The summer of 2021 is already shaping up to be one of the record books, with much of the American West affected by historic heat waves, extreme droughts and the threat of large wildfires that have already started burning across the region. The crisis has also spread to Canada, with temperatures in British Columbia skyrocketing to 118F (46.6C) on Monday, breaking records for the area where few are prepared for such intense heat.
Experts and officials fear that catastrophic conditions, fueled by the climate crisis, will only get worse in the coming months.
This week, a dangerous and unprecedented heat wave burned the Pacific Northwest, shattering records set the previous day.
Seattle hit 108F (42C) overnight, well above Sunday’s all-time high of 104F (40C). Portland, Oregon, reached 115F (46C) after setting new records of 108F (42C) on Saturday and 112F (44C) on Sunday.
“This is the beginning of a permanent emergency,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee during an interview on MSNBC. “We have to address the source of this problem, which is climate change.”
The heat wave, caused by what meteorologists described as a high-pressure dome, extends from California through areas in Canada’s Arctic territories and was exacerbated by the man-made climate crisis.
Zeke Hausfather, a scientist at the nonprofit climate data organization Berkeley Earth, said the Pacific Northwest had warmed about 3F (1.7C) in the past half century. Noting that this would still have been an extreme heat wave without the additional warming, he said: “This is worse than the same event would have been 50 years ago.”
The scorching heat hinted at the higher costs of climate collapse to come. Blackouts were reported throughout the region due to people trying to keep cool with fans and air conditioners overloading the electrical grid.
The heat forced schools and businesses to close to protect workers and guests, including places like outdoor pools and ice cream parlors where people seek relief from the heat. Covid-19 testing sites and mobile vaccination units were out of service.
In Portland, streetcar and light rail service was suspended as power lines melted and demand for electricity increased. Heat-related expansion caused road pavement to buckle or loosen in many areas, including I5 in Seattle. Tank truck workers in Seattle cleaned the drawbridges with water at least twice a day to prevent the steel from expanding in the heat and interfering with their opening and closing mechanisms.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell said the heat illustrates an urgent need for the federal infrastructure package to promote clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect people from extreme heat.
“Washington state was not built for triple-digit temperatures,” he said.
In northern Canada, officials in the city of Burnaby, east of Vancouver, reported that more than two dozen people succumbed to the heat in just 24 hours. Heat advisories have been issued throughout the region, warning the most vulnerable, especially the elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with illnesses, to stay hydrated and indoors. Many people do not have air conditioning and residents are flooding department stores trying to buy fans and cooling systems that are already in short supply.
“This heat wave poses a significant threat to the people of British Columbia, particularly the elderly, children and the most vulnerable members of society. Climate change is a public health emergency and we must treat it as such. ”Sonia Furstenau, Leader of the Green Party of British Columbia, tweeted on monday.
Extreme heat, which has also been felt in California and the southwestern states in recent weeks, has accelerated already devastating drought conditions, drawing moisture out of the parched environment and intensifying wildfire risks.
More than 58.4 million people live in areas affected by drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, and a record 49.7% of the West is now in the higher categories of “extreme” and “exceptional” drought levels.
“The drought situation in the western United States continued to worsen after another mostly hot and dry week,” the agency said in its most recent update, released last week. “Wildfires and increased wildfire danger, water restrictions and damage to agriculture are very common in the western region.”
Large fires are already burning, depleting resources throughout the region much earlier than in previous years. Forty-eight major fires have burned more than 661,400 acres in 12 states as “wildfire personnel continue to deal with extreme temperatures and very dry fuels in western states,” the National Interagency Fire Center. reports. In Arizona alone, 17 fires have yet to be controlled.
In California, the fire season is outpacing last year, when the state set a new record of approximately 4.1 million acres burned. Firefighters face hot, dry conditions and fight three major fires in Kern, Siskiyou and San Bernardino counties.
The lava fire, the largest fire in California, started with lightning in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, exploding overnight and Tuesday morning. had burned more than 13,300 acres. It’s 20% contained and evacuation orders have been issued for thousands of residents who live and work in communities near Weed, California, near the Oregon border. The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings for the area as officials prepare for gusty winds and low humidity that could complicate containment efforts.
Forest service officials told reporters in a briefing Monday night that tankers and helicopters had to stay on the ground during the afternoon due to high winds.
“We went four or five hours without being able to fly,” said Steve Watkins, incident commander.
California Governor Gavin Newsom, assured support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) to help with the costs of fighting Tuesday’s fire. Authorities said the fire was expected to spread.
“The wind is starting to pick up again and it’s going to be another hot day,” said incident public information officer Jim Mackensen, noting that temperatures were still in the hundreds. Mackensen added that there was a high probability the fire was active Tuesday afternoon, fueled in part by what officials call an “unstable atmosphere” when smoke and winds create conditions that act almost like a thunderstorm.
“The winds are just a fact of life here,” he said, but added: “This is much hotter than it normally does here. This is all part of the historic heat wave from Seattle down. “
The Associated Press contributed reporting
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism