Wildfires Sweep Western U.S. as Unprecedented Heat Waves Continue

Image: National Interagency Fire Center via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Wildfires are raging across the Western United States as the summer’s third major heatwave begins sweeping the region. Many of these fires have been burning since early June and are now snowballing, some even doubling in size in a matter of days. Officials say that firefighting teams are competing for resources, and although President Biden has planned to fund more, they can’t come fast enough for teams on the ground.

Why This Matters: The Western U.S. is looking at its new normal. Climate experts say that these fires are increasing because of extreme heat and drought, creating a vicious cycle of warming and unprecedented heat domes. Heat alone is incredibly dangerous; over 500 people in the Pacific Northwest died of heat-related illnesses during last month’s heatwave. This year’s fires are shaping up to be the most destructive yet and are on pace to burn more than last year’s 15,000 square miles. And, as fires threaten infrastructure and lives across the west, firefighters are witnessing some unprecedented new obstacles.

Burning Up: Fifty-five large wildfires are now raging across over 768,000 acres of land in 12 western states. California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana issued evacuation orders, and many residents are experiencing dangerous smoke and haze. Along with these threats to human health are threats to infrastructure. The largest fire, the Beckwourth Complex fire, forced the temporary closure of Highway 395, and Oregon’s Bootleg fire knocked out transmission lines that provide power to California.

Meanwhile, firefighters are facing new obstacles in the face of drought, heat, and fires. California’s Sugar fire doubled in size between Friday and Saturday, and in the dry heat, managed to create its own lightning. The fire created pyrocumulonimbus clouds, which occur in hot, unstable, dry conditions. These clouds can produce lightning and cause strong, erratic, flame-carrying winds that spread flames miles ahead of the primary fire. Even when they dissipate, the danger only increases. “Later in the afternoon, that cloud will collapse and create a downdraft of heavy smoke, embers, things like that, and it can actually create additional fire behavior,” said Lisa Cox, an information officer for the Beckwourth Complex fires.

While fires get stronger and spread faster, firefighters’ traditional methods of controlling fires are beginning to fail. The air is so dry around the Sugar fire that water and flame retardants dropped on the fire evaporate mid-air. Forecasters predict that Death Valley could reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming days; if they’re right, it will be the hottest temperature ever reliably documented on earth. We’ll need more than water, flame-retardants, and firefighting crews to put a stop to increasing wildfires; we need swift climate action to prevent irreversible, catastrophic temperature rise.

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