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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Much of western US is broiling under record-breaking heat

Children cool off in a park fountain during a heatwave in Mountain House, Calif., July 2, 2024. (Mike Kai Chen/The New York Times)

By Jack Healy and Holly Dillemuth

Millions of people across the western United States were broiling under record-breaking heat Saturday, with little relief in sight over the coming days, according to forecasters.

From Oregon to California to the deserts of Arizona, several cities have seen stifling temperatures in recent days. Jacob Asherman, a forecaster for the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center, said the blistering temperatures were being fueled by a ridge of high-pressure air that had parked over much of the West, preventing hot air near the surface from rising higher in the atmosphere.

While many of these cities — like Las Vegas, where temperatures were forecast to reach 117 degrees over the weekend — expect triple-digit temperatures every summer, some residents in other regions were caught off guard by what is predicted to be a long stretch of sizzling days.

In Portland, Oregon, temperatures were forecast to hover around 100 degrees for five straight days starting Friday, conditions that once would have been considered unusual for a region where summers were so mild that people rarely needed air conditioners. The sweltering temperatures prompted Gov. Tina Kotek to declare a statewide heat emergency, warning that the extreme heat represented a “new normal” of a changing climate.

“Both the record-breaking temperatures and the duration of heat present a clear and present danger, particularly for children, elders, people with disabilities and people who work outside,” Kotek said in a statement.

The Pacific Northwest in recent years has been raked by deadly heat waves that have killed hundreds. In summer 2021, temperatures soared to 30 degrees above normal, and there were about 600 more deaths in Washington and Oregon than typical.

This weekend, Portland city workers opened cooling centers that let people seek respite in air-conditioned buildings, and they set up outdoor misting stations at parks. Some parts of southern Oregon were expected to get even hotter, with temperatures in Medford forecast to hit 110 degrees Saturday.

On Saturday, the streets and light rail in downtown Portland were almost deserted as temperatures headed toward the upper 90s. But Highway 26 leading from Portland to the cooler shore was choked with traffic.

In the southern Oregon mountain town of Ashland, where temperatures hit 111 on Saturday afternoon, a crepe restaurant owner planned to surrender to the heat by closing early.

About 20 homeless people, who are especially vulnerable during heat waves, made their way to the city’s only designated cooling center, where there was cold water, slices of watermelon, potato salad and other snacks, as well as yoga mats for people who wanted to lie down.

Avram Sacks, volunteer coordinator for the cooling center, picked up people from the “night lawn,” a designated campsite near the police station, and took them to the cooling center Saturday. “I would want someone to do it for me if I was living outside in this heat,” Sacks said. “It’s pretty unbearable.”

Sacks estimated that half of the people in Ashland did not have air conditioning in their homes, and he said that more were likely to need assistance if the heat persisted.

Grizzly Battaglia and his wife, who are homeless, sat in the shade outside the cooling center. “I’m grateful,” Battaglia said, adding that they had few other ways to flee the heat. “If this wasn’t here, that would be hard.”

They planned to stay close to the cooling center Saturday — at least until 8 p.m., when it closes for the night and they return to their campsite on the night lawn.

Across the West, even cities accustomed to sweating through triple-digit temperatures were struggling under the heat this past week. The desert oasis of Palm Springs, California, recorded a record high temperature of 124 degrees Friday. Phoenix also broke a daily record Friday, when it was 118 under cloudless skies, and forecasters said there was little chance of any monsoon storms that would bring relief to the city in the summer months.

In Northern California, the city of Redding saw temperatures soar to 117 degrees, leading officials in its county to extend the hours for cooling centers at libraries and community centers. Forecasters predicted that Redding could hit 120 degrees Saturday.

“I didn’t think Redding got that hot,” Asherman said. “It’s a scorcher.”

Officials across Western states warned that the extreme heat and winds could spawn new wildfires in the days ahead.

Blistering temperatures in and near Yosemite National Park — reaching 103 degrees in Yosemite Valley on Saturday — were adding to the challenges as firefighters worked to contain a 908-acre wildfire that started near Mariposa, California, on Thursday. The fire, named the French Fire, was about 25% contained by Saturday afternoon, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Some parts of the eastern half of the country were also baking, a few weeks after a drawn-out heat wave caught many by surprise. For millions from Texas to New Jersey, a blanket of heat and humidity was creating dangerous conditions. In Raleigh, North Carolina, temperatures soared to 106 degrees Friday, breaking a record there.

Asherman said the triple-digit temperatures would continue to bake well into the coming week and gradually spread the misery toward the Plains states.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” he said. “The pattern is so stagnant.”

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