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Heat Wave and Wildfire Updates: Climate Change News – The New York Times


Extreme Weather and Climate Updates

July 27, 2021, 4:49 p.m. ET

July 27, 2021, 4:49 p.m. ET

The Dixie Fire burned near Quincy, Calif., on Monday.
Credit…Jungho Kim for The New York Times

Residents of Montana and Wyoming don’t expect their summer temperatures to regularly top the heat in Texas.

But some towns in those two states have seen more triple-digit thermometer readings so far this year than Dallas, according to Axios. And the trend was set to continue on Tuesday, with parts of Montana and the Dakotas forecast to possibly reach a blistering 110 degrees.

The scorching temperatures will expand this week, stretching across much of the contiguous United States. The Great Plains, Midwest and parts of the East can expect an engulfing heat wave to bring highs that are about 10 degrees above average, according to the National Weather Service. And in places where residents must also cope with high humidity, those temperatures could feel like they have reached triple digits.

The extreme heat will be the product of a “heat dome,” much like the one that oppressed the Pacific Northwest this summer, causing hundreds of deaths — an extreme weather event, researchers said, that would have been virtually impossible without climate change.

Here’s what people across the United States can expect.

It would almost be easier to say where it won’t be really hot over the next few days (pretty much just parts of the Northeast and Southwest). Areas of the country that have already seen oppressive temperatures, including the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies, will be under the high-pressure heat dome. But so will the Great Plains, the Midwest, the Ohio River Valley, the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Gulf Coast, with widespread excessive heat warnings and watches issued by the National Weather Service. The heat might not shatter records in many places, but it could feel like it.

The stifling heat across the upper Midwest, which produced severe storms on Monday night, could touch off more high wind and thunderstorms, with a possibility for tornadoes. The private forecasting service AccuWeather said the severe weather could stretch across parts of the Great Lakes region on Tuesday and Wednesday, from Duluth, Minn., to Detroit. By Thursday, it could be the Northeast’s turn.

Last week, people on the East Coast were typing “Why is the sun red?” into search engines, as hazy skies accompanied some of the unhealthiest air in a decade or more. Expect a repeat across much of the Northern United States this week, with smoke from wildfires raging in Oregon, Northern California and western Canada again spreading across the continent. Massachusetts issued an unhealthy air alert because of the smoke on Tuesday, as did other neighboring New England states. (Below, a tweet from the National Weather Service forecasting office in Caribou, Maine, the agency’s most northeastern U.S. outpost.)

The wildfires that are generating that smoke continue to grow. The Bootleg Fire, which has burned at least 411,000 acres, is the third-largest in Oregon since 1900. The Dixie Fire in Northern California is the state’s 15th-largest on record, and is threatening communities in a region scarred by the memory of the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in the state’s history. Driven by heat and drought, both blazes have grown to a size that firefighters don’t typically expect to see until much deeper into fire season.

The Southwestern U.S., which a couple of weeks ago was dealing with some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on the planet, has seen some relief as the annual monsoon season has delivered significantly more rain than it did last year, alleviating both extreme heat and taking a slight edge off widespread drought conditions. Of course, it has also brought flash floods, including one that swept through the Grand Canyon two weeks ago, killing a hiker.

Since late last week, there has been a chance that a patch of thunderstorms just off the coast of Georgia could organize itself into a tropical storm that could threaten the Southeast. The chance remains small — 10 percent as of late Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center — but can’t yet be ruled out.

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Lake Powell in southern Utah last month.
Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The water level in Lake Powell has dropped to the lowest level since the U.S. government started filling the enormous reservoir on the Colorado River in the 1960s — another sign of the ravages of the Western drought.

On Monday, the pool elevation in Lake Powell, which stretches from Utah into Arizona, had dropped to 3,554 feet. (On Tuesday, it stood at 3,555 feet.) The water level has plunged as the American West experiences what scientists are calling a “megadrought.”

Too little water is coming into the lake, and too much is being sent downriver to maintain levels in Lake Mead, which is also at historically low levels. The two reservoirs, among the largest in the United States, are part of a river system that provides water to more than 40 million people.

The dams that hold back the water on the lakes produce hydropower for many Western states, and electric production from the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead has dropped by about 25 percent during the drought.

Rising temperatures and a lack of rainfall linked to climate change in the West have also contributed to the southern portion of Utah’s Great Salt Lake reaching a new low, with more decline expected in the coming months, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Last month, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released a 24-month study showing that the amount of water flowing into Lake Powell had dropped sharply in the previous six months, and issued a prediction of a 79 percent chance that Lake Powell would fall below 3,525 feet “sometime in the next year,” which could lead to stricter water restrictions.

At that time, Wayne Pullan, the Upper Colorado Basin regional director for the bureau, said, “This is a serious situation.”

Brad Udall, a senior climate scientist at Colorado State University, was more blunt: “I’m struggling to come up with words to describe what we’re seeing here,” he said.

The effects of climate change and water use management have led to “off the charts” water depletion, he said, comparing the water restriction measures that are currently in place to a parachute. “I worry that the parachute is not big enough,” he said, “and that we didn’t deploy it soon enough.”

Dozens of wildfires are actively burning across the Western United States, charring large swaths of land in recent days, according to a New York Times analysis of government and satellite data. Some are threatening thousands of people who live and work just a few miles away.

As the fire season gets underway, The Times built an interactive map to track the latest wildfires as they spread across Western states. Check back regularly for updates.

A bus rider carried an umbrella to protect herself from the sun during a deadly heat wave in Portland, Ore., last month.
Credit…Maranie Staab/Reuters

The ferocious heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest in late June stunned some climate scientists because it was so much more extreme than anything the region had experienced before.

In most heat waves, if local temperature records are broken, it might be by a few degrees Celsius at most. But in the Pacific Northwest, the records — and there were many of them — were as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than previous high temperatures.

That led a team of scientists who studied the event to suggest that something different might be occurring, some mechanism linking global warming to very extreme heat that they did not fully understand.

A new study published Monday offers some insight into why the Pacific Northwest heat wave might have occurred, although the paper was researched, written and reviewed long before that event. The study also suggests that the world can expect more off-the-charts heat waves in the future, unless drastic action is taken to curb climate change.

Erich Fischer of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and colleagues used computer simulations of the earth’s climate to see how warming affected the likelihood of such extreme heat waves. The study was published in Nature Climate Change.

As the research into the Pacific Northwest event found, such record-shattering heat waves would be practically impossible in a world that was not warming. Dr. Fischer and his colleagues found that warming made them more likely to happen, and that how much more likely depended on the rate, rather than the absolute amount, of warming.

That’s an important distinction, and one that has implications for the real world outside of simulations, because the rate of warming has increased in recent decades as society continues to pump huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Two-thirds of the warming that has occurred since the 19th century has occurred since 1975.

The study found that if warming were to continue at a relatively rapid pace, such record-shattering heat waves would be up to 21 times more likely toward the end of the 21st century compared with the past 30 years.

Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, one of the leaders of the Pacific Northwest heat wave study, said he was struck by the new research because, although it used different methods, it came to the same conclusion.

“They have looked at it in the model world at the end of the 21st century, we in the real world at the beginning of the century,” he wrote in an email message. “But both find these huge jumps.”

A river connecting to the Poudre River Watershed in Colorado in May.
Credit…Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

A major source of drinking water for several Front Range cities in Colorado remained shut down Tuesday, six days after heavy rains caused debris flows and flooding in a watershed that was severely burned in a fire last year.

The rains in the Poudre River watershed about 50 miles west of Fort Collins caused soil, rocks, ash and woody debris to enter the river. That forced water managers in Fort Collins and Greeley to shut off river intakes to their water systems.

“We turned off the water supply as of last Wednesday,” said Jill Oropeza, the water quality services manager for Fort Collins. “It was running very black.”

“We anticipate it will be some time before the river cleans up” and the intakes can be reopened, she said.

Randy Gustafson, water source supply manager for Greeley, estimated that the city’s intakes would remain closed for at least another week. Like Fort Collins, Greeley has switched to an alternative water source that is so far unaffected — water from the western side of the Continental Divide that is collected in a reservoir near Fort Collins.

Mr. Gustafson recently visited the site of the main debris flow, near the town of Rustic.

“It’s starting to get a little better right below where the debris flow was,” he said. But farther downstream the river was picking up more silt from burned-out slopes.

With about two-thirds of drinking water in the United States originating in forests, wildfires that occur in watersheds can significantly affect water supplies long after the flames are out. Soil and ash entering the water can make it dirtier, sharply raising treatment costs, or, as in this case, make it so cloudy it cannot be treated at any cost until most of the sediment settles out.

There are other potential wildfire impacts as well. Woody debris can damage pipes and other water infrastructure. Sediment and ash settle to the bottom in reservoirs, reducing capacity and forcing utilities to undertake costly dredging projects. And nutrients and heavy metals in the ash and soil can cause algal blooms or otherwise contaminate the water.

The effects can last for years, because much of the sediment washed into a river in the first storms after a fire settles out along the way, accumulating in river bends, flood plains and other areas. Storms in following years can flush this sediment back into the water, causing new problems.

Water suppliers in the Front Range had anticipated there would be problems this summer after the largest wildfire in the state’s history burned much of the Poudre River watershed last year. The blaze, the Cameron Peak Fire, left many hillsides along the river completely burned.

Without living trees and other vegetation to anchor the soil, debris flows were expected, especially on steep slopes. Work to stabilize some of the most problematic slopes began in late spring, but there was not enough time to accomplish much before the summer rains arrived.

The debris flows and flooding from the storm last Wednesday killed three people, and a fourth person is still missing. It also destroyed several homes.

The storm was part of a seasonal pattern called the monsoon, in which tropical moisture is pulled into the Southwest and Colorado and can lead to strong thunderstorms, usually in the late afternoon. Monsoon rains largely failed to materialize last summer, but this year monsoon activity has been higher.

Workers prepare a track for competition during rainy weather at Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Credit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters

TOKYO — The Summer Olympics have already been hampered by a pandemic and sweltering heat. Starting on Tuesday, athletes and organizers also have had to deal with strong winds and heavy rain, with a tropical storm expected to make landfall north of Tokyo in the afternoon.

The storm will most likely avoid a direct hit on the capital, but the winds and waves on the periphery of the storm are already upsetting Olympic plans in and around the city.

Contest organizers took advantage of the swell and jammed surfing’s quarterfinals, semifinals and medal matches into one busy day. Rowing and archery were also delayed. Otherwise, events are expected to proceed as planned, orgaznizers said.

A forecast by the Japan Meteorological Agency called for about six inches of rain over a 24-hour period through Wednesday morning, with winds reaching speeds of up to about 45 miles per hour.

Officials had previously forecast a typhoon. Hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones are essentially the same storm. They are all circular storms that form over warm water, with very low air pressure at the center, and winds greater than 74 miles an hour — but what they are called depends on where they form.

“Hurricane” is used to refer to storms that form in the North Atlantic, the northeastern Pacific, the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, whereas “typhoon” is used for storms that develop in the northwestern Pacific and usually threaten Asia. “Cyclone” refers to storms in the South Pacific and in the Indian Ocean.

The forecast is not all bad news, however. Competitors in the surfing event said the storm surge had already stoked bigger waves. And some athletes even welcomed the challenge, like Haley Batten, an American who is scheduled to compete on Tuesday on a mountain biking course on the Izu Peninsula, southwest of Tokyo.

“It definitely makes the event even more exciting,” she told reporters on Sunday. “So I’m just embracing the chaos.”

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‘Burnt Down to Nothing’: Heatwave Dries Out Christmas Trees

The Bootleg Fire has burned thousands of acres in Oregon, and continues to ravage the state. Christmas tree farms have been hit hard, and the impact of the fire could be felt for several years.

The second day of the heat, it was 116. I came in the driveway that night and seen the trees were basically cooking, burnt down to nothing. It’ll affect us a lot. I mean, I’m a farmer 365 days a year. That’s how I make my income. So if I can’t sell Christmas trees, I really don’t put food on the table for my kids, and so it’s a tough deal. Nothing you can really do. I mean, just kind of got to roll with the punches, and replant next year and plant a few more. And hopefully make up for the loss that we’re going to have in the future — the eight, nine years from now when the trees were going to be mature. That’s — that’s when you really see the problem. Usually our weather’s pretty fair, you know, warm summers. Usually it’s 80 this time of year, 85 — and they can handle that, 90. But the big loss is usually in August, you know, September when it’s been dry and hot for a long time, but this year, with that heatwave, I mean, it just wiped them out.

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The Bootleg Fire has burned thousands of acres in Oregon, and continues to ravage the state. Christmas tree farms have been hit hard, and the impact of the fire could be felt for several years.

When Jacob Hemphill pulled into the driveway at his 200-acre Christmas tree farm in Oregon City, Ore., on the second night of a record-breaking heat wave late last month, his stomach dropped.

That morning, a vast field of about 250,000 green trees had adorned his property. But now, it was patched over with large swaths of singed brown. All of his seedlings were gone, and some of his mature trees, too — a tremendous loss that he estimates could cost him about $100,000.

Credit…via Jacob Hemphill

The deadly heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest in late June also upended Oregon’s typically prosperous Christmas tree market. More Christmas trees are grown there than anywhere else in the country, followed by North Carolina and Michigan.

Farms like Mr. Hemphill’s dot the country roads southwest of Portland. But now, he said, “There’s nothing left.”

Climate change was already having an impact, even before the most recent heat wave. A recent U.S. Agriculture Department report found that from 2015 to 2020, the amount of acreage in the state growing Christmas trees dropped by 24 percent as wildfires and drought reduced the harvest.

Over the same time period, the average cost of Oregon trees — which are primarily sold on the West Coast — nearly doubled, the report said, from about $18 to $31 each.

When Mr. Hemphill took over the family farm in 2010, his father and uncle had already been growing trees for 26 years. But they never experienced anything like the weather conditions that Mr. Hemphill, 43, now faces.

Growing up, he said, rainfall was plentiful — and predictable — in the key growing period of early July. While the rain may have disrupted Fourth of July celebrations, it nourished the trees when they needed it most. But this July 4, like every other one in his more recent memory, was hot and dry.

The noble firs that Mr. Hemphill grows take about nine years to reach mature height, so he said he only recently began to see a return on the investment he made when he started planting in 2010.

He said he would keep planting for now, but he wondered whether he would eventually need to find more stable employment.

The best he can do now, he said, is pray for rain. “The problem is, it’s not even August yet.”

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The Dixie Fire, which started more than a week ago, has become California’s largest wildfire this year.CreditCredit…Jungho Kim for The New York Times

The Dixie Fire, California’s largest wildfire this year, continued to chew through thousands of acres of rough terrain this week, prompting evacuation orders and threatening communities in a region scarred by the memory of the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in the state’s history.

More than 5,400 firefighters were battling the Dixie Fire, which merged over the weekend with another nearby blaze, the Fly Fire, and had burned through about 200,000 acres, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency.

That’s an area a little larger than New York City, and about half of the acreage burned by the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, the nation’s largest this year. But the Bootleg Fire is burning in a more remote area; 300 people live within five miles of that blaze, according to The New York Times’s wildfire tracker, compared with 4,900 within five miles of the Dixie Fire.

The Dixie Fire started more than a week ago, just a couple of miles from the spot where the Camp Fire ignited, said Rick Carhart, a spokesman for Cal Fire in Butte County. That fire killed more than 80 people and all but leveled the remote town of Paradise.

“There really is so much — there’s no other word for it — PTSD,” Mr. Carhart said. “There’s so much anxiety.”

A stream of firefighting helicopters taking off from a nearby airport in recent days has flown over Magalia, a community that was also devastated by the Camp Fire. Residents there are out of the path of this year’s flames, Mr. Carhart said, but they are still afraid.

“They see a helicopter with a bucket attached,” he said. “And it’s, ‘Oh my God, here we go again.’”

The two blazes also bear another chilling similarity: Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, said last week that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire. PG&E pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for its role in starting the Camp Fire.

So far, that level of destruction has been avoided this year.

Mr. Carhart said that crews have been making progress in controlling the Dixie Fire, and the weather has been more cooperative in recent days than fire officials had predicted. Nevertheless, the size and timing of the blaze — which he said is already the 15th-largest in California’s recorded history — point to a future in which fires won’t be limited to a single season.

“One of the most concerning things about it is how early in the year it is,” Mr. Carhart said.

Last year’s record-breaking wildfire season, during which millions of acres burned across California and the West, actually had a below-average start, he said, until widespread lightning strikes ignited tinder-dry vegetation in many remote areas.

Right now, Mr. Carhart said, the thousands of firefighters who are cutting fire lines, dousing hot spots or doing any of the other time-consuming, physically demanding work required of them, are looking at months passing before there is any significant rainfall, which heralds an end to the most intense fire activity.

In the past, he said, he might have expected a blaze like the Dixie Fire sometime in September — not July.

“We’re all kind of learning that fire season isn’t a three-month or six-month thing anymore,” he said.

Debris along the Poudre River after a flood and mudslide destroyed an area near Rustic, Colo., last week.
Credit…Bethany Baker/The Coloradoan, via Associated Press

Three people were killed and one remains missing after a flood and mudslide destroyed an area in Northern Colorado last week. One local official said that recent wildfires, including the Cameron Peak Fire last year, may be to blame.

On Monday, search teams recovered the body of a man from the Poudre River near the community of Rustic, about 100 miles northwest of Denver. That followed the discovery of two other bodies, a man and a woman, since flooding in the area last week caused a mudslide that destroyed at least six homes and damaged a road.

One woman remains missing. Justin Smith, the sheriff of Larimer County, said in a statement that the four people, who were not identified, were all associated with same residence.

The area where the flooding and mudslide occurred was the site of the Cameron Peak Fire, which started in August 2020 and burned over 200,000 acres through December, becoming the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history.

“This tragedy was a glimpse into the challenges that homeowners and recreators will continue to face” as wildfires leave lasting effects on the land, Sheriff Smith said.

Both more intense wildfires and stronger downpours are expected consequences of climate change. Abnormally high temperatures across the West in recent years have made vegetation drier and more likely to ignite. And a warmer atmosphere holds, and releases, more water, which can make floods more damaging.

Sheriff Smith said that experts have examined the burn areas from the Cameron Peak Fire and warned of the potential for excessive runoff, mudflows and tree slides. “Once ordinary rains will continue to create damaging and sometimes deadly effects,” he said.

A destroyed home in Lake Charles, La., on Saturday. The city has struggled to rebuild after it has been hit by one natural disaster after another in the past year.
Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

LAKE CHARLES, La. — It has been nearly a year since Hurricane Laura devastated the southwest corner of Louisiana. Laura was followed by Hurricane Delta, which was followed by a debilitating winter storm and then spring flooding.

As the nation copes with a new season of weather crises, the city of Lake Charles remains desperate for federal assistance.

“I still grasp onto a shred of hope that there are enough people who might hear this message and might act,” Nic Hunter, the mayor of Lake Charles, said during a news conference on Tuesday in which he and other local government and business leaders renewed their pleas for support.

Millions of dollars in federal emergency funds poured into the city to help with immediate needs after the storms, but the mayor says it has been nowhere near enough. “We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis right here on American soil,” he said.

Residents of Louisiana received $250 million in federal emergency funds for housing and other needs after the hurricanes, and the federal Small Business Administration approved $627 million in low-interest loans. But Gov. John Bel Edwards said that the state has $3 billion in unmet recovery needs, much of it coming from homeowners and renters.

The Biden administration has vowed to take a more proactive approach to the dangers that looming disasters pose to local governments, particularly as forecasters have warned of another active hurricane season this year. In May, the administration announced that $1 billion would go toward disaster preparation and bolstering infrastructure to withstand extreme weather.

But that effort still does not address the challenges confronting Lake Charles after its series of disasters.

Since the devastation from Hurricane Laura became clear almost a year ago, Mr. Hunter has been trying to bring as much attention as possible to Lake Charles, a working-class city that had nearly 78,000 residents before the disasters.

President Donald J. Trump visited in the days after Laura, and President Biden traveled to the city as part of his campaign to highlight weaknesses in the nation’s infrastructure. Both offered words of support. But Mr. Hunter has struggled to convert those encouraging messages into something more substantial.

“It is time for the words of encouragement, prayers and support to turn into a tangible effort,” Mr. Hunter said on Tuesday.

The top priority, according to Dr. Maria Raven, is to hydrate.
Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Dr. Maria Raven, chief of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, offers some tips for staying safe if you are going to go outside in the heat.

  • Give yourself time to acclimate: Dr. Raven said it takes a week or two to get used to extreme heat. Increase the amount of time you spend outdoors each day gradually, if you can, by about 20 percent.

  • Go outside in the morning or evening: Even a five- or 10-degree temperature drop can make a big difference.

  • Know the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke: If you’ve got heat exhaustion, you’ll be sweating profusely, and you may feel a little nauseated. Your skin may be red and hot to the touch, as if you have a fever. If your body approaches heat stroke, which is severe enough to require medical attention, you will stop sweating, and your core temperature will elevate quickly.

  • Know what to do if you’re suffering from heat-related illness: The top priority, Dr. Raven said, is to hydrate. Drink water. You can also use ice packs (in the groin or armpits) and sit near a fan if possible.

  • Don’t push yourself, or anyone else, past comfort: “It can be a badge of honor to go and work out when it’s really hot, but it’s not worth it,” Dr. Raven said. That includes student athletes and employers. It’s crucial to give everyone who is outside in the heat time to rest and drink water.

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