Extreme Weather and Climate Updates

July 22, 2021, 3:41 p.m. ET

July 22, 2021, 3:41 p.m. ET

Firefighters gathered for an evening briefing on the Bootleg Fire near Bly, Ore., on Wednesday.
Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Unseasonably hot weather is projected to move eastward from the Northern Rockies to the Upper Midwest in the coming days, while one of the largest fires in modern Oregon history continues to burn and the Southwest prepares for possible flash flooding from thunderstorms.

Temperatures on Thursday are projected to reach the upper 90s or low 100s in eastern Montana and the western Dakotas, the National Weather Service said, before the heat heads toward Minnesota on Friday. More seasonable conditions were found along the West Coast, which is battling a drought.

Intense heat this summer contributed to dry conditions in southern Oregon, where the lightning-caused Bootleg Fire has been burning for more than two weeks. With just under 400,000 acres burned, it is the largest fire in the United States this year and on Thursday grew to become the third-largest fire in Oregon since 1900. Oregon’s fire season typically doesn’t reach its peak until late summer.

Despite the fire’s size, it has resulted in no deaths while burning largely in uninhabited areas; fewer than 300 people live within five miles of the blaze, according to The New York Times’s fire tracker. The fire is 38 percent contained.

Temperatures in Oregon, which have peaked in the low 80s in recent days, are expected to rise into the weekend, raising concerns about new wildfires. The Oregon Department of Forestry said that beginning on Thursday, campfires would be banned in state parks and state-managed forests east of Interstate 5, which runs through Portland and south to California.

“We are seeing record-low humidity in much of the state, and as forest fuels dry out there is tremendous potential for fire to establish and spread quickly,” Nancy Hirsch, the interim state forester, said in a statement.

In California, fire officials said on Wednesday evening that they were making slow progress against the Dixie Fire, which has burned more than 91,000 acres, destroying eight structures, and was 15 percent contained. The fire is northeast of Paradise but moving in the opposite direction of the town, which was destroyed by a wildfire in 2018 that killed 84 people.

Monsoon rains led to flooding near Flagstaff, Ariz., last week.
Credit…Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun, via Associated Press

Monsoon season in the Southwestern United States could provide relief to parts of the region that are desperate for any kind of precipitation, but life-threatening flash floods and lightning are also part of the deal.

Like much of the West, Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas are battling a yearlong drought. Monsoon season generally starts in those places in June and runs through September.

Last year, though, the monsoon didn’t bring much rain. But this year has already seen a dramatic difference — a 200 percent increase in precipitation over the last two months in parts of the Southwest.

“Too much of anything is always a bad thing,” said Dave Lawrence, a National Weather Service meteorologist who covers the Western United States.

With heavy thunderstorms in the forecast through the weekend, flash flood watches were issued Thursday, lasting through Saturday, for central and eastern Arizona, as well as western New Mexico and southwest Colorado — where last week a torrent of water surged through parts of the Grand Canyon, leaving one camper dead.

“We’re most concerned about areas that have been burned by wildfires this year,” said Mark O’ Malley, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s branch in Phoenix. “Those areas will be particularly susceptible to flash flooding from the heavy rainfall.”

But despite the risks, meteorologists said the Southwest’s wet season still presents a welcome return to normalcy, particularly as the West battles a punishingly dry summer.

“The monsoon season looks more normal,” Mr. Lawrence said. “If there is such a thing as normal for weather — which there isn’t.”


The Atlanta Braves grounds crew covered the field during a rain delay on Wednesday.
Credit…Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

An unusually wet spring and early summer across much of the Southeastern United States has soaked the ground and swollen rivers, leading to an increase in flash floods from heavy rains and thunderstorms.

Cities across the Southeast, including Atlanta, New Orleans, Raleigh, N.C., and Biloxi, Miss., have recorded more than 150 percent of their normal rainfall for this time in the summer, according to the private forecasting service AccuWeather.

Storms are expected to bring more rain to parts of Georgia and the Carolinas over the weekend and early next week. Chrissy Anderson, a National Weather Service meteorologist who covers the Southern region, said a low-pressure system over southern Georgia is expected to make its way to the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, where there is a 30 percent chance it could become a tropical storm over the next few days.

“If anything develops, it will be very weak and disorganized,” Ms. Anderson said.

The Atlantic hurricane season has seen a lull since Tropical Storm Elsa cut across Cuba and moved up the Gulf Coast of Florida and into the Northeastern United States two weeks ago, flooding roads and subway stations in the New York region and beyond.

But forecasts do not expect that lull to continue. Hurricane season typically sees an uptick in late summer and early fall, when ocean temperatures are at their warmest. Last year saw a record 30 named storms in the Atlantic, including 14 hurricanes and seven major hurricanes. This year’s official outlook calls for an above-normal season, in the range of 13 to 20 named storms and six to 10 hurricanes.

Although the impact of climate change on any individual storm is difficult to determine, the United States and other parts of the world have seen an increase in heavy rain and flooding as temperatures rise. One basic reason is that warmer air holds more moisture. And the frequency of extreme downpours is likely to increase as global warming continues.

Wading through a flooded road in Zhengzhou, China, on Thursday. More rain is in the forecast after days of torrential downpours in the region.
Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

MIHE, China — Chen Shuying was sitting at home with her husband and their 3-year-old grandson on Tuesday when water began to surge through the door. Within minutes, it was well above her waist. “The water came so fast,” she said.

They made it to the roof, where they waited for hours for the water to recede. Two days later, she still cannot return home, she said. They were lucky. Three neighbors — a grocery shopkeeper and two of the grocer’s customers — were swept away by the floodwaters and have not been seen since.

The formidable destructive power of the floods that engulfed Henan Province in central China became clearer on Thursday, even as new areas were inundated. Still more rain is in the forecast, following days of torrential downpours, including the strongest on record in the area on Tuesday.

The death toll from the flooding continued to rise, with provincial officials saying that 33 people were now confirmed killed. At least eight remained missing, the officials said, but those figures appeared to be preliminary at best given that rescuers were continuing to try to reach flooded areas in outlying districts.

The disaster that has unfolded since heavy rain began on Sunday has affected more than 3 million people in the province, emergency officials there said, including more than 250,000 who were displaced from their homes. Even as the rains eased somewhat — and officials lowered the alert levels — desperate searches continued for loved ones unaccounted for more than 48 hours after the worst of the flooding.

The Paper, a newspaper belonging to a state-owned media group, on Thursday posted a list of people searching for missing relatives. The missing included Yan Yichen, a 12-year-old boy from the city of Gongyi, who told his family that he was curious to see the floodwaters and went out for a look.

“He never came back,” the boy’s grandmother, Cui Yuncai, said, sobbing, when reached by telephone on Thursday.

In towns and villages on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital at the center of the disaster, residents described still more who remained unaccounted for, like the grocer and his customers. Some residents who fled their homes in the town of Mihe, on the Sishui River and 22 miles west of downtown Zhengzhou, waited on Thursday by the side of a nearby highway for news.

A man who would only give his last name, Zhang, said he was still searching for his father and four other relatives.

“Once the flood was noticed, it was too late,” Mr. Zhang said, describing a surge of water five feet deep. “This is the first time I saw such a big flood.”

He, like others, held out hope that those missing were simply still stranded in flooded areas without electricity to charge their phones.

Dead fish from a red tide washed up along a waterfront park in St. Petersburg, Fla., this month.
Credit…Arielle Bader/Tampa Bay Times, via Associated Press

COQUINA BEACH, Fla. — The stench hits first, uncomfortable at best and gag-inducing at worst. Then comes a small tickle in the back of the throat that won’t go away.

But it is the dead fish that are the real mark of a red tide. Wednesday on Coquina Beach, south of St. Petersburg, Fla., carcasses were scattered across the shore in small clumps.

“The smell, the dead fish, it’s gross,” said Angie Hampton, 54, who was on vacation from Indiana.

It’s been like that for much of the summer at beaches in the Tampa Bay region and across Southwest Florida, where the harmful algal blooms known as a red tide have killed more than 600 tons of marine life, according to local officials. Some of it was likely pushed ashore by Tropical Storm Elsa two weeks ago.

“This is unusual for Tampa Bay,” said Kate Hubbard, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a bloom of this magnitude.”

Conditions have actually started to improve somewhat in recent days. A week ago, the algae in some parts of Tampa Bay were at 10 to 17 times the concentration considered “high,” according to reports from Pinellas County. Red tides at that level “can cause significant respiratory issues in people as well as fish kills,” officials said.

Algal blooms are a natural phenomenon, but both pollution and climate change appear to be making them worse. After leaks were detected this spring from a major wastewater reservoir at Piney Point, south of Tampa, scientists warned that a significant red tide could result.

And although it is difficult to attribute individual events to climate change, research at the University of Florida shows that warming oceans will likely make red tides more frequent and harmful. “This,” proclaimed an editorial in The Tampa Bay Times last week, “is what climate change smells like.”

Downed power lines in Paradise, Calif., where PG&E equipment caused a fire that destroyed the town and killed 85 people in 2018.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Pacific Gas & Electric, aiming to show its determination to overcome a history of safety problems, announced Wednesday that it planned to put 10,000 miles of its power lines underground to prevent the kind of wildfires that led the utility to bankruptcy court.

The project, which would involve about 10 percent of the lines currently above ground, could cost tens of billions of dollars to carry out. The announcement prompted questions from longtime critics of the utility about how much of the cost would be borne by ratepayers rather than shareholders.

The company, California’s largest electricity provider, said the work would aim first at areas most vulnerable to wildfires and expand throughout its service territory, which includes 5.5 million electric customers in Northern and Central California.

PG&E’s announcement came days after a preliminary report to state regulators said that its equipment might have caused the Dixie Fire, one of the state’s largest blazes, which has burned at least 85,000 acres. The fire is spreading in Butte County, where the utility’s equipment caused a fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018.

Although utilities across the country have increasingly moved their power lines underground, none have proposed a project on the scale of PG&E’s plan. Currently, the utility has 27,000 miles of power lines underground, but they are generally not in areas at high risk of wildfires.

“We need you to know that we are working night and day to solve this incredible problem,” said Patricia K. Poppe, chief executive of PG&E Corporation, the utility’s parent.

This year the company is putting 70 miles of lines underground, so increasing the work to 1,000 miles a year would be a leap. “That’s the moonshot,” Ms. Poppe said on a call with reporters. “It should be a shocking number because it’s a big goal.”

By comparison, President Biden’s infrastructure proposal calls for $73 billion to improve the nation’s power grid. Though the spending is meant to counter the effects of climate change, the prospect of more transmission lines has led to calls for greater reliance instead on rooftop solar panels and battery storage.

The Bootleg Fire burning in southern Oregon last week.
Credit…Bootleg Fire Incident Command, via Associated Press

In his four decades of firefighting, Joe Hessel has rarely seen a wildfire prove as difficult to bring under control as the Bootleg Fire, the sprawling blaze that over the past two weeks has scorched almost 400,000 acres in southern Oregon.

And what has made this fire different than most, he said on Wednesday, was back-to-back days of what firefighters call extreme fire behavior.

“It’s not unusual to get a few days in a row, or a day here and there, of extreme fire behavior,” said Mr. Hessel, an incident commander with the Oregon Department of Forestry team that is trying to suppress the Bootleg Fire.

“But on this incident, it’s been 13 or 14 days in a row,” he said. “When you have that type of fire behavior, it’s hard enough to keep up with it, let alone get ahead of it.”

So, what do firefighters mean by extreme fire behavior? Generally, it includes some or all of the following:

  • a high rate of spread

  • flames growing through the branches and leaves on trees as well as shrubbery, unaided by the blaze on the ground

  • the existence of fire whirls, which are vortexes of hot air and gases rising from a ground fire and carrying debris, flames and smoke into the air. They range from less than one foot to more than 500 feet in diameter. The largest resemble the intensity of a small tornado.

  • the presence of a convection column, which sends gases, smoke, fly ash, particulates and other debris produced by a fire straight into the air, spreading vertically, instead of horizontally.

Fires with one of more of these characteristics are hard to forecast because they generate their own weather. The intensity and extreme heat can force wind to go around them, create clouds and sometimes form so-called fire tornadoes.

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.”

The top priority, according to Dr. Maria Raven, is to hydrate.
Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Dr. Maria Raven, chief of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, offers some tips for staying safe if you are going to go outside in the heat.

  • Give yourself time to acclimate: Dr. Raven said it takes a week or two to get used to extreme heat. Increase the amount of time you spend outdoors each day gradually, if you can, by about 20 percent.

  • Go outside in the morning or evening: Even a five- or 10-degree temperature drop can make a big difference.

  • Know the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke: If you’ve got heat exhaustion, you’ll be sweating profusely, and you may feel a little nauseated. Your skin may be red and hot to the touch, as if you have a fever. If your body approaches heat stroke, which is severe enough to require medical attention, you will stop sweating, and your core temperature will elevate quickly.

  • Know what to do if you’re suffering from heat-related illness: The top priority, Dr. Raven said, is to hydrate. Drink water. You can also use ice packs (in the groin or armpits) and sit near a fan if possible.

  • Don’t push yourself, or anyone else, past comfort: “It can be a badge of honor to go and work out when it’s really hot, but it’s not worth it,” Dr. Raven said. That includes student athletes and employers. It’s crucial to give everyone who is outside in the heat time to rest and drink water.

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