Heat Wave Continues to Bake US Northwest

The heat arrived early and is much more dangerous.

A child looks at his water bottle as the sun sets on June 15, 2021 in Los Angeles, California as temperatures soar in an early-season heatwave.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Summer came in hot. We’re talking record-breaking heat. But it wasn’t just the uncomfortable temperatures millions of Americans had to endure for several days that were so concerning—it was the seriousness of the extremely early hot streak that led meteorologists, doctors, and firefighters to warn of a very uncertain future.

From the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains to the American Southwest, heat records fell last week: Denver reached 100 degrees for three straight days, the earliest date it’s ever occurred, while Omaha, Nebraska broke a century-old record for June 17 when it reached 105 degrees. Over the weekend, temperatures hit record-setting levels. According to the National Weather Service, Portland, Oregon had its hottest day on record when it reached 108 degrees on Saturday afternoon. Seattle hit its hottest June day on record on Saturday, reaching 101 degrees and Southern California's heatwave is expected to last through this week.

“It’s hot,” Abby Wines, a spokeswoman at Death Valley National Park said rather matter-of-factly on a day the temperature reached 128 degrees. “It’s like being in a full body oven.” 

Stifling heat is nothing new in the hottest place on the planet but this latest hot spell in Death Valley came with little fanfare. Missing were the streams of international tourists, due to travel restrictions, who often come to experience the heat. 

“Anytime we’re forecasted to break a record those are the times people come out to take a picture in front of the thermometer,” Wines explained. “We get up into the mid-120s multiple times a summer so it’s fairly normal for us. Just not normal for it to be this early.”

But this latest heatwave was different in so many ways pushing temperatures over the century mark in many places including the Pacific Northwest. The heat arrived early and was much more dangerous as a broad spectrum of climate experts acknowledged. It prompted the National Weather Service and burn specialists to issue warnings about hot cars and exposed surfaces and added to already anxious times for wildfire managers as brush continues to dry out. 

Visitors walk along sand dunes at sunset inside Death Valley National Park in June 17, 2021 in Inyo County, California.
Visitors walk along sand dunes at sunset inside Death Valley National Park in June 17, 2021 in Inyo County, California. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Burn Warnings

With the arrival of summer, physicians in Arizona’s Maricopa County warned residents of the possibility of severe burns from even brief exposure to hot surfaces. In the summer of 2020, the Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health said they treated 104 heat-related burn injuries—a near fifty percent increase from previous years and the highest number recorded in two decades, according to the center’s report titled “Streets of Fire.” Eighty-five patients were admitted last year with burns due to contact with hot pavement. Of these, 30% needed ICU care and 20% required medical ventilation.

Dr. Kevin Foster, director of the Arizona Burn Center, said that last year the center saw “an alarming number of patients with serious burns from Arizona’s extreme heat. These burns are preventable. We hope to raise awareness of the dangers of hot surfaces like pavement and concrete,” he said. 

Throughout the desert Southwest surfaces that are usually harmless, objects like car door handles, seat belt buckles, playground equipment, and pavement, can reach temperatures of 180 degrees and burns can occur within seconds. They also warned of the dangers of leaving pets or children unattended in a car as the inside temperature of a vehicle can climb 30 degrees higher than it is outside within just 10 minutes. 

Last month, a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found 35% of heat deaths in the U.S. can be attributed to man-made climate change.

Wildfire Danger 

For wildland firefighters, the recent heatwave and what is expected to be an unrelentingly hot and dry summer has made conditions eerily similar to last year when a disastrous fire season charred 10.2 million acres across the U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In California, where nearly 4.2 million acres burned, five out of six of the state’s largest wildfires on record happened last year. Large, record-breaking fires also occurred in Washington and Colorado in 2020.

Climate scientists blame the “megadrought,” an intense two-decade-long weather pattern producing less-than-average snowpack and rainfall, as the reason for shrinking reservoirs and worsening wildfires. According to a study published last year in the journal Science, human-caused climate change is responsible for half of the drought.

The concern across the West is that one spark could lead to a catastrophic event. The lack of rain has left soil dry, brush brittle, and forced some trees, especially pinions and junipers, to go dormant. Firefighters fear these dry conditions could lead to fires that burn hotter and faster. Such high-intensity burns, as witnessed last year, are difficult to fight and contain.  

View Article Sources
  1. "Warnings Follow a Record Number of Contact Burns in 2020." Valleywise Health, 2021.

  2. Vicedo-Cabrera, A. M., et al. "The Burden of Heat-Related Mortality Attributable to Recent Human-Induced Climate Change". Nature Climate Change, vol. 11, no. 6, 2021, pp. 492-500., doi:10.1038/s41558-021-01058-x