West is baking another weekend of intense heat as forest fires spread
Intense heat began to engulf the northern Rockies and High Plains, while high temperatures and dry air made matters worse for the firefighters who worked to control dozens of forest fires that were burning in the parched west.
Heads of state had issued emergency resource activation orders ahead of the weekend, while some local communities said the fires would hamper plans to revive tourism and local events after a hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Heat waves have already hit western states this summer, including one in June that killed more than 100 people in the Pacific Northwest. Now, according to AccuWeather forecast, a “heat dome” on the weekend and early next week in the northern Rockies and High Plains, including parts of Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, will bring suffocating temperatures.
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It gets “dangerously hot, especially for those who are more prone to the heat,” said John Wetenkamp, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Billings, Mont., Who issued an excessive heat warning for Saturday lunchtime by late thursday.
July has already brought some hot days to parts of Montana, he said, but residents are now facing a number of them. Temperatures in Billings rose on Saturday and could reach 102 degrees on Sunday and 105 degrees on Monday – possibly breaking a 1960 record.
“There is really no relief in sight in the next few days,” said Wetenkamp.
However, according to AccuWeather, there was a possibility that smoke from nearby forest fires could reduce some of the heat.
Meanwhile, officials in several states said the long-term drought, low humidity, and heat made fires difficult to deal with.
The largest fire currently burning in the U.S., the bootleg fire in south-central Oregon, was 22% contained Saturday morning after growing 40,000 acres Friday night and spanning 281,208 acres, Marcus Kauffman said Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman.
Temperatures in the bootleg fire area are about 5 to 10 degrees above normal, although they are still not as high as they were a few weeks ago, said Misty Firmin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Medford, Ore.
Tinder-dry conditions and gusts of wind fueled the spread of the bootleg fire in south-central Oregon this week.
Payton Bruni / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images
The safety concerns aren’t so much the warm weather as the low humidity, dry and gusty winds, and vegetation which is much drier than normal in mid-July.
“Tinder dry,” said Mr. Kauffman of the Oregon Forestry Department of the grass, shrubs, scrub and trees there. “If a spark flies out of this fire, it will ignite.”
The fires create their own extreme weather. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory announced Friday that current forest fires are generating record numbers of pyrocumulonimbus clouds – created by intense heat that quickly drives air from a fire upwards.
This phenomenon occurred in the Bootleg Fire, where embers, branches, leaves and particles were pulled up a pillar, which then comes down with a force that amplifies the fire, Kauffman said.
Nationwide, the current fire season has so far been at the level of recent years. More than 70 major active fires have burned nearly a million hectares in the west.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in 19 counties Friday, saying unprecedented heat there has caused failures to roads, bridge links and other types of infrastructure.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency in three northern California counties that have suffered evacuations and damage to critical infrastructure from the Beckwourth Complex fire – lightning-induced fires that totaled 105,348 acres on Saturday and were 70% contained.
“There really is no relief in sight in the next few days.”
In Lassen County, which is included in the Emergency Ordinance, organizers worked Saturday to prepare for the county fair. After a cancellation last year, the slogan this year is “Back in the Saddle Again”.
Evacuated firefighters who had sought refuge on the exhibition grounds were relocated to Lassen Community College, said Holly Mueller, vice president of the exhibition advisory board. “Everyone is all on deck to make the mess possible,” she said. “Just to bring the community back together.”
As a sign that the drought was worsening in the west, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced on Friday that it was taking unprecedented measures to release more water from reservoirs upriver to Lake Powell to keep levels high enough for electricity generation .
The lake, which spans the Arizona-Utah border, has sunk to a third of its capacity during the drought for much of the past two decades.
Lake Powell is the largest reservoir on the Colorado River after Nevada’s Lake Mead, and the turbines at Glen Canyon Dam generate electricity to the southwest. According to the federal agency’s forecast released on Friday, there is a 79% chance that Lake Powell will drop below a threshold below which a power cut could occur.
A total of 181,000 acres of additional water will be released from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming, Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado, and Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico by the end of the year to raise Lake Powell by 3 feet.
“We hoped we never have to go this route, but now we have to,” Wayne Pullan, the regional director of the Salt Lake City office, said in a video briefing with the media on Friday.
—Jim Carlton contributed to this article.
Write to Jennifer Levitz at [email protected]
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