Another Heatwave Hits the Pacific Northwest

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

The Pacific Northwest is experiencing a second scorching heatwave this summer, with temperatures climbing well above 90 degrees in a region where many residents still don’t have air conditioning. Portland, where temperatures hit 98, is also approaching 50 rainless days.

This coupling of high temperatures and worsening drought conditions now covers nearly all of the region, and that heat and dryness has “created tinderbox conditions,” the Washington Post writes. On a national scale, this year’s fires aren’t far off from the 10-year average in sheer number or acres burned, but California is already outpacing its record-breaking wildfire season last year on both counts. 

Why This Matters: The extreme heat is enabled by human-induced climate change, and similar heat waves could be two to seven times more likely in the future, according to a recent study. Over 500 people in the region died of heat-related illnesses during the deadlier heatwave earlier this summer—and dangerous heat disrupts daily life in all sorts of other ways, from dog walkers avoiding midday services to summer camps moving activities indoors. On top of the intense heat, wildfires are dangerous even from a distance, creating haze and poor air quality. 

In addition, utilities are worried that another dangerous heatwave will bring challenges in keeping power flowing to customers.

Fires and Drought Challenge Utility Companies: The connected drought and fire conditions have also created challenges for utility companies to keep the electricity grid working. Grid operators are angling for better sensors to understand factors like wind speed and dried vegetation levels, which would allow them to cut power on a line if needed to prevent sparking a fire. It’s an important consideration: Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest utility, said its equipment may have been the spark for the Dixie Fire currently burning near the 2018’s Camp Fire that PG&E also caused

On the supply side of things, the high temperatures and drought have reduced hydropower capabilities. Just last week, California called on residents to reduce their energy use when demand was expected to be highest. The Pacific Northwest heatwaves mean that California’s neighboring states aren’t sending any additional power down, and wildfires have threatened transmission lines running between states.   

“The exceptional fire weather this year and in recent years does not represent random bad luck,” Jacob Bendix, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in the study of wildfire distribution, told the L.A. Times. “It is among the results of our adding carbon to the atmosphere — results that were predictable, and indeed that have been predicted for decades.”

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