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Heat and wind in Oregon are fueling the nation’s largest wildfire. – The New York Times


Extreme Weather and Climate Updates

Aug. 3, 2021, 4:51 p.m. ET

Aug. 3, 2021, 4:51 p.m. ET

Firefighters worked to contain the Bootleg Fire near Silver Lake, Ore., last week. It has burned more than 400,000 acres and was 84 percent contained on Tuesday morning.
Credit…Maranie Staab/Reuters

Most of the 50 small wildfires that were reportedly sparked by lightning in southern Oregon over the weekend have been extinguished, but fire officials did not have to look far to appreciate the precarious nature of every new blaze.

Nearly a month after it was ignited by lightning, nearly 1,900 firefighters are still battling the Bootleg Fire, which has obliterated homes in southern Oregon while burning more than 400,000 acres. Cloudy and rainy weather helped those firefighters make considerable progress in recent days — the nation’s largest wildfire was 84 percent contained on Tuesday morning — but the Bootleg Fire is not projected to be fully contained until October.

Fire officials are also wary of a forecast that could temper some of the recent gains. The Klamath Falls area, where Bootleg is burning, may see temperatures in the mid-90s on Tuesday and Wednesday, with wind gusts of up to 20 miles per hour on Wednesday.

“We are dependent on weather conditions to aid our success,” said Al Nash, a spokesman working with fire officials. He added, “There remains a vulnerability because we expect hot, dry and windy weather.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry said it received reports of about 50 fires sparked by lightning during thunderstorms on Sunday. Of the 35 fires that were confirmed as active, the agency said, 20 were promptly extinguished and the ones that remain do not threaten any homes.

On Tuesday morning, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Gov. Kate Brown are scheduled to visit a farm in Salem — in the northwestern part of Oregon — that has been affected by the region’s lengthy drought. That extended dry spell has also provided more fuel for wildfires sparked by lightning or human behavior.

The Dixie Fire, burning near Taylorsville, Calif.
Credit…Nic Coury for The New York Times

Michael Hambrick has been putting out fires for over 25 years. But last month, the Dixie Fire raged so quickly through Plumas County in California that Mr. Hambrick, a helicopter attack firefighter, couldn’t save even his own house.

By the time he evacuated, his porch was on fire, and the windows were shattering as 40-foot-tall flames whipped through his sparsely populated mountain community of Indian Falls. The wildfire blew up to a size and intensity rarely seen this early in the season, as climate change deepens a drought that is drying out the West.

“It was gut-wrenching,” said Mr. Hambrick, who lost all that he owned. He had set up three-foot-tall sprinklers around his house as a preventive measure, he said, but “the fire blew right through it like it was nothing.”

Extreme weather has gripped vast swaths of the United States this summer, with at least four major heat waves fueling fires that have filled the skies with smoke so thick it reddened the sun in New York City. And the heart of both wildfire and hurricane season is yet to come.

Here’s a look at what has happened, and what to expect.

Major fires forced thousands to flee their homes in Northern California last week, while the Bootleg Fire in Oregon that first sparked nearly a month ago continues to burn. It’s already the third-largest in the state since 1900.

Fires of this size usually don’t spread in the West until August or September. But this year, following a remarkably dry winter in much of the West, the season began as early as April, when fires in northwestern Arizona’s pine-covered mountains forced hundreds to evacuate.

Officials have offered dire warnings about the blazes yet to come. The National Interagency Fire Center said in its most recent four-month outlook that most of the American West can expect “above normal significant fire potential” through at least September.

“No corner of our state is immune,” Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon said recently, blaming “the urgent and dangerous climate crisis.”

Monsoon rains in the desert Southwest have brought much-welcome downpours. Parts of Northern Arizona received several times more rain in July alone than they did during the entire 2020 monsoon season, which runs from June to September.

But experts say that won’t be enough to relieve the drought conditions for long.

Ninety percent of the American West is under drought conditions, with much of California and the Southwest experiencing “severe” or “exceptional” drought.

“It’s a very large deficit that these states have to make up to get back to normal — if you want to call it that,” said David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Many parts of the Southwest are short nearly a year’s worth of rainfall, he said.

Meteorologists expect the dry conditions to last through the summer, and it’s likely that they will return even if fall and winter offer a respite.

A heat wave roasted the Pacific Northwest in late June, breaking statewide temperature records. Many local records also have fallen as extreme temperatures have scorched through one area of the West after another.

The Weather Service predicts that much of the western and central United States will continue to see above-average temperatures for at least the next couple of weeks.

Extreme heat waves are difficult to predict more than a few days in advance, Mr. Lawrence said. But the patterns producing above-average temperatures show little sign of letting up, and heat warnings were in effect over the weekend across much of the southeastern United States and parts of the Northwest.

“Why is the sun red?” was a trending term on search engines in mid-July as smoke from scores of Western wildfires contributed to hazy, unhealthy air a continent away.

The air quality index, a measure developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, spiked across the Midwest and East Coast, with numbers hovering around 130 to 160 in New York City — a range that can trigger adverse health effects. (The index runs from 0 to 500, with readings over 100 considered particularly unhealthy.)

In Minnesota over the weekend, wildfire smoke from fires north of the border in Canada created air quality so dangerous that meteorologists warned people to stay indoors as much as possible. As wildfires burn more intensely, experts say smoke will continue to be a nationwide hazard.

Tropical Storm Elsa flooded New York City roads and subway stations in early July. It also set this year’s storm season ahead of 2020’s record pace: It was the earliest on record that the Atlantic basin had seen a fifth named storm.

The first, Ana, formed on May 23, making this year the seventh in a row that a named storm developed in the Atlantic before the official start of hurricane season on June 1. The past couple of weeks have been quiet, but the busiest part of hurricane season usually doesn’t start until late August.

In their most recent forecast, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that there would be 13 to 20 named storms this year, three to five of which would be major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher.

The agency plans another update of the seasonal outlook on Wednesday, but so far, experts are optimistic that cooler sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic will make this hurricane season less intense than in 2020, when there were so many named storms that meteorologists exhausted the alphabet for the second time and moved to using Greek letters.

With temperatures well over 100 degrees, two firefighters — Sean Condon, left, and Lt. Gabe Mills — checked on the welfare of a man in Spokane, Wash., in late June.
Credit…Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review, via Associated Press

With a death toll of 125 people, Washington State’s record-breaking heat wave hit another milestone: It is the deadliest weather-related disaster in state history.

As extreme spikes in temperature have continued in the West, the number of heat-related deaths across the region has climbed. The brutal summer has claimed hundreds of lives in Oregon, California and Washington. The latest heat wave in Washington, which started on June 26, led to casualties across at least 21 counties, according to the state’s Department of Health — and experts think this number will only increase as the heat wave persists.

“Emergencies due to these extreme weather conditions will continue to occur; that is just a fact,” Umair A. Shah, the state’s secretary of health, said. “It is up to us to take actions to address these before they become even more common.”

The state reached its grim milestone on July 19, when the Washington Department of Health tallied 112 heat-related deaths. The death count beat the previous record set by a 1910 avalanche in Wellington, Wash., which killed 96 people.

The largest number of casualties from Washington’s heat wave were in King County, accounting for 30 deaths, and Pierce County, with an additional 23. The remaining deaths were scattered across more than a dozen other counties.

And officials expect those figures to increase. The state’s Health Department calculates its death count from reports by local health departments, health care providers and medical examiners, which means the official state death count lags behind what is reported locally.

Extreme heat is especially dangerous for people older than 65, who are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease during a heat wave, and for Black people, who die more frequently from the disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Kristie Ebi, a global health professor at the University of Washington, recommends that states create heat action plans, which include an early warning and response system. And she suggests communities reconsider the materials used in construction and the size of windows and buildings.

“In the long term, climate change is going to continue,” Dr. Ebi said. “We are going to get hotter and have more intense heat waves.”

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At least 52 waterspouts were seen over Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Ontario in the U.S. and Canada. At least one waterspout, which is whirling columns of air and water mist, caused minor damage as it moved onshore.CreditCredit…Erie Weather Now

Mother Nature treated residents and visitors along the Great Lakes to an unusual show over the weekend, after what meteorologists called an outbreak of waterspouts was spotted.

In total, 52 waterspouts were counted over Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Ontario on Sunday, according to the International Centre for Waterspout Research. At least one waterspout caused minor damage as it moved onshore. Images of the waterspouts were widely shared on social media.

Waterspouts, which are whirling columns of air and water mist, form when cold air moves over warmer water, drawing up moisture, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the Great Lakes, waterspouts are frequently spotted from August through October, when the water is at its warmest.

There are two types of waterspouts: tornadic, which start off as tornadoes over land and move out over water, and fair weather, which are more common and form over open water and climb toward the sky.

The highest number of recorded waterspouts for a single day was 82 on Oct. 1, 2020, the waterspout research center said. Worldwide, 610 waterspouts have been spotted this year, according to the center.

Last year, the Great Lakes produced 232 waterspouts from late September through early October, setting a record, according to GreatLakesNow.org.

Waterspouts are also common in Florida and on the Mediterranean.

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Drone footage shows Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon, Colo., closed to travelers after a mudslide caused by heavy rains blocked the road. Sections of the highway could be closed for weeks.CreditCredit…Colorado Department of Transportation

Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado said he would declare a state of emergency after mudslides tore through Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon west of Denver over the weekend.

The highway is a critical transportation route for Colorado residents and a key artery for the economy of the western United States, Mr. Polis said during a news conference on Monday. Images of the damage, shared by the Colorado Department of Transportation, showed large rocks, trees and other debris covering the highway.

Mr. Polis said the authorities did not yet know the extent of the damage and said that sections of the highway would remain closed for weeks.

On average, less than two and a half inches of rain falls in Glenwood Canyon during the month of July, Mr. Polis said. That area received four inches of rain in five days. Extensive damage was reported along multiple sections of the highway, and some areas were under 10 feet or more of mud.

“Given the three historic wildfires that we experienced last summer, the three largest in the history of our state, we knew that we would see the severe impact that burn scars and debris can have on a landscape,” Mr. Polis said.

Last year’s Cameron Peak fire was the largest in Colorado’s history, consuming more than 200,000 acres.

The current monsoon weather patterns across Colorado may produce more damage, and much of the western half of the state was under a flash-flood watch on Tuesday, the National Weather Service said. Slow-moving thunderstorms, bringing heavy rains, were expected through the day.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Mr. Polis said. “We have to make it through this monsoons season. Once the freeze hits, it’s less likely to be a dire situation.”

The $73 billion being provided to modernize the nation’s electricity grid is the single largest federal investment in power transmission in history.
Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The infrastructure package has some substantial investments aimed at addressing climate change, but it is far from the transformational package that President Biden had sought.

It contains only a fraction of the money he requested for major environmental initiatives like building a network of electric vehicle charging stations and replacing the nation’s lead pipes. And the legislation extends a lifeline to natural gas and nuclear energy, provisions that have already angered House progressives.

The bill does provide $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electricity grid so that it can carry more renewable energy, the single largest federal investment in power transmission in history. And it includes billions of dollars for an array of climate resilience measures.

The compromise includes $7.5 billion to develop electric vehicle charging stations across the country, half of the $15 billion Mr. Biden requested to deliver on his campaign pledge of building 500,000 of them. And part of that money, according to the legislation, must be shared with efforts to build propane and natural gas infrastructure.

There’s another $7.5 billion for clean buses and ferries, but that is not nearly enough to electrify about 50,000 transit buses within five years, as Mr. Biden has vowed to do.

The bill would provide $15 billion for removing lead service lines across the nation, compared with the $45 billion Mr. Biden had called for and the $60 billion water sector leaders say is actually needed to get the job done.

The legislation also includes more than $300 million to develop technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and $6 billion to support struggling nuclear reactors; it also directs the Secretary of Energy to conduct a study on job losses associated with Mr. Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Energy analysts said the measures in the package, particularly to modernize the electricity grid, will lay the groundwork for pivoting the nation off fossil fuels. But the bill includes no mechanism to immediately mandate the reduction of fossil fuel emissions, a policy that will be necessary to meeting Mr. Biden’s Paris Agreement pledge of cutting United States greenhouse gases 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“There’s a lot here that, no matter how you slice it, reflects a real fact on the ground, which is the United States is still 70-percent-odd reliant on fossil fuels in its energy mix,” said Kevin Book, managing director of Clearview Energy Partners, a Washington-based research firm.

“This is not a transition bill,” he said. “This is an incremental bill that includes transition components.”

Around the world

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Greece experienced its hottest day on record this week while wildfires raged across the region. Local authorities attempted to contain the wildfires with planes making water drops.CreditCredit…Andreas Alexopoulos/Associated Press

ATHENS — Greece was grappling with one of its hottest weeks on record on Tuesday as an intense heat wave swept through much of Southern Europe and fueled major forest fires.

The National Observatory of Athens weather service on Monday registered the highest temperature ever officially recorded in the country — 46.3 degrees Celsius, or 115.3 degrees Fahrenheit — in the central Greek region of Phthiotis.

Temperatures were forecast to climb to 113 degrees Fahrenheit in Athens on Tuesday and top 115 degrees in parts of central Greece, according to the country’s National Meteorological Service.

“We are facing the worst heat wave since 1987,” Prime Minister Kyriakis Mitsotakis said on Monday, noting that the authorities were doing “everything humanly possible” to secure an adequate electricity supply. He appealed to people to limit their use of electricity in the early afternoon and at night to ensure that the grid holds up.

While scientists have yet to draw a firm connection between this barrage of stifling temperatures and global warming, it fits an overall trend. Heat waves around the world are occurring more often and with higher intensity as the climate changes because of greenhouse gas emissions.

Research has shown that for major heat waves across Europe in recent summers, climate change has been a significant worsening factor.

Greece’s meteorological service said the current heat wave was one of the worst of the past 40 years. It is forecast to end on Friday, after 11 days.

The heat wave and an accompanying drought have fueled several wildfires in Greece and other parts of Southern Europe, including Croatia, Italy and Turkey. The worst blazes this week were in Turkey, where firefighters were battling a sixth day of wildfires along the country’s southern coast that forced tens of thousands from their homes. The fires were encroaching on residential areas and threatened a power plant.

At least eight people have died, and homes and vast tracts of forestland have been destroyed. Strong winds and a dry atmosphere have allowed the fires to rapidly expand.

Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand last year. A new ranking determined that the country was the best positioned to carry on when or if others fall apart.
Credit…Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Will civilization as we know it end in the next 100 years? Will there be any functioning places left? These questions might sound like the stuff of dystopian fiction. But if recent headlines about extreme weather, climate change, the ongoing pandemic and faltering global supply chains have you asking them, you’re not alone.

Now two British academics, Aled Jones, director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, and his co-author, Nick King, think they have some answers. Their analysis, published in July in the journal Sustainability, aims to identify places that are best positioned to carry on when or if others fall apart. They call these lucky places “nodes of persisting complexity.”

The winner, tech billionaires who already own bunkers there will be pleased to know, is New Zealand. The runners-up are Tasmania, Ireland, Iceland, Britain, the United States and Canada.

The findings were greeted with skepticism by other academics who study topics like climate change and the collapse of civilization. Some flat-out disagreed with the list, saying it placed too much emphasis on the advantages of islands and failed to properly account for variables like military power.

And some said the entire exercise was misguided: If climate change is allowed to disrupt civilization to this degree, no countries will have cause to celebrate.

Remnants of the Bootleg Fire near Klamath Falls, Oregon, on Saturday.
Credit…U.S. Forest Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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 two 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.”

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