Wildfires Sweep Western US as Unprecedented Heat Waves Continue

Wildfires Infrastructure

Wildfires are raging across the Western United States as the summer's third major heatwave sweeps the region. Many of the fires have been burning since early June, some even doubling in size over a matter of days. Officials say that firefighting teams are competing for resources and although President Biden has planned to provide more funding, it can't come fast enough.

Why This Matters

The Western US 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. Last year, 10.1 million acres were lost to wildfires in the US and this year is on track to being the most destructive fire season yet. And, as fires threaten both infrastructure and lives across the West, firefighters are witnessing some unprecedented new obstacles.

CBS This Morning: Large fires burning in Western states, with more than 14,000 firefighters on the front lines, Jul 14, 2021.

Burning Up

As of yesterday there were 55 large wildfires spread across 12 western states. Affected areas in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana have issued evacuation orders, and many residents are experiencing dangerous smoke and haze. Along with threatening human health, the fires pose a threat to infrastructure. The largest fire, called the Beckwourth Complex fire, forced a temporary closure of Highway 395. And Oregon's Bootleg fire knocked out transmission lines that provide power to California.

A DC-10 air tanker drops retardant while battling the Salt Fire near the Lakehead community of Unincorporated Shasta County, Calif., on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Image: Noah Berger / AP.)

Flames consume a vehicle in Doyle, CA, on July 10, 2021. (Image: Noah Berger / AP.)

Meanwhile, firefighters are encountering new obstacles in the face of extreme drought and heat. As California's Sugar Fire doubled in size from Friday to Saturday, it managed to create its own lightning. The fire created pyrocumulonimbus clouds -- which occur in hot, unstable conditions -- and can produce lightning and strong, erratic, flame-carrying winds that spread the blaze miles ahead of the primary fire. Even once they dissipate, their 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 them are beginning to fail. The air is so dry around the Sugar Fire that water and flame retardants evaporate mid-air when dropped. Last week Death Valley reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit in which is one of the hottest temperatures ever reliably documented on Earth. We'll need more than water, flame-retardants, and firefighting crews to stop increasing wildfires; we need swift climate action to prevent irreversible, catastrophic temperature rise.

PBS: Oregon bootleg fire, nation's largest, keeps doubling in size, Jul 13, 2021

Reuters: Fire guts Canadian town after days of record heat, July 1, 2021.