Firefighters Struggle, Power Grids Buckle, And People Flee As Western US Burns

July 12, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

A triple threat of record high temperatures, wildfires, and drought have set ablaze large swathes of the western United States, leading to electricity shortages, mass evacuations, smoke warnings, and the deaths of at least two firefighters. According to the National Weather Service, there are currently 30 million Americans living in conditions of extreme heat, with a cool-down not predicted until at least mid-week.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), as of Sunday, July 11 there were 55 large fires burning across 12 states, covering over 750,000 acres. They have assigned more than 11,300 firefighters and support staff to respond to these incidents. The impacted states include Arizona, Idaho, Montana, California, Oregon, Wyoming, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.

On June 22, the NIFC updated the current National Preparedness Level to 4 (on a scale of 1–5), indicating that “much of the country” is experiencing some wildfire activity. At this level, areas are competing for available firefighting resources, more than half of which have been committed to efforts to minimize damage and get the fires under control.

Source: National Weather Service Twitter account

On Saturday, July 10, a small plane carrying two firefighters crashed while surveying a wildfire in Mohave County, Arizona. The two crew members killed were identified as Air Tactical Group Supervisor Jeff Piechura, 62, a retired Tucson-area fire chief, and Matthew Miller, 48, a pilot with the U.S. Forest Service.

The Beckwourth Complex Fire, currently the largest ongoing blaze in California, was sparked by lightning on June 30. The fire doubled in size between Friday and Saturday, i.e. July 9 and 10, and filtered into Nevada. As of Saturday, it spanned over 60,000 acres and was only 9% contained. Almost 2,000 people were deployed to fight the fire, with flames reaching up to 100 feet in some places. Just under 3,000 people were issued warnings or orders to evacuate.

On Sunday, that fire ate up an additional 20,000 acres, destroying about 20 homes according to authorities. Responders were able to contain about 8% of the fire, and officials say that progress has been made in curbing the flames in certain areas.

The wildfires are only being exacerbated by the extreme drought conditions faced by the state, with 50 of its 58 counties officially in a state of emergency. Californians have been asked to cut water consumption by 15%, to prevent reservoirs from drying up.

There is an excessive heat advisory active in the area until at least Tuesday, July 13 with people being urged to drink large amounts of water and remain indoors, with air-conditioning on, as much as possible.

On Friday, Death Valley, CA, saw a high of 130°F, close to the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. The state has been forced to set up cooling centers for those affected — essentially public spaces with air-conditioning for those who don’t have access to it otherwise, such as the unhoused.

This effort was complicated, however, by the Bootleg fire currently racing through the Fremont-Winema National Forest in southern Oregon, which disrupted three power lines responsible for providing up to 5,500 megawatts of electricity to California. Authorities in the Golden State were forced to advise the public to reduce their power consumption to proactively head-off rolling blackouts. The Bootleg blaze almost doubled in size over the weekend, now covering around 150,000 acres, and is 0% contained.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas saw an all-time high temperature of 117°F. The governors of Washington and Idaho have declared emergencies in their states over the wildfires, with the latter also having issued some evacuation orders and warnings. Idaho, too, has cautioned its residents and evacuated some, while the smoke from the fires obscured the sky in some central and western areas of the country.

Most of the wildfires ravaging the region began a few weeks ago, as June ended and July began, amidst a truly brutal heatwave that gripped the Pacific Northwest region. That extreme-heat event killed at least 118 people in Oregon and Washington, and strained local healthcare systems. According to the Wall Street Journal, 911 calls almost doubled during the heatwave, emergency departments were overflowing with patients, and emergency personnel were not able to respond to calls for help quickly enough.

The region typically and historically has been characterized by a temperate climate, meaning that resources, infrastructure, and people were not prepared for the extreme temperatures seen. Experts are chalking the scale of this year’s extreme temperature events up to climate change worsening at a faster-than-predicted rate. They say that such events are likely to continue, if not become even more common, as time goes on.