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Wildfires explode as heat wave scorches US West for another day

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Anshuman Bapna walks in Death Valley National Park in California, July 10, 2021. California’s Death Valley reached 130 degrees and matched a previous record set less than a year ago, in August 2020 — it might be the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, barring a disputed 134-degree reading from 1913. (Roger Kisby/The New York Times)

New York Times reporting by Giulia Heyward

The scorching temperatures from the West’s third heat wave of the summer, which fueled quick-spreading wildfires and fears of power outages over the weekend, began to ease slightly Monday. But warnings of dangerous conditions continued in many places, with more in the forecast.

The punishing heat forced restaurants and outdoor vaccine clinics across California, Nevada, Utah and other Western states to close their doors, and people flocked to cooling centers as temperatures reached 118 degrees in some cities. More than 30 million people endured excessive heat warnings and advisories, some into Monday.

The sweltering conditions reached into places that rarely see triple digits, like Grand Junction, Colorado, which notched its highest recorded temperature of 107 degrees over the weekend. Salt Lake City’s airport reached 104, also an all-time high. But California’s Death Valley stole the show with a 130-degree temperature Friday, matching a reading from August that may be the highest reliably recorded on Earth. The temperature in Death Valley dropped by a paltry 10 degrees Sunday.

The heat, compounding already dry conditions from a drought deepened by climate change, fueled a megafire that forced evacuations this weekend across Klamath County in Oregon and threatened the electrical power grid for neighboring California. Fire officials called its intensity “unprecedented” this early in the state’s fire season.

Triple-Digit Temperatures

The Western United States continued to bake Monday, with cities and entire counties across Central California and parts of Utah under excessive heat warnings and advisories, expected to reach at least 100 degrees and up to 114 degrees in some areas.

The hot spots included Fresno and Bakersfield, in the San Joaquin Valley of California, as well as Zion National Park in Utah.

California’s Death Valley was not expected to match the record-matching 130 degrees Farenheit (54.44C)  it hit on Friday, but residents and visitors will not exactly be cooling off: The temperature was forecast to reach 126 degrees Monday and 125 degrees Tuesday.

Intense temperatures like those experienced in recent days have led to an increase in heat-related deaths. An estimated 200 people, most of them homeless, sick or older, died this month in a heat wave that gripped Oregon and Washington state — one that scientists say would have been virtually impossible without climate change.

The National Weather Service warned residents of the hottest areas Monday to beware of throbbing headaches, nausea and lost consciousness from heatstroke or exhaustion.

“Heat-related illness can sneak up on you,” the service tweeted. “Know the signs.”

Rain is in the Forecast

Although temperatures will drop this week from the record highs of recent days, they will remain in the danger zone in some places, with parts of California, Utah and Nevada reaching from 100 to 114 degrees Monday and Tuesday.

And the fire risk will continue along with the heat, said Julie Malingowski, an emergency response meteorologist for the weather service. “With the drought, and continued dry and hot conditions, fire growth is certainly favorable across the region.”

Still, Monday is the last day this week that experts expect to see heat records broken across the desert Southwest, Malingowski said. “Drought-relieving rain” that is predicted to fall between Tuesday and Saturday will provide some break from the heat.

Central and southeast Arizona could receive as much as 3 ½ inches this week, and New Mexico and Texas will also experience “monsoon moisture” that could bring flash floods.

In Utah, above-average high temperatures were expected to continue in the Salt Lake City area, said Sam Webber, a meteorologist for the Weather Service there. And the hot, dry and windy conditions in the state could spark more wildfires by the weekend.

“While we’re not making any headlines yet, it’s definitely on our radar,” Webber said.

Oregon and California, where some of the largest wildfires are burning right now, are predicted to get a break from lightning strikes, which could cut down on the number of new blazes, said Jay Stockton, a meteorologist at the weather service’s office in Medford, Oregon. But there is little chance of significant rain to aid firefighters, despite the slight dip in temperatures.

“It’s going to be normal hot, as opposed to excessively hot,” Stockton said.

Looking ahead, Malingowski said heat waves were expected to persist for the rest of the summer. “July and August is typically our warmest time,” she said.

Records Fell Across the West

Last month was the hottest June in the country’s recorded history, and July continues to bring the heat. In Nevada and Colorado this past weekend, reported highs beat records set years ago, while California’s Death Valley might have reached a planetary peak.

Temperature check

  • 130 degrees F (54.44 C): California’s Death Valley matched a previous record set less than a year ago, in August 2020. It might be the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth, barring a disputed 134-degree reading from 1913.
  • 118 degrees (47.77 C): Daggett, California, reached 118 degrees for the third time ever, having last done so in 2007 and 1994.
  • 117 degrees (47.22 C): This Saturday temperature reading at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas marks the fifth time Nevada has reached this record high, most recently in 2017. At least 364 flights were delayed by the heat.
  • 117 degrees (47.22 C): A Sunday temperature reading in St. George, Utah, might tie the state’s record, pending further investigation.
  • 113 degrees (45 C): Desert Rock, Nevada, matched a high previously reached in 2013.
  • 107.7 degrees (42.05 C): This Sunday reading in Stovepipe Wells, in Death Valley, is the warmest daily low temperature recorded in the United States.
  • 107 degrees (41.66 C): The Grand Junction Regional Airport in Colorado recorded this temperature Friday for the first time, beating a previous record of 106 degrees set in 2005.
  • 104 degrees (40 C): Salt Lake City reached its highest-recorded temperature Sunday, beating a record set in 2012.

Climate Change Plays a Role

As large swaths of the West dry out and burn, scientists say climate change is playing an increasing role in the earlier fire seasons, the deadly heat waves and the lack of water.

The record-high temperatures that assaulted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July, for instance, would have been all but impossible without climate change, according to a team of researchers who studied the deadly heat wave.

Heat, drought and fire are connected, and because human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases have raised baseline temperatures nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, heat waves, including those in the West, are becoming hotter and more frequent.

“The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

A Million Acres of Wildfires

Wildfires left their mark across the Western landscape this weekend, scorching more than 1 million acres in the United States and Canada. The intensity of the blazes, at such an early stage in the wildfire season, was called “unprecedented” by officials.

There are currently 59 large fires burning; together, they have scorched an estimated 863,976 acres across 12 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Montana, Arizona and Idaho all have at least 10 fires. In Canada, fires have burned more than 500,000 acres.

The Bootleg Fire in southwest Oregon, which raged for its sixth day Monday, has burned more than 150,000 acres and destroyed several homes in Klamath County, where officials ordered evacuations.

In California, the Beckwourth Complex has already burned about 90,000 acres in the Plumas National Forest. The fires jumped a major highway Saturday, scorching cars and hillsides across U.S. 395. Another fire in Mariposa County, California, covered at least 4,000 acres.

After days of extreme heat in Canada, flames consumed the small town of Lytton on June 30, destroying 90% of the structures and killing at least two people. On Monday, there were more than 300 active fires burning across the province of British Columbia, including 37 that started in the past two days.

Power Worries in California

As Californians have retreated indoors, seeking relief from the dangerously high temperatures, pressure has grown on the state’s electrical system, with officials now relying on backup power and urging people to conserve energy or risk rolling blackouts.

Concerns grew over the weekend, as the Bootleg Fire in neighboring Oregon burned across a power line corridor, threatening Path 66, a major contributor to the power grid in California.

Residents received a statewide “flex alert” on Monday advising them to conserve as much energy as possible from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. The alert encouraged them to set thermostats no lower than 78 degrees and to avoid using dishwashers and dryers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also issued executive orders Friday and Saturday that allowed the use of backup power generators, and the emergency use of auxiliary ship engines, to relieve the state’s dependence on its power grid.

- Henry Fountain contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

c.2021 The New York Times Company