants under the director, who's a political appointee, a total of 47 senior executives who run the day-to-day work. And some census watchers tell me they're concerned this lack of diversity has persisted for years at the same agency that has undercounted people of color census after census.

I talked to Arturo Vargas of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, and he said the underrepresentation of Latinos at the bureau's executive level likely hurt the bureau when it was planning to research for how to encourage Latinos to participate in the 2020 census. Until outside groups pushed for this, the bureau initially had no plans for specific focus groups with Latinos who primarily speak English. Here's what Vargas told me.

ARTURO VARGAS: They could not comprehend the reality that a large segment of the Latino population does not consume its information exclusively in Spanish.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's really interesting. You've got to get insights into how people actually live their lives. What's preventing the Census Bureau from being more diverse at the top?

WANG: Well, for one thing, the bureau, like any employer, needs strong talent pipelines, especially for historically underrepresented groups, and those pipelines need strengthening. I should note the bureau declined to make a representative available for an interview, but they sent me a statement saying it's, quote, "committed to attracting, developing and retaining a diverse and inclusive workforce."

I did get a chance to talk to the bureau's former associate director for the 2010 Census, Arnold Jackson, who's African American. And he said the bureau has not made major progress because it has what he called a tribal culture, where people with similar backgrounds tend to replicate themselves. And that, in turn, has limited promotions for staffers of color at the bureau. Let's listen to what Jackson told me.

ARNOLD JACKSON: I've seen kids go two or three years into their professional careers and just not know what's going on but that something is amiss.

INSKEEP: Well, how does all of that change when the first Latino director of the Census Bureau takes over?

WANG: We're talking about Robert Santos, one of the country's leading statisticians, who's Mexican American. And he's been vocal about the importance of diversifying the institutions he's been a part of, including the American Statistical Association, where he served as president. I should note, though, the Senate has confirmed Santos for a five-year term, and this lack of diversity at the bureau is a long-term systemic problem.

INSKEEP: Hansi, thanks for your reporting this time and many times throughout the year.

WANG: You're very welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.