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Firefighters gain ground over devastating California blaze

LOS ANGELES Firefighters in the foothills of central California have made significant gains against a blaze that has killed at least two people and destroyed scores of homes in a devastating start to the state's wildfire season, authorities said on Monday.Crews had carved containment lines around 40 percent of the fire's perimeter by Sunday night, up from 10 percent earlier in the day, and evacuation orders were lifted on Monday for two communities previously threatened.Officials however reported a higher toll of property losses on Monday, with about 250 structures reduced to rubble, 50 more than estimated the previous day, and 75 buildings damaged.The so-called Erskine Fire had blackened more than 45,000 acres of drought-parched brush and grass by Monday morning on the fringes of Lake Isabella in Kern County, California, about 110 miles (180 km) north of Los Angeles.The blaze erupted Thursday afternoon and spread quickly through several communities south of the lake, driven by high winds, as it roared largely unchecked for two days and forced hundreds of residents from their homes. Some 2,500 homes were threatened by flames at the fire's peak.On Friday, at least two people were confirmed to have been killed in the blaze. Kern County fire authorities warned that the death toll could rise as investigators combed through the rubble of homes that went up in flames.Anglican priest Byron McKaig and his wife, Gladys, were killed in the fire, Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin said in a statement. The cause of the fire was under investigation.More than 2,000 personnel have been assigned to the blaze, the biggest and most destructive of nine large wildfires burning up and down the state, from the Klamath National Forest near Oregon to desert scrubland close to the Mexico border. Most of those were at least 60 percent contained by Monday.A blistering heat wave that has baked much of California in abnormally high temperatures ranging from the upper 90s to the triple digits has been a major factor contributing to the conflagrations. While California's wildfire season officially began in May, the rash of blazes since last week signaled the state's first widespread outbreak of intense, deadly fire activity this year.Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the state had already experienced some 2,400 wildfires, small and large, since January. They burned a total of 99,000 acres (400 square km).Winter and spring rainfalls helped ease drought conditions but also helped spur growth of grasses and brush that have since dried out, providing more potential fuel for wildfires, he said. (Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Paul Tait)

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Paris exhibition displays Chirac-like 18th century Japanese masks

PARIS Three antique Japanese theater masks that bear a striking resemblance to former French president Jacques Chirac will go on display from Tuesday in a Paris museum he set up 10 years ago and that will now bear his name."There are thousands of Chiracs in Japan," said Jean-Jacques Aillagon, who served as culture minister during Chirac's presidency, explaining that the late 18th century masks represent a Japanese theater character that was always carved with similar features.The museum, which specializes in early art from Africa, Asia and the Americas, will be renamed "Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac". The exhibition delves into his long-hidden passion for such works of art. The 83-year-old Chirac was better known for his taste for food and beer, and a pundit once said about him: "Men usually read Playboy hidden behind the cover of a poetry book, but Chirac reads poetry behind a copy of Playboy."Saying she also spoke in his name, Chirac's wife Bernadette told reporters: "France is never greater than when it engages with other cultures, other people. It's a strong message and one that is very relevant now." Chirac, a center-right politician who was a prominent figure in French politics for decades, was president from 1995 to 2007. (Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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Thousands gather at Stonehenge to watch summer solstice sunrise

SALISBURY PLAIN, England Thousands of people watched the sun rise at Stonehenge on Tuesday after gathering at the ancient monument site in southern England to mark summer solstice.English Heritage, which seeks to protect historical sites, said some 12,000 people watched the 04:52 a.m. (0352 GMT) sunrise at Stonehenge."The weather was fine throughout and the highlight of the evening was a spectacular full, strawberry moon over the ancient stones," it said in a statement. "The morning saw a glorious sunrise...met with chanting and cheering from the crowd." (Writing By Marie-Louise Gumuchian,; Editing by Deepa Babington)

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Bill Murray to be awarded Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize

WASHINGTON Actor and comedian Bill Murray has been chosen to receive the 19th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.Murray, the star of such movies as "Groundhog Day" and "Rushmore," will be awarded the prize named for the great 19th century U.S. novelist and satirist on Oct. 23, the Kennedy Center said in a statement on Monday.“An award-winning writer, actor and comedian, his brilliant wit and infectious spirit continue to inspire our laughter across generations both on and off the screen," said Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter.Murray, 65, is among the best-known stars to emerge from NBC's "Saturday Night Live." He performed on the groundbreaking television comedy show from 1977 to 1980 and honed his skills portraying insincere and lovably smarmy characters.He portrayed a dim-witted groundskeeper in "Caddyshack," was a paranormal investigator in "Ghostbusters" and stood out as a mobster in "Mad Dog and Glory." Murray was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of a jet-lagged movie star in "Lost in Translation." He has won two Emmy Awards.In a statement, Murray said he was honored to receive the award. "I believe Mark Twain has rolled over in his grave so much for so long, that this news won’t disturb his peace,” he said. Previous Mark Twain Prize honorees include Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Neil Simon, Carol Burnett, Jay Leno and Eddie Murphy, the 2015 winner.The award ceremony will be recorded for television broadcast. (Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Tom Brown)

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District of Columbia contestant named Miss USA

A 26-year-old Army officer from the District of Columbia was crowned winner of the Miss USA pageant on Sunday.Deshauna Barber, an IT analyst for the Department of Commerce, triumphed over 51 other contestants, including first runner-up Chelsea Hardin, representing Hawaii, to claim victory in the annual contest which was held at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.As one of the contestants, Barber was asked a question about women soldiers and replied "We are just as tough as men."For her question as one of five finalists, Hardin was asked whether she would support Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, former owner of the pageant, if the U.S. election were held tomorrow. The question brought jeers from the audience and criticism on social media. In her reply, Hardin declined to name either candidate, instead addressing qualities a president should possess. The other finalists were from Georgia, Alabama and California.Barber will go on to compete as the U.S. representative at the annual Miss Universe pageant later this year. (Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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