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Lights Dim and Worries Mount as a Heat Wave Roasts California

A heat wave rolling through the Southwest has forced intermittent power shut-offs in California, a state already struggling with wildfires and a recent surge in coronavirus cases, raising fears that the rising temperatures could turn deadly.

Californians used so much electricity to try and stay cool Friday night that the agency that oversees much of the state’s power grid declared an emergency and, for the first time in 19 years, shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers for several hours to avoid a damaging overload.

There is little relief in sight. High temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit are expected in Los Angeles every day through Friday. In parts of California and Arizona, thermometers are cracking 110. The National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning for much of the West Coast, including parts of Oregon and Washington State and extending inland to Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

The sweltering heat comes as coronavirus cases are on the rise in California, which reported more than 65,000 new cases and about 950 related deaths over the past week. The health crisis may be deterring residents from gathering at cooling centers or at public places like malls and libraries, making people more susceptible to injury from the heat and driving up electricity demand, as those who have air-conditioners keep them running full blast.

The pandemic is “taking away one of the most critical resources for the most vulnerable,” said David Hondula, a professor who studies heat at Arizona State University. “Even in cases where facilities haven’t closed, people have to decide, Do I stay home where I may be too hot, or do I go to a public or semipublic building where I may contract the virus? That’s a tough dilemma for folks to deal with.”

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Heat has been a deadly problem all summer in Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes the city of Phoenix. The county has already confirmed 25 heat-associated deaths and is investigating at least 222, which is about 100 more cases than those that were investigated last summer.

Temperatures rose to a punishing 117 degrees in Phoenix on Friday and 113 on Saturday, and the Weather Service warned of a “deadly heat wave,” urging residents to cancel outdoor activities and “operate air-conditioning, despite financial costs.”

Dry, hot conditions are also fueling wildfires in Southern California, where the Lake Fire has burned through 14,700 acres of land north of Los Angeles and destroyed 21 buildings, including sheds and garages. More than 1,563 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has forced evacuations and was only 12 percent contained as of Saturday morning.

Robert Foxworthy, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said that while the heat could help the fire spread more quickly, it was having a bigger effect on the crews who were trying to suppress it.

“The things that affect a fire are wind, relative humidity and heat,” Mr. Foxworthy said. “Heat is the smallest player when affecting fire behavior, but I would say heat is the biggest factor affecting the performance of firefighters.”

He said firefighters in California trained for abnormally hot days and were staying hydrated.

The California Independent System Operator, which manages much of the state’s power grid, ordered rotating power cutoffs for a little over two hours on Friday night to reduce overall demand by about 1,000 megawatts. Bloomberg reported that as many as two million people might have been without power at onetime or another.

Anne Gonzales, a spokeswoman for the power grid operator, said the emergency outage was the result of heat as well as having two power plants out of service. She said that the agency did not expect any shut-offs on Saturday, but that she could not rule out future outages as temperatures remain high.

“We were hoping for a little relief on the demand over the weekend, but these temperatures are holding steady, and understandably, people want relief,” Ms. Gonzales said.

Margaret Barreca was staying cool inside her parents’ home in Sebastopol, Calif., in Sonoma County, when the house suddenly went pitch black. When she looked outside, she saw that her neighbors’ homes had, too.

Ms. Barreca had not been warned of the blackout, but she soon learned that the outage was part of the rotating shut-offs. She spent much of the blackout in her car, charging her phone, until cellphone service went out as well. Many of her neighbors took walks along darkened streets.

“It’s really annoying that the power can just go out, but it’s not just about the power,” said Ms. Barreca, 29, adding that she was frustrated by what she viewed as a lack of action by politicians to slow climate change.

Mr. Hondula, the heat expert, said that the increasing number of very hot days — even if the temperatures do not break records — was consistent with what models predict would happen as the planet warms. He is particularly troubled by how urbanization seems to be keeping temperatures hot late into the night.

The rise in heat-related deaths in Maricopa County cannot be attributed solely to climate change, Mr. Hondula said, but it may be a sign of how dire the situation already is.

“Even with the absence of warming, we’re having a hard time keeping up with the problem,” he said. “Our foundation is crumbling in some ways — ways that we’re still trying to figure out — as we’re facing a warmer future.”

Bryan Pietsch contributed reporting.